Situated geographically in the northeast of Myanmar, the Shan State is today the largest state in the country. With the mountainous landscape where the average height is between 2,000 and 3,000 feet above sea level, it has resulted in cooling climate in this region especially during the winter season. As someone hailing from the hot and sunny island of Singapore where cool weather is a rarity, I was naturally thrilled when the opportunity arose for me to embark on a 5-day trip to the Shan State during the winter season.
Top of anyone’s list when visiting the Shan State would most certainly be the iconic Inle Lake and that was where we were headed first. Travelling from Yangon, we took a 10-hour bus ride to Nyaung Shwe, the gateway city to Inle Lake. Upon arriving there, we rented bicycles and decided to explore the surrounding areas. While riding our bicycles, I witnessed many interesting sights that I would otherwise not see in modern Singapore. There were the village schools which provided basic education for village kids, and they were in the midst of preparing for morning assembly when we cycled past them. I also saw numerous crops all around such as sugarcane and sunflower, just to name a few.
We soon arrived at our first destination, a traditional hand-weaving workshop where workers would weave htamein (sarong worn by females) using a traditional wooden weaving machine. I learnt that this workshop was part of a social enterprise set up to preserve traditional heritage while also providing jobs for the locals. Other than the hand-weaving workshop, the owner had also built a restaurant entirely made of bamboo and an Eco-hotel in the vicinity, all in the name of protecting the environment and preserving local heritage. This was indeed a noble cause and one which I truly respected.
We then headed off to visit the local market at Main Thauk village, and it was a hive of activity with locals peddling various wares as well as their own crops. This market was not permanent and more of a rotating one which alternated between five villages daily (generally known as a rotating 5-day market). While moving around, I had already noticed that the area around Nyaung Shwe was a really scenic one with beautiful mountains and lush greenery at every corner, and we were going to witness more of this beauty very soon.
After lunch, it was finally time for the main highlight of the day – exploring the vast Inle Lake. The lake was the second largest in Myanmar and there were numerous villages on stilts all around the lake. Each of these villages supported a different form of livelihood and we had the opportunity to visit some of them via a boat. One of the places that we stopped by was a silversmith workshop where we witnessed how the local craftsmen produced unique silverware from the raw silver stones.
We also visited a lotus silk hand-weaving workshop where we saw how lotus fibre was manually extracted from lotus stems and subsequently used to weave various items such as scarves and longyis. I even got a chance at trying to extract the lotus fibre myself. Additionally, I learnt that the villagers would grow the lotus plants in the surrounding waters of Inle Lake and would be able to extract more lotus fibre during the rainy season as the stems were able to grow longer as compared to during the summer. Overall, this was an arduous process, and probably the reason why lotus silk was seven times more expensive than the normal silk.
No trip to Inle Lake would be complete without visiting the highly revered Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda and that was to be our last stop. This pagoda is famed for its rather deformed five buddha images. The reason behind it was that these images had been applied with so much gold leaf by pilgrims that they were totally unrecognisable from their original look. Additionally, I also managed to learn about the famous story about these five images. It was said that all five of them fell into the lake when they were brought around the villages during a festival. Despite all the efforts, the villagers were only able to find four of them, with the fifth one seemingly impossible to be found. However, when they eventually gave up and returned to the pagoda, they found the last image amazingly back in its shrine. Thus, from then on, only four images were brought around during festivals.
With the sun setting soon, we got back onto our boats and headed back for Nyaung Shwe. The boat ride back along the lake was breath-taking as we were treated to a spectacular sunset and witnessed first-hand the famed leg-rowing fishermen of Inle Lake going about their daily fishing activities. With their unusual technique of paddling their boats while fishing, these Intha fishermen have become national icons. Together with the cool weather and the stunning view of surrounding mountains around the lake, it was the perfect end to an amazing day.