Lying in the Taunggyi district of Shan State, Myanmar’s Lake Inle is one destination which despite being heavily commercialized, unfailingly takes your breath away. The reason is its huge silvery expanse and the mesmerizing surrounding panorama of green hills, blue skies, and intrepid pockets of timeless rural Burma. The vast lake is one of the most spectacular places on earth and its mirror-like reflecting beauty has featured in nearly every travel publication in the world. Some of my most beautiful travel moments have been spent in the heart of Inle and I made a bee-line for the lake right after my Bagan trip. But what was originally meant to be a fleeting visit, got extended and I spent my days exploring the Lake Inle weekly markets.
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Sneak peek at my Lake Inle days
Myanmar was facing heavy floods at the time of my visit and it rained every single day at Lake Inle. The effect of the rain, however, was not too bad and the low lying pregnant clouds added a beautiful blue canopy to the already mesmerizing landscape. The sun too was generous with its warmth and the play of light and shade was a sheer delight. The nights were consistently wet and loud croaking of frogs often kept me awake for hours. The noisy little nocturnal creatures were abundant in the gorgeous garden of my guesthouse Zawgi Inn, and they made quite a ruckus along with the happy geckos. But it was not something that I can complain too much about because my Inle days were gloriously beautiful. I always woke at the crack of dawn there, caught a longtail boat from the jetty, and went to one of the Lake Inle weekly markets.
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Lake Inle weekly markets made me extend my stay
It was not something, I had imagined myself doing on the short uneventful flight from Bagan to Heho (nearest airport for Lake Inle) and the Shan state has way more to offer than the famous lake. A fertile land full of orchards, paddy fields and some tangling vineyards, it is lush and beautiful there and the people, despite being used to heavy inflow of tourists are generally friendly. Even during the 46 kilometers drive from Heho to the dusty little Nyaung Shwe township, I never once thought of extending my stay there and the landscape which passed in front of my eyes was timeless. The broad strip of road went past little markets, photogenic thanaka make up smeared smiling people, and wooden monastery. The uninteresting hub of Nyaung Shwe struck me hard at the first sight and I felt a strange tug of war between the choice of stay or leave quickly. It turned out that not only, did I stay back, but also prolonged my days to explore the charming region and the photogenic Lake Inle weekly markets.
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Days spent with passionfruit, jasmine, and Lake Inle weekly markets
As you might have guessed by now, it was the photogenic quality of the Lake Inle weekly markets which enticed me to stay longer and I could never get enough of the Shan people’s beauty. My guesthouse, Zawgi Inn, too was a very charming one and it was located in the quieter part of town. Offering comfortable, clean rooms, great owners, wholesome complimentary breakfast, and super fast free wifi, the guesthouse was a short walk from the lake. I loved waking up early there to enjoy my sunrise tea in the garden, and it was a slice of tropical paradise. Passionfruit and strawberries twined on my little balcony and I could smell the milky white jasmine and lilies while lying on my bed. The tea in the garden always gave me the perfect start of my mornings and my daily routine was to check the rotation of the Lake Inle weekly markets after breakfast.
Start early to enjoy the quiet local life and the Lake Inle weekly markets
I stayed at Inle for more than five days and every morning explored the lake on a private boat. The clear mornings, which were a boon after rainy nights, made the dock hum with quick activities and post breakfast I regularly walked past lines of silent alm seeking monks to head towards the lake. Inle offers a myriad of activities and places to explore and one can easily spend many hours sailing on that vast natural mirror on earth. Although, technically the size of Inle is approximately 13.5 miles long and 7 miles wide, in reality, it is difficult to comprehend where the water starts and the marshy land ends. Narrow feeder channels open up to the lake from all sides and the liquid silver sheet is one busy area full of stilt-house villages, island-bound Buddhist temples, the famous Lake Inle weekly markets, and floating gardens. Tourist and resident loaded motorboats and small fishing dugout canoes or flat-bottomed personal skiffs constantly glided through its calm water and it is an important home industry region of Myanmar.
