Monday, May 20, 2013

Myanmar Part 10 (a) - Inle Lake / Nyaung Shwe

Another early morning started the day with a 9:15am flight from Mandalay to Heho. Our driver had organised a car to take us to the airport for a great rate, and we made it with plenty of time to spare. Mandalay airport seems very modern on the outside, but inside, the stalls and waiting areas are still a bit 1950s. Like the previous flight, there were no pre-allocated seats. Once the plane unloaded the disembarking passengers, the embarking passengers simply chose any spare seat. Honestly, the speed and efficiency of the service was incredible – it was a very short 30-35 minute flight, and in that time you got a snack and drink and rubbish was cleared away.
Heho airport was little more than a large shed. Collecting our bags from the pile of unloaded baggage, we made our way away from the crowd and met the driver from our hotel in Nyaung Shwe. Originally, we were going to see Pindaya caves before heading to our hotel, but we simply wanted to relax and have an easy day. The drive to Nyaung Shwe was about 40 minutes, initially through charming, mostly flat, plains. Mid way, the road wound through some undulating hills and a train track cut through the mounds. On the outskirts of the town, we stopped at a make-ship road block to pay our visitor entry fees before being whisked to Princess Garden resort, our lodging for the next few days. This was probably our favourite place in our whole trip. Cute bungalows in a garden setting at the edge of town, it was family run with two lovely little dogs that roamed the property.

Keen to see town, we made our way out to look around and find somewhere to have lunch. Wondering lazily around the mostly deserted streets, we found the channel (river) and walked up to a little bridge over the busy waterway, to eat at the View Point restaurant that overlooked the small stream. Upstairs, the restaurant was cool and empty apart from a couple of backpackers. From our vantage point, we could see lines and lines of narrow boats, many carrying fresh produce, others stacked with wooden crates, ready for passenger seats. The water level was low, far below the stable land level that rose above the murky river. These slim vessels glided up and down the passage below our viewpoint with a steady ‘chuga-chuga’ of two-stroke motors grinding their way through the day.

We relaxed, watching the local scene outside. In no hurry, we ordered some cool drinks first, then lunch. This was where I first had Shan tofu, and instantly loved it. Instead of soy beans, it is made from chick peas. It was served with a typical Myanmar style, tomato curry-like sauce in a clay put. Delicious! J had a meat curry of some sort that I don’t think he enjoyed as much as I enjoyed mine.
After our leisurely lunch, we wondered through the streets, orienting ourselves and seeing the small town. Before heading back to Princess garden, we had another cold drink at a sidewalk stand on the main corner of the town. Sitting amongst locals, we watched the comings and goings of the townsfolk, while sipping iced coffee and tea. I think the locals were bemused that us two would sit at the simple, milk-crate like tables. A few Mingalabars and smiles started a little conversation in very broken English, sharing comments about the heat, lack of rain, and happiness of not being in the burning sun. Certainly, by the time we returned to the hotel, we were ready to jump in the pool and cool off. The afternoon drifted by, floating in the cool water and lounging in the shade of the bungalow’s veranda.
As the sun grew low on the horizon, we ventured back out to the town to find a cold beer and dinner. As we approached one of the large roads, we heard a commotion, with much banging of drums and crashing of cymbals. Locals lined the streets. A few hundred metres up the road, we could see some sort of procession coming towards us. Groups of men were dancing, some with bongo-like drums, others with large gongs hung from bamboo posts carried in pairs, as well as cymbals and bamboo clapper-like noisemakers, making an absolute racket.

A large parade was underway, with numerous groups of dancing men, many of whom were drunk – really, really very drunk as in rolling around drunk, swaying their way down the road. Other groups carried hand-made ‘trees’ and other images decorated with bank notes that were agitated and jiggled around in a dance like motion. Decorated cars and tractors displaying garlands of flowers and shrines interspaced the groups, along with lines of women and girls, dressed in their finest clothes, bearing offerings of fruit and flowers.

Every now and then, the groups stopped to sing a song, swigging back mouthfuls of some sort of home-made alcohol. Boys danced with their fathers, and each other, with mock fights entertaining the onlookers. They leaped in the air, jumped around, staggered, sang and danced some more as the parade snaked through the streets. I absolutely loved it. Bopping along to the beat of the passing bands, I clapped and got into it with some of the locals around me, snapping shots with my ‘little’ camera as the sun sank behind the buildings. It was all over in less than half an hour, with the procession moving on to other streets before ending at the local temple.

Still buzzing from the experience, J and I made our way to the main street to find a place to eat. We ended up choosing Star Flower, where there were a few other tourists. Selecting a table close to the road, we enjoyed a few cold beers before dinner. Ordering pizza, one of the few western dishes we’d had throughout our travels in Myanmar, I knew we’d made the wrong choice after seeing some other tables served uninspiring blobs of melted cheese dotted with toppings. It was almost an hour before we received ours. I didn’t really mind the wait, as we had more time to enjoy the town vibe. But it was quite ordinary, particularly after our wonderful lunch. Never mind.
Back at the hotel, we asked about the parade we’d seen. The owner told us it was ‘Kason” festival. Kason means the month of May, but the festival is to celebrate ‘Buddha Day’, or Vesak day, the full moon day of May when Buddhists celebrate the birth, enlightenment and death of Lord Buddha. Myanmar people celebrate by watering Bodhi trees at temples and pagodas throughout the country. The act of pouring water is significant in more than one way. First, it is an expression of respect to the Buddha, who attained enlightenment under a Bodhi tree. Also, in Myanmar, May is the hottest and driest month. As the month grows on, the land becomes dry and water is scarce, with rivers and lakes at their driest. Watering the trees ensures they don’t die of dehydration. The actual watering of the trees at temples is accompanied by much ceremony with chanting and religious rites. But what we witnessed was very festive and party like, a real celebration with an air of joy. The hotel proprietor also told us that there are 4 nights of festivities, with the following night expected to be bigger.
We finished the evening sitting on the veranda of the little bungalow with a cold drink, listening to sounds of music and partying from the town. Once quiet, an orchestra of frogs took over the night song. Compared to the rest of the country, the evening became cool, comfortable, on the verge of cold, making for a very restful and refreshing sleep. Tomorrow, we would see the lake, that famous Inle Lake, one of the sights I was most looking forward to of our trip.
- K

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