Thursday, January 28, 2010

Life on Inle Lake

Between a ridge of mountains, on the Eastern side of Myanmar, lies a long and shallow lake divided into two parts. Like all lakes in temperate climes, it is home to many people on its shores. Inle is unique in that it has communities living on the lake in stilt homes and artificial islands.

Another unusual characteristic of Inle is the lack of wind. You might see at least one sailboat on any other good-size lake, but not on Inle. To get around here you need an engine or a paddle. The Inle people have developed an unusual paddling technique. By standing and wrapping a leg around the paddle, they can get additional leverage denied to a seated rower. The standing position also enables them to see over the low vegetation separating many of the canals, making it easier to navigate.

A man demonstrates the leg rowing technique.

Fishing, naturally, is the principle pastime of the lake people. In addition to traditional method of catching fish such as nets and lures, the shallow water provides for another technique. When a fisherman spots movement in the water, he will drop a cone shaped basket over the area and spear the fish on a pole.

This young man is pleased to display his recent catch.

Fishing this way can be an individual undertaking, one boat stalking individual fish, or a group effort when several men try to herd the animals.

One of the more curious fishing expeditions I witnessed on the lake brought the workers a boat-load of ... mud.

By the time they are done, the boat is full to the gunwale with heavy mud.

Using baskets on long poles, they dredge up the rich sediment mud on the lake bottom. This is used to fertilize their gardens. Of course, they don't exactly have normal gardens in the lake. While some homes have small island plots, most create floating rafts of vegetation to grow produce for the markets. These are arranged in neat rows and staked to the lake bed with long poles. The farmers attend to their crop by canoe.

A boy makes his way from the floating gardens beside his home.

The homes on the lake are typically modest. They are constructed with bamboo framework covered by woven mat walls and a thin thatched roof. There are many solid wood homes and businesses on the lake as well, but the bamboo hut is the most prevalent.

Drying shallots.

Paddling past one of the grand old homes of Ywama village.

Walk to school? Not in Inle!

There are many, many more photos of Inle Lake here.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Craft workshops of Inle Lake

While the people living on Inle Lake primarily fish and grow vegetables, there is a thriving crafts trade as well.

One of my favorites is silk spinning. Much of the raw silk is brought in from China (and possibly Thailand). On the lake it is dyed and woven into scarves and shawls. The silk weaving shops are easy to find; the sounds of the large looms can be easily heard from the canals. Once you've heard the rhythmic wooden clack of the loom, you'll not forget it. The weavers also tended to be in large wooden structures (as opposed to the more prevalent bamboo buildings found everywhere on the lake).

Young women typically operate the looms while the crones spin the dyed silk on to spools (note the old bicycle wheel).

Inle has another type of silk - lotus silk. The stems of the lotus flower are cut and a fine silk thread is pulled from its core. The resulting result is a brownish thread that, when woven, looks like fine burlap. The texture, however, is that of raw silk. This fabric is typically used to create monks robes or ceremonial wraps for the Buddha images.

I was rather keen to posses the fabric - I could imagine myself in a lotus silk monk's robe - but they had none in stock. They did have simple scarves, however. Once I learned the price (over sixty dollars), I decided to go with a tasteful silk design (as modeled by the shop clerk here).

The village of Ywama, in addition to its famed floating market, is home to a number of cheroot shops. These rough looking green stogies are individually rolled by young women sitting on straw mats.

The cut tobacco is placed in a shallow basket on their laps. They take the green wrapper, rolled in white paper, and stuff it with the loose leaf before tamping it down, trimming it with industrial-strength scissors and folding over the ends.

The finished cheroots are packed into bundles of ten, fifty or even a hundred, then sent off to market.

The non-touristic cheroot shop is a very relaxed set-up, with women sitting haphazardly. The tourist cheroot "factory" is quite orderly with walls lined with souvenirs and fancy wooden boxes stuffed with row upon row of stogies.

I have to admit that the tourist shop had much better lighting conditions for the photographer, if not for the workers.

I see boats of all sorts in South East Asia. Most of them look like they've been around for decades (if not centuries!). So it was a surprise to find a shipyard (to use the term loosely) that built longboats for Inle. They start with long logs about a foot in diameter. A team of men, one above and one below, saw the logs in to rough but straight planks. Different carpenters carve the planks and form them into a boat. The unpainted craft is splendid. It's a pity they're all painted black (although some have red or green trim). It never occurred to me to ask why all the large boats on the lake were black.

Another common craft on the lake is silver-smithing. There are a few in Ywama village. The shop I visited specialized in an articulated fish (intended as necklace, charm or earring). These shops are also the best place to get money changed. The shops are usually one quarter smithy and three-quarters display case. The pieces are typically rich in filigree - and set at prices for tour-group tourists.

