Late for Nowhere

From life in Southeast Asia to backyard adventures in Kodiak, Alaska

Posts Tagged ‘Inle Lake

Around Inle Lake in 18 days

with 2 comments

Leg-rowers rule Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda Festival


Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda, located on the western end of Myanmar’s Inle Lake, is considered the holiest Buddhist site in southern Shan State. The ornate, two-story structure sits on the water like a sacred island, and each day, a steady stream of boats loaded with pilgrims arrives and departs from the dock near the stairs that lead up to the inner sanctum.

The focus of devotion at the pagoda is a group of five oddly shaped relics displayed on a pedestal in the middle of the main room. Upon close inspection, the objects look like roughly textured lumps of gold, one of them vaguely spherical, three of them taking the form of a pair of misshapen eggs – one sitting on top of the other – and the fifth like two stacked eggs with a small spire protruding from the top.


Studying these objects, few who did not know the story behind them would guess that they were originally statues with human form, but that have lost their shapes as the result of many, many years of gold leaf application.

While the statues are, as a group, often referred to as Buddha images, some say that only three represent the Buddha while the other two are arahats, or disciples of the Buddha who have reached the highest level of spiritual achievement before entering nibbana. The statues are commonly believed to have been cast during the reign of Bagan King Alaungsithu (1112-1167 CE), and one can easily imagine that in another 900 years of gold leaf application, they will take on the appearance of perfectly spherical, golden bowling balls.

The pilgrims who flock to the pagoda often rub strips of red cloth against the figures. These bits of cloth are then tied to cars, trucks or motorcycles in the belief that the drivers and passengers will be protected from accidents and other forms of bad luck.


The golden statues are also the focal point of the annual Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda Festival, which occurs from the first waxing day to the third waning day of the lunar month of Thadingyut – this year from September 21 to October 8.

The festival is the biggest event of the year at Inle Lake, a shallow body of water located at an altitude of 880 meters (2900 feet) above sea level and surrounded by low mountains. Home to numerous ethnic Intha and Shan villages – some of which lie along the shore, while others rise out of the water on wooden stilts – the lake is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Myanmar.

During the festival, four of the five statues are placed on a decorative barge shaped like a karaweik (mythical bird) and taken on an 18-day tour around the lake, stopping at each village for a night or longer so residents can pay homage.


According to legend, the tour originally included all five statues, but one year a storm capsized the barge, dumping the relics into the lake. Divers recovered four of them but were unable to locate the fifth. Upon returning to the pagoda, however, pilgrims found the last statue mysteriously restored to its proper place on the pedestal, dripping wet and covered with algae from the lake. That image has remained there ever since, standing guard over the pagoda while the other four statues embark on the annual festival tour.

The slow-moving procession around the lake is one of the more spectacular annual rites in Myanmar. The karaweik barge is propelled from village to village by Inle Lake’s famous leg rowers, who stand on one leg while using the other to push their oar through the water. Dressed in traditional costumes, they row in unison to the beat of a huge drum.

The barge is escorted by dozens of boats, which are also steered by costumed leg rowers. Some ceremonial boats also carry dancers and martial artists who showcase their skills to the thousands of people who gather by the lakeshore to celebrate the event.

The scene at each village is a combination of devotion and carnival-like revelry, and visiting Inle Lake during the festival provides a great opportunity to see gatherings of different ethnic groups, including Shan, Intha, Danu, Palaung, Pa-O and Taung-Yo.

Devout Buddhists eagerly await the arrival of the procession in their villages, offering food and fresh flowers when it appears. Meanwhile, the villages take on the atmosphere of a country fair, with vendors selling food, drinks, toys, clothing and other consumer goods, and entertainers offering magic shows, marionette performances and dance dramas.

Among the highlights of the festival are the boat races, in which teams of leg rowers wearing traditional costumes compete against groups representing villages around the lake. The races normally occur on two specific dates during the festival period – this year on September 27 at Nyaung Shwe, and on October 8 at Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda – and these are the best times for visitors to take part in the celebration in all its dynamic and colorful grandeur.




When tourists swindle locals (and themselves)

leave a comment »

Thanboddhay Pagoda, Monywa

Thanboddhay Pagoda, Monywa

She walked into the reception area of Monywa Hotel, sporting disconcertingly casual attire: knee-length shorts and a short-sleeved blouse, both made from flimsy white cotton fabric decorated with a floral print.

