Adventures, Races, Kit and Life
It’s early morning and with a hearty breakfast in our bellies (always the best way), we leave our beautiful stilted villas and head off on our “Inthein Adventure”. We clamber aboard our trusty long boat, its noisy petrol engine already humming and external propeller throwing a mist of spray into the cool morning air and quickly cruise the width of Inle Lake, skimming past many of the tourist delights we’d ticked off the day before.
We take the direct route, back through narrow water channels dissecting some of the incredible floating gardens. We weave in and out of the stilts of the ornate temples and take some early morning photos of the orange robed Buddhist monks. We then take short cuts through many of the back water-alleys of quaint stilted villages. This brings us right up close to day to day life of the inhabitants, who wave back and politely echo our “Hellos” almost as if a tourist boat doesn’t pass by every 10 mins! We then finally enter the river heading away from lake , towards Inthein.
Thick undergrowth and foliage dangle from the banks into the water, giving the sense of a remote jungle journey and I get that familiar “Indiana Jones” tingle of excitement, I love so much. Our wooden longboat chugs against the current as we slowly meander along the narrow river, each bend revealing a new scene. It’s a little like stepping back in time. Just a few feet away, a large water buffalo is bathing, fishermen perch precariously on little jetties, attempting to catch dinner. The views out beyond the riverbeds reveal farmers hard at work in their rice fields. Fantastic!
Occasionally a long boat comes speeding towards us from the opposite direction. There is an initial “Ooo!” moment and the sudden awareness of the narrowness of the river. This is followed by an appreciation of the boatman’s skill and his even reflexes as he swiftly, yet effortlessly, manoeuvres us out of the way. He then returns his focus to the ongoing navigation of the various bends and mini bamboo damns designed to hold back water and prevent the river becoming un-navigable for even the shallow draft of the flat keeled boats.
The river continues to wind through the reeds for about 4 km or 45 mins up to the village of Inthein. On first arrival the delightful “Apocalypse Now” style ambiance vanishes instantly and is replaced by the initial shock of the sheer number of tourist boats, all branded by the tour company, practically piled one on top of the other and all moored at the entrance to the village.
Fortunately, we cruise right on past the masses for a far more cultural experience. Our driver continues upstream to find a secluded, admittedly somewhat wobbly, mooring located beside a traditional looking wooden bridge which is gracefully spanning the river just above a river junction. It is bustling with local activity. Here, upstream of the main village, the water is visibly cleaner and groups of locals take advantage of the wide, shallower waters to wash themselves and even their clothing as part of the daily bath routine. Traditionally dressed locals, sporting black gowns and colourful turban style head wear, arrive by the boat load from the smaller tribal villages further up river and eagerly clamber out of their longboats and head into the village for the daily trade.
The “Adventure” begins with exploration of a series of stupas and temples on each side of the main path. This area is called Nyuang Ohak, whch means Under Shade of the Banyon Trees and was my personal favourite. It has a “Tomb Raider” Anchor Thom feel to it. Many of the pagodas have been damaged by both earthquakes and the relentless advance of the jungle, intent on claiming back its land. It is over grown and has the exciting feel of a fresh archaeological site that, after days of trekking in thick and remote jungle one, as the first human in hundreds of years, has the luck to.
In amongst vines and banyan tree roots, you have clamber over rubble to get to the incredible, original carvings and sculptures that were created 400 years ago and still look in great condition. Each crumbling stupa holds a Buddha statue in its centre. The detail is delightful. We are lucky to be joined by some of the local children, for which this is basically their playground and they run from stupa to stupa, playing tag, completely unaware how to an outsider, how visually incredible and stimulating this historical area is.
It is a long march up the well constructed, traditionally styled, covered stairway but it’s also a visual feast. Each side is lined with hundreds of small handicraft stalls displaying incredible feasts of local art and culture. There is beautifully detailed lacquer-ware, many different types of wooden puppets, tastefully decorated with Buddha carvings and much more, all bordering the long path meandering to the temple at the top.
As you continue the climb, the scenery gradually changes. The wilder dense jungle that seems to be slowly reclaiming man’s efforts to build pagodas and is dominant on the lower levels, gradually changes to neater, better maintained counterparts. The sheer number of pagodas and zedi in the broader area means that maintaining them all is a huge task. However, if they succeeded it would also mean that the journey up all those steps would undoubtedly lose much of its charm and natural jungle feel.
Huffing and puffing at the top you are greeted by the temple, “Shwe Inn Thein Paya” and many groups of locals praying and paying respect to their and making offerings to their gods or nats. It’s tranquil and has a lovely spiritual and calming feel to it. The area right next to the temple, which is spiritually far more important, is well maintained and surrounded by freshly painted white and golden pagodas and weather-beaten, yet pristine, “Zedi” all constructed in the 17th and 18th century. Freshly painted gold or white reflects the strong sunlight. What makes it so special is that there are thousands of them and it is truly an impressive and unique scene.
In addition to the Paya and the Zedi, the top affords breathtaking panoramic views of the incredibly important InleLake and broader valley below. It is no coincidence that the Temple is located for this fantastic view ! If you have the stamina, it’s possible to venture a little further up the hill, leaving the sounds and sight of other people behind. Here you are able to look down onto the temple with the fantastic scenery behind it. It is even quieter and you will undoubtedly have the luxury of having it all to yourself.
The journey back down is much easier. Having absorbed all the visual delights on the way up you are soon back at the entrance and are able to enjoy a well deserved beer, milkshake and banana pancake in the cosy little cafe just by the bridge. Perfect !