The “Long Neck” ladies at Inle Lake
Another early day….we checked out from Bagan Kumudara Hotel. Our flight to Bagan to Heho was early, departed at 7:50am by Yangon Airways YH917. This was not a direct flight, it was via Mandalay. We arrived Heho at 9:05am. The tiny airport resides at an elevation of 3,858 feet (1,176 m) above sea level.
Heho Airport and the surrounding towns is like stepping back in time 50 years. From Heho Airport to Ngyaungshwe jetty, it was a 45 minutes journey.
A porter carried our 2 heavy suitcases to the slender wooden canoes fitted with long-tailed outboard motors. It is de rigueur to take at least one boat trip on the lake during a visit to Inle. For us, it was our only mode of transport.
The Lake stretches 17.7km in the Nyaungshwe basin of southern Shan State at an altitude of 2918 feet (889m) above sea level and studded with floating islands. The Lake ringed with mountain ranges and many of the inhabitants live in stilted houses built over the water, which is only 20ft (6m) at its deepest. They grow vegetables on floating islands. The waterway is fascinating and gives a good insight into the everyday lives of the local people – working in the fields, washing clothes, bathing, transporting goods to and from the markets.
The coolest thing about Inle Lake is the Intha longboat leg rowing. Traditional fishermen of Inle Lake steer and row their boats using a technique with their legs. They wrap their legs around their oars and paddle about with great balance and strength like this photo we took along the way.
Frankly, we were pleasantly surprised that for the tour fare we paid, we could stay at Paradise Inle Resort. It was situated in a secluded spot about two-thirds down the lake and perched serenely on wooden stilts just above the water….Head and shoulder above the rest of other hotels and guesthouses in Nyaungshwe, Paradise Inle Resort was a honeymoon material. The sensation of sleeping over the water was very atmospheric. The downside was that it was somewhat isolated. We ate fried rice for lunch and dinner at the restaurant. Few choices as the food was quite expensive.
If you ask me whether I minded being over water and isolated…I would be crazy to say I didn’t want it. The location was possibly the best. The resort was quite empty with only 5 guests – my family. Throughout the 3 days, we did not see any other people except the staff, about 15 of them spending most of their time watching television at the reception area.
Each suite was an individual thatched-roof bungalow, with spacious room and gleaming teakwood floors and ceilings. True to the peaceful, traditional philosophy of the place, there were no televisions. Free wifi was available but we had to bring our laptop computer very near to the business centre. Mosquito nettings are provided to sleep under, and give a romantic allure to the comfortable beds even when not exactly needed for their purpose. Bathrooms are fully equipped with large soaking tubs. Each bungalow had its own deck with chairs and a table, perfect for enjoying an evening drink while watching the spectacular sunset create an amber glow over the mountains and lake.
Placid Inle Lake ranks among Myanmar’s top 5 most popular tourist attraction in Virtual Tourist, the online travel forum. On the day we had our day trip, we headed towards what looks like solid land but as our boat driver slows and turns down into a smaller channel you suddenly realize everything from the tomato crops to the houses are floating on top of Inle Lake. Children happily scamper up and down little boats and women were busy washing clothes, preparing food and men were making handicrafts.
The lake itself is a very narrow waterway nestled between the hills of the Shan Plateau. With many nutrients naturally sliding into its waters, the lake supports an incredible variety of life. The pale purple-pink flowers of the floating water hyacinth are a highlight of the lake’s flora and one of the region’s agricultural industry’s main supports. The Intha have adapted their agricultural methods to maximally utilize the lake’s fertility by planting unique water-grown gardens, which are created by floating beds of the water hyacinth, marsh vegetation and soils and anchored to the lake’s shallow floor by way of bamboo rods.
The boatman brought us to purchase some local produce and handmade goods at the lake’s early-morning markets. Our next sight was something I had been waiting for. We visited a souvenir shop with a few Padaung Women.
Padaung women gained fame through their custom of wearing heavy brass coils around their necks giving the appearance of an elongated neck. The Paduang is actually a bit of a misnomer since they prefer to be call Kayan or Karen people. This group of people are predominant here in the Kayah state on the Thai border south of Inle Lake. Myanmar’s famous ‘giraffe women’ – have become a victim of their own traditions. The ancient custom of fitting young girls with brass neck-rings has made them a major tourist attraction – and a major target for exploitation on both sides of the border.
Originally intended to make Paduang women less attractive to raiding parties from neighbouring tribes, the application of heavy brass neck-rings causes deformation of the collar bone and upper ribs, pushes the shoulders away from the head. Paduang women reach a stage where they are unable to carry the weight of their own heads without the rings as additional support.
The souvenir shop we visited employ 2 Paduang women and 3 girls none older than 12 years old to lure passing tourist boats, which leaves travellers with an ethical dilemma. I had seen the Paduang woman appeared in a tv documentary. She could speak Mandarin. Out of pity for them, I gave the oldest woman a tip of Ks3,000 as I felt awkward to have taken picture and probably treated them like exhibits in a human zoo. However, the staff of the shop took Ks2,000 from her, and when I demanded them to return her the money, the staff cooked up a lame excuse that they were exchanging small notes. I couldn’t believe they blatantly took money I gave to the tribe woman right under my nose. Well, if this is the way they choose to earn their living, then I guess it works for them. In the end, tourism will be the one to preserve culture.
I left the place with a heavy heart.