I find it amazing that I’ve managed to make it for two years in China without ever getting sick from something I ate. Imagine my surprise when I got knocked down by a bowl of fried noodles in Bagan. Fried noodles — of all things! I had been loving the food in Myanmar up until that greasy bowl of seemingly harmless noodles, feasting on mild curries and all the side dishes that accompanied them like soupy yellow lentils and boiled potatoes in slightly spicy broth. I had fallen in love with one of the country’s signature dishes: lahpet thoke. I enjoyed every crunchy, salty, savory bite of these salads — mixtures of peanuts, toasted sesame seeds, dried garlic, a little fish oil, and, the star ingredient, pickled tea leaves. But that bacteria-laden bowl of noodles turned out to be my last taste of Myanmar. It tortured me and kept me up on our last night in Bagan, made the next day’s journey to Inle Lake in the country’s eastern Shan State trying, and haunted me until we left Yangon later that week so that whenever it came time to eat all I wanted was bland, carb-heavy fare.
Our first day at Inle Lake was cut short because I was still sick by the time we arrived. I had made the flight from Bagan to Heho and the 45 minute drive to Nyaungshwe. I soldiered my way through part of the town’s five day market. It was similar to the others we’d seen in Mandalay and in the villages along the Irrawaddy, but unique in its own right. The vendors were mostly tribal women, who sat on the ground under low-hanging tarps that protected them for the heat of the sun. Their legs were curled beneath them and their goods were artfully displayed in front of them: bright oranges and tomatoes, carrots still covered in dirt, pulses of all shapes and sizes and colors rested on woven mats and green palm leaves. Next to them stood large handwoven baskets that they wore like backpacks to haul their goods from their homes up in the surrounding mountains to Nyaungshwe, the town that serves as the gateway to Inle Lake. But what was most remarkable about these women were their heads swathed in brightly colored beach towels.
Our guide pointed to them. Her name was Yin Yin. She was in her mid-twenties and wore a pale pink three-quarter length shirt to match her perfectly tailored longyi decorated with stripes of bright pink, orange, green, and black. It stretched all the way down to her translucent pink imitation Crocs through which we could see her lavender colored socks. In her soft-spoken manner, she explained that “those women believe they are descendents of the dragon.”
“Really?” I asked, not sure if I had heard her correctly.
“Jyes,” she replied, her yes sounding like a combination of my sister’s name Jess and the English word yes. “They wear layers of clothing to cover their skin, to represent the scales of the dragon,” she continued, “but these women are wearing regular clothes, traditionally they wear all black with special scarves instead of towels.”
A few minutes later, Yin Yin stopped by a vendor selling a mushy substance out of Tupperware-like containers. “Do you know what this is?” she asked, reaching her hand into the bin and scooping some of it up. I hadn’t a clue, but going by the red color and texture guessed “quinoa?” For my poor stomach’s sake I wish it had been, but instead we learned it was ground up red ants, a Shan State delicacy said to give men strength and power. Shortly after, pungent smells from other food stalls infiltrated my nostrils causing me to frantically search for the sick bag I had stolen earlier that morning from our Mann Yadanarpon flight. Iggy, Yin Yin, and I agreed: it was time to go to the hotel.
The lure of Inle Lake is to be on the lake to observe the lifestyle of the Intha people who live in huts above the water, propped up by bamboo stilts. This meant that our hotel was literally on the lake and so I had to endure the hour-long boat ride it took to get there. It was a pleasant ride. The air was cool and fresh. I settled into my low-lying wooden chair in the boat’s narrow center and wrapped myself tightly in the purple fleece blanket provided by our driver. We sped our way down the wide canal and in no time were out on the expansive, perfectly placid lake, which was framed by rolling mountains on all sides. Almost immediately, we happened upon a group of the famous Inle Lake fishermen.
The fishermen are known for their one-legged rowing style, but, from what I could tell, their method is more of a full-body coordinated movement initiated from the rower’s core. The rower puts weight on his standing leg and creates an S-like motion with his body, from his shoulders all the way down through his other leg hooked around the oar. It’s no wonder the fishermen are so graceful given all the little kids we saw practicing this signature move from the afts of their simple skiffs.
It seemed as if everyone living on the lake had a boat or knew had to maneuver one (and with very little effort). We passed boats carrying people, crops, and cargo. Most of the small family skiffs were non-motorized.
The rest were longboats that carted tourists like us, groups of Buddhist monks, and locals. They were equipped with small but loud mowers, some rumbled like push lawn mowers while others burped and roared like Harley-Davidsons. As the boats passed each other in narrow canals, the drivers would lift their engines out of the water to minimize the spray.
Our driver expertly whizzed through canals that took us by villages where we saw kids playing and women washing clothes on decks that met the waterline. We passed through floating farms where farmers tended to their crops, standing tall in their skiffs, picking ripe zucchinis right off the vine. Eventually, we went to sights farther off by the edges of the lake like Inthein, an area with replica stupas of those in Bagan but on a much smaller scale, and still farther to Thaung Thut, where whitewashed stupas dot the hillside leading up to a monastery.
We eventually saw all of these things and places, just not on our first day, which we spent holed up in our rustic-chic bungalow on the southern end of the lake. From the outside it looked like a copy of the those that hover above the exotic waters of Bora Bora, but the inside reminded me of the simple, cozy cabins found by lakes back home. I slept most of that afternoon off and woke up just before a gorgeous sunset, feeling better and thankful that those Bagan noodles were almost a distant memory.