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Meet the locals of the Lake Inle weekly markets
Many handicrafts thrive there and from cheroot making, lotus silk weaving, beaten silver jewelry etc, the entire lake is lined with artisans’ villages. In fact, workshop hopping is one of the “must do things” at Inle along with boat ride visits to quirky and interesting monasteries, tribal hamlets, Indein village, and remote areas like Sankar. Among all of these activities, a visit to the Lake Inle weekly markets are most popular and it fits into the budget of all kinds of travelers. Mostly frequented by the locals, the recent boom in tourism made some of these markets to be extremely commercialized and most tourists flock there for excellent photo opportunities. The region around Inle is blessed with some of Burma’s most photogenic ethnic groups and they are hardworking talented communities. Mostly Buddhists by faith, Lake Inle’s population are either gifted artisans, nifty fishermen or self-sustaining farmers who cultivate various crops like rice, vegetables and even beans in their ingenious floating gardens. Commonly known as the Inthas, people of Inle Lake live in four cities bordering the lake, in various small villages along the shores, and on houses built on stilts on the lake itself. The population consists of a mix of many Shan, Taungyo, Pa-O, Danu, Kayah, Danaw and Bamar ethnicities and they meet once a week at local markets for trading.
Lake Inle weekly markets are a photographer’s delight
The Lake Inle weekly markets are a photographer’s delight and they cater to the most common shopping needs of the locals. Although a daily event, the Lake Inle weekly markets take place at five different locations across the lake, thus coining the popular name of “Five Day Weekly Market”. Held at Nyaungshwe, Heho, Taunggyi, Minethauk, and Shwenyaung on different days according to the lunar calendar, these events are usually peddled to tourists as floating markets while, all of them except for one, takes place on the dry ground. Usually concentrated on a patch of dry high ground which is surrounded by paddy fields, the markets are frequented by locals and tourists alike who visit them by boats. Thus every morning for five days, narrow entrance canals of the different market sites on Lake Inle get quickly choked with traffic and after the first flush of dawn, a free boat parking spot is next to impossible to find. The result is a photogenically chaos and the Lake Inle weekly markets always peak with the hordes of hill people arriving with their boats overloaded with produce to trade.
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This is how the Lake Inle weekly markets look like
Sporting the traditional Thanmakeupe up and colourful Laungyis, the cheerful crowd wander through the narrow labyrinthine lanes to bargain, gossip, barter or simply have a good time. The vibe is always been festive at the Lake Inle weekly markets and most locals wait for the whole six days looking forward to this communal event. Thus they are joyous affairs despite the proud hill people in their distinct towel like headgear photogenically segregating themselves in small groups. I visited two Lake Inle weekly markets during my stay and always arrived there at the break of dawn. My time used to slow down at the markets and I hung around till the makeshift cafeterias throbbed with happy hungry shoppers and sellers at the end of the event. On both the days, it rained the previous nights, thus turning the little produce filled lanes into slushy tracks. That did not mar the joie de vivre of the markets and I followed the happy crowd squishing through sticky mud to shop. Both the markets were made up of makeshift stalls of bamboo poles and bright tarpaulin sheet roofs and they held a staggering assortment of fresh produce on display. and Tomatoes, eggplants, scallions, peppers, betel nuts, beans, garlic, cheroots, bamboo shoots, fishes glistened in the morning sun and massive bundles of flowers sprung from shoppers’ baskets. Babies peeped from carrying shawl baskets as their mothers busily measured goods for sale and tired shoppers spat out streams of ruby red betel nut juice while resting on their haunches in the middle of the bazaars.
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It was not for the conical bamboo hats, the Lake Inle weekly markets would seem to be somewhere in India
With their conical bamboo hats resting on their knees and woven baskets bursting with goods, the Lake Inle weekly market shoppers and sellers are welcoming to the tourists. They always smiled benevolently as I requested them for photos and despite the language difference, peppered me with questions about my “home”. Their curiosity along with the bamboo hats are my most poignant Lake Inle weekly market memories and I loved the way those headgears popped up at every corner of the market. Them, along with hand woven huge bamboo baskets are every Lake Inle weekly markets staple and the locals made optimum use of both. While the hats served only a singular purpose, the baskets carried all sorts of goods and the exhausted trading mothers sometimes kept their sleeping babies cradled inside them. The whole atmosphere was so time warped and childlike, that in, many ways, it reminded me of India; of her simple fuss-free villagers and their innocently invasive questions. The festive vibe too was the same and so was most of the produce on sale. The handicrafts too were uncannily familiar and I always had to brush off twinges of homesickness while sitting amongst them. India seemed to be on another planet, despite being so culturally and geographically familiar and it reminded me of the Hoobastank song, “So Close, So Far”. – I wake up all alone, I’m somewhere unfamiliar, I’ve been gone so many days, I am losing count.
Have you ever been to a place which made you feel like that?
RESPONSIBLE TRAVELING-BECAUSE I CARE