The main reason most people go to Nyaungshwe is to take a boat trip on the famously beautiful Inle Lake. I used a travel company my friend Lotte 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, and past fishermen rowing in this way unique to Inle: they stand up, hold the oar in one hand, then wrap their ankle round the blade and push with their foot.
Our first stop was the village of Taung To, and a morning market where ethnic minority people come to buy and sell. Many of them were really tiny, and 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! It might be worth pointing out here that one thousand kyat is worth around one US dollar… Still, I was a winner, and nothing else mattered!
After a brief stop at Phaung Daw U Paya, home to five tiny Buddha images coated in so much gold leaf by devotees that they look more like blobs than statues, we went to see the boatman who had taken Lotte on the lake the previous year.
I gave him the presents Lotte had sent for him. They weren’t much: some instant Ovaltine mix and a Spiderman t-shirt for his son, and some toys and the like, but I think the boatman was too embarrassed to look at them because his neighbours were in the house and he didn’t want to show off what he had. His family did their best to sweep the floor as we entered, and they sat on the floor so Karen 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 just hope their home and their hospitality made U (as in my previous post) 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 is 150 years old, all aged teak, some of the most serene Buddhas I’ve ever seen… and 15 cats who jump through hoops!
If you sit behind them and make a ring around them with your arms and touch them under the chin, they’ll jump through your arms. More spectacular, but for experts only, is 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 is lovely; tranquil, very atmospheric, but it’s in the middle of a lake in the middle of nowhere, and there really is 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 Karen 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, who is a teacher and who earns the princely sum of 10,000 kyat (around US$10) a month. Ne Lin can’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 Ne Lin and Karen, but it was only when he was tipsy and in an empty restaurant that he was brave enough to tell me that his government stinks… As I’ve already said, this is not a country where people are encouraged to speak their minds, and the only way of sending an email is through the official government provider, so emails can be read and checked for potential subversion.
Some internet café owners are smart enough – and brave enough – to work out how to access Hotmail and other ‘banned’ sites (via a proxy website). There’s one such cafe in Nyaungshwe. “Won’t you get in trouble if the Government finds out?” I asked the owner and he just shrugged and went back to the stupid (and innocent) discussion about beer that he was having with someone on Messenger.
Burmese people are so friendly – and so tight-lipped when there are other Burmese around – that it’s easy to forget what is 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 realise something just isn’t quite right.