Nyaung Shwe, Gateway To The Inlay Lake


Nyaung Shwe/Yaunghwe, a former Shan capital at the Inlay Lake also spelled Inle Lake, is the main town and oldest one of a total of some 200 settlements of the Intha and other tribes that are living around the lake. It is located on the lake's north-eastern shores at the fringe of the omnipresent 'Eichhornia crassipes', commonly known as water hyacinth that surround the lake in a broad belt of up to 3 miles/5 kilometres breadth. These water hyacinth do significantly contribute to the lake's disappearance at a pace that suggests that the lake will not exist anymore in about 150 years from now unless something is done about it.

Nyaung Shwe is the so-called 'gateway' to the Inlay Lake for visitors arriving from the airport in Heho. Sao Shwe Htaik, the last of a group of altogether 36 Shan princes – called 'Sawbaws'(the title for a hereditary prince) lived here until 1948 in a stately teak building that is now a museum. He became the first president of Burma on 04 January 1948 and served till 1952.

The 36 Sawbaws regularly met during the British colonial era in the parliament in Taunggyi to discuss and decide upon matters concerning their Shan people.

The town is a tranquil and pleasant place to stay but has apart from some more or less interesting ruins around it, the 'Yatamamanaungsu Pagoda' near its centre that houses 'you will be sick' and 'you will be old' figures in glass vitrines as well as the famous wooden Nyaung Shwe Monastery nothing much to offer for tourists. It is more the place where you can sleep, eat and start your excursions on and around the lake from.

From Nyaung Shwe regular boat services ferry guests to their hotels on the lake and one can also embark in boats or canoes either with or without motors to discover the lake and the Intha communities living here. And that is what I will be doing now. I will embark on my 'lake voyage' and my today's 'port of call' is the Nga Phe Chaung Monastery.

The monastery is located in the Inlay Lake and is an attractive wooden monastery built on stilts over the lake at the end of the 1850s. Getting to the ancient monastery takes an about 1 hour's boat ride. You are heartily invited to accompany me.

On our way to the Nga Phe Chaung Monastery our narrow but long canoe – that, by the by, was built in Nam Pan a village on the lake's eastern shore south of Nyaung Shwe – is skilfully navigating through the tangled water hyacinth steered by its Intha 'captain'. He is also a fisherman, grown up here and knows everyone and everything in and around the lake. You can go to the Nga Phe Chaung Monastery and any other place on and around the lake also by motorised boat/canoe. That goes much quicker and you will not have to change the boat but you will miss out on witnessing at close range the highly special style in which the Intha fishermen propel their canoes through the water. It is the famous 'one-leg-rowing style' that deserves to be described in more detail.

Our 'captain' (wearing a conical straw hat called 'Khamout' that is typical of the Inlay Lake) is keeping his eyes open to avoid the beneath the surface floating mats or clumps of tangled weeds. He is standing erect on one leg – his left one – on the stern of our canoe (a balancing act that is a feat in itself) while he has his right leg twisted around a long oar, having a firm grip on it at the top end (about the level of his shoulder) and holding it steady between the calf and knee of this leg. He then bends his body forward and pushes the oar with calf and knee backwards, a movement that propels the canoe forward. Next he hooks the foot of his now fully extended right leg around the oar to pull it back and the process starts all over again. Seemingly effortless he is doing all this in one smooth and gliding movement, which is a fascinating sight. But to top it all he is – while bearing an almost bored expression on his face – smoking a cheroot (a Burmese cigar), which he holds in his left hand; truly amazing. I am afraid my brief description may not be enough for you to form an exact and life-true picture before your mind's eye. One really has to actually see it. It is, again, amazing. So, for at least some legs of your journey on the lake you should go by rowing boat as this is an experience not likely to be forgotten.

The Intha have developed this fascinating and unique rowing style along with their equally amazing and unique method of fishing. This they perform by dint of a conical shaped, very tall (almost as tall as most of the fishermen themselves) bamboo wickerwork fish trap that is round and open at the base, peaked and closed at the top and contains a grill net. Whenever you are on the lake you can see the fishermen sometimes forming a line or semicircle with their canoes and sometimes singly at work. While carrying the fish trap they are rowing and are looking out for movements beneath the water surface that indicates the presence of fish (what might be a long, thick eel or a huge, one metre or more long Inlay carp) whereupon they thrust the trap – open end down and pointed top up – over the place where the fish is/are down to the floor of the lake and the fish is/are trapped and sure to end up via frying pan or cooking pot as delicious dish in someone's (maybe your) stomach.

While leaving Nyaung Shwe we also see lots of huge 'Kyunpaws'. These are the floating gardens or farms where flowers and all kinds of agriculture produce such as tomatoes, cabbage, cauliflower, cucumbers, potatoes, beans and pulses, eggplants, you name it, are grown and harvested year round by the Intha. These Kyunpaws are made of the clumps of the weed the fishermen have to plot a path through. These clumps of weed are separated from their roots by simply cutting them off. They are then lashed and bound together to large mats so that they, finally, form an up to about 3 feet/about 1 metre thick artificial island that can be moved and is kept in place by bamboo poles that are rammed into the lake's floor.

The agriculture produce cultivated on these floating gardens or farms – although it sometimes lacks the richness in flavour that in fertile soil grown fruits and vegetables often have – is sold not only on the local markets on and around the lake but also in large quantities distributed to other regions and cities. For instance, up to 80 tons of tomatoes/day can be harvested here, which explains why many (most?) of the tomatoes consumed in Burma are probably Inlay tomatoes.

All over the lake you can see fishermen and floating farms as fishing and farming are the main sources of income for the people living on, at and around the lake. Other sources of income are e.g. the production of clothes, shoulder bags, cheroots, pottery, parasols, etc. A rapidly growing additional source of income are local as well as foreign visitors to the Inlay Lake and the areas of its closer and wider environs.

Almost each village around the lake specialises in another business such as boat building, cheroot making, silk and cotton weaving and pottery.

Now we have arrived at the Nga Phe Chaung Monastery also known as 'Jumping Cat Monastery.

The Nga Phe Chaung Monastery is located in the Inlay Lake. It is an attractive wooden monastery built on stilts over the lake at the end of the 1850s. Getting to the ancient monastery takes an about 1 hour's boat ride. The 'jetty-side' of the monastery is not so impressive.

The monastery is known for being home to a large collection of old Burmese Buddha images from many different sizes, materials and areas that are well worth seeing. Nga Phe Chaung is the biggest monastery here. It is built on teak stilts in traditional wood architecture and with at the time of this writing an age of some 170 years the oldest monastery on the Inle Lake.

This monastery is definitely worth a visit not only for its historical significance and architecture but also for its numerous and famous cats. A few of them are trained by monks to leap through hoops provided you can somehow convince the cats that the best thing they can do is to follow your command; and the other cats? Well – as you can see – they are sleeping.

OK, I will now return to my hotel in Nyaung Shwe. Tomorrow I will be going to Khaung Daing Village famous for its pottery.

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