In the surprising cool of the morning we headed out on long, narrow flat bottomed boats. They glided smoothly over the glassy water, leaving barely a wake. But the air ripped with the thumping, booming roar of their large bore one cylinder diesel engines – like the lake had been invaded by Harley Davidsons. We spent the day touring around miles of floating gardens and stilt villages, an entire economy built-up around and over the water. This system of aquaculture is well suited to the cycle of monsoon and drought that shapes life all over Southeast Asia. They use the same long, low boats to dredge up weeds from the shallow lake bottom and build long, thatch planting strips secured with bamboo. These strips are arranged in rows spaced for smaller, flat bottomed boats rowed with the iconic one-leg technique or powered by lawnmower engines. These gardens supply tomatoes, eggplants, cole crops and other vegetables to the Shan region and the plains of the Irrawaddy delta.
We grew tired of the tourist markets and restaurants surrounding the lake, and opted for the tour up to Inn Thein Monastery. This required skillful navigation by our boatman up narrow, carefully maintained channels. Here and there we passed water buffalo submersed up to their heads, men quarrying gravel with buckets from the river bottom, people bathing out of sight at a river bend. Several times we crossed narrow waterfalls a foot high and barely wider than our boat, formed by small bamboo dams. The 40 foot boat slid up the rise almost imperceptibly.
We stopped just downstream from a questionable looking truck bridge and some rapids. We dismounted for a long walk uphill to the monastery. We meandered through an infinite-seeming portico hallway of corrugated sheet metal and wood. Most of the way we were greeted by an infinite-seeming procession of vendors selling all kinds of handiworks. Just outside we saw more tall, slender zedi shrines in various stages of decay or restoration. Some were grown through with trees and weeds, others mostly piles of brick. After this long walk we removed our shoes to enter the hilltop shrine, with hundreds more zedi and Buddha images guarded by kittens, puppies and unattached monks. Walking is our favorite mode of transit while traveling, and often the best way to take in the sights, sounds and smells. This walk rewarded us with a hilltop forest of zedi similar to what we’d seen at Kakku, without the long, rough, tedious minivan ride.
On the return trip we took a different, more direct channel weaving beneath the rice and sugarcane fields to the main lake and back to the harbor side brimming with boats, people and cargos.