Nadya and I spent a night on a slow, uncomfortable antique train to Inle Lake in Myanmar. Sitting on hard, wooden seats, bouncing up and down in the rattling carriage was kind of like riding a bronco. Sleep was not possible so we were exhausted by the time the train screeched into Taunggyi, the capital of Shan state, set on a mountain ridge.
From there we took a minibus to Nyaung Shwe, the main town near Inle Lake. The guest house by the lake where we stayed looked a bit neglected. A wobbly ceiling fan circled the stale and humid air above the check-in desk.
After dropping off the bags in our musty room, we went to the dock for the boat trip out to the lake.
We arrived at the landing pier, surrounded by stilted huts made of wood and woven bamboo with teak shutters, where we met our boatman. He wore a white shirt and traditional Shan loose pants. I was excited about going out on the lake.
The boat headed towards the shallow lake, out across the water. Our flat-ended canoe seemed to sit unusually low in the water. Nadya, wrapped in a blanket against the chill of early morning, trailed her fingers in the water.
The boatman then cut the engine as we approached the middle of the lake. In the distance an Intha fisherman, with one leg wrapped around an oar, was rowing smoothly across the lake, bringing in his catch. I now understood why the loose Shan pants were so popular here. Like a ballet done in slow motion over the water, another man was balancing on the bow, dipping his conical bamboo net gracefully in and out of the water.
The sun was burning off the mist on this quiet lake flanked by the Shan hills. There was an ethereal calm. Then the boatman started up the engine to head closer to shore. I looked out from the boat as we passed Nga Phe Kyaung, an ancient wooden monastery on stilts.
We glided up to an Intha village where the rotating market was being held. I clambered out of the boat onto the jetty. The cacophony of voices bartering, chattering, arguing and the noise of arriving motorboats mingled with Burmese music coming from the bamboo stalls. Vendors sold freshly caught fish from the lake.
At a beetle nut stand, a woman, wearing a conical straw hat, put a smear of slaked lime on the fresh green leaves. Beside her, a graceful woman selling Shan noodles wore a checkered orange turban. A monk holding an alms bowl looked on as a woman sold durian, dragon fruit and mango.
After lunch, we continued down the waterways of Inle Lake. Gliding down a feeder channel, we were able to see the floating gardens where villagers lived directly on the lake. No roads or sidewalks, just thatched huts on stilts over the water. I took in the lazy pace, watching a man gently washing down a water buffalo in the shallows.
The stilt houses of the village were surrounded on all sides by water. Coming up on our left was a thatched hut with ceramic pots of wilting orchids perched on the ledge of a wooden balcony. Below, on a wooden platform, a smiling woman wringing out her laundry, squatted beside yellow plastic jerrycans of drinking water. A long canoe was moored under the balcony.
The stilt houses were so isolated and far from the shore that the only way you could get there was by boat or by swimming. It was so unlike any place I’d seen before. You felt as if you’d been transported to an ancient water world.