Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Myanmar - The fateful journey going into Inle Lake

Lakes and waterways have traditionally always been centres of population. Even thousands of years ago, people tended to settle around lakes and rivers as it provided them both with food and transport options. Inle Lake in Myanmar was probably no different, but here it has evolved into something quite special... The people here live with the water, rather than just use it for their convenience. Perhaps you could call it the Venice of the East, but even that wouldn't do it justice. Inle Lake has become a floating community where even the veggies are grown in floating gardens... We found ourselves floating as well... for a split second anyway... but that's another story, read on to know what you should bring when you go there!

Long before there were roads and motorcycles, rivers and boats were used to transport goods and people. As a result people tended to live along the lakes and waterways. Quite a few cities were 'born' where rivers meet or along inlets along the coast. On Inle Lake in Myanmar people don't live along the shores of the lake but actually on it...! They have built their houses and businesses on the water. Obviously you need a boat to get there... so we went in a rather peculiar boat! Peculiar as it is a wooden, narrow, long, low and quite unstable boat... propelled by a single cylinder diesel which not only vibrates so much that make the boat shake, but also gives it quite a bit of speed! Big fun!

Talking of diesels. Myanmar has quite a fleet of small trucks powered by the same type of diesel as found on the boats. They are quite amazing. Just one cylinder does the job and drives via belts and pulleys a separate gearbox. The engine is out in the open, simple to work on and when it does go bang or needs a rebuilt, it's just 4 bolts to get it out. We've also seen them as hydraulic tippers, whereby the engine also drives an hydraulic pump. It's all incredibly simply made, but so functional!

Lakes are also traditionally used by fishermen. At Inle Lake the fishing techniques seem unaltered for generations. Fishermen still use small boats, smal nets and oars to fish. They have adopted a strange technique to use the oars though... standing at the very tip of their boat, they use their leg to operate one oar in an oscillating fashion. It seems strange but works rather well! To us the most amazing thing is that they are standing at the tip of an already unstable boat, on one leg, while swinging with the other to paddle forward... without ending up in the lake! Some have taken this one step further and pose for tourists, like us, as they come past, showing impossible poses.

Inle Lake has also become somewhat of an arts and crafts centre. It's well known for its intricate silverware, handcrafted by craftsmen working in impossible conditions and without the aid of modern or precision equipment. One thing which caught my eye was a small fish, about 4 cm long, made from pure silver. They made it in small sections, each joined by small pins so that the body of the fish could swivel like a real fish. Very clever and beautifully done. All you see here is done by hand, pure and simple. The same applies for the weaving of fabrics: all hand work, done using traditional techniques.

A workshop making paper caught my eye. Paper making is believed to have originated in China well over 2000 years ago, when they used bark from the Mulberry tree as the raw material. Over the centuries that followed paper making not only spread all over the world, it also refined into the super sooth material as we know it today. At Inle Lake in Myanmar, they still make the traditional paper... just like they did over 2,000 years ago, and using the same ingredients too. It's a long and labour intensive process which can be seen in the embedded video in this page. The workshop we visited mainly use the paper they make for umbrellas.

We've seen traditional wooden weaving looms before while on our journey around the world, but not still in full-scale production. Yet that's only a part of what makes the weaving you see here and in the video so special. The raw materials used are from the stems of the Lotus flower. The lady on the right carefully makes incisions in the stems, snaps them quickly and then pulls them apart to reveal the silk like material. She rolls them and places them on the table. The resulting silk like material has been around Myanmar for thousands of years and as we saw today is of very high quality.

Markets are everywhere in Myanmar, like I've written before they also have a strong social function. The stalls vary from clothes and crafts to food and an extensive range of ingredients. Some are geared towards tourists but as tourism is still in its infancy, the markets are mainly for the locals, which makes them for tourists like us much more interesting!

After lunch, of course also at a restaurant on the water, disaster struck.... We headed back to 'our' boat... when it felt like the ground under our feet was slowly sinking away... until I realised that was exactly what was happening! The walkway we were standing on, waiting for the boat to moor, was slowly collapsing, followed by a couple of loud bangs and then broke in half. It felt like being in a slow-motion section of a movie. All around me people where sinking into the murky waters below and scrambling onto the remains of the walkway. Panic set in quickly, screaming followed next and then half the group realised there was only one way: down! For two of us, Vince and myself, the bottom of the lake was within reach. Between us we had Karen, who wouldn't have been able to stand there as Vince and I were up to our neck in water. I pushed Claire out of the lake, gave Karen the final mush and then realised my camera was submerged the whole time... while it was switched on... The Pentax K30, which had been with me the whole trip and served me well was full of dirty river water...

Hoping to find it somehow miraculously survived, the water had in fact found its way everywhere. Through the flip-up flash, past the connectors, via the battery compartment and past the zoom and focus rings of the lens. Removing the lens had water gushing out of it, it was well and truly soaked... The camera electronics were all over the place, the lens didn't work anymore... it was well and truly ruined. Even if it somehow would come good then it would still need a total stripdown and clean just to get all the mud out of it... Being at the end of the trip and money thus being tight means no funds to replace it and of course these are the times when you realise your travel insurance doesn't even cover 10% of its value... (should have read the small print I suppose). Quite a few, if not most, of the photos on this blog were made with this camera...

The ride back was shimmeringly cold. Being soaking wet on a fresh day. The trip continued to a Pagoda and the floating gardens of Inle Lake. I was quietly cursing for not being able to take any photos and shivering at the same time. It had taken me until 2012 before I finally had my own digital camera... a camera which had been the right choice for me and which I had always looked after properly... I tried for days to get it going again, using all the tricks of rice and toilet paper to absorb moisture. But it seemed the damage had been done as the camera had been switched on when it went under. Not a good day...