It’s early in Bagan nearly 6:00 AM and I’m enjoying the lovely messages from those of my friends and family who remembered my birthday 14 hours ahead of time. A birthday is special no matter what age but it’s the only day I like to genuinely spoil myself and accept well wishes from across the globe. Last year, I celebrated my 40th birthday Vegas style surrounded by my closest friends and family. I wore an expensive dress, I fancied myself with make up and hair products and I sipped $14 cocktails and allowed people to toast (and roast) me. This year I settled for a 10- minute facetime conversation with my father who wondered why I was calling him and a little Asian adventure to Inle Lake, Myanmar. To most people, Inle Lake might not be as glamorous as Vegas but to me, Dora the Explorer, it’s a grand opportunity to taste food from the Shan state, learn about local village customs and to convince lots of Intha people to pay attention to me.
My early morning flight from Bagan stopped over in Mandalay and I arrived at roughly 10 AM in Heho, a village in the Shan State. With a population of 5.8 million, the Shan State borders China to the North, Laos to the East and Thailand to the South. There are nine primary ethnic groups and the state is known for its produce and vegetables evident by thousands of harvested and barren crops lining the only road in and out of Heho to Inle Lake.
The people live by farming. Their crops yield sugar cane, corn, tea leaves, rice, potatoes, avocado, lima beans, garlic, onions, tomato, long beans, bananas, papayas and teak wood to name a few. The state is rich by local standards and the economy relies on agriculture, as well as the trade of silver, lead, zinc, teak and rubies. The fancy British rail line likely not renovated since the 1940s transports agricultural products throughout the country.
There are 30+ ethnic tribes in the Shan state and it has it’s own military and distinct language. I like the Shan because they don’t allow the military government in Myanmar to take advantage of them. Their armies are heavily equipped with weapons many purchased with money from the illegal trade of opium and heroine with Thailand and China. (I am not condoning just saying they have some balls).
Far from the border regions sits the lovely Inle Lake, heavily trafficked by tourists wanting to sample a taste of rural mountainous central Myanmar. There are 70,000 village people known as Intha, a mix of many of the state’s ethnicities who live as self-sufficient farmers and fisherman.
The first stop on every tour is a visit to the market but this one is different in that it rotates around the lake. Today, the market was held in Nyaung Shwe, the only town of the Inle Lake region and the center of commerce for the surrounding villages. It’s a bustling place with abundant construction, many backpacker type hotels and restaurants and dusty roads leading to attached villages. People from all over the area will attend each of the “traveling” markets to sell their goods and services but the village people will stock up on enough supplies to last them five days. People filled their baskets with mostly vegetables and fruits but it was narrower and more chaotic especially as we inched toward closing time. Discarded products remained smashed on the paths and women made haste with old-fashioned scales to weigh the produce. Suddenly, amongst all the commotion, silence prevailed but for all the wrong reasons. I pointed my very dirty foot at some green looking vegetable and several women gasped in horror. I forgot the rules. “No pointing with your feet.” Oops! I issued several formal apologies by bowing and begged my guide to say sorry in the Burmese language. It’s time to tackle the lake.
Inle Lake is a freshwater lake, the second largest lake in Myanmar. It’s one of the highest with an elevation of 2,900 feet and it averages anywhere from 7-12 feet deep and 50 square miles surface area. Unfortunately, the dynamics of the lake are changing with less rainfall in recent years and the slash and burn farming practiced by many of the locals. The lake used to be fed with natural springs from the mountains but now with entire hillsides cleared of trees and bush, the silt is running off into the lake decreasing the water levels and introducing foreign plant species.
To the naked eye, the water is clean, colored a shade of summer’s finest ice tea. The sunlight pours through several layers to the roots of the reeds standing the depths of the water. Fishermen practice a unique rowing style to keep their hands free and their vision on the catch and floating plants. They take one leg and wrap it around the oar and push. It’s like an abductor machine meets a Pilates sitting one leg circle sweep. It’s mesmerizing yet complicated. The fishermen must feel like Dumbo at the circus because tourists glare incessantly at their legs trying to crack the technique.
