Besides its distinctive culture and beauty, Inle Lake is also famous for a rare and remarkable craft: Lotus weaving. It’s exactly what it sounds like, weaving scarves, shawls, longyis (traditional sarong-like garments), and... READ MORE
The ancient city of Bagan is one of Myanmar’s most-visited destinations for local and international tourists alike. First inhabited in the 7th century CE, Bagan has around 3,000 pagodas in a 16 square mile area,... READ MORE
Besides its distinctive culture and beauty, Inle Lake is also famous for a rare and remarkable craft: Lotus weaving. It’s exactly what it sounds like, weaving scarves, shawls, longyis (traditional sarong-like garments), and other clothing using lotus fibers as thread.
The particular type of lotus that grows in Inle Lake produces thin, soft strings when cut and pulled, something that locals discovered about 100 years ago (so it’s actually a relatively recent craft). Lotus stalks are harvested by the thousands in the rainy season and then stored.
To extract the lotus fibers, craftsmen slice the stalks perpendicularly on both sides without cutting all the way through, then pull the two pieces apart. As they do this, silky strands, like hundreds of spider web strings, appear. The craftsmen roll the new strands into the end of the thread that they are working on, and then pull away the remaining pieces of lotus. In this way, segment by segment, a single piece of lotus thread grows slowly longer.
This thread is then taken to the loom, where it is handwoven. Lotus fabric can be woven with silk or dyed solid colors, but for the most part it isn’t heavily treated. Even then, it’s costly stuff — a single 10in x 3ft shawl can be a product of up to 4,000 – 5,000 lotus stalks.
Dad picked up a lotus scarf for a gift, which he showed off with its (potential) maker.
In an extremely rare moment of crazed consumerism, I decided that I must have one too, no matter the price. They were just too fascinating and rare to pass up — when it comes to handmade, all bets are off. $90? No problem. I don’t even wear scarves. Thank goodness I only get these dangerous impulses maybe once every 2 years.
Of course I picked red, which clashes terribly with every other red garment I own (roughly 60% of my closet). But no regrets whatsoever!
The same facility was also home to silk weaving, which, though not as exotic or exciting, also had a pretty amazing process of its own. The silk is imported from nearby China, but all of the treatment and weaving is done in-house.
First, the silk is dyed to a base color in a huge pot with natural pigments. Because the combination of colored powders varies from pot to pot, no two batches of silk are exactly the same color.
Then, the silk strands are rolled onto spools and brought to this beautiful contraption, where they are pulled out and positioned roughly as they would be in the scarf.
The taunt strands are then collected and separated into batches, on which the scarf pattern is marked. Using strings coated with wax (which will repel dye) to cover areas that will be in different colors, the craftsmen can create intricate patterns and designs.
Lastly, the dyed strings are disassembled, kept in order, and brought to the loom. You can’t tell from the picture, but each individual strand is pre-dyed with the pattern, and the weaver checks to make sure that it lines up with the previous strand before securing it in place. Because of this method, the pattern can look sketched and jagged instead of being perfectly smooth, but it’s painstakingly achieved and part of the charm.
I’ve been to a lot of weaving facilities around the world, but I have the most lasting impression of this one at Inle Lake. Or perhaps this is just the most recent impression…in any case, it’s the first time I’ve bought something from a handcraft gift shop in quite a while. They were so beautiful, I wish I could afford more — actually, maybe a better wish would be to actually wear the one I’ve got.
The multitude of pagodas at Bagan are quite a sight from the ground, but the only way to truly appreciate the wonders of the ancient city is from up high, where you can see not 5-10, but 50-100 pagodas at once. And when better to do it than at sunrise and sunset, to add some brilliant colors to the mix?
On our first evening in Bagan, we went to Shwesandaw Temple, the most popular sunset spot. With 5 levels and a view that extends to the Irrawaddy river, it’s the most accessible location for the spectacular view. Unfortunately, that also means that it’s the most accessed, so when we got to the temple half an hour before sunset, it was already crawling with tourists and locals trying to sell various goods.
