Edit: I'm proud to announce that my book on Photographing Burma is now available for download at the iBooks store. It's got over 140 pages and 120 images, and includes information on everything I know about photographing in one of the most amazing countries on earth.
After leaving Yangon, we flew to Lake Inle in the highlands of Shan State. It was one of those places that when I was researching Burma, couldn't believe really existed. A huge lake populated with floating villages, entire communities living on the lake, it looked amazing. Of course, there are already plenty of photographs of the lake, and in particular, the fishermen who make their living there with their distinctive style of paddling with one leg, but I hadn't really seen much photography that gave me a clear impression of the different communities that lived there.
We arrived on a small plane from Yangon in late afternoon. Internal flights in Burma really are an experience, your luggage is wheeled onto the the plane in a small cart, and then on arrival at your destination, it's wheeled into the arrivals hall and pretty much dumped on the floor. Getting your luggage can be a bit of a free-for-all, and this was our first experience of it. By the time we left Burma, we'd made 4 more internal flights and were pretty much used to it.
On arriving at Heho airport, north of the lake, we were met by a driver sent by the hotel. He took us on the hour long drive down to the main town of Nuang Shwe, at the edge of the lake, where we met our boat driver, who was going to take us on the last part of the journey across the lake to our accommodation. We'd decided to stay in a floating hotel towards the south of the lake and it was going to take us an hour to get there. By this time it was dark, and also getting pretty cold, which we hadn't prepared for as it had been hot and sunny when we'd boarded the plane in Yangon. We had warmer clothes, but they were locked away in our bags, which were under a tarp at the front of the narrow boat. As we were heading across the lake in the (by now) pitch black, neither of us much fancied crawling to the bow and going through the cases to get our warmer clothes out, so we pulled the blanket up around our necks, hugged the life jackets tighter, and just dealt with the cold.
The journey across the lake was spectacular. The darkness there was absolute, and after a few minutes wondering how the driver could actually navigate without seeing anything, we just settled back and enjoyed the amazing view of the stars. The sky was so clear, and the water so flat, occasionally we'd see a light pass by on the left or right, but for the most part it felt as though we were the only things moving across the inky blackness of the lake.
After a while though, we started to see signs of civilization as we got closer to the south end of the lake, and eventually, after passing through some narrow canals with vegetation on each side, we arrived at the hotel. The room itself was set on stilts with a huge window that looked out across the lake. We could hear the noise of water lapping against the stilts all night, and making sure the mosquito netting was pulled securely around the bed, we settled off to sleep.
After breakfast the next morning, we decided to head off to the 5 day market, a market which moves each day to one of 5 local villages. Unfortunately, we'd missed the Ymama market day, which is a floating market, and set off instead to the nearby town of Indein. Heading out on the boat after breakfast, we got our first good look at Inle Lake in the day light. It truly is an amazing place, village after village of houses on stilts, floating gardens…a whole way of life conducted on the lake.
Our boat was typical of Inle, a long narrow boat, with an outboard motor at the back which our driver lifted out whenever we were running near reeds. We sat on chairs in the middle of the boat and spent that first morning just staring at everything. Monasteries and temples on stilts, restaurants and schools on stilts, and of course everyone traveling everywhere by boat. All the boats seemed to be heading in the same direction as us, and it quickly became apparent that pretty much everyone from the surrounding area, whether from the lake or the surrounding hills, goes to the market.
Indein market takes place behind the large pagoda in the town. At first, we were a little disappointed as all the stalls seemed to be selling souvenirs for tourists and for the first time in Burma we felt a little hassled with pressure to buy something. However, a short walk behind the tourist stalls led us in to the market proper, a huge expanse of stalls selling everything from food to blankets, and attended by locals from all the surrounding tribes. The sheer volume of people and the colors of the clothes and produce was almost overwhelming at first. There were very few tourists here, and the locals were for the most part much more interested in buying and selling than they were in us. We soaked it all in, and after a while started to speak to people to ask permission to photograph them while they were working. People almost always smiled and said "yes" and we were able to take some nice portraits of the various people at the market.