My guide and I traversed a large portion of the lake by a small boat with a diesel engine. The sun beamed down on us as the roar from the boat’s engine blocked out everything but the sound of splashing water and the howl of the wind smacking my face and drawing back my hair. We darted around water hyacinths, a plant not native to the lake and consuming much of its surface area, and veered through inlets taking us through small but contrasting villages.
At the far western part of the lake, we found Indein Village and feasted on avocado and eggplant salads and strawberry juice. Indein Village is home to the Pa-o Tribe and a cemetery of stupas. I made friends with a Polish woman and two Romanian men at lunch. We bonded over the love of local juices. I told them it was my birthday. They sang. We parted as friends.
My guide walked me though the stupa graveyard and commented on the archeological find. Many are made of limestone, dilapidated but historically beautiful while others have been haphazardly painted white and gold by the locals who could not possibly understand their significance. They want something shiny and new to pay homage to Buddha. They are farmers, workers and survivors. They use the lake as a source of their livelihood and also their existence. They bathe in the lake’s shallow waters, clean their laundry, transport their goods and farm on its surface and near its shores. Many of their “homes” consist of small huts made of bamboo sitting on stilts in the lake’s waters or along the lake’s shore. The villagers today have tanks of clean water but change is not easy. Waste water flows into the lake and many of the households use pits rather than toilets creating even more sanitation issues. I wanted to try the fish until I read there are unsafe levels of nitrates in most of the wildlife found in the lake.
Back at my posh hotel where cows roam in the fields adjacent and my bamboo covered “room” sits on four stilts in a pool of lake water, I awaited the sunset with a birthday mojito. My wifi not working, and no one to wish me a happy birthday I ordered a second mojito and snapped photos of myself on my fancy deck with my the sun sinking over the mountains giving way to smoke stacks and the night sky and the sound of insects coming alive.
A bit tipsy from the alcohol and determined to access my email and Facebook, I retreated to the lobby to interrogate the staff about the wifi. I learned, “the Internet no work today.” Feeling a bit defeated, I decided to eat my emotions. I selected a glass of local sauvignon blanc wine, a rich and savory entre of chickpea fried tofu with cauliflower, snow peas and peanuts and a goat cheese salad, which consisted of three bites of lettuce and toast with a slice of local melted cheese. For dessert, I really wanted cake but after several minutes studying the menu tears filled my eyes because I thought about my mom who always makes sure I have cake at home and Jill who plans elaborate birthday surprises when we travel. The waitress appeared. I stopped daydreaming and ordered a Bailey’s with coffee, my recent drink of choice. A few minutes later, a line of 20 staff filed out of a side doorway. The lights in the restaurant already dimmed to confuse the mosquitoes, the candles flickered brightly and before I could process all the activity, I heard the words, “Happy Brr Day to You, Happy Brr Day to You” echo across the room.
They delivered a fudge-coated cake with three glowing candles on an ornate lacquer platter. A little embarrassed at all the attention in the room, I inhaled and unsuccessfully blew out the candles. That pollution in China really crushed my lungs because it took me three attempts before the room went dark again. I sliced off a piece of cake, dry yet chocolaty and sipped my baileys now perfectly content and happy.
Several couples came up to me and wished me a happy birthday but one couple, an American and Australia mix pushed the conversation from dinner to late night. Their daughter is married and living in New York City and their son is heading east soon. Patti is originally from Grand Island near Buffalo but found herself looking for an adventure post university and moved to Melbourne to teach English. She never left. Her husband Ross, a former New Zealander, ventured to Australia after reading an advertisement for needed pharmacists. They met, married and raised a family near Brisbane. We delved into American politics, their children and daily life. We started in the restaurant and moved to the bar. It made for a great end to the day and indeed a happy birthday.
A special thank you to Joanne at Frosch for the lovely cake and Jill Straus and Steve Feldman for the surprise massage appointment and of course for everyone’s Facebook messages and emails….I eventually got them.