The events in this post occurred in December 2016.
The whine of the engine shattered the pre-dawn silence, water rippling in our wake as if the sound itself had caused the disturbance. I pulled a borrowed woven blanket tighter around my shoulders, fingers wrapped in the fabric to seal out the chill. My eyes watered in the cold breeze. The boatman steered us through a long channel, edged by reeds, banana trees, and shacks on stilts.
Overhead, lines of clouds were scalloped like the top of a sand dune, raked by the fingers of wind in the stratosphere. A glorious dawn promised.
At last, the narrow channel yawned open into Inle Lake. Our boat glided into the open water, cupped on all sides by low mountains, a large earthen bowl of the gods with jaggedly sculpted edges. On the distant shore, hot air balloons cloaked in gray rose from the mist. Their brilliant colors would be revealed in the first rays of sun.
As if the magnificence of a sunrise on a lake in the mountains wasn’t enough, there was another draw to get us tourists out of our cozy beds before dawn: the fishermen of Inle Lake. We saw them from a distance and readied our cameras.
Truth be told, this was another cultural charade. Not the “real” thing in action, but actors posing for the camera and holding palms out for a tip afterward, as is fair. Still, I was entranced by their rowing and fishing demonstration. The boat people of Inle Lake are renowned for their prowess in this regard. Disciplined in balance and endurance, they stand on one leg and row their boat with the other leg. With obvious strength and apparent ease, they can hold poses that would make even an experienced yogi quiver.
The tour guides had timed our arrival perfectly so that the wisps of cloud overhead were turning pink before our eyes as we watched the actors perform the ritual of fishing on Inle Lake. Click, click! Snap, snap! We each took our digital souvenir, content to have captured our own iconic images. The guides handed out cups of hot coffee as the actors rowed away. In their wake, we warmed our chilled fingers around the coffee tins, ate a light breakfast of fruit, and cruised onward.
The rest of the day proceeded in a hazy fashion. I had booked myself on yet another day tour, though this one featured significantly fewer temples. We docked at a wet market, a novelty for some of the tourists, and it was this stop that took the most time. I wandered the alleys created by simple blankets placed on the earth, piled high with fruit. Some locals milled among us, though it was a popular spot for tourists on day trips. I bought all of my souvenirs (wooden magnets) from a plump man with expressive eyebrows and glittering teeth. I miscalculated my first purchase, and deciding I needed a few more magnets, returned to him. He clapped his hands and gamely bargained with me once again.
Onward we went. Next stop: a cigar-rolling demonstration, though these cigars were quite different from what you’d find in Havana. They are slim and not much longer than a cigarette. The wrapper is a leaf that is still green. Instead of the woody taste of tobacco, a distinct flavor of grass lingers on the tongue. I’ll pass on cigarettes, but I am fond of cigars. I rolled my own and tucked it away for safekeeping until the evening.
A temple (just one!), a silk studio, a blacksmith’s workshop, and a home visit took up the rest of the day. The home visit was in a family’s home on stilts over an inlet. Instead of fishing or hawking in the markets, the family has made a bid in the tourism industry. Young boys did backflips into the lake’s chilly waters, giggling as they resurfaced. Young neighbor women rowed us around the village in small boats using the traditional method of paddling on one leg. My own legs quaked just watching them.
As the sun passed from high noon to mid-afternoon, our guides cruised across the lake. This part of the tour, the simple journey from one point to another, was perhaps the best part. A few drifting clouds scudded across the sky, reflecting only as ripples in the dark water of the lake. I put my feet on the gunwale and leaned back, face turned up to the sun.
That night, I watched the sunset from a winery on a hill, the place I would return to each night I spent by Inle Lake. I raised a glass of Myanmar’s merlot to my lips and smiled. Someday I will return here, I thought to myself as the sun sunk below the distant ridges.