Thursday, 9 June 2011

Incredible Inle: Myanmar

Accommodation: Four Sisters Inn was a little gem off the beaten track, and right by the magnificent Inle Lake. Rooms around a garden were around $5- $6 for a simple single room, pretty basic. There is also breakfast with pancake and deals with boats, I paid around $10 for a trip around the lake and local fishing villages, although opted out of a few factories, hill tribe ogling within the package. Interesting dining spot sometimes with traditional music instruments. May need to book in advance, as it is a popular little spot.

Places to See: Of course Inle Lake in itself along with all of the surrounding fishing villages. Make sure to negotiate a good boat trip, as they would like to take you to factories and other places not specified on the itinerary on commission. You are looking at about $10-$15 for a half/ full day boat trip. Apart from this, you can also catch a free puppet show usually starts around 7pm. It is a donation-only basis, and definitely a good cause, keeping traditional arts alive in Burma. It is rather cold up in the north, especially around the lake so wrap up warm.

Getting to and from Inle Lake (Nyaungshwe or Heho Airport): Okay, there are two options: 1. In order to avoid giving money directly to 'state-funded' institutions, taking a bus is the most 'spectacular' way of getting here, as well as a sure-fine way of getting majorly ill. The minibus from Bagan costs around $10 (11,000 Kyats) and you spend 12 hours of hell cramped up on top of a wooden bench and blaring wind- as there is no car door. However, it really depends on how passionately you want to oppose the regime, sometimes you have to just invest in a flight. 2. If you could take the more expensive option, its about $60 one way to Heho airport, from which you need to take a taxi into the town. Four Sisters Inn have their own driver which you can tell in advance, however there is a fee for getting into town and taxis at the airport charge extortionate prices.

Transport: Well the name says it all. Inle Lake is best seen by boat, however the town itself is fairly small and easy to walk around. There is a main road that most of the side roads are connected to, using the standard grid system layout.

After quietly 'missing' my minibus to Inle Lake- aka I jumped on in a rush, realised I had forgotten most of my valuables and in a daze figured that this was on a road to hell - I took a flight the following day with guilty pangs and reached there within the hour. On the flight was a veteran traveller, a middle-aged American man, and also an established tour guide escorting a group of very stereotypical elderly Americans. 

He knew the country like the back of his palms, having already travelled around Myanmar 14 times, so a few tips were much needed. He spoke about the fact that this particular group didn't resemble anything like the previous groups in his heyday. Trekking through the mountainous regions of Inle was nothing like what he had planned for this group, attired in sweat pants, plimsoles and golf caps. Rather a nice relaxing tour, staying around the lake and enjoying the fresh air. However, I had a rather less fancy affair, and a cheap guesthouse was what I had in the cards. 

I reached Heho Airport finally realising I hadn't quite informed the hotel of when I was coming due to the problematic connections between the cities. So letting them know as I reached meant I had an hour or so to wait at the airport, in which time plenty of Burmese men and elderly Korean tourists came to ogle at the odd little Indian woman sitting with a giant orange rucksack and hoodie, listening to her MP3 player. Eventually, two congenial men approached stating that they here to take me to Four Sisters Inn, one being the other brother to the siblings. The conversation on the way, turned to family talk as he explained one of the four sisters was now abroad, married to German man. And the guesthouse certainly reflected the family feel when I was greeted by 3 generations of Inle heritage.

After sufficiently settling in, I headed out to the lush lake in a traditional canoe boat fully equipped with motor (otherwise it would have taken more than a day.) Whilst witnessing the mountainous marvel reflected in the opaque, still waters, we conveniently stopped midway in front of a local fisherman. The process included a large net, a punting stick and a hardy man dunking these into the water in order to retrieve a variety of speckled fish. And though it was all part of the Inle itinerary, it was a wonderful sight to behold, and just the beginning of the fishing journey. Further down the line came the villages and the smiling children playing upon petite boats and houses floating upon the lake. Customarily, I was lead to a factory, but one that it unusually produced material goods out of lotus flower fibres.

I took the opportunity to feed my curiousity, so I dabbled around to see how these wonderful scarves, bags and other material goods were made. I also refused to fall for any touristic exploits and quickly headed to a point beside the lake in order to breathe in the breathtaking view. And although the Inle itinerary consisted of a fair few commissioned locations, I opted out of ogling hill tribes and taking in any more factories, certain that I would not spend any more of my last few dollars. Instead, whizzing back and having the cool, refreshing spray from the opaque lake was much more to my taste and to my sanity (having slept and hour out of 24).


The hotel was welcoming, specifically the bed and as my head drifted off to dream world, I planned my next trip to a traditional puppet show, a dying art in Myanmar. A spot of light dinner, and I was on my way at 7pm to catch a show in half an hour. The Aung Puppet Show is definitely worth a mention. As I sat with the puppet master drinking tea, he explained as he pointed to a picture of an elderly chap, that his grandfather was a legendary puppet master. Three generations had been taught the fine art of puppetry,but unfortunately he exclaimed, "Children just want to watch TV now, and so we struggle to entertain." I nodded in agreement, as I sat alone on the audience bench. The master ushered to people outside to join his donation-based theatre, but alas, their reluctance was seen on the face and so they managed to flee.

What they missed was a chance to meet Burmese at its best and at its original. All the wooden marionettes featured in the show were carefully crafted by Aung, the master who also sadly has to moonlight in other services in order to keep his puppet show alive. He explained that thanks to the Government, traditional arts are still continued due to their nationalistic patriotism by nature. And so, he attends an annual nationwide puppet competition, keeping him on top of his game. His travelling family were established in Yangon and Bagan, when the show was at its pinnacle, lead by Grandfather Aung. But over the years, it had considerably grown smaller in size, hence being placed on a side street in a quiet little town. It made me even more passionate to see it, and so I eagerly awaited to be doused in culture.

My favourite puppet resembled a small Pinocchio-like marionette that was created to play football, and so it had almost 20-30 different strings being controlled at one point. The puppet master's hands slightly visible from the top, was moving at lightening speed, delicately moving each one to produce an almost human-like movement. I was enlightened that's for sure. However, being stupid enough to 'miss' my minibus meant I had the most limited time in Inle, and so I was off like a shot in the early dawn. But not before watching the wonderful sun rise of the beautiful Inle.

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