My Burma chronicles are nearly done but the memories will live on forever. The more I have written, the more I want to make sure I go back in 2015, ideally as an election observer (unlikely, as there are far better qualified people) or simple to join in with celebrations, which I hope will come with change.
In my head, we were going to be staying right on the shoreline, watching the sun set over this beautiful lake. Had I thought about it a little harder, I would have realised that unless you are an ‘exclusive’ traveller, this would be unrealistic. Why would we want the banks of this lake spoilt by clusters of backpackers hostels and guesthouses?
Sensibly, whoever has developed the burgeoning tourist trade here has made sure that a nearby village has become the restaurant and guesthouse hub. It’s a sweet place…relaxed, friendly and delightful to cycle round. It reminded me of a little places like Banos in Ecuador (I’m talking 1996 by the way, so the comparison may be redundant now!) or Panajachel on Lake Atitlan in Guatemala (ditto!).
The highlight of a trip to the lake is – of course – a trip on the lake. The light was stunning, even at 8 a.m when we set out. There is a clarity out there that – again – put me in mind of South America and Lake Titicaca. When we set off, I was nervous that a day on a powered long boat would feel like being on a tour bus, as there were dozens of them, all jetting off at the same time down the canal leading to the lake. How could this be a peaceful day? As soon as we reached the lake I remembered a key fact from my guide book. Inle Lake is 13 miles long and 7 miles wide, with hundreds of tiny canals winding away from it to little settlements and villages. Other tourist boats were soon lines on the horizon and we only felt the tourist scene at the major sites, such as Indein, the biggest village on the day trip trail.
The on shore visits were fine rather than mind-blowing but that’s not important. The magic of came from watching everyday life as we streamed past. The fishermen seem like a tourist cliché, given how many award-winning photos of them appear in our press and online, but when I put the camera down and just watched them, the elegance of their rowing was a joy to see. Once in his ‘spot’ the fisherman stands at the end of his low, long boat (which were similar to Oxford punts) and balances on one leg, with his free leg woven around a long oar. This leaves both hands free to handle the nets. It amazed me that this style is unique to Inle, as it seemed such a sensible way to operate on a calm lake, as it means no pause in fishing when they need to move the boat a few metres this way or that.
As we motored down the canals, the variety of life on the banks or at the edges of the waterline was fantastic, from a man riding a water buffalo, to people growing veg in floating gardens.
Just as we were all enjoying the ease of swanning about in a motorised dugout, (relative) disaster struck. The boat I was in cracked over something as we puttered along a shallow canal. ‘Oh,’ said Bernadette, who was at the back, just in front of the boatman, ‘we’ve got a bit of water coming in.’ A ‘bit of water’ turned out to be fast-flowing and within seconds we realised we were sinking fast. Thankfully, the second boat for our group was behind, not in front and they arrived just in the nick of time. As we held bags and cameras aloft and urged the others to grab them from us, we stepped into their boat and looked round. What had been a boat just seconds before was now a wreck.
Thankfully, Paddy prioritised photos over sitting down safely! We thought she was mad at the time but I’m grateful now, as it’s funny to look back on it. I should point out that accidents are very rare indeed, so do not let this put you off an iconic tourist experience!
We motored on to the lunch stop and borrowed a friend’s newly purchased fisherman’s trousers. I inadvertently caused hilarity among the waiting staff when I emerged from the toilets with the trousers on back to front. Sorry, no photo to show but needless to say I was immensely grateful that Will had bought them just before lunch. As Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood would say, I had a soggy bottom, which is never a good thing.
Our biggest concern was for the poor boatman. This was a borrowed boat, as his had engine trouble earlier on in the day. Over lunch, we discussed with our tour leader how the accident would affect him. Time taken to med the boat would mean him losing about two weeks’ worth of income. So we decided to club together to help out. It was easy for us to do and when we gave him the money the next day, it was clear that it meant alot to him.
There’s not much more I can say about my wonderful day on the lake that my photos can’t, so enjoy I hope you enjoy this final gallery.
By Carole Scott