The terrace was already filled to the point where people were sitting on the steep, 2-ft-tall steps that came up to my knees (thank goodness for railings). But looping around from the Southern side, I managed to squeeze my way onto some prime real estate looking out to the West.
About fifteen minutes later, a sly Chinese woman wedged herself behind me and tried to cajole me into trading places (“Come, do you want to rest against the wall? Let’s switch”), but I shook my head with wide eyes and pretended not to understand. If I let go of that spot, there was no way I was going to find my way back. This was the level below us when we first arrived, to give you an idea:
And the temple from afar during the sunset, courtesy of my Dad, who made the smart decision to walk among the other temples instead of trying to squeeze on to this one:
It was a long and literally crushing wait, but we were awarded with a gorgeous view. And a special treat–there were invisible, low-hanging clouds over the mountains, so the sun “set” twice:
Having seen sunset, we woke early the next morning for sunrise from an even better vantage point: a hot air balloon.
A rickety but charming old bus with wooden windows pulled up to the hotel to pick us up at 5:50am, and it brought us to an open launch area where the crew was waiting for us with folding chairs, coffee, and tea.
Limp balloons lay nearby, and after our pilot had explained the necessary safety procedures and corralled us in a secure area, the crew started to blow them up. First a fan for cool air to inflate them, and then burners for the hot air to lift them.
The pilot walked into the balloon at various times to check that the strings inside weren’t tangling as the balloon inflated, which I imagine is like being in the biggest game of parachute EVER.
One by one the balloons stood upright and took off, until finally we were the last ones left on the ground. Great. Not only did we select the slowest company (yellow and green balloons drifted by while our red ones were still slumped on their sides), but we had the slowest balloon. The slowest of the slow. By the time we actually got some air, the sun was already well above the horizon.
As it turns out, though, there are benefits to being last. We could take pictures of temples framed by all of the other floating balloons as we approached, and again with clear skies as we passed.
But I have to admit that the pictures are more exciting with balloons in them:
And we more than made up for the late start by cruising by the river, over fields of peanuts, dunes of sand, and ox carts in motion (of course we have no pictures of them though, because we had to put our cameras away in preparation for landing). However, the wind wasn’t behaving quite like the pilot anticipated, so we ended up pretty far in the sand…and tipped over.
We were all in landing position (sitting on the bench, gripping onto straps in front of us with our arms outstretched and locked) and the balloon tipped slowly, so it was more comical than alarming. Two passing locals took one look at us and burst out laughing, without the slightest intention of concealing their merriment. I can’t say I blame them, who wouldn’t laugh at 16 foreigners laying sideways in a basket?
While the landing was fun, finding our way out of the sand wasn’t. It was a 30-minute trek to the nearest village with a road big enough for a bus to drive on to pick us up, but we did pass some scenes of unspoiled village life along the way.
I felt sorry for the crew, who were going to have follow the same path with all of the equipment loaded on ox carts because vehicles couldn’t drive on the sand. Pilot Barry definitely wasn’t gaining much love from the company for his unplanned landing, but he sure scored major points with us for the one-of-a-kind experience! We were all served a glass of champagne and delicious banana bread once we completed our trek as well, so it was quite a delightful ending – technically beginning (to the day), since at that point it was only 9:30am.
Of all the sun-chasing that we did in Myanmar, Bagan was the most difficult. The views are quite stunning and unique, though, so that makes the long waits, suffocating crowds, and sandy shoes all worthwhile.
The ancient city of Bagan is one of Myanmar’s most-visited destinations for local and international tourists alike. First inhabited in the 7th century CE, Bagan has around 3,000 pagodas in a 16 square mile area, mostly dating from the heyday of the Pagan Empire from 1044 to 1287CE. They’re everywhere; if you stood in the center of Bagan and pointed in a random direction, you would come across pagoda – or 10, or 20 – in all 360 degrees.
In many ways, Bagan is similar to Angkor Wat in Cambodia, the famous temple complex dating from roughly the same period. But they also have completely different atmospheres, as Wiki Travel sums up well:
Angkor ruins are like a Chinese banquet where food is presented in spectacular servings with a suspenseful wait between items which are hidden beneath a curtain of forests. On the other hand, Bagan is served in Spanish Tapas style, the ingredients exposed to the customer and shown in small bite-sized servings, with the next attraction close and visible at hand, in shorter intervals.
