Friday, April 17, 2015

Arts and Crafts on Inle Lake

17 April 2015

We're staying in the town of Nyuang Shwe, a small town just north of Inle Lake.  The lake isn't labelled on this map, but I added the vertical oval around Inle Lake.

Inle is a freshwater lake in the Shan region of Myanmar, and is the second largest lake in the country.  The lake is about 13 miles (22 km) long and 6 miles (10 km) across, has an estimated surface area of 45 square miles (116 sq km), and is at the elevation of 2900 feet (880 m), providing a relatively cool atmosphere.  During dry season, the average water depth is about 7 ft (2.1 m), though the deepest point is 12 ft (3.7 m).  But then in rainy season, the depth of the lake increases by about 5 ft (1.5 m).

The town of Nyuang Shwe is on a river that feeds into Inle Lake, as are most of the towns and villages in this region, creating a network of people who travel on the water and make their living from the lake.  

Our town also has quite a collection of pagodas and monasteries, all with gorgeous golden stupas and pointed domes soaring above the buildings.  April 17 is New Year's Day on the Myanmar calendar, so the day has been filled with people going to the temples and pagodas as part of their new year celebrations: as in many religions, one's fortune for the year is influenced or predicted by the individual's piety and charity.  While most businesses are closed, the temples are busy and filled with chanting and singing, which fills the air along with the occasional bells.

We also have lovely street signs, which of course we travellers can't read, because, well, Myanmarian letters aren't easy for us to understand.  Interesting alphabet, and it is written left to right.  (Thai, for example, is right to left.  Cambodian, which looks similar, is left to right.)

We signed up for a day tour of the lake - skipping temples and pagodas, and focusing on the arts and crafts of the region.

Our guide and boat driver came to the hotel to meet us, looking intrepid in his straw hat to keep off the blazing sun, and wearing his longi (sarong).  We walked with him to the riverside boat landing, where there was a huge row of longboats, truly long skinny boats, each outfitted with an outboard motor, the propeller on a long extended rod so the entire motor could be tilted forward in shallow water, lifting the propeller to just below the surface.  We walked down the rickety stairs and along the bouncing dock, and climbed into our boat.

Most Myanmarian people were sitting right in the bottom of the boat.  But the boats for tourists and travellers had chairs, sort of small versions of the Adirondack chairs, which just barely fit in the width of these narrow boats.  Our boat had three chairs, one for each of us and one for our driver.  (I've sort of given up on names, after my taxi driver around Bagan.  His name was Mg Mg.  Really.  I have no idea how to pronounce it, he wrote it down for me and said it a few times.  It doesn't sound like Mg Mg.  It sounds like there's a vowel, and it's less nasal than we'd give it.  But, well, some words have sounds that we don't have in English, and it's very difficult to try to make the correct sound.  So we smile, and chat, and don't call anyone by their name.  People don't know how to pronounce Phebe, there isn't a "PH" or "F" sound in many SE Asian languages, so I'm called Peb a lot.  Can't decide if I'd rather have my name mispronounced, or just not be called anything.)


We motored along the river, and yes, the water is brown.  We're toward the end of dry season, so water levels are quite low.  Plus there isn't much vegetation, so during any rains the topsoil is carried into the water.  

The river and the lake are surrounded by mountains, so the scenery was lovely - tall bluish mountains on both sides, green flat wetlands, houses on stilts along both sides of the river.  Hydroponic gardens floating on the water, tomato plants climbing the bamboo poles placed into the river or lake bottom.  Really, we saw one up close, that's exactly what those sticks are for - floating gardens!

Colorful boats zooming around, and fishermen.  The fishermen are fascinating!  Okay, this cute old guy was posing for photos, but he showed me the fish he caught.   The men stand at the front of their boats, standing on one foot and rowing with the other foot.  Really!  They have a fishing basket, and they lean over and scoop up fish!  Wow!  We saw other people in the distance doing this, it truly was one of the more unique ways of fishing that I've ever seen!

There are pockets of different ethnic groups living in villages around the lake and along the various rivers.  One of the more interesting people are the so-called "long-necked ladies" - these are the women who wear heavy brass rings around their neck, starting in childhood and adding another ring every few years.  It looks as if they are stretching their necks, but in actuality the process lowers their shoulders.  (I know, the thought of changing human anatomy that drastically kind of hurts my stomach.)  The rings aren't entire circles, but more like cuff bracelets that slip on.  The woman on the right also had the cuffs on her calves.  Anyway, the women were friendly, although we couldn't say much beyond "mingalaba" which is the greeting.  But we smiled, and they were okay with a photo, and they laughed with me about the baby chicken running around.  (I also realized that their necks look similar to the domes and stupas of the pagodas and temples, one being right across the river!)

