Myanmar Mission – Thingyan Water Festival, Inle Lake

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We were scheduled on a 9 AM flight with Golden Myanmar Airlines from Bagan to Heho. We arrived at the airport and were checked in with an hour to kill, Bagan airport is tiny with no airflow and no shops or entertainment, so I wouldn’t recommend arriving here much in advance of flight time. Once on-board, it was a quick, 40 minute flight to Heho and then an hour and a half taxi ride from Heho Airport to Inle Lake. We checked into The Hotel Emperor Inle which was nicer than the previous accommodations and the coziest beds yet.

We spent most of this day at Bamboo Delight Cooking School hosting a medical and dental clinic for neighbors in need as part of our Be the Change Global Outreach mission work (more on this here). After we shut down clinic and packed it all up for the night, we had the driver drop us at the Nyaung Shwe night market. The night market is a great experience; there are local artisans selling handmade jewelry, clothing and other goods, street food vendors grilling skewered meats and veggies, families with kids running around, and groups of young adults having a lively time. A teen at one of the jewelry stalls warned us not to eat the street food vendor offerings because “they aren’t clean”, though I’ll admit some of it was tempting! We poked around the market for a while but all ended up heeding the young man’s words and wandered elsewhere for dinner. We walked about a mile through town to a dumpling house called Live Dim Sum House. We all ordered our fill of steam buns and dumplings before calling it a night.

The next morning we had breakfast at our hotel, it was the best breakfast buffet yet with plenty of fresh, traditional Burmese and Chinese foods as well as fruit and Western options like eggs and toast. After breakfast it was time for another day of clinic at Bamboo Delight. Today was a little bit different though in that it was the start of Thingyan, the Burmese New Year Festival celebrated over 3-5 days depending on the calendar. All of the consecutive days are observed as national holidays so many businesses are closed and public transit is limited. The festival is celebrated by dousing each other from head to toe with water as a “cleansing” for the upcoming year, essentially it is a nationwide water fight involving water buckets, super soakers, and hoses in the street; any passerby is fair game (unless dressed for church, a monk, or elderly), which was another inconvenience as we traveled in an open-air tuk-tuk full of medication and medical supplies on our way to clinic!

There were kids running around Bamboo Delight all day, soaking wet, but eager to get back out in the street to await the next moped or pedestrian brave enough to pass by their mob. Later in the afternoon, the whole clinic team joined in on the fun, check out this short clip of our Thingyan water festival experience in Nyaung Shwe. We all made some incredible memories with the cheerful kiddos this afternoon. Luckily, Sue of Bamboo Delight Cooking School was kind enough to help us out with some dry clothing before our cooking class. We enjoyed the Bamboo Delight Cooking School experience that evening (more here). The Thingyan water throwing ceases around 6 pm so we were able to journey back to The Hotel Emperor Inle without concern for being doused again.

On our final morning in Inle, we decided to do a half day boat tour. While hot air ballooning is the tourist must-do in Bagan, a private boat tour to see the floating villages, long neck ladies, and one-legged fishermen is THE attraction of Inle Lake. Simply walk along the public road near the water in town and multiple boat charters will approach ready to haggle and offer you their best price on a full day tour; though with this being Thingyan, there were fewer boat drivers out and more locals wanting to be on the water believing it would bring extra luck for the new year during water festival. Our group managed to find a couple of boats and haggle a deal for around 10,000 kyats per person, which sounds like a steal, but we were told was actually much more than the regular going rate for tourists due to the holiday.

The boats on Inle Lake are long and narrow with a small motor and propeller on the back, tourists sit in short lawn chair type seats with 5-6 per boat, while locals squeeze 20+ passengers in their boats seated directly on the hull. We rode out to the floating villages where the drivers lived so that they could pick up some extra chair cushions. It was a neat experience to get to see their “neighborhood” and family home. They live in a “floating village” where the houses are built on stilts over the water with access only via boat. They have constructed floating fields by mounding dirt in rows that protrude above the water so that the top of the soil where plants are planted is not submerged. It appears to be a very simple way of life and we were grateful to have gotten a glimpse.

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We headed from the floating village to visit the Kayan long neck ladies with golden coils stretching from collarbone to chin. The tradition is continued today primarily to propagate tourism, we primarily saw much older looking women wearing the neck rings so I’m hopeful that young girls aren’t forced into the same experience. We visited their souvenir and jewelry shop before moving along down the lake. Our next stop was Hpaung Daw U Pagoda, there were swarms of women and girls as soon as we stepped off the boat, they were crowding close to us and holding out something that they appeared to be “giving away”. Turns out they are selling little packets of “gold leaf” to rub on the Buddha within the pagoda, my suggestion is to just hold tight to your belongings and try to politely decline and force your way through the crowd. Women are not allowed under the cupola housing the golden Buddha anyway, making the gold leaf completely useless for girls to purchase. One of our female group members learned this the hard way when she approached the mass of men and Buddha to rub her gold leaf on the statue, the security guard came running and took her, along with some of the males in our group since they had mistakenly worn shoes inside the establishment (also not allowed!). The chaos within the pagoda was interesting to see; reverent Buddhists praying, bearing gifts and rubbing the statue, though I will admit I was overwhelmed and uncomfortable that I might be doing something offensive without even realizing it – like being a woman.

Outside the pagoda there are plenty of shops and vendors that we poked around at for a while, you could really spend a good amount of time at Hpaung Daw U Pagoda, we stayed for about 40 minutes or so before heading back to the hotel for afternoon clinic. On the way back we saw a few of the “one legged” fishermen who perch on the back of their boat standing on one leg while paddling and steering with an oar in the other leg and using their hands to manipulate their nets, very impressive! Back at the hotel, we cleaned up before heading to a Buddhist orphanage for afternoon clinic. It was still Thingyan, so we tried to waterproof ourselves and our supplies; we even tried using a Buddhist monk on a motorbike in front of our tuk-tuk to guide the way and discourage the youth from splashing us. The children are required to refrain from soaking the monk, but not to heed his word about preserving the upcoming group of tourists (a prime target!). We had a wonderful and impactful visit at the Buddhist orphanage (more about it here). Then we went out for a final, celebratory dinner with the family and neighbors of Bamboo Delight Cooking and Language School. We dined at Green Chili restaurant and had a great time before saying our “goodbyes”. We went back to the hotel for a relaxing night before heading to Yangon the following morning.

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*Misty of Siobhan Photo Studio is a photographer who accompanied us on this trip, so most of the high quality images here are her work.

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