With so many scattered pagodas (a word that includes both stupas, which are the mound-shaped structures that usually enshrine relics, and temples, which are buildings you can walk into), it would take a lifetime to visit and appreciate them all. But these are some of the more famous ones:
Sometimes titled “the Westminster Abbey of Burma,” the Ananda Temple dates from 1105CE and contains four huge standing Buddha images gilded with gold, along with countless other murals and small statues depicting the life of the Buddha. From afar, the standing Buddhas smile welcomingly, but as you approach his expression changes to a sterner mask, reminding you to take the teachings seriously.
The outer walls used to be coated with trails of gray from centuries of wear, but a recent restoration project has restored some of its former glory.
Before the Shwezigon Pagoda was built in 1102CE pagodas were generally smaller in scale, so this pagoda is dubbed the “prototype of Burmese stupas.” It is believed to contain a tooth relic of the Buddha, and the location was chosen by placing the relic on the back of a white elephant and entrusting it to find a “holy place.”
Every four years the pagoda has to be re-gilded with gold, but I think the flaking gold leaf is beautiful as well.
Gu Byauk Gyi
A small temple with intricate frescos dating from the 13th century. Because the wall paintings are so fragile, no photography of any kind was allowed inside. So in lieu of a photo, here is a link.
The delicate temple was not at all helped by the fact that pieces of it were carved out and carted off in 1899. A German engineer named Mr. Thomahn (at least I think that’s what I had in my notes – curse my handwriting!) fell in love with the frescos so much that he decided to carve 1x2ft panels out and take them back with him to Germany. He was already about 5 panels in before people caught on, and the pieces are still missing. Come on, now, and we can’t take one (no-flash) photo?
A beautiful temple with Hindu influences, built by the Mon King Manuha as a personal place of worship when he was held captive in Bagan between the 11th and 12th centuries. It is one of four temples in Bagan that is made of sandstone, and it is lined with intricate stone carvings. It was pillaged throughout the years, though, with parts missing on some of the carvings because thieves thought that round stomachs and bulging body parts were hiding treasure.
Also built by the Mon King Manuha (how could you guess?) in captivity, using the money he obtained by selling his personal jewels. This temple looks quite normal on the outside, but you squeeze through one of its small doors and BAM, there’s a Buddha in your face. The Buddha statues fill up almost the entire room:
This was intentional, as it conveys the stress and discomfort that King Manuha felt while in captivity. Subtle details in the reclining Buddha in the back, like its closing eyes and its stacked feet, indicate that it’s a dying Buddha as opposed to a resting Buddha. The message is that the king would only be free in death, and indeed, he died without returning to his kingdom.
The dying Buddha with a human for scale:
And just to get a sense of how cramped the rooms were:
A floor plan from baganmyanmar.com:
Known as the “Sunset Pagoda,” this is THE place to be for the sunset…or the one place NOT to be, depending on your perspective. I’m leaning toward the latter. It too is sacred and contains hairs of the Buddha, but most tourists are just interested in camping out on one of its four levels and taking pictures every 5 seconds as the sun goes down (sadly, I fall into this category. I won’t share my final picture count).
These are only a few — and admittedly, most impressive — of the thousands of pagodas, and they each had such rich histories and wonderful artifacts. I imagine that each and every pagoda has some sort of story, whether involving the people who commissioned it, built it, or visited it throughout the years. I couldn’t dig out all these stories, but I could at least take a horse cart trip through the pagodas, in old school(ish) fashion.
Sadly, a few factors, like Myanmar’s controversial military government and alleged poor treatment/reconstruction of the ancient temples, have prevented Bagan from being listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. But regardless of the whether it has that official title, Bagan has a magic to it that spans almost a millennium, and it deserves to be cherished and respected to the utmost extent.
