The main attraction of Nyaungshwe was as a starting point for boat trips on the lake. I booked with a company my friend L had used a year earlier, as she had asked me to take presents to some people she had met through them.
The boat took us past villages of houses on stilts, some built from wood, others from grass, many with TV satellite dishes, and past fishermen rowing in the way unique to Inle: standing up, holding the oar with their hands but moving it by wrapping a foot round the blade and pushing with that.
Our first stop was the village of Taung To, where the morning market was in full flow. Most of the people, buyers and sellers, were hilltribes-people; dainty, tiny women dressed in tunics and skirts of roughly-woven black fabric, with orange and red scarves wrapped round their heads.
The market was small, and pretty unremarkable, although I noticed scores of people gathered round three stalls away from the vendors. They turned out to be hosting a local cross between a one-armed bandit and roulette.
At the front of the ‘machine’ was a board divided into squares, in each of which was painted an animal. Against the back of the ‘machine’ and held in place by a bar to which a piece of string was attached, were three massive dice. Each side of each dice was decorated with one of the animals from the chequered board.
When everyone had placed their money on one of the squares the ‘croupier’ would yank the string and release the dice. If a dice landed with your animal uppermost, you won.
After two failures – on the peacock and the turtle – I said: “I’ll have 50k (that’s K as in kyat not K as in thousand) on the blue rabbit.” The string was pulled, the dice rolled down, and the blue rabbit came uppermost on not one dice but two, which meant I had won 100 kyat for my 50 kyat stake. So what if one thousand kyat was worth around one US dollar, I was a winner!
We moved on to Phaung Daw U Paya, the holiest site in southern Shan State. It was famous as the home of five religious figures that were carried around the lake in some festival every autumn. Three of the figures were supposed to be Buddhas and the other two of disciples of Buddha, but they had all had so much gold leaf stuck to them by devotees that it was hard to tell what they were – they looked more like blobs than Buddhas.
Then I got to deliver L’s gifts to her fisherman friend. They weren’t much: some instant Ovaltine mix and a Spiderman t-shirt for his son, and a couple of toys. The fisherman seemed to like them but he didn’t make too big a deal about them; I wondered if it was because several of his neighbours were around and he didn’t want to flaunt the stuff in front of them.
The fisherman’s wife invited us into their home, and it was actually rather humbling to see the people inside trying to sweep the floor as we entered. They sat on the floor so K and I could sit on the two-seater settee that was the only piece of furniture in the room. They offered us tea and sticky rice cakes, and I so hoped their home and their hospitality made U feel just a little bit guilty about the fuss he’d made over paying “so much” (ie US$3.50) for his day on the lake.
Our last stop was, for me, the highlight: Nga Phe Kyaung, or the “Jumping Cat Monastery”. The monastery was 150 years old, all aged teak, some of the most serene Buddhas I had ever seen… and 15 cats who jumped through hoops!
If you sat behind them and made a ring around them with your arms and touched them under the chin, they would jump through your arms. More spectacular, but for experts only, was to hold a hoop a couple of feet over their heads and have them jump through that.
We asked one monk why they had trained the cats. “For fun,” he said, and he had a point: the monastery was lovely; tranquil and very atmospheric, but it was in the middle of a lake in the middle of nowhere, and there really was rock-all to do there apart from train cats to do stupid tricks… oh, and swot up on European soccer.
This was the time of Euro 2004 and the monk was better acquainted with the fixture list than K or any of the other visitors. As for me, well, I shut my ears and let three of the cats curl up on my lap and go to sleep. And, no, they weren’t for moving when the time came to leave…
We had supper in an Indian restaurant in Nyaungshwe. We were the only customers, and, during conversation the owner told us about her sister, a teacher who earned the princely sum of 10,000 kyat (around US$10) a month for teaching science to classes of 70 children and more. That was in a private school, apparently; in a state school she would be paid less.
N couldn’t really hold his drink, and by now he had had a couple of measures of whisky. “My government is bad,” he slurred. “This country is so bad, everyone wants to leave.”
By this stage, I’d spent around two weeks with N and K but it was only when N was tipsy and in an empty restaurant that he was brave enough to tell me that his government stank.
This was not a country where people were encouraged to speak their minds, and the only way of sending an email was through the official government provider, so emails could be read and checked for potential subversion.
Some internet café owners were smart – and brave – enough to work out how to access Hotmail and other ‘banned’ sites (via proxy websites). There was one such café in Nyaungshwe. “Won’t you get in trouble if the Government finds out?” I asked the owner but he just shrugged and went back to the stupid (and innocent) discussion about beer that he was having with someone on Messenger.
Burmese people were so friendly – and so tight-lipped when there were other Burmese around – that it was easy to forget what was going on. Until you read in the papers about the exploits of “Prime Minister General Khin Nyunt”; “Secretary I of the State Peace and Development Council [the euphemism for the junta] Lieutenant General Soe Win” and “Deputy Minister for Information Brigadier General Aung Thien” and their ilk and you realised something just wasn’t quite right.
Scenes from around Nyuangshwe:
From Burmese Daze – the book. Available directly from me (£6, including p&p in the UK); or from Lulu, Amazon, or to order from your local independent bookshop or via Hive. E-book available from Smashwords.