AFAR note: map would not let me point to location of photo, it is: Indein, Inle Lake, Myanmar.
Mountain biking around the sublime setting of Inle Lake was something I've wanted to do for years and was far more incredible than I'd imagined. The three days spent boating with my bike on board to different locations (such as Indein, where there are acres of ancient stupas - see photo) was unforgettable. Cycling through villages, locals from the Intha tribe were always quick with an invitation to stop in for a delicious meal and to clean up. I was respectful to stay on paths made by villagers which are numerous and provided incredible single track riding all day long.
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Shan man at Inle Lake market
Tourists are brought to a local, functioning market as part of their guided tour around Inle Lake in Myanmar. I managed to squeeze past the crowded stalls of souvenirs intended for foreigners and explore the area of the market that only locals shop. Somewhere around the array of spices for sale by the pound and free-roaming pigs, I met this Shan man who graciously let me take his picture - he may look intimidating but he and his friends not in the picture were incredibly kind, like all of the Burmese people I met throughout my trip.
We departed from the jetty in Nyaungshwe, the jumping off point to Inle Lake. Once in the motorized longboat, we passed tourists, cameras attempting to catch the famous Inle Lake leg paddlers. We saw tourist focused restaurants, silver smiths, silk weavers, and stilted souvenir stalls.
Then, we hit the real Inle. We were officially off the tourist trail, and on assignment with a non-profit, Global Community Service Foundation.
The village of about 140 families is fairly typical of Inle - everything built on stilts, from homes to monasteries. The people are poor, mostly fishermen. The difference here results from GCSF and the new preschool.
Our longboat approached the tiny preschool. We parked, climbed out, and carefully walked up the bamboo steps. The children and their four teachers were waiting. We tried to say hello in Burmese, but mispronounced it, which did not go unnoticed by the children, who repeated our mispronunciation in a sing-song manner. I love getting made fun of by 4 and 5 year old children!
The children learn both Burmese and English.
They provided us with a priceless experience, as they sang songs and performed a little dance. We gave them each a little gift, and the chorus of “thank you,” in English, just melted my heart.
These are the types of experiences I love when traveling and I will never forget our visit with the children and their teachers. Check out www.gcsfngo.org for more information.
The iconic sight of Inle Lake is the leg rowing Intha fishermen. The traditional fisherman still use this technique. They stand at the stern and wrap one leg round an oar whilst gripping the hull of the boat with the other foot.
A Burmese person asked me if I thought that the Burmese people had done bad things in another life to have such a difficult life now. I was thinking of my own karma at the time wondering the same about myself, having to leave trip of a lifetime and it brought me back to reality. I thought that individually they were good people but maybe there was a time when things were wrong with the world and it was a collective karma. I know karma is a very strong theme for these very Buddhist people so I felt I had to answer like that. It is so hard to understand so much cruelty and hardship in such a strong Buddhist culture. He thanked me for my answer and I thanked him for his question.
Photographers will fall in love with Inle Lake. Go early for the best photo opportunities. The locals are lovely and happy to give you a little "pose" when you need it. I advise seeking out Zodiac tours in downtown Nyaungshwe to book your boat tour. They were incredible.
An absolute treasurable memory is to have a nice hearty bike ride around Inle Lake, then once exhausted place bikes into the long boat for a short cut across for only $6 USD. There is no better way to quietly peer into the lives of Nyaungshwe.