When I first saw that we were staying for three nights at Inle Lake, I was both a little relieved (a break from repacking every morning) and a little taken aback. Two nights, sure, but three? Isn’t that a little excessive with a tight itinerary? But after seeing Inle Lake and its remarkable way of life, I wish we could have stayed for much longer.
Inle Lake is extremely long and narrow, connected in some spots by a waterway so tight that the side banks (especially with floating grasses and hyacinths) seem to close in on the boats motoring along them. Most tourists start at the town of Nyaung Shwe at the Northern tip of the lake and only explore the surrounding area, but for the full experience of the lake, we started down South from a town called Phekhon.
We boarded long, narrow boats with engines, the standard vehicles of transportation on the lake. I love the design of the boats, with the front quarter sticking up out of the water and the middle of the boat almost level with the water’s surface:
They were quite comfortable, equipped with padded seats, seat back pockets filled with water and cleaning wipes, umbrellas to deflect sunlight or water spray at high speeds, and even toasty blankets to break the wind. Our boats were newer with quieter motors, but just about every other boat that we saw had motors that you could hear from 100 yards away. Thank goodness for our boats, otherwise the three days at Inle wouldn’t have been nearly as fun.
We pulled out our cameras as soon as we left the pier, and didn’t have them off for more than 2 minutes straight thereafter:
A couple of hours in, about halfway to our destination, we encountered a toll bridge of sorts. It’s hard to make out in the photo, but there is a woven basket hanging down from the bridge between the two posts. We pulled up to the basket, the boatman seated in the front threw in a few bills, and off we went!
Inle is famous for its floating villages:
Every house had its own little dock leading down to the water, and often there were people sitting on it washing pots and pans or taking a river bath. Even if they were bathing (always, quite prudently, with the essential parts covered), they generally responded to our waves and smiles with hollars and waves of their own.
Some, but not all, of the villages had power lines running through them, lining the lake passage like any normal street:
The electrical poles made for some great silhouettes (what happens if this comes crashing down into the river? Because it’s not at all out of the realm of possibility):
Another unique feature of Inle Lake is its floating gardens. Villagers start with clumps of river grass (like the one in the photo above – river grass and river hyacinths can be found basically anywhere), which they anchor with bamboo poles. Then they add layers of seaweed and mud, slowly building a little plot of earth in which to plant crops like tomatoes, cucumbers, and squash. These plants put down roots just far enough to get the right amount of water, and because they don’t have to be irrigated, they can be planted for many more months than the same crops on land.
We pulled up next to a plot to try standing on it, and it surprisingly held the weight of three people, only seeping down about an inch or so. These things are buoyant! You don’t want to misstep, though.
Inle Lake is also famous for its fishermen, who wield large conical nets and paddle with their feet, so as to free their hands for fishing. They don’t fish so much as just pose for tourists now, but it’s still a remarkable amount of skill.
Out boatman demonstrated the technique:
But clearly, it’s not as easy as it looks.
Our group leader got the wonderful opportunity to snap this photo aboard one of the fishing boats:
And of course, our fascination with sunsets didn’t go away at Inle Lake: (the smoke is from farmers burning their crops in order to get ready for the next rotation)
The three days ended way too fast! It’s hard to say what my favorite part of Myanmar was, but Inle Lake was unforgettable.
One of the highlights of our trip that we were most looking forward to seeing was the famous Padaung “long-neck ladies” of Eastern Myanmar (and Thailand as well, but they are natively Burmese). They wear colorful headdresses and wrap metal rings around their necks, and they are known worldwide for their practices.
The trip out to visit them wasn’t easy, even though the area is far more accessible than it was even a few years ago. According to our guide, it’s only been three years since foreign tourists have been permitted to enter the area without asking for government permission, and a few more years before that since foreigners have been allowed to enter at all. Now foreign access is readily granted, but the villages where the “long-necked” ladies, or Padaung women, live are still physically quite difficult to reach. The best method was by bus down a mostly one-lane paved road, which wound around the Shan hillsides and ran straight through multiple villages of various sizes.
