Bicycles, boats and Burmese tofu

Arriving at Nyuang Shwe at 6am gave us the full day to explore, but it was also pretty tiring. Sleeping on night buses isn’t ever a good night’s sleep, but after the stress of catching the bus we both found it tricky to sleep.

Our hotel was right by the canal, so every time we went anywhere we were offered a boat ride at a good price. These seemed to start as low as 5000 Kyat and go up to 20,00 Kyat. We escaped the early morning offerings and instead went to a tea house recommended by our hotel. We tucked into chapatis, puris and potato curry followed by Burmese long twist breads, all washed down with free tea. Out breakfast came to just 2400 Kyat (£1.27)! With fuel on board we were ready to find a boat tour. Shying away from the hundreds of men offering us tours, we went with Inle Boy who explained where we would go and what we would see along the way. The price was good: 17,000 Kyat for a private boat and since we hadn’t seen many tourists hanging about we decided to go for it.

And we’re off…

Our long tail boat was in good shape and we sat in comfy armchairs one in front of the other. From town we motored along the canal passed hotels, resorts and wooden houses, before the channel opened out into a bird reserve and then into Inle lake proper. To begin with we were shocked by just how big the lake is and how high the mountains tower over the water. We passed men loading boats with lake weeds to be used as fertiliser in the floating gardens. Then we reached 3 men show-fishing for tourists in the traditional way. On Inle the fishermen use large baskets which they throw into the water to catch fish. To do this, they balance on the edge of their boats, rowing with their feet to free up both hands. It’s a very skilled art of fishing, but obviously not as successful as net fishing and hitting the water to scare fish into your net, as we saw a lot more fishermen using this method.

Fishng the old fashioned way

The first stop of our lake tour was a market and pagoda. The market was half open- half closed and it appeared the morning market is fresh food for locals and then the later market becomes a tourist tat market. The pagoda was more impressive, with photos of a festival where they float a large golden bird shaped barge out on the lake. The centre of the pagoda wasn’t occupied by a single Buddha but instead by a series of golden blobs. Women were forbidden from stepping onto the platform, but men were sticking squares of gold leaf onto the blobs. We aren’t sure, but we suspect the blobs once resembled small Buddha and statues but have so much gold stuck onto them that now they are just blobs. Strangely a lady tried to sell Zoë some gold leaf even though she wouldn’t be allowed to stick it onto the blobs. On our way out of the harbour we asked our driver to go close to the golden bird barge which is absolutely huge.

Golden blobs in the pagoda

The second stop on the tour was probably the most interesting. Inle lake is well known for producing textiles including the extraordinarily expensive lotus fabric. We had the opportunity to see the production from start to finish. First the lotus is harvested when the water level is at its highest to ensure the maximum crop. Then the fibres are extracted by cutting the stalk and stretching them out of the plant. These fibres can be twisted and spun together to make thread. The thread can be used to weave lotus fabric, or mixed with silk or cotton to produce more reasonably priced items. The high price of lotus cloth comes from the scarcity of the plant as it only grows on Inle lake. As nice as it was it didn’t tempt us to part with $15 for a tiny handkerchief. We also saw the natural dying processes using many local plants such as coconut and turmeric to produce different colours. The dying of threads is done in a way to produce a pattern upon the thread which then translates into a pattern on the fabric rather than using lots of different coloured threads. We couldn’t get our heads around this until we saw the longyi (skirts) they had woven which were patterned a little like tye-dye.

Extracting lotus fibres
Dyeing the threads

Next up was a silversmith to see how silver was obtained from ore in the mountains around Inle and crafted into beautiful jewellery. The best thing they were making was silver fish that could swish their tails up and down or side to side. Watching the craftsmen at work was great but the ladies giving tours were obviously only interested in selling their wares and not giving tourists lots of time to look.

A wiggling fish in progress

The next two stops were less interesting. We visited a cigar making shop where women rolled cigars and then another weaving shop. The weaving shop was less interesting as there were two women weaving using back-strap looms. These women were long-necked women with rings around their necks. These are the same ethnic group who fled Myanmar due to persecution and are used as a tourist attraction in Thailand. We didn’t really want to contribute to the human zoo effect and would rather these people were left in peace instead of paraded in front of tourists.