She was a 20-something European tourist, but she was dressed like a 12-year-old at a slumber party.

My wife Pauksi and I had just checked out of the hotel, and we were gathering our bags for the trip to the bus station.

This dreadfully dressed girl had just checked in, and said she was looking for fellow travelers to share transport costs to the main sites of interest around Monywa, including Bodhitataung, Thanboddhay Pagoda and Hpo Win Daung.

Finding no other foreigners booked into the hotel, however, she was trying to figure out how she could manage these excursions on her own.

Did I mention that the girl’s right arm was cradled in a makeshift cloth sling? (I didn’t ask.) As she spoke, she flapped her injured arm like a chicken wing, explaining that her impairment prevented her from taking a motorcycle, so a safer but more expensive tuk-tuk was the only option.

The woman behind the reception counter dutifully explained the pricing for a half-day trip to Bodhitataung and Thanboddhay Pagoda: The hotel’s deluxe tuk-tuk could be hired for 12,000 kyats (US$14), or smaller tuk-tuks could easily be found outside for about 8000 to 10,000 kyats.

“I won’t pay more than 4000 kyats for a tuk-tuk,” the girl responded.

After a brief but awkward silence, the receptionist looked at Pauksi and said in Burmese, “She won’t find a tuk-tuk for 4000 kyats. The driver won’t make any profit at that price.”

I relayed the message in English to the hapless solo traveler. She stared blankly into space for a moment, sighed and said, “Maybe I’ll just spend one night in Monywa then, and take the bus to Mandalay tomorrow morning.”

“Suit yourself,” I thought. I wasn’t inclined to argue, or try to convince this girl that she really should make some effort see what Monywa had to offer. It was her loss if she didn’t.

But I did wonder: Why travel halfway around the world (she had told us she was from Belgium), and then allow a mere 4000 kyat to prevent you from actually experiencing or seeing anything? And more important, why come to a developing country and then demand services from locals at insultingly low prices?

If this girl wanted to fleece someone, it might have been better for her to stay home in Europe and shoplift a new wardrobe from her friendly neighborhood H&M department store.

A boatman at Inle Lake once told me that one of the toughest aspects of his job was dealing with tourists who wave outdated copies of Lonely Planet in his face and insist that they enjoy a day out on the lake for the same price printed in its obsolete pages.

Boatman at Inle Lake

Boatman at Inle Lake

Never mind that during the five years since the guidebook was researched, diesel prices and living costs would have increased significantly.

That’s not to say that there aren’t unscrupulous characters who prey on foreign visitors to Myanmar, as illustrated by the grotesquely inflated room rates charged by ravenous hoteliers last tourist season, a move that might result in short-term profits but has helped give the country a bad reputation as a travel destination. And of course there are the occasional taxi drivers who suggest payment of 3000 or 4000 kyats for a 1500 kyat ride.

During a recent visit to Inwa near Mandalay, I watched as two self-consciously scruffy Australian backpackers feigned cool indifference as they declared to the pony cart drivers that they would pay no more than 1000 kyats for a ride through the ancient capital.

A nearby sign indicated that pony cart tours, which usually last at least two hours, cost US$5.

In Myanmar it is, of course, par for the course to bargain for a fair price. But these backpackers weren’t haggling in good faith; they were simply trying to swindle locals who weren’t exactly raking in the big money on a day-to-day basis.

Horse carts at Inwa

Horse carts at Inwa

It was clear from the exchange that if the Australians continued to insist on their unreasonable rate, they would end up standing there all day. But I didn’t intervene.

Certain types of backpackers love to boast about the travails of their travels, about how they eschewed package tours and easy destinations for rugged, off-the-beaten track exploration.

So I figured I was doing them a favor by helping make their trip a little tougher. And they could go home and proudly tell their friends about how they baked in the tropical sun while the horse drivers wandered back into the shade, ignoring demands for an obnoxiously low-cost tour through Myanmar’s remarkable countryside.

This story originally appeared in slightly different form in The Myanmar Times weekly newspaper (Oct 29-Nov 4 2012). A significantly altered version also appeared in Southeast Asia Globe monthly magazine (December 2012).