Inle Lake and the non-jumping cats

Trip Start Nov 06, 2012
Trip End Feb 01, 2013

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Flag of Myanmar  ,
Thursday, January 17, 2013

Inle Lake is beautiful. We’d been looking forward to coming here and experiencing the lake and Shan State, which seems to be a source of pride for the Myanmar people. Our first view of the lake was from a small boat as we motored along in the afternoon sunshine to spend a night at a resort on the water. Words and photos only hint at the true beauty of the place. We enjoyed yet another sunset, this time with our shoes on(!), sitting on a wooden deck over the lake, surrounded by the Shan mountains and watching the local fishermen. It was very peaceful - other than the pap-pap-pap of a motor as the small boats made their way about the lake that is.

We spent a whole day on the lake and it was great to start early and experience the serenity and magic of the morning mist. The view changed as we made our way across the lake, with mountains seeming to appear from nowhere. We were both loving it - the journey itself and the scenery as well as a break from temples!

As if the guide was reading our thoughts (and completely disregarding them), our first stop was Phaung Daw Oo Paya. That’s right, another temple. This particular temple did however merit a visit just to see the five gold “buddha images”. The locals have applied so much gold leaf to these images over the years that they are no longer distinguishable as buddha images and now merely resemble giant golden footballs. A, being a man, was allowed to approach the said buddha images. V had to make do with the pleasure of  admiring them from afar (with the aid of a few TV screens la Mahamuni Paya). Each year, four of these buddha images spend around 18 days on a special ceremonial boat (which is, of course, gold) being paraded around the lake. All five used to be taken out, but that changed after an accident when all five sunk with their boat and were feared lost.

We then wandered around the village of Tha Ley, taking in the local market, selling fish so fresh it was still moving. Each of the villages at this end of the lake have their own local trade speciality. We stopped off at the village of In Phaw Khone to see the weaving workshops, which specialise in cotton, silk and lotus weaving. We also visited the village of Ywama to see the process of producing silver jewellery and other goods and enjoyed a delicious lunch of tofu crackers with the ubiquitous soy sauce, garlic and chilli dip and Shan noodle soup.

While in Ywama, A won favour with a silversmith’s daughter. Not by proposing (although he does continue to use this on a daily basis), but by haggling like a true Yorkshireman when it came to negotiating the price of some silver and then paying her what we’d been prepared to pay all along (which was much more than the price agreed on). This left V in a state of confusion, especially as there had been Man U posters all over the workshop walls and A is not one to do favours for Man U fans. Must be something in the bottled water...

After lunch, we left the lake and headed up one of tributaries to the village of Inthein. The scenery on the journey, on what we’ve since decided is our most comfortable ever by boat, was a feast for the eyes. We were treated to a boat ride through aquamarine coloured water, whizzing by water buffalo and locals bathing in the river. 

Once in Inthein, we explored what we can best describe as the “stupa graveyard” of Shwe Inf Thein Paya: over a thousand old stupas clustered closely together on a hill. It was very peaceful walking around up there, with the silence broken occasionally by the gentle chime of the small bells at the top of the stupa umbrellas.
We enjoyed our return journey down the river back to the lake and made for Nga Hpe Kyaung, the much-touted “jumping cats monastery”. And what should we find when we got there? The cats had stopped jumping. In an effort by the monks to promote the monastery as opposed to the jumping cats, a decision had been taken to stop the cat-jumping shows. The monks wanted to ensure that visitors to the complex were there for its religious significance and not for its feline frivolity. Ironic given that it was the monks, apparently in an attempt to relieve boredom, had trained the cats to jump in the first place. A, as sensitive as ever, had refused to believe our guide when he told us this earlier in the day and questioned whether the monks could justifiably ruin his day on Inle Lake. It seems, however, that our moggy friends are still happy to be the centre of attention (whilst keeping all four paws firmly on the ground): one adorable little kitten posed like a supermodel for some photos. Our furry little friend clearly had a preferred “best side”, but a number of “looks”. The monastery itself was very interesting, but a black cloud followed A around - he struggled to hide his disappointment!

Back into our boat and onto the lake to see the floating gardens built by the farmers in the area. These span quite a large part of the lake and are a plentiful source of fruit and vegetables. Tomatoes are very much in season at the moment and we saw those by the bucketload. As our boat went past, you could see the gardens moving up and down on their bamboo stakes. Ingenious design.

While on the lake, we were surrounded by fisherman using traditional canoes, nets and spears. Traditionally, the fisherman here use one of their legs to row so that they can keep both hand free. It’s a sight to behold. We do wonder if this is perhaps dying out as many of the younger fisherman seemed to row with their arms until they saw us, at which point they stood up, curled one leg around the oar and proceeded to row “Inle style”. What did seem to be a common theme, young or old, was a limp cigarette hanging from their lips.

From Inle Lake, we ventured further to the little-touristed site of Kakku, which has over 2,400 stupas, set closely together on a hillside. It probably sounds a little bit like Inthein to anyone reading this, but to us it looked more like a “stupa showroom” than a graveyard. Many of the old stupas had been restored and looked brand-spanking new. We were fully expecting a stupa salesman to emerge from behind one of the brick towers and try to peddle his wares. It was interesting walking around, although possibly not as interesting as the locals found the sight of us: while we are now used to curious looks from locals not familiar with foreign faces, Kakku is an area where it is really, really, really unusual to see. Quizzical looks turned to smiles on our attempts to murder their language by offering up the usual chorus of “hello” and “hello, will you marry me?” (the latter, of course, uttered from A’s lips). Awesome stuff.

The journey to Kakku was quite long and so we chatted away to the guide, who it turned out, knows a lot more about our Royal Family than we do. He was keen to discuss the conspiracy theories around Princess Diana’s death and asked if Dodi Fayed’s father “still owned that minimart in London?”. We assume he meant Harrods. 

We felt very proud to hear him to talk with such enthusiasm about the London Olympics and it was great to know that the magic of the Olympics touched Myanmar. He talked at length about how his country is trying to build a good national football team and is competing in the ASEAN Cup later this year. He thinks it will take a while, but if the team can translate the optimism in this country into results, we very much doubt it will take long at all.

While in the region, we visited Shwe Oo Min Natural Cave Pagoda, a natural limestone cave in Pindaya, which contains over 8,000 golden (what else?) buddha images. Being a religious site, we were conscious we would have to explore it barefoot and had been a bit wary about doing so in a large cave. Our concerns immediately evaporated on arrival when we discovered that the entire cave floor was tiled. 

Several meditation caves and areas could be found throughout the cave complex and our guide showed us some of the more difficult to find ones. It was fun crawling through small openings in the rock into these chambers..that was until our guide started talking about areas of the cave which had become blocked after previous earthquakes...our enthusiasm somewhat faded after that!

At the very back of the cave, legend has it that an underground tunnel linked this cave to Bagan. The opening to this tunnel has been partially closed by one of the many earthquakes and so nobody is able to test this...but we reckon it would take a while to walk it.

So now, another internal flight awaits with Air Mandalay’s sole aeroplane to Thandwe. After a hectic fortnight, we’re really looking forward to relaxing on the beach.

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