Cigar rolling

Our lunch stop was touristy but we sat in a lovely hut overlooking the lake to enjoy our chicken and cashew nuts. The portion was huge so it was a good job we had decided to share.

On the way back to town we made two more brief stops. One to see the floating gardens where 85% of Myanmar’s tomatoes are grown and the other to a monastery. The gardens cover a large expanse of water and are made up of floating mats of vegetation buoyant enough to hold the weight of our boat driver. The plants grow on these mats and are fertilised with lake weed and ash from burnt corn cobs. The monastery was a large teak building containing Buddha statues but not much else. It is known as jumping cat monastery, but even though plenty of cats live there, they don’t do any jumping; just lots of sleeping. Finished with our tour we cruised back to town watching the storks, ibis and cormorants flying about the lake.

The floating gardens

Check-in time meant we could have a rest from the sightseeing and Zoë could catch up on some sleep. A good nap later it was time for dinner. We walked around the corner to a recommended restaurant and we weren’t disappointed. The pumpkin curry was yummy and the chicken curry was delicious. Together with the tea leaf salad we were too full to finish the sour leaves and strange vegetables on the side.

Day two by the lake was a little more adventurous. We were leaving by the night bus that evening, but had the whole day to cycle about the area. Thanks to some tips from a friendly Dane Matthias met, we headed towards a hilltop pagoda. The ride was mainly flat and our bikes and legs did a good job to cover the 7 km. Walking up to the pagoda we got great views over the lake despite the haze. While we were at the top the sky turned black and large drops of rain threatened to turn into a downpour. We hurried down and onto Kaung Daing village which is famous for Burmese tofu. We cycled about the village looking for someone making tofu and wondering what all the stuff drying in the sun was. We didn’t have to wait long as we stumbled upon Tofu House and Mr Zaw. He offered us a 45 minute walking tour with snacks and tofu sampling so we took him up on the offer.

Ted enjoying the view with his pompom seed

We didn’t know what to expect but our curiousity had been aroused by the sights and smells of the village. We began by visiting Mr Zaw’s wife who was making tofu in a nearby house. We discovered that Burmese tofu isn’t really tofu and that the Japanese would probably be appalled at the use of the word tofu to describe it. But Burmese tofu is tasty. It’s actually made from chick peas which are soaked, mashed, mixed with water and then strained. The liquid is heated and stirred on a fire to produce a thick paste known as tofu. This is the start of everything but then it is cooled and cut to produce blocks of tofu, tofu crackers and tofu snacks. The leftover mashed beans are used to feed horses and cows.

Stirring the hot tofu liquid
Tofu crisps

We saw the production of tofu blocks which are cut to make tofu crackers that need to be dried in the sun for days. Then there were large tofu pancakes which could be dried, cut into noodles or fried. Also in the village were people making soya bean crackers and cakes, roasted peanuts, roasted pumpkin seeds and two different kinds of alcohol. Our guide offered us a chance to try the local alcoholic drink dubbed ‘Sky beer’ harvested from palm trees. It was a bizarre drink, milky in colour with a sour salty flavour and a yeasty smell. It wasn’t too strong and also not our favourite tipple. We also visited the village still where they produce local rum from rice. Thankfully the fire wasn’t yet hot enough for the rum to be ready as the fermented rice drink wasn’t really tempting. We also had to cycle back so 80% proof probably wouldn’t be beneficial.

Drying the tofu crackers
Roasting beans
Drying the soya bean cakes

To finish the tour we went back to Mr Zaw’s garden, where his wife had prepared tofu noodle salad, fried tofu and tofu crackers with a chilli dip. The salad was the best part and we have to confess we still aren’t tofu lovers.

Full up, we rolled back to Nyaung Shwe and out of the other side to visit the local vineyard. The road was uphill and tough going but we made it. We had a well deserved iced coffee and tested some red wine. It wasn’t bad at all and thankfully the ride back was all downhill.

We just had time for a shower and a quick dinner at our favourite tea house before we boarded our night bus. Our time at Inle lake had been brief but great. We enjoyed exploring on two wheels and by boat and were relieved by the more reasonable temperatures in the twenties rather than thirties. It’s touristy, but worth a visit and you could easily spend a few nice days in the area.

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