We also visited a silversmith, and yes, I bought a pair of earrings.  Not expensive, and always easy to fit into my luggage, earrings end up being my favorite souvenirs.  

Then we walked over to the weaving workshop.  The people here call it a factory, but with maybe six looms, it's more of a cottage industry employing either everyone in a family or a few people in the village.  The weaving was wonderful - we saw a woman stripping the long fibers from lotus stems, which are then dried, spun into threads, and woven into fabric.  The lotus threads are sometimes dyed with natural dyes, using various tree barks for colors.  The workshop also buys silk fibers, which are dyed with synthetic dyes and spun into thread before weaving.  (Silk takes color like nothing else - so vibrant!)

Most fascinating - ikat weaving!  In ikat, the threads are set up and tied off in a pattern, then dyed, and THEN woven.  There's so much math and pre-planning that goes into the process, but to our Western style of weaving it seems to be the reverse of the way we weave.  I have trouble understanding how one would plan the pattern and know for sure it would come out as planned when weaving - but the woman I watched making this beautiful pink ikat longi was just shuttling the spool back and forth, using her feet on the treadle to change the harnesses that lift the lengthwise threads.  (And yes, I'd love to buy half the fabrics we saw!  Gorgeous!)

We also visited a boatswain, where a family makes these boats of teak.  The boats come in different lengths for passenger boats, fishing boats, cargo boats.  The boards are bent over the ribs, and cracks are filled with a mixture of varnish and teak sawdust.  The finished boat is varnished, and the individual owners paint the boats in bright colors.  A boat that is properly cared for should last 30-35 years!  

And we visited a cigarette and cigar workshop - Richard sampled a few but said the tobacco is very mild.  I don't know, I couldn't breathe in there so I slipped outside and watched the boats going by.  

We stopped at a restaurant on stilts for lunch.  Yes, they had fish, but I had an interesting meal that was one of the specialties of the house.  It was called lemon chicken, but this isn't the Chinese lemon chicken.  The cubed chicken was breaded with just enough flour or cornstarch to be slightly crispy, but not not with a heavy coating.  The crispy chicken was served with very small skinny triangles of green lemon, peel and all, scattered over the top.  The whole thing was placed on top of crispy fried chiffonade greens - really, long slivers of fried and crunchy green something, maybe spinach, maybe kale, maybe sea weed - very tasty!  And then drizzled with mayonnaise, which I thought was odd, but still pretty tasty.  Served with rice.  Strange but really good, I totally enjoyed it!

From our restaurant, we had a great view of the lake and the boats going by.  This was the final day of the water festival, so a few boats full of young men (well, mostly young men, a few laughing young women) had hoses pumping lake water so they could spray boats going past.  The people must have gotten soaked!  Though our boat driver gave us umbrellas, so we were prepared - but by the time we finished lunch and headed out, the hose sprayers had moved on to a different area.

We weren't able to visit the floating market - the water level was so low, the entire floating market area was now land, with weeds and grass covering the place that is normally underwater.  So the lake is really low right now!

On our way back, we motored into a rainy patch - and of course, with the rain there was wind.  So what was a nice warm sunny day turned into a cold and shivery wet day, and the umbrellas came in handy.  The choice was either cover one's head with the umbrella and get wet from the waist down, or cover one's body with the umbrella and wet a wet head and face.  I like to see where I'm going, so I kept my body dry and got the soaked face and hair.  Nature's way of getting us wet for the water festival, I guess.

Even though it was sort of a commercialized tour, focusing on the workshops, it was interesting to see so many different ethnic groups as well as all the arts and crafts going on around the region.  We missed the umbrella factory, and I didn't get photos of the women with various head ties identifying them as members of certain cultural groups or tribes.  (I loved the ladies in black tops with colorful trim, black longis, and bright colorful head ties - but I feel shy about running out and asking if I can take their photo, just because they look different.  I mean, how would any of us feel if travellers to our countries wanted to take our photo, right?)

It's now 18 April, day after the new year, and we're invited to lunch with our hotel owners.  They're hosting the lunch as a donation to the temple, and are having some monks joining them.  So we've been invited to join in the ceremony (blessing the hotel?  or the family?) and then lunch.  Lunch with monks.  Should be interesting!

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