Our drive took us over the hills and far away to Inle. Though it had been just a 25 minute flight from Mandalay, it would have taken us ten or twelve hours to drive. Seeing the train over the valley, we asked if that was a viable alternative to such a short flight. Sanda pulled a face! Not only is the train network somewhat limited, they travel very slowly too with the express service reaching the dizzy heights of 45mph.
We were glad to have flown.
We drove through rural landscapes where farmers were moving their cattle around and transporting produce around on small carts pulled by cattle or small tractors.
We drove through one or two villages where there were elaborate temples shining in the sunlight.
then out into the flat plain with paddy fields as far as the eye could see.
Busy times in the rice fields, right now with all hands on deck to get new shoots planted. Back breaking work.
This man was taking the young rice plants from the nursery beds ready for them to transplant into the field.
Meanwhile, two small boys were playing nearby and getting very muddy. Mind you, the chap using the rotavator hasn’t managed to stay very clean either, has he?
Shortly, we came to the tollbooth. The Inle area is a protected area rather like a National Park and our driver had to pay a fee for us.
He took us as far as Nyaung Shwe, where we arrived at what looked like a small market, but on closer inspection we realised it was a boat terminus.
It was a busy place with tourists and local people coming and going. Sanda called to someone and before long a colourful boat arrived at the jetty – our boat and driver for the next three days we learned.
In went the suitcases, the hand baggage and then ourselves.
I can’t tell you how pleasing it was to have not only the most colourful boat in the fleet but a matching tarpaulin, too!
The boats travel pretty fast – they’re powered by a basic lorry engine at the back – and they can be quite splashy too. They form the major form of transport around Inle and we were to spend quite a lot of time sitting in ours over the next few days.
The first part of the journey was along a short stretch of canal, from Nyaung Shwe to the lake itself. Local people who don’t use a motorboat get about using these shallow, wooden boats – a much more environmentally friendly alternative to the noisy, diesel engines of the majority.
However, when you don’t have all day to do things, then a motor boat has to be the way and so we powered out into the lake and joined a few others zooming about.
The light here is rather strange. It’s hazy and the watery colours make for a bland landscape of neutral colours, but it’s dotted with white flares which are formed from the splash of the motorboats moving across it.
In the middle of the lake we came across a structure which looks a bit like an abandoned pier but which is actually a Government lodging, Sanda told us. Each time we passed it, I though how spooky it looked out there.
To our right was a collection of bamboo poles and small elevated bamboo houses. We didn’t find out what that was all about until later.
We turned into a small canal a little further on and found ourselves in the midst of Inn Paw Khon village which like so many similar communities has a single speciality.
As we parked the boat at the jetty, we guessed what it was from the sound we could hear from those open windows – the clatter of looms, shuttles and beaters. Inn Paw Khon is renowned for ikat weaving.
Over a rickety bridge or two then and straight into the warping room, where a woman was walking to and fro with several warp threads in her hand, preparing what must be the most boring process of the lot.
In the next room were a group of ladies, sitting around with the swifts, winding thread and chatting amongst themselves. Sanda explained that this gentler task was usually given to the older women who perhaps would have difficulty with some of the more intricate tasks.
The boys were doing the tying and resist work, following an exact pattern and with a sample of the finished result hung over their frame. They worked quietly under the eagle eyes of the elderly ladies opposite – surely that arrangement was no accident?
It was quite a task to tie all those strings accurately and securely and their work was neat and precise – well, it has to be, hasn’t it?
One or two finished frames were there, ready for dyeing. They were rather decorative as they stood, don’t you think?
There were also some bundles of cotton hanging from the frame though I’m not sure exactly what the intended outcome of these was – most of the work here was done in silk.
Into the next room then, where the looms were working and this lady was tying the orange fringe before going on to weave the green.
Bright colours were the norm and though the women working the looms were friendly, they didn’t miss a beat in the rhythm of their work.
For concentration was needed. Each weaver had up to twenty shuttles with the ikat-dyed thread on them. Each shuttle was to be used twenty times, maybe, or fifteen depending on the pattern. So, she had to count, throw, work her feet on the pedals to shift the heddle and of course, beat the weft after each throw of the shuttle. Maybe you can recall when we were in Laos and I sat alongside a young Lao woman who taught me the basics? All I can say is that it’s a bit like trying to pat your head and rub your tummy at the same time – oh, and maybe play a Bach sonata whilst you do!
I guess that if you do the same thing day in day out, sooner or later it becomes easier?
But even so, this weaver took the trouble to check each line as she worked, to ensure the colours were going to line up and her work would meet the standard. No slapdash work here.
This lady was weaving something special – lotus fibre. We’d never heard of it so Sanda took us off to learn more.
Here the woman had soaked some stems of fresh lotus plants and made a cut about an inch from the end before pulling to reveal strong fibres which seemed to come out fairly easily. She twisted it by hand and joined it to the previous piece – that small bobbin and the unwound thread in the bowl was the product of her morning’s work. Slow progress indeed.
The woven cloth felt a little like linen but had a softer handle.
Sanda showed us the article about the jacket Loro Piano had made from the fabric made here.
Later, we looked at the scarves in the shop – prices ranging from $100 for the smallest to $500 for a reasonably sized, wearable one.
Notices in every language explained that this was a fixed price shop – no bartering here.
There was certainly a great deal of temptation – though actually, not so many of the ikat weavings, surprisingly.
Now, there’s one fewer there, as well
As soon as he saw us, our driver leapt to his feet and brought the boat over. We stepped carefully in and were away.
The afternoon was young and Sanda had something else to show us before we went to our hotel. I’ll tell you about it in the next post.