The engine coughs and catches, cackling loudly, like a badly maintained Harley Davidson motorcycle. The noises echo amongst the houses bordering each side of the Nyaungshwe canal, and are only “quieted” by even louder long-tail boats roaring on past.
Negotiations for the boat continued over the course of several days. The first encounters were to understand options on the Lake and assess an itinerary. Subsequent encounters were to understand pricing, and gather further opinions. Then it was a matter of booking with a smaller outfit.
In a rare divergence from cartel-like fixed pricing that seems to pervade in Myanmar tourist hubs, you find a boat at a favourable rate, with a driver who speaks a modicum of English. Satisfactorily you note that there is no sign for a larger tourism company propped into the bow of the boat.
You are motoring down the Nyaungshwe canal in glorious afternoon light, the golden tints warming the landscape. Other boats motor past you on their way back to town, carrying locals after a workday or tourists after the standard day long Inle Lake boat tour.
Many come to the lake to photograph or see the fabled fishermen who stand precariously on the bow of their boat. At the end of the canal, where it meets the opening to the lake, there are several people who appear to be fisherman (but have fluorescent dress on underneath their clothes as if to be a visual aid to the boat drivers). In unison, they perform for you and then ask for money. It is just another sign of a country that has quickly adapted to tourism’s whims; Inle Lake is not virgin ground.
It is a disheartening entrance to the Lake. You didn’t come to Myanmar hoping to be entertained as if you were in Disneyworld but to watch the true local life. While you do your best to ensure you don’t “touristically” pollute it much as able, the signs of industry changing from production-based to tourist service-based is unfortunate for a traveler in any place.
The driver kicks the engine into gear and you are now motoring down a canal, flanked by floating tomato gardens on either side. In previous conversations, you had heard that tomatoes are not really in season at the moment, but that some are grown out of season with additional resources and work. This is noticeable when passing the floating gardens as they look under duress.
The boat pulls up to a dock. You see people walking to and fro. You ask the driver what this is, and he explains it is a shrine of some sort. With the limited time you have, especially with such perfect light, you ask for him to continue along the canal to see real life instead.
Perched on the deck of your boat are two fixed wooden chairs, but you forgo these as they make it difficult to survey the glorious surroundings from all angles. Rather, you are perched atop the wooden bow, legs and bare feet wrapped comfortably around it. Not only does this weight dispersion help with long-tail boat stability, but it allows for a much better experience. You gain the driver’s trust and he continues on at normal speeds. It is very refreshing to have the freedom to do things like this in Southeast Asia where it seems personal responsibility far outweighs liability lawsuits as in the developed world.
Back out in the expanse of Inle Lake, you start to realize that the few fisherman out there are annoyed by your presence, seemingly trying to vacate upon your arrival. You tell the driver to cut the engine. He has trouble understanding this seemingly rare request, but you do not need to go anywhere and the engine noise and boat speed is most likely scaring off the fish. Part of your responsibility (and desire) when traveling is to try to disappear as much as possible. The fishermen of Inle Lake are already under enough hardship, you don’t need to add more.
The engine is cut: pure silence, the sound of water lapping up against the boat, the splash from a fisherman’s oar, the fading but warming heat from a falling sun, the gold tints, the perfect clouds. You take some drinks out of a bag and offer one to the driver; his eyes light up and he gladly accepts. You are now bobbing quietly in the current, observing everything around you as the sun drops lower towards the rolling horizon. Even in a touristic place, you can find real life. It is a stunning moment. And best of all, the fisherman appear very grateful.
So often, we are so busy rushing to get somewhere that we forget to appreciate where we are.
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