One of the things I noticed most was the incredible range of headgear at the market. Each different tribe seemed to have their own different kind of hat. I particularly liked the wide brimmed wicker hats and after a few hours in the sun, they seemed like a really good idea and a great way of keeping the sun off your head.
The local Pa O woman all dressed in black and wore colorful towels or scarves in their hair. I managed to get a couple of portraits that I was really happy with of these traditional people. Despite the fact that Burma is clearly opening up to tourism and western influence, it's clear that in the hills of Shan State, the traditional ways of life carry on pretty much unchanged.
Eventually though it was time to leave the market. We'd spent hours there, and once again felt an incredible warmth at having been lucky enough to experience this place, taking in the amazing sights, sounds and smells, and talking to the people there. As everywhere in Burma, the people were incredibly open and friendly, and always greeted us with a smile.
We decided that we'd enjoyed the market so much that we'd go again the following day when the market moved on to Nampan.
When we got back to the dock there were literally hundreds of boats there, and we were briefly concerned that we wouldn't be able to find our boat. We needn't have worried, because our driver (I really wish I could remember his name. He was with us for all the three days we were there, but writing this now, more than a month later, I can't recall his name) had been keeping an eye out for us, and within a couple of minutes he'd managed to maneuver his boat through all the ones at the dock, pick us up, and then head out into the open canal and away from the traffic of the market.
We'd arranged to do some of the tourist trips in the afternoon, and our first stop was at one of the weaving workshops that populate this part of the lake. Arriving at the factory in the boat, the sound of clacking of the looms working was the first thing we noticed as we pulled up to the pier.
These "factories" cater increasingly to tourists and what happens is you're shown around the workshop and taken through the process of the weaving, and then at the end you go to the shop where they hope you buy something. There wasn't really any pressure to buy, but we did anyway because the quality of some of the items is excellent, although more expensive than elsewhere in Burma.
The process itself is fascinating, but extremely labour intensive. At first, a fibre is extracted from the stems of lotus flowers, and then this is spun to make the thread for weaving. As the thread is a kind of dull off-white colour, it is often dyed using natural dye, before being woven into garments.
The looms themselves are amazing constructions made from bamboo lashed together with rope, with buckets full of rocks acting as the counterweights. There were 3 or 4 rooms, each filled with looms weaving beautiful fabrics. We spent a while there just watching and photographing the women as they operated the machines.
Eventually it was time to leave the weaving factories, and the next stop on our trip around the different trades of Inle was at the metal pounders. Just as with the looms, we could hear the noise of the factory before we even left our boat. The metal pounders provide an important service to the people of the lake making a huge number of the implements used in daily life, from fishing hooks and spears, to spare parts for boats. We watched as the flames were fanned by bellows, and then metal heated until it was red hot. Then, three men hammered at the metal, beating out a rhythm as they took it in turns to strike with a heavy hammer. It was ferociously hot inside, and the eyes of the men were red from the smoke. You can see in the photos below the men preparing the fires and using bellows to get them hotter.
Our final stop after the metal beaters was at the cheroot factory. Cheroot smoking is really popular in Burma, and the cheroots themselves are made from local leaves and a mixture of tobacco and various herbs. As in the weaving factory, the work was done exclusively by women, who gathered the dried leaves (which you can see in the top picture), made the tobacco/herb mixture, and then rolled them into a cheroot. We sat and watched the process, and the speed with which they work is amazing, producing a cheroot in a matter of seconds. We were invited to smoke one, but neither Teresa nor I smoke, so we politely declined.
After leaving the cheroot factory, we headed out for sunset to photograph some fishermen on the lake. It was a wonderful evening, and I took a lot of shots of the fishermen silhouetted against the last light of day, which had been one of the main reasons for me to go to Inle. The fisherman are famous for their technique of paddling with one leg, used because the lake is so full of reeds making it impossible to row, and paddling by hand also makes it impossible to use the nets at the same time. It's a technique that is unique to this lake, and watching them maneuver their boats so effortlessly and yet so precisely with these small flicks of their legs was a fascinating sight.
As soon as we went out on the first day we encountered fishermen everywhere, but the shots I most wanted were in the first and last light of day because shooting on open water in the middle of the day with harsh light from the sun directly above bouncing off the water really doesn't make for atmospheric images. So, after our first day at the market, as the sun was getting lower, we headed out into the middle of the lake and slowly approached the fishermen, being careful not to get in the way and disturb the fish. This meant cutting our own engine, and drifting around the fishermen's boats using a paddle gently dipped in the water. On each occasion, when the fishermen looked up at our approach, we checked that it was OK, and on each occasion the fishermen signaled that it was no problem at all. I've never come across people as open and friendly as those we met in Burma, and the lake fishermen are no exception.
The trick was framing the fishermen with good light, so as the sun was so low in the sky, I shot directly against it, letting the warm light colour the water and turn the fishermen into silhouettes.
t was really calm and peaceful out on the lake, and watching the fishermen up close, I was amazed at their dexterity and agility. There boats are narrow shallow canoes, which rock with every movement of the water, yet the fishermen perch on the very end, often balanced on one foot, manipulating the paddle with the other, and attending to the nets with their hands. A lifetime on the water has given them a balance and grace that is astonishing. It was something we noticed in so many people we saw in Burma, the people there seem to move with an elegance and looseness that we lack in the west.
We passed 45 minutes as the sun got lower in the sky and eventually dropped behind the peaks that surround the lake, talking photos of the fishermen as they worked, and while it was a lovely evening, and I was happy with many of the shots, I was disappointed that we hadn't seen any of the basket fishermen, who are also unique to Inle. Our guide told me that the basket fishermen usually worked around the north of the lake, as the water where we were was too deep for that particular technique, so we agreed to meet before dawn the next morning and head there in the hope of finding some.
The following morning was Christmas day and we were up a little after 4am and heading out onto the lake in the dark. As the sky started to get brighter we could see the lake was shrouded in mist. This gave me a mix of feelings, because on the one hand it would give me some interesting atmosphere for the shots, but on the other hand it would diffuse the light, not to mention make it very hard to actually spot a fisherman. It was cold as we moved across the lake, but draping my hand over the side , I was surprised at how warm the water was. Visibility was really low, around 20 meters, and when we did come across a fisherman, they were always fishermen using nets. Each time we stopped to ask if they'd seen any basket fishermen out that morning, and each time they said no. By now the sun was rising over the peaks of the mountains, and starting to burn off parts of the mist. The boat driver suggested heading back, but I was reluctant to go back with nothing after traveling across the lake in the cold and the dark. At that point the driver made a short phone call on his mobile…I think it was more in hope than expectation, and in a few minutes his phone rang again, and after that we got back under way. I don't really understand what was said, but I suspect the driver was calling someone who he thought might know where to look for fisherman, and/or whether any had gone out that day, but within about 10 minutes we emerged through a bank of fog to find a basket fishermen at work.
It was immediately obvious that he was familiar with tourists, because as we got closer he smiled and struck a few of the kicking-the-basket-in-the-air poses that I'd seen so often in photos when researching the area.
As on the previous night, I was amazed at their balance and grace, and as we drifted around his boat the sun chose that moment to burn through the mist, giving me some backlit photos against warm light of the sun.
As we drifted closer, I asked or guide to ask him if he would mind me climbing into his boat to take a few photographs. Our guide clearly thought I was crazy, but the fisherman laughed and agreed, and I carefully climbed from one narrow rocking boat into an even smaller narrow rocking boat, trying very hard not to drop my camera. The boat really was tiny, and being inside it, feeling how every movement affected it and tilted it in the water, I was even more amazed watching the fisherman perch on the end of his boat with complete easy, and maneuver the boat.
