Marie and I made the short flight from Bagan to Inle Lake. The second-largest lake in Myanmar, Inle is dotted with picturesque floating villages and ringed by green hills that are home to a range of minority tribes that come down to the water to trade. The fishermen on Inle Lake have developed a unique form of rowing with their legs instead of their arms, allowing them to simultaneously paddle and use nets while balancing at the very front of their long wooden boats.
When I visited Inle Lake in 2010 I stayed in Nyaung Shwe, a bustling but relatively small town on the lake’s northern edge. This time Marie and I stayed at the Golden Island Cottages, a floating hotel built on stilts in the southern part of the lake. (With Marie leading the planning for this trip, our hotels tended to be much classier than the boring mid-range places I usually pick…). Golden Island Cottages has more than 30 rooms, but on our first night – thanks to the low-season lull – Marie and I were the only guests. The weather was noticeably cooler at the lake, and it felt great to fall asleep over the water and wake up to peach-colored sunrises above the floating garden just outside our window.
On our first morning we had a boat driver take us on the normal tour of the lake, stopping at a market, floating villages, a floating garden, and workshops where some of the local products are made.
The next morning I woke up for sunrise photos, as usual, and noticed a few fisherman in boats underneath the boardwalk by our hotel’s main building. In the dim pre-dawn light it looked like they were dressed in old, traditional clothes, and as I watched they began to light fires in small metal containers at their front of their boats. What luck, I thought, to stumble across this kind of throwback scene! I did my best to get some shots in the darkness.
Concentrating on taking photos and still only half awake, I became dimly aware that motorboats were arriving at the hotel, and soon I felt the vibrations of a large group of people tromping across the wooden boardwalk. About 20 Chinese tourists with big cameras surrounded me, and someone in their group began barking directions at the fishermen in the water below us. Only then did it dawn on me: of course I hadn’t stumbled across some magical Burmese time capsule… The fishermen had been hired for a staged photo opportunity.
I considered just returning to my room. I remembered the “Teddy Bear” story of how Theodore Roosevelt, in Mississippi on a hunting trip, refused to shoot a bear that his assistants had found for him and tied to a tree. Where’s the sport in that? But wow, I had to admit this was a really cool scene. The sky turned a kind of salmon color behind the three fishermen, whose faces glowed yellow in the light of their small fires. Unlike Teddy, I couldn’t resist.
After sunrise the three fisherman posed with their nets, and soon another traditionally-dressed fisherman appeared in a longboat with three young monks. The Chinese photographers weren’t kidding around.
“You missed an interesting sunrise,” I told Marie back at our room.
When I reviewed my photos after the trip I realized that several of the scenes that had drawn my eye around Inle Lake had been staged for the Chinese tour group. I looked closely at a photo of a couple monks with parasols at a floating market, for example, and sure enough – there was the tour group taking photos from a viewing platform beside them. And in a photo of a traditionally-dressed fisherman using a wooden net, taken from far away, I noticed a Chinese photographer shooting from the back of the boat. I also realized that a fisherman I’d photographed while he balanced a net near the channel to Nyaung Shwe was just looking to make money by posing for tourists.
Thankfully there were still plenty of real fisherman around.
After a few days at the lake we flew back to Yangon for a night, then hired a driver to take us to the Ngwe Saung Beach, a bumpy five-hour ride away. We stayed at the Eskala Resort, another big, nice place where – initially, at least – there weren’t many other guests.
Dangerous currents made it unwise to go into deep water at the beach, but Marie and I got far enough out to claim our first swim in the Bay of Bengal. We spent most of our time lazily alternating between the ocean and the hotel pool. Eventually a bus full of Chinese tourists showed up, of course, followed by a big group of locals who were apparently students at a private school.
When our beach time was up the same driver who’d brought us there drove us back to Yangon. He had a friend nearby that he’d stayed with, and the two-way fare combined with the prospect of some beach time had made it worth his while to wait for us in Ngwe Saung.
The next day Marie and I started our long journey back to California, a 30-some hour marathon that included a 12-hour layover in Beijing. We arrived home exhausted but very happy to have made the trip. Myanmar has definitely changed a lot since my first visit, but it continues to be one of Southeast Asia’s most unique and beautiful countries.