One of my favorite crafts of Inle is the old fashion blacksmith. I saw no full-size forges on my travels, but the market usually has one stall set up with a true smith. The bellows consists of two bamboo cylinders with plungers made of chicken feathers. By moving them in rhythm, the bellows produce a steady air flow into the small furnace where the smith prepares his metal. His anvil is a cylinder of steel wedged into a log.

While walking near the lake one afternoon, I heard the distinct putt-putt-putt of a single stroke gas engine. It sounded like an ancient fishing boat, but I was too far from the water. Making my way through a bamboo grove, I discovered a small sugar mill.

Hand cranked cane juice extractors can be found all over South East Asia, but this was the first time I'd seen an industrial process like this. The sugar water was fed into a series of bamboo vats. The liquid boiled in the first then is routed to the next in a cascading series. Once it's reduced to a certain degree, the thin syrup is poured into a metal drum.

The whole process is powered by the dried out remains of the crushed sugar cane. A metal pole is used to shove the fiber into the small furnace that boils the liquid.

There were so many more craft workshops to visit, but there simply was not enough time. On my next trip I intend to see the straw weavers, potters and wood carvers at work.

See more photos here.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Khaungdine Market

The closest village to Nyaung Shwe on Inle Lake is Khaungdine. It's in the north-west corner of the lake. While I did not explore the village itself, I did get the opportunity to visit during market day.

The dock is located beside the village monastery, some distance from the market. This means anyone arrive by water has to haul their goods by hand. These two women struggled with baskets second only to those found hanging from hot air balloons. Fortunately, they were filled with rice cakes and much lighter than they looked.

The market is on a bit of a slope. The market area consists of a number of metal-roofed concrete pavilions. It was obvious that this is a long established market. Presumably the regular vendors set up shop in their usual spot, but plenty of merchants lay out their goods on whatever space is free. Vegitables farmers camped out on the top of the slope, fish mongers lay out their catch between pavilions and lining the road at the bottom of the hill were a number of villagers with rolled up woven floor mats. I dearly wish I could have purchased some, they have a delightful texture.

Khaungdine had more fish than any other market I'd seen. Strings of small fish are laid out on plastic or banana leaves waiting for buyers.

The market certainly gets plenty of tourists - there were a number of tables set up with various tourist trinkets - so I didn't attract much attention. This enabled me to sneak around and get candid shots. Most people were oblivious of getting their photo taken, but I got caught plenty of times. Fortunately, getting photographed is seen as a good thing by the natives.

This market had the most diverse looking people of any I'd seen on the lake. Not that I can tell the difference between the various tribes, but in terms of characters, Khaungdine had them all, from young to old.

After browsing and shooting, I decided to give in to the pressure of the souvenir vendors "No buy, OK, just looking!" I found a distinctive necklace made up of five silver coins. I later learned that the coins were not Burmese, but Indian, and bore the effigy of George VI.

Before returning to the boat, I visited the monastery. It was typically quiet, but I soon discovered that one of the local families had arrived to have a picnic with one of the young monks; presumably a sibling. They sat on the floor and shared food brought in metal cylinders. Meanwhile, the other monks went about their studies.

See lots more photos here.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Jumping Cat Monastery

Nga Phe Kyaung is one of thousands of monasteries in Myanmar and dozens on Inle lake. It's a place of reflection for the people living in the nearby village. In recent years it has become famous - not for meditation or spiritual guidance, but for cats that jump through hoops. About twenty years ago, a monk with a bit of time on his hands, decided to train a few of the cats. For some reason, cats are found in just about every monastery in South East Asia.

What started as an idle hobby for one monk soon became a movement as more and more cats earned their meals by leaping through a hoop. As word got out, more tourists started to visit the monastery to watch the show. As part of Ywama village, the only way to get to monastery is by boat.

I arrived at a particularly good time. A meditation session with the head monk was in progress. I quietly made my way to the back of the crowd. The villagers, mostly women, were seated on a the floor in front of an open space before the monk. He was intoning and chanting and the congregation sat with heads bowed. On the vinyl-tiled floor about a dozen young cats sat as if deep meditation.

The session the monk broke up around the time a tourist laden boat arrived. As the villagers offered their thanks to the monk and chatted as they wandered out, the tourists sat along the wall and waited. A tour guide spoke to a woman and she began to organize the feline circus.

She shook a small can of dry food and the cats approached. It didn't take much effort to get them to jump. She mostly organized them so they would each get a turn and rewarded the small group whenever a cat leaped through the wire hoop she held out. The audience applauded every effort. The cats were primarily interested in eating. Once the cats had completed their show, everyone hung around to meet the performers. Like most temple cats, they were not particularly friendly and rebuffed every attempt to pet them.

