Tag Archives: Inle Lake

The Unique World of Burmese Driving

Some of the world’s drivers are used to sitting on the left side of the car and driving on the right side of the road. The UK and most former British colonies are used to sitting on the right side and driving on the left side of the road. Switching from one to the other takes some adjustment but, as Sandeep can attest from his Indian driving experience, it’s not that hard.

But how about having right hand steering and driving on the right hand side of the road? Myanmar has the distinction of having this split personality.

Myanmar was a British colony until 1948. The cars had right hand steering and drove on the left side of the road. In 1970 all traffic was moved to the right. I asked several people for the cause of the change and there are two commonly held theories, both of which point to the eccentricities of General Ne Win. One theory is that Ne Win’s wife’s astrologer said that the country would be better off driving on the right side of the road. The second is that the General had a dream that the country should switch directions. Either way, the General called the shots and traffic was directed to move sides overnight.

Despite the lane shifts, virtually every vehicle in Myanmar has right hand steering. Many vehicles are very old, and those that are considered modern are second hand imports from Japan. It isn’t just the cars that have to catch up. One can still see old traffic signs in downtown Yangon facing the wrong direction.

I would think all of this would increase accident rates and confuse drivers. However, Myanmar drivers appear orderly, within the cities as well as the countryside. Whether they are in two, three, four or eight wheelers, drivers stick to the right side of the road and, despite logistical challenges, take-over without any negative consequences.

There is one anomaly we found to the right hand driving set up. The boats in Inle Lake still stick to the left when they pass each other. Perhaps time has indeed stood still in some parts of Burma.


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Faces from Myanmar

People travel for various reasons – adventure, landscape, food, history, culture. Myanmar offers travelers many of these things, but what stood out the most to us were the people. For a country the geographical size of Texas and with the population the size of Ukraine, Myanmar is remarkably diverse. Myanmar has had various countries stake its claim on its lands. It has also been a significant trading port, and been caught in the middle of wars not its own. This history has brought with it the influence of many cultures. Even within the country, there are over 100 ethnic groups, some of which have been heavily involved in one of the world’s longest civil wars. Outsiders such as us who spend only a few weeks here cannot begin to understand the various subcultures. However, on the surface I was able to get a glimpse of the vibrant faces of Myanmar.

One of the first things we noticed when we landed in Yangon was thanaka, a sunblock paste, on nearly every woman and child. The paste is made by rubbing the bark of the thanaka tree on a stone block in circular motions. Add a little water and out comes sun block.

Burmese mothers seem to take particular artistic liberty in applying clown like thanaka patterns to their children’s faces.

Kayan has not quite mastered the art of photography. When he sees a camera he gets behind the lens to see his picture, not realizing that he first has to stand in front of the lens. His shortcomings aside, it seems universal that kids around the world love getting their pictures taken.

Burmese children, particularly in the villages where digital cameras are not common, get very excited at seeing their pictures. One of our most memorable experiences from Inle Lake was stopping at the local elementary school. The kids greeted us as our boat pulled into the floating playground, each child wearing green pants or skirts and white tops. The uniform is common for every child in a government school in Myanmar.

Myanmar remains a majority Buddhist country. In addition to the fact that one apparently can’t turn anywhere without seeing a pagoda or monastery, the faces of Buddhism can be seen in the monks, nuns and novices that make their daily alms rounds. In Thailand, we had to get up at the crack of dawn to witness monks seeking alms, and we did not see any nuns at all in Chiang Mai. By contrast, Burmese monks, nuns, and novices (monks in training) make alms rounds throughout the morning and, particularly in the north, nuns are a very common sighting. Alms rounds are a way for the monastery or nunnery to receive food as well a for Buddhists to make merit in their donation. Most Buddhist households prepare the morning alms for the monks before preparing the meal for the family. I love the sight of monks in saffron robes, but had never before seen Buddhist nuns dressed in elegant baby pink.

Monasteries and nunneries serve as centers for education and social welfare. Many young novices come from poorer families, some others are orphaned. They are brought to the monestaries and nunneries to be cared for, fed and educated. Once they reach adulthood, they can determine whether or not they want to remain in their orders. Once a week the novice nuns leave the nunnery to collect alms with the older nuns. We saw this little girl running across the street in Yangon after collecting alms from a restaurant.

While trekking between Kalaw and Inle Lake, we spent time in minority villages. We met friendly basket weavers and fieldworkers.

As we saw in elsewhere in Myanmar the women are out doing fieldwork while the men do ‘patient’ work, such as weaving.

By the end of the trip, I was integrated enough into the Burmese way of life that I mastered thanaka application and used it liberally myself.


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Living on Water in Inle Lake Myanmar

Imagine living your life on water. Not on an island, but literally on water. Where your post office looks like this and the postman delivers your mail by boat.

Where the school bus is a school boat that takes your kids to a floating playground. Where vegetables are grown in floating farms.

And delivered on boats.

Where the rest of your shopping is done in a stilted store.

And this is the closest thing you see to a highway.

This is your neighborhood. If you need more land, you can dig it up from the lake bed and float it on bamboo rods. Want to relocate? Pick up the rods and move your land elsewhere.

Such is the world on Inle Lake, a 45 square mile lake resting at an altitude of 3,000 feet in the middle of Myanmar. The lake and the surrounding areas is home to about 70,000 Intha people, several fish and snail species found no where else in the world, and tens of thousands of migratory seagulls. The Intha live simply in bamboo thatched huts and earn their keep mostly by fishing or farming. These communities and farms thrive on man made floating islands.

The lake is shallow and the water fertile, with an average depth of seven feet. The combination creates an ideal environment for growing vegetables such as tomatoes.  The water is rich with fish and harvesting them amid dense reeds is a challenge the Intha have mastered. To give them the elevation required to see what lies beneath the water surface, the fisherman use a technique of anchoring themselves to the stern with one leg and rowing with the other. It’s a workout if I’ve ever seen one. I kept expecting a fisherman to lose balance and fall in, but that never materialized. I asked a few people, but no one admitted to ever seeing a rower fall into the lake.

We were lucky to be in Inle during the seagull migration. We found out quickly that if we tossed up some bread, the gulls swoop down in droves and snatch  it mid air. This was fun for a few seconds until we realized that we were running out of bread but the gulls weren’t running out of appetite. With visions from Hitchcock’s The Birds flashing before my eyes yelled at our boatman to go faster!

Inle Lake is still exhibits much of its unique ecosystem and culture. However, it is facing severe environmental challenges. The water area has decreased by about 30% over the past 70 years. Farmers have taken to using synthetic fertilizers and chemicals, which in turn affects the water quality and fish. What once used to be safe drinking water is now too contaminated even for cooking. Additionally, increased tourism means more motorboats, which also has a devastating impact on the area.

We try to be aware of our environmental impact wherever we travel. For example, in Kottayam, our garbage didn’t go far from home. By contrast, we found Chiang Mai making huge efforts in recycling and pollution control. As lovely as a destination may be, I do think that we as visitors have to be conscious on the role we play to ensure that it remains so. After a half day of being taken around Inle Lake on a motorized boat, we decided to watch the lake from our floating hotel for the rest of our visit. It wasn’t much in the grand scheme of things, but we’re trying to be more responsible travelers where we can.

Life on Inle fascinated me and I couldn’t stop asking questions such as “How do you walk the dog?” to every local who spoke English. We’ll just have to come back and spend more time on the water to find out.

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