We departed Kalaw, a former British hill station, at 7am in the morning, and drove for nearly 7 hours before we reached the foot of the villages. 7 hours was long, but it wasn’t altogether uneventful. About halfway, we were slowly rolling through town when suddenly there was a bang, we screeched to a stop, and I looked up from my seat in the second row to see a 12ft long, 2in thick metal pole sticking into the bus parallel to the windshield, reaching from the front door almost clear across to the driver.
It must have passed only a few inches in front of the driver’s assistant, who stands on the front steps of the bus (with absolutely no break, so he stood for 7 whole bumpy hours). The man who was carrying the pole swung it out into the road without looking, and if we had been going just a little faster, the poor, hard-working assistant could have been left without a head. There was nothing we could do without incurring huge delays besides yell at the man to look both ways next time, but thankfully no one was hurt. And nothing was damaged except for the windshield, but it looks like it was, well, hit with a 12ft long, 2in thick metal pole.
Eventually we got to a dirt road that was partly in the process of being paved, with grapefruit-sized rocks placed 1-layer thick across the road-to-be, soon to be broken into finer stones. Our gargantuan bus was not designed for either the dirt or the sharp rocks, so it took a good half hour of crawling to get to our final destination, and from there it was yet another half hour’s walk through the valley and down to the village.
The first two stalls that we encountered were manned by the Padaung ladies, selling small scarves and accessories made of (supposedly) the same bronze/brass material as their coiled rings. We approached cautiously, gently gesturing with our cameras for permission to take their pictures. But they automatically posed, seeming quite unfazed by the sudden photoshoot. When they pose for pictures in front of their own pictures, you know something’s up.
Seems like they’ve seen enough tourists to come to a tacit arrangement: you take your pictures, you buy our goods. Luckily, we were with enough people that someone would buy something at every stop, and I made my contribution a few stalls down with a bronze bracelet for 5000kyat.
Further into the village, we found ourselves walking among houses. A few Padaung ladies were at work or lounging at home, and we came across two who consented to pictures, but then came up to the fence and requested 2000kyat per camera.
By the time our whole group had passed, they made out like thieves – several days’ wages for doing absolutely nothing. At least some of the others sold goods or gave friendly introductions to their culture. But we tourists made this possible…
In contrast, a few houses down, an elderly Padaung lady invited us up into her home and allowed our guide to show us around.
And at the end, a few other Padaung ladies from the surrounding houses also stopped by.
As a token of thanks, we gave them 1000kyat per household, which our guide told us was more than enough. If only we could reclaim the money that we gave to the two previous ladies and distribute it among these friendly people instead. I’m upset at those two for asking for money in such a way, and I’m even more upset at myself for giving it to them. But then again, the whole idea of paying someone to take a few photos, with no deeper interactions, is somewhat unsettling.
You can’t help but wonder…once the road through the village (and right in front of some houses, like the one we visited) is paved, what effect will the influx of tourists have? Already there are locals making easy money, and already there are foreigners that care only about taking a couple of pictures. But I’m glad that we got the deeper look into the Padaung way of life that we did, and I hope that, with all of the imminent changes, the Padaung people will hold onto it.
The Padaung Practice
- In these tribes, the metal rings are associated with status and beauty. Women wear them around their necks to resemble dragons, because the tribes believe that they are descendants of the dragon goddess.
- There are many other theories for where the practice may have originated. One, for instance, is that in the17th and 18th centuries, the kingdom armies used to pass through the area on the way to fight empires in Thailand, and the women adopted the practice to make themselves ugly and hence less likely to be taken. Another is that the ladies worked in the field and tigers used to pose a problem, so the ladies adorned the metal rings to keep their fatal points (neck, wrists, knees) protected.
- The rings are not separate, but are one long, individual coil. Made mostly of brass and bronze, they’re heavy and also expensive (the one that my Dad is holding costs 300USD), which is why they are a status symbol.
- Contrary to popular rumors, the women’s necks do not collapse without support of the metal rings. They sleep and work with the rings on, but they can take them off with no problem and frequently do to wash the rings while bathing.
- Girls first start wearing the rings around ages 7-8. They start with 5 rings, then slowly add a few more each couple of years. After age 20, they will have their full set of rings.
This adorable lady is only 5: