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Inle Lake: Why Not? – Nyaungshwe, Myanmar | We're Not There Yet

I don’t hate lakes, but I was ready to skip this one. We had been given half-hearted recommendations by other tourists and on travel blogs, most of which said that Inle Lake is nice enough but that there is not a heck of a lot to do aside from evading souvenir vendors. Of course, there is the lake tour boat rides, but then the vendors just chase you in boats. I had perfectly nice experiences on our two previous lake excursions (Lake Atitlan in Guatemala and Lake Toba in Sumatra) but both were laying-low kind of stays and we are too fresh into Myanmar to need a break. I was ready to pass Inle by in favor of making room for other, less trodden paths but R saw a picture that changed everything.

Truck maintenance in Nyaungshwe, the popular base town for accessing the lake. Motor looks a little DIY.

Who doesn’t love a boat ride?

Our friendly guide in Bago was horrified when I suggested that we might just skip Inle Lake. He immediately ushered us to a bench where he sat us down and showed us his snapshots from Inle Lake circa 1985. The photos were nice, but nothing unexpected until he got to one that looked straight out of National Geographic: the long-necked ladies from Kayah state. These are the women that I’m sure you have all seen at some point in geography class or clicking through cable channels. They belong to a tribe that straddles the border of Myanmar and Thailand and their marked characteristic is their long, stretched necks, supported by a stack of gold rings. I think that they are called the Karen, but a few different people we asked gave us different answers as to what tribe these women are from. Anyway, R saw a picture of these women at some point in his childhood and he decided that he had to go see them for himself. We were guaranteed that we’d have a chance to meet and photograph these women if we went to Inle Lake and took a boat tour.

A girl from the Padaung tribe making handbags for the tourists

So here we are in Inle Lake and we found out that the women are actually bussed in from their home state to Inle just for the tourists. We are going to do the tour and get the photos, but now that R discovered that the rest of the tribe lives not here in Inle, but in the Kayah state, he wants to go chasing that dragon. The only hurdle is that Kayah state has been off-limits to tourists until very recently. Even now, we are required to hire a government guide and private taxi and get permits for several hundreds of dollars. And this only gets us one night in Kayah state. We can’t pull out money from any ATMs, so we are working with a very limited budget. We’ll have to do some figuring, but it is just another trial and tribulation of traveling in newly ‘opened’ Myanmar.

Update:

We ended up opting not to visit Kayah state. For us, money was the primary issue: the taxi alone for an overnight trip would be somewhere in the neighborhood of $200 and the expenses piled up from there. A little internet research suggested that even these tours are confined to OKed villages and that the villagers we would see still might be dressed up for the cameras and not going about daily life, as we had hoped to see. Another issue that keeps many tourists away is that the money we’d be paying for permits and guides goes directly to the government and constitutes financial support of a repressive and violent regime- the very reason why Kayah state is off-limits in the first place.

We did see the ‘long-neck’ women in Inle Lake and they appeared to me to be wearing temporary brace-like necklaces made to resemble rings, not the permanently worn individual rings that women traditionally wore. Allegedly, once their shift is over, the girls remove their ‘rings’ and put on normal clothes just like a Disneyland Cinderella putting on her UCLA sweatshirt for the drive home to her apartment. The girls are part of the Padaung tribe, but are brought in for tourism only and don’t practice traditional customs that are now found almost exclusively in the elderly population of the tribe.

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