It was a cold start to the morning, but at least it wasn’t raining. I can confess to slight disappointment – I was hoping that it would rain for ten minutes so I could wear my purple poncho – the waterproof version – bought especially for the trip, and up to now unworn. I nearly wore it anyway, to keep me warm.
Beware, though. You may think Burma is hot, but this is their winter, and although the sun is hot and daytime temperatures are around 30 degrees, the nights are cool. So if the sun isn’t around – particularly when you’re skimming over a lake at what felt like about 40 miles per hour (and probably wasn’t ) it can feel quite cold.
I was looking forward to seeing the leg-rowers that I had seen in the guide books – lines of men standing up and propelling the boat forward. Sadly, that is only at the festival time, when they take four buddhas in a special boat to all the villages. However, the fishermen also use leg oars to propel themselves, and it’s quite a sight. They bang the surface of the water with a bamboo stick to drive the fish into their nets, and, like most of the jobs undertaken by the working people in Myanmar, it looks like very hard work.
We were en route to the floating markets – but sadly, these markets no longer float. Since the tourist industry struck, they have moved the market onto a specially formed piece of land. It makes it much easier for the people to sell their goods, of course, and there were one or two still sailing around in their little canoes. The market was colourful and vibrant, and it’s quite a sight to see the piles and piles of dried chillies. I also saw them making tofu – something that I have resolutely refused to eat because I imagined it tasted like soap. I had no idea that it’s made from chick peas (which I love).
The highlight of the day for me was a visit to a silk weaving company. Not because of the silk alone, but because they make cloth from the stems of the lotus plant. They cut through the stem and extract the fibres, rolling them together to make a strong thread.
Every bit of it is done manually, and then they weave (using leg power – not a power point in sight) the fabric. The result is quite a stiff piece of cloth, which they then boil for some time until it becomes soft. The result is a beautiful (and expensive) cloth.
I bought some (of course) which is a mixture of the softest silk and then strands of the lotus cloth. It is so beautiful that I just want to touch it all the time. At $90 per metre, it needs to be pretty special, I suppose – but I am fortunate to have a good friend who is also a dress designer, and she has made me some wonderful clothes in the past, so I can’t wait to see what she does with this.
We also visited a silver jewellery manufacturer, and once again, everything was at such an incredibly basic level and yet they produced some beautiful items (and yes – I did buy something!). The stone containing the silver is ground down and then heated over a little pot to separate out the various metals. My understanding of what she said suggested that they are left with copper and silver, and this goes into some chemical (I didn’t catch what it was, but some chemistry expert out there might tell me) and the silver solidified at the bottom. And then they start to work on it, all with hand tools. It was wonderful to watch the family all working together in this way.
As we travelled back through the rivers that run from the main lake, we could see the houses that lined the banks, most of which are only accessible by water. The larger houses tend to accommodate three generations, and the bathrooms are in the smaller, separate building – emptying straight into the lake several metres below. I was rather glad that nobody was actually using one as we passed.
The area around the lake is beautiful, and there are several original tribes that live either on the lake or in the foothills. We met a few in their colourful costumes. They love having their pictures taken!
Sadly, deforestation has become a problem, and the government has said that no more teak can be exported. But it is too late in some areas, and during the monsoon season mud is swept down into the lake. The combination of losing their livelihood through teak and the change in their environment has led to many changes in the lake region.
We even met one of the long necked ladies, and two young girls who have started to have their necks stretched. I just can’t imagine what happens when (if) they take the rings off. The bottom portion does fold up, though, to give them a little bit of relaxation while they sleep.
After a delicious lunch in a local restaurant – far more food than I could eat – our last port of call before heading back through the floating gardens which line the individual rivers and canal areas, was to an area not unlike Bagan – with hundreds, if not thousands, of individual stupas.
The difference with these stupas is that most of them are seriously damaged, bombed by the British during World War Two because the Japanese were hiding amongst them.
Although I didn’t make it to the jungle region, where I believe my dad spent the largest part of the war, it seemed fitting that we ended up in an area in which he may well have fought as the British drove the Japanese back from the border with India until they finally surrendered.
And that was it. The next day I was up early (again) en route to Yangon and onward to Thailand for an overnight in Bangkok before flying on to London.
It was an amazing trip. The fact that we were so far off the tourist track for so much of the time, visiting the villages and seeing how the people really lived was the highlight for me, and I wouldn’t hesitate to take a similar trip… in fact, I’m already planning.