The current popularity of Myanmar – or Burma, depending on your political standing – with the independent travel community is, without doubt, largely attributed to the fact that it was closed to all outsiders for such a long time.
Now the travel restrictions are starting to ease (and despite being far from perfect), the new changes within Burma’s political system have managed to bring the country back into standing amongst the international community. With that has come a substantial wave of foreign investment and tourism.
Returning from his trip to Burma earlier in the year, a friend described the experience as akin to travelling back in time with a time machine. This is the consequence of the strict international sanctions held over the country for the better part of the last twenty years; something the former dictator Than Shwe and his military junta can be thanked for.
My friends’ description planted a growing seed of curiosity in my head. Living in neighbouring Thailand, I knew I had to see it for myself before things changed too much.
Despite progress in areas such as money exchange, and a relaxation of visa and entry requirements for foreigners, tourist movement is still fairly restricted to the key attraction areas of the country. These are namely Yangon, Mandalay, Bagan, Inle Lake and the various beach locations along Burma’s sizeable coastline.
Of the key destinations on the ‘triangle route’ taken by the majority of visiting travellers, Inle Lake was a non-negotiable. Sadly, I have no doubt that the incoming wave of mass tourism will lead to the authenticity of this untouched lake and its local community being compromised in the coming years. Despite having lived in unison with the lake’s eco-system for generations, it seems inevitable the area will go the same way as many other popular tourist spots in Burma’s South-East Asian neighbours.
I arrived at Inle from the temple-laden plains of Bagan in the mid-afternoon, by means of bus. Having one of the lowest GDP figures in the world, combined with two decades of trade sanctions, has meant that Myanmar’s highways are almost free of competing traffic – a serious win for the traveller.
The lake and communities of Inle can only be seen properly by one mode of transport – the long boat. These long, narrow boats are propelled by rugged diesel engines, and roam all over the Lake. Tours can be easily organized by your chosen guesthouse, or by negotiating with freelance drivers on the streets of the hub town of Nyaung Shwe.
Having just come from Yangon and Bagan, wandering around Nyaung Shwe really highlighted a fascinating characteristic of the Burmese. Surprisingly, many of them speak great English, they do so with incredibly clear pronunciation, and it’s often spoken by the most unlikely of characters. Mutual curiosity between local and traveller leads to some great interactions that are now long lost in other tourist hubs in South-East Asia – where the visitor is often treated as nothing more than a walking dollar sign.
I headed out from Nyaung Shwe on my hired long boat, with little homework done about what to expect from spending the day exploring the highlights of the lake areas.
What was awaiting me were some of the most incredible sights and culture I have ever witnessed.
Lush, mist-topped mountains surrounded the clear, wide waters of the lake. The iconic figure of local fishermen collecting their nets, are spotted randomly across the lakes open surface. Their hands were free from the task of maneuvering their canoes by using their incredible sense of balance and core strength, as the paddles are driven with their legs in a rhythmic “S” pattern. Eventually we reached the stilt villages as my boat navigated its way through the canal systems, lined by rustic houses, shacks and temples.
Passing through, we arrived at the waterside market where locals on their daily routes now have to compete with the growing crowds of tourists coming through the cramped marketplace.
Inle Lake definitely still provides its visitors with great insight into the traditional lifestyle and methods of trade, such as silver work, lotus silk weaving and cheroot (Burmese cigars) that have grown in this unique community.
Along with the warm smiles and curious chats that I soon found to be customary where ever I went throughout Burma, I hope these cultural gems are still found untouched and intact when I next make it back to this incredible country.