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Check out the prequel on Inle Lake here.
I count myself lucky. Having lived in nearby Taunggyi for six months, Inle Lake was my weekend getaway (50 minutes of white-knuckle action by local bus down the scarp of the Shan Plateau). I always felt a frisson on arriving at Nyaung Shwe, the biggest town on the lake; because as a bit of a twitcher I knew I had a shed full of bird life waiting to hove into view in my binos.
Nyaung Shwe, which feels slightly adrift as it’s now five kilometers from the lake itself, is nonetheless a worthy destination, one of those distressed-chic bamboo-and-boutique villes that Asia does so well. Restaurants, coffee shops, jasmine-scented garden eateries, craft shops, and travel agents abound. The sewers are still open, but no one is holding their breath waiting for better sanitation. Hotels and guest houses range from $15 upwards. Nyaung Shwe is canalized all over, with waterways popping up wherever you walk; jerry-built bamboo bridges the most frequent crossing points.
Nyaung Shwe has its amenities, sure, but it’s the lake that everyone goes there for. You can rent your own boat and driver at any hotel or tour shop in town. High season prices exceed $35, but that’s for the whole boat, all day, with driver, so it’s an expense one eats without demur. There’s a McTour, of course, which covers all the lake’s attractions: silk and cigar-making factories, floating gardens, Buddhist temples, and the ‘long bridge’ (an essential stop for a boardwalk stroll to loosen musculature stiff from sitting in a long-tail boat all day).
The lake’s main ethnic grouping, a Tibeto-Burman population known as the Intha, have inhabited the lake environs for centuries and speak an archaic Burmese dialect that differs from the Tai spoken by the Shan people who make up the majority of the region’s people. The 70,000 or so Intha are devout Buddhists who fish and farm the lake (and guide tourists in the short high season from November to February).
A Life Aquatic
The Intha live in stilt houses which are ‘barn-raised’: a newly married couple will call on family and community members to construct a new long-legged dwelling on a fresh patch of water. They are a people who may as well be termed amphibious, since any journey involves a boat, with two-meter dug-outs paddled around for shopping and visiting neighbors and the ubiquitous long-tails used for longer trips. House ‘porches’ are boarded jetties, where three- and four-year old kids practice their Intha rowing technique (shaft crooked behind the knee and top grip nestled into the armpit).
Like most Buddhists in South East Asia, the Intha retain many animist traditions: the hintha bird (considered to be a swan, its mythology derives from long-forgotten Indian roots) is the lake’s soulmate, with October’s Hpaung Daw U Pagoda festival the most important event in the calendar (it’s an 18-day roundel of merit-making, rowing competitions, and drinking in the Myanmar month of Thadingyut).
For the rest of the year, the enormous golden hintha craft sits in its dedicated boathouse at the Hpaung Daw U Pagoda itself, on the lake’s southwestern fringe.
It’s worth taking in some of the points of interest your boatman (invariably a man) will suggest: the silk weaving factory and cigar-making houses (which also sell excellent lacquerware) are serious attempts to provide incomes for the Intha, who are most anxious to keep their families together and avoid the kind of rural depopulation which has scarred much of Asia, leaving villages full of the elderly.
A Life Aviatic
Brilliant as a visit to Inle is during the pagoda festival, December and January see the lake itself transform into one of Asia’s most important overwintering locations for bird life. Inle and its environs boast 255 species of woodland birds, 90 wetland birds, 59 fish species, three turtle species, 94 butterfly species, 25 amphibian and reptile species, and plant varieties including 184 orchid species. Inle hosts herons, wild ducks, egrets by the bucketload, sarus cranes (the Burj Khalifa of the bird world at up to 1.8m tall, with the fabulous binomial Antigone antigone). There are ospreys and raptors, kingfishers (my fave, with even the common kingfisher a jewel of burnished turquoise), warblers, and half a dozen species of mynas. Many of these birds are seasonal visitors, for whom Inle provides five-star winter accommodation which to them must feel like spending three months in the Miami Four Seasons.
Inle is ideal for observing bird life because its fringes and floating gardens are relatively ‘low-rise’, while the gardens are liberally spattered with bamboo poles, atop which falcons eye the landscape and kingfishers wait to plunge into the shallow waters and spear their prey. Birds come from as far away as Siberia and the Russian arctic to winter at Inle, which teems with juicy marine life. One knows how they feel; the restaurants serve heavenly fish.
*For those interested in the location of The Brunette, she assures me that she will be making an appearance in my post on Sihanoukville in Cambodia, a seaside resort in which she gave full latitude to her predilection for seafood.