On my last trip I managed to get some spectacular shots of the show, but this time I created a video, so no shots of cats in action. Not that they were particularly active. A few years ago, the monk who directed the cats had them jumping a lot more. Those cats were also more mature. These cats were quite young. I learned that the cats had all died a few years ago and the monastery had to train a new batch. You'd think it would be a bit frivolous, but the monastery was well aware of the draw of the cats and the tourist dollars they bring. In addition to the donations, a sizable tourist market was now established on the monastery grounds.

I asked a monk about another monk I had met on my last trip. It turns out that he had left the order. That's not particularly unusual, most Buddhist monks may serve only for a few years and go back to secular life.

The cats, on the other hand, serve the order for life (at least one of nine, presumably).

See larger images here.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Revered Thaung Tho Pagoda

There are lots of pagoda complexes and monasteries on Inle Lake, but one caught my eye a few times. It appeared so similar to Indein pagoda that I was convinced my pilot had guided our boat there by some inconceivable back way. Like Indein, Thaung Tho sits on a low hill, is surrounded by white stupas and has a long covered walk leading to the summit. However, it is considerably smaller.

Getting off the boat, I noticed numerous bamboo stalls beside the shore. Just like Chaing Kham, from where I had just come, this site is part of the rotating market on the lake. It looked abandoned. I made my way up the covered stair, missing the vendors that were so prevalent in Indein pagoda and stepped out into an immaculate pavilion.

Where Indein is nearly a ruin, Thaung Tho is lovingly maintained; the stupas all in good order and the paths were regularly swept clean. Although weather-beaten, the white paint was brilliant under the noon sky. The gold paint trimmings were particularly nice.

Of greatest interest to me were the beautiful crowns (called hti) atop each spire. They were intact and resplendent with bells. Unfortunately, there was no breeze to make music at that time of the day.

It was obvious that Thaung Tho was used on a regular basis. It's not surprising given the number of people living in the area. I later learned that the site is host to two annual Buddhist events. On a nearby hill, I could see workers repairing another stupa.

Even though the site is frequently used and well maintained, there was evidence that nature had no problem getting a toe-hold on anything constructed by humans in this environment. I wondered how long those plants had been growing from the tower (and what sort of damage it might have caused beneath the surface). Keeping this place in good shape is a serious task and a time consuming one for people who spend their days hard at work.

See more photos here.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Chaing Kham Market

At the south eastern shore of Inle Lake is Chaing Kham. I woke well before dawn one day to travel to the town in order to see one of the more isolated markets on the lake. Getting to Nampan was a bit of an adventure. In addition to being so far from Nyaung Shwe, a heavy mist lay across the surface of the lake, making navigation a serious challenge as we maneuverered through what could best be described as a swamp with channels. Out of the mist, the market appeared on the shore.

The Chaing Kham residents typically arrive at the market with tobacco leaves, enormous bamboo poles and firewood; resources requiring land. They trade with the Ywama villagers, and others living on the lake, for produce, fish, cheroots and other finished goods.The market is divided into two parts. Near the water's edge, the larger items are exchanged. Things like firewood and bamboo are loaded from ox cart directly to the boats.

About 25m from the shore, the bamboo stalls mark the traditional market with all the smaller goods and services.

I recognized most of the goods on sale. Some products, like the bundles of green grass, were of questionable utility, but at least I recognized them. What mystified me, however, were peculiar brown cones. They had a distinct uniform in shape, were pliable, but held their shape as they were moved and picked up; I was able to pinch off the material if required. They were also odorless. The gentlemen selling them were unable to make clear their purpose. I was quickly informed that they were not edible as I mimed taking a bite out of one. They laughed and shook their heads vigorously. The mysterious cones remain a mystery to this day.

Chaing Kham is so appealing because it really feels like a crossroads between the land and the lake. It also has the least number of items apealing to tourists. There are few handicrafts and no antiques at all. Instead, you get lake people and hill people coming together to trade goods with each other.

It's also a good time for catching up on gossip and getting access to service. The market has at least one pharmacist, a couple of restaurants, a barber and two seamstresses. This woman sat in the hot sun all morning working away on her foot powered sewing machine, stitching sacks together. Before I left the market, I gave her my baseball hat to keep the sun off her head. I was rewarded with a big, thankful smile.

As I wondered toward the residential area of Chaing Kham, I met a group of women coming from the market. They were obviously heading home and smiled as they passed by. Assuming they were not traveling too far, being on a narrow path and not a road, I decided to follow and see their destination.

Despite being loaded down with market goods, and having a stride considerably less then my own, these women were soon pulling ahead of me. I gave up after twenty minutes and watched them quick march through the village. I had to sit down to catch my breath.

I happened by a monastery on the way back. The monk in charge was barely twenty years old. He had a crew of at least a dozen novices.

As mid day approached, the market was slowing down and people were heading home. It was time to see what other mysteries lay on the shores of Inle Lake.

See lots more photos here!