I took some shots through the basket, and asked him a little about his morning. He already had quite a few of the small fish that are common on the lake laying in the bottom of his boat.
I was very conscious of the fact that all the time we were there, we were stopping him from working, so after I'd done a few shots I climbed back into our boat, and we pushed away and watched him work from a distance, and within moments he'd caught another small fish.
It's a fascinating technique they use, pushing the basket straight down in the water, then pulling the net up inside the basket, trapping the fish, which is then killed with a small spear. And all of this, while balancing on one foot, pushing the basket down with the other foot, holding the boat steady with the paddle in one hand, and the spear in the other.
We drifted off, leaving him to work as the morning rolled on and the mist cleared. Before departing we gave him some money to say thanks and make up for the time we'd taken from him whilst working. I noticed he gave a small card to our driver, which I suspect had his phone number on for the next time some crazy tourists wanted to see a basket fisherman at work.
It raises an interesting question about the effect of tourism. This kind of fishing has taken place on Inle for hundreds of years, and as the lake becomes more and more popular with tourists (and there's no doubt that tourism here will explode over the next 5 years or so) the reality will be that fisherman like this will be able to make more money "performing" for tourists than they can from fishing. This has the dual effect of making the whole experience less authentic, but at the same time guaranteeing the survival of these traditions and techniques.
Anyway, we went back to the hotel for breakfast that morning satisfied that we'd got a good portfolio of images of the fishermen, both at sunset and sunrise the following morning. I thought that I was finished with boats and lake fishermen, but I didn't realize then that a couple of mornings later, I'd be in a small boat on another misty lake in Mandalay…
After returning for breakfast on Christmas day, we decided to head off to the 5 day market again, this time at the large village of Nampan.
Once again, heading south across the lake, every boat seemed to be heading to the market too.
The market was even bigger here than the one we'd seen the previous day, and once we'd picked our way past the tourist stalls on the outskirts, and crossed the stream (the only bridge we could find was a collection of logs that had been thrown across the gap. It was being used by everyone, so we waited our turn and balanced our way across) we found ourselves in a massive local market, teeming with people who'd come from villages far and wide.
A little girl ran up to me and gave me a flower, before smiling and running away. I just managed to get the photograph of her below before she disappeared into the crowd, and once again in Burma, we were overwhelmed by the warm spirit of the people in this country. I took various portraits of local people, mostly people who approached us and started to talk to us, and were then happy to pose for pictures.
As I'd photographed so many of the stalls on the previous day, I decided to photograph some of the trades we saw there. We watched a group of girls with foot powered sewing machines mending and repairing people's clothes. We saw lines of people waiting to get a haircut from the traveling barbers, and like the day before, we say lots of delicious food.
As we'd got there later in the day, it got very hot very quickly, and walking around the market in the heat soon got unbearable. We decided to head home for lunch, picking our way back through the market before encountering a mass of hundreds of boats the same as we'd seen the day before. Once again though, our driver managed to spot us within minutes, and after negotiating the traffic, we were soon on our way across the lake again.
After three nights on the lake it was time to leave. We'd had a great time, and it truly is an amazing place, but we were looking forward to Mandalay. If there was one complaint about Inle, it's that the nature of the lake means you are dependent on a boat driver to take you wherever you want to go. It's not like a city where you can just leave your hotel and get lost in the streets, soaking up the atmosphere of a place. Inle is a major tourist attraction, and the nature of accommodation (floating hotels on stilts), while being incredibly peaceful and calm as you sit in your room and gaze out at the lake, also means that you feel a little more cut off from the life of the country itself. We were looking forward to getting back to feeling that pulse in Mandalay.
Before we did though, we still had one stop left that I wanted to make as we passed through the town of Nuang Shwe on our way to the airport. The monastery of Shwe Yaunghwe Kyaung is a small teak building on stilts, and we dropped by to see the novices in a buddhism class. Like kids everywhere, many of them were more interested in messing about than studying. We spent some time wandering around the monastery before heading off to the airport and the short flight north to Mandalay.