side trips        
Inle Lake, Burma
September 1995
Inle Lake, Burma

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Inle Lake, Burma - Friends In September of 1995, a group of friends and I traveled to Burma to observe the September waxing moon festivities at Inle Lake.  The Paung Daw U Pagoda festival lasts almost three weeks between the September full moon, Thawthalin, and the October full moon, Thadingyut.  During this period, four of the five ancient gold buddhas from the Paung Daw U Pagoda, the main temple of Inle Lake, gradually make their way around the entire lake from monastary to monastary. The long procession of ceremonial boats that tow the barge carrying the buddhas are manned by scores of rowers that use a unique rowing technique that is only found at Inle Lake.

Our original plan was to continue further north from Inle to beyond Lashio where we would cross over into China.  Once across, in the foothills of the Himalayas, we were hoping to hop a boat on the Mekong River and float down as it follows the borders of Burma, Thailand, and Laos.  Eventually it heads toward the center of Laos and on to Louangprabang, the ancient capital.  Unfortunately, as the best laid travel plans are wont to do, they disintegrated into thin air when we found out that the Burma/China border had recently closed.  However, not to be denied, we planned our route east from Inle Lake across the high mountain ranges (contested by the government and the Shan freedom fighters) to Tachilek, where we would jump the border into Thailand in the middle of the night!   Ultimately, clearer heads prevailed (after the hangovers receded) and we returned to Rangoon, flew to Bangkok, and rode the Thai rails to Vientienne, Laos.

Postscript:  You may or may not know that there is a burning controversy with respect to travelling to and conducting trade with Burma.  There are many documented cases of human rights abuses and violations by SLORC (the State Law and Order Restoration Council).  Moreover, in 1990, SLORC refused to transition power to the legally elected representatives of the National League for Democracy.  Human rights advocates and Burmese dissident groups have called for boycotts of goods produced by companies engaged in business in Burma, as well as a boycott of all travel to the country.  The investments and business of the large multi-national companies in Burma funnel large sums of foreign exchange to the Burmese government, and boycotts can influence their continued involvement there. 

While I condemn the actions of SLORC and feel that these investments in Burma should stop, I also feel strongly that travel by budget travelers and backpackers in Burma should continue.  Most of the money spent by these travelers goes directly to independent businesses or black marketeers.  The negative effect of the small amounts of money that eventually trickle up to SLORC to finance its activities does not, in my opinion, outweigh the benefits of exposing the merchant middle class to the capitalist, democratic, and cultural ideals of many travelers.  This low spending and cultural "contamination" by the budget traveling riff-raff, which are the first to enter newly opened countries, have become issues in other countries such as Vietnam.  The effects of western culture in other third world Asian countries and the eastern bloc has been unstoppable.  In this rare situation, I would say that the more exposure, the better.  During the protests leading up to the bloody crackdown on democratization, the vast majority of the middle class stood by without a reason to support the students and intelligentsia. 

Lastly, I am convinced that the presence of budget travelers and backpackers continually nosing around where they shouldn't (which of course they always do --- that's part of the fun and appeal of this type of travel) will contribute over time to the moderation of SLORC activities. 

To find out more about the situation in Burma and the different perspectives on the issues:
Free Burma
Burma Net News
Lonely Planet on travel to Burma

Other articles & photos of Burma
Burma Pages - Backpacking in the Golden Land
Pictures from Myanmar

Comprehensive References on Burma
Online Burma/Myanmar Library at the Asian Studies WWW Virtual Library

Bob Okumura
Click on a photo to see it full-size.
Lunch at the Strand Cafe which specializes in local dishes prepared by a very capable Swiss/German chef who is a serious student of Burmese cuisine. The Cafe is located in the beautifully renovated Strand Hotel in Rangoon, the sister to the Raffles Hotel in Singapore. Inle Lake, Burma - Strand Cafe
Inle Lake, Burma - Rail Car
We made this private rail car our home for the ten day journey.  It would be shunted to side tracks while waiting for connecting trains and during our stay at the rail head in Shwe Naung (not to be confused with Naung Shwe, a few kilometers away on the edge of the lake).
Outside of Rangoon, the landscape begins its gradual climb into the highlands towards Thazi. Inle Lake, Burma - Fields
Inle Lake, Burma - Train
Northeasterly from Thazi, the train crosses the highland passes that lead to the upper mountain valleys and Inle Lake.
Dinner aboard the private railcar that included a cook, or "cok" as printed on the confirmation fax.  U Sa Win would prepare typical Burmese fare: seebyan-style chicken curry, dal & okra soup, and greens in tumeric & garlic. Inle Lake, Burma - Rail Car Meal
Inle Lake, Burma - Leg Rowers
One of a long procession of large canoes that pull the barge carrying the buddhas.  Each rower wraps one leg around the oar, using the leg as a pivot point and to supplement the effort of their arms.
The main barge just before it ran aground in the shallow water of the lake. Inle Lake, Burma - Buddha Barge
Inle Lake, Burma - Buddhas
The buddhas stay one night at each temple on the lake, where worshippers pray and apply gossamer thin sheets of pure gold to the buddhas. After many centuries, none of the features of the buddhas are discernable.
Pa-O hilltribe people travel from the remote mountain valleys to attend the festival. Inle Lake, Burma - Tribal Visitors
Inle Lake, Burma - Mr. Charley
Charley, a guide with a local company in Shwe Nyaung, is an Australian who parachuted into Burma during WWII and hasn't left since.
Curry being prepared for guests at the Four Sisters' home in Nyaung Shwe.  Great food and interesting pricing for meals... all you can eat and you leave whatever amount of money you want. Inle Lake, Burma - Four Sisters' Curry
Inle Lake, Burma - Paung Daw U
The Paung Daw U Pagoda is the main temple at Inle Lake and home to the four traveling buddhas and the fifth buddha.  After being lost in the lake when the barge overturned, the fifth buddha miraculously appeared back at the temple, and now never leaves.
Wood carvings on an alter at the "Jumping Cat" Monastery. Inle Lake, Burma - Jumping Cat Monastery

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