The hotel is new, like many buildings going up to support the increased tourism in Myanmar’s Inle Lake region. However, unlike many other areas in Myanmar, it seems the hotels here give you a decent value for your money, serving you a cold fruit juice and a refreshing towelette at check-in to help cool you from the elevated temperatures outside.
You climb to the rooftop of the hotel and watch a group of red-robed Buddhist monks walking along the road. After they pass, you scan the horizon. This elevation only further confirms the previous notions that Inle Lake is in the midst of a lot of tourism-related development.
You are walking towards the canal that connects Nyaungshwe to Inle Lake itself. You pass by a Buddhist temple, round the corner and head towards a small wooden foot-bridge. The sun is setting but thankfully enough light remains for you to glance at the railing of the bridge¬—its surface covered with barbed wire, spikes and nails. You find this a very curious choice for a handrail on a bridge. There must be some good reason behind it but it is certainly lost on you.
Tomatoes make up a large percentage of life at Inle Lake. In fact, tomatoes have crowded out other ways of living there, such as fishing. Massive increases in the use of chemicals to grow the tomatoes have seriously altered the native aquaculture, including the loss of fish. As fish become harder to catch, more fisherman turn to farming tomatoes and the cycle continues.
In any case, the moon is now casting shadows across the dirt paths as you find yourself around the canal. You pass a truck offloading giant sacks of phosphate fertilizer, the same that pollutes the lake, into a storage room.
Large wooden structures beckon for you to visit. As you step inside, you see they are filled with tomatoes, many green, some red. In some of the tomato houses, a few sluggish workers end their shifts. In others, there is no activity to be seen.
The sun splashes golden rays against the mountains. The cinematic light, first noticed at Heho Airport, remains prevalent around Inle Lake. As the cool air starts is ascent up the thermometer, you head back out on foot along the dirt roads towards the tomato houses.
Down on the river, some long-tail boats are docked up against the cobbled together wooden piers. Each have the name of a tour agency and are undoubtedly the side-effects of a booming tourist market on Inle Lake. Tourists putter along in the background, either returning from watching the sunrise on the lake or heading out to partake in the typical Inle Lake tour.
In the foreground, boats full of red, yellow, orange and green tomatoes pull into the narrow offloading points. The tomatoes are piled in large woven baskets. Teams of locals hoist the baskets up to land and carry them off towards the tomato warehouses.
“You want a tour of Lake,” a man exclaims as you wander along the waterfront. His face is weathered and his stare intent to go alongside with his large tooth-rotted smile.
“Tell me about it,” you coax. You’ve been down this same road before. Each
“special tour for you” is the same exact pitch, as if they all went to school for it.
He unfolds a map from his shirt pockets hurriedly. “Okay, okay, so we here,” he points. “First, we see fisherman, yes? Then we see garden all here, okay? Then we see shrine here and then we see lotus silk, yes yes.”
“How about the cheroot factory?” you ask
“Yes, we do this for you sir,” he fires back while pointing it out on the map.
“Can I go for sunset?”
“Yes, yes, we do sunset for you.”
After this exchange starts to subside, you ask how much and he tells you the exact thing that everyone else told you. At this point, you inform him it is too expensive and he shrugs and walks away. Typically, in Southeast Asia, they want to bargain with you to get your business. It seems in Myanmar someone else will play the fool each time—the joys of a tourist-heavy area without enough infrastructure.
The colours, the noises and the activity at the Nyaungshwe market are an unsung hero. Everyone comes to Inle Lake for Inle Lake, which somewhat seems to make some sense. But while everyone seems to be off on a standard tour around the Lake, you are dipping and weaving through the narrow lanes of stalls.
Outside of the market sits two blacksmiths hammering out blades for scissors, knifes and more. Inside are the flower, produce and tea sellers, while the cheese maker forms a large rectangular block around the corner.
You stock up on a watermelon, some avocadoes and some black tea.
The sun is shining down strongly across the dirt roads as you slip out from the market. Horse-drawn carriages await passengers nearby. Nyaungshwe feels much like a town out of a Western, you half expect an automatic piano to start playing from a dimly-lit saloon. But make no mistake, this is not an undiscovered gem, and it will continue to topple further and further into a tourist-based economy if the current trajectory holds.
The sun is going down and you head out looking for somewhere to eat. The food scene here, much like the rest of Myanmar, is quite bleak as it relates to value and flavour. After a good amount of walking around, you stumble upon a woman who is affable and knowledgeable. She is making some sort of noodle soup that is being called a casserole, at which you point and place an order.
Tomorrow you will head out onto the Lake. Based on observation, such as inclusion on tourist maps, and the frequency with which boat hawkers mention them, you have decided with high probability that the silk maker, the tobacco factory, and the shrines, at this point, are merely tourist traps. You will head out to see some floating tomato gardens and some fisherman as the sun disappears.
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