I believe that sometimes you have to endure something awful in order to be rewarded with an experience that is spectacular and vice versa. It’s a kind of experiential karma, I suppose, a belief that we exist in tune with the overall balance of the universe, our positive and negative experiences simply adding colour to the fabric of our lives.
Thank to this simplistic personal philosophy I felt sure that after enduring a 24 hour journey from Yangon to Inle lake on the filthiest train in the world, one that seemed to have very little contact with the tracks, one that, not only had resident cockroaches but rats too, it was time to experience something incredible.
When the canal suddenly widens and you find yourself floating on a canoe with the endless expanse of Inle Lake filling the entirety of your vision, your eyes can’t quite take it all in.
Where does the lake end and the mountains begin? Where do the mountains cease and the skies take over?
It was misty and everything, the entire view, looked the same blinding shade of icy grey and blue. The water reflected the sky and the sky seemed to reflect the water, back and forth, back and forth, until everything melted into itself and became one.
Inle Lake is another one of Myanmar’s secret worlds, a unique, self-sufficient place whose quiet individualism mesmerises foreigners. Here, fishermen balance on one leg like acrobats, using their other leg to work a single oar in a rotating movement that must punish their hip joints and cripple them in old age. Entire villages sit suspended above the water on stilts; shops; schools; restaurants; entire expanses of garden growing the most effortlessly organic vegetables that, hopefully, end up on the plates of Inle Lakes inhabitants themselves.
If there’s one place I’d urge you to visit right now, it’s here. The whole place, the lake, the town and the surrounding area is a ticking time bomb due to explode into a fully blown tourist destination any day now. For now Inle Lake is tourism lite, few tourists go and there isn’t much in the way of amenities to cater to the ones who do. Traditional village and lake life is still in tact and locals mostly look at foreigners as a novelty. That said, I have never felt more welcome in any country in the world, including my own, than in Myanmar.
That people can’t do enough for you is a double edged sword as it shatters any illusion you might have had that you are not a ‘tourist’ you’re merely a ‘traveller’, a subtle distinction that seems to rest mainly on how much money you have to spend.
I actually felt like I was doing some proper exploring here, getting off the beaten track for a few days and experiencing a different culture. In some ways I did (I rode a bicycle in a longhi :-\ ) but in other ways I conformed perfectly to the behaviour expected from a rich westerner, never mind the fact that I have little money and am actually unemployed.
This realisation came to me one afternoon as I sat outside our little bungalow watching girls fifteen years younger than me, wearing full traditional Longhi and straw hats, working in the resort’s surrounding gardens under the baking heat of the sun. I sat in the shade post-shower, wearing only a kimono with a towel wrapped around my wet hair, sipping my English tea. One disappeared for a while and returned with a plate of freshly sliced watermelon. She placed it next to me, smiled and bowed and went back to her work in the garden.
In that moment I saw myself in another lifetime, a 19th century British coloniser’s wife, a lady of leisure overseeing the landscaping of her stolen land. The next day the backpack was on my back again, it was time to move on.