Floating villages. They're the main attraction of Inle Lake, a required stop on any Myanmar itinerary. The lake isn't just a body of water. To residents, it means transportation, food and economy.
The majority of places we visited were craft workshops. Sadly, the Inle Lake workshops were the only blatantly touristy venues I encountered in Myanmar. Everywhere else in the country, the attractions felt more genuine.
At Inle Lake, a lot of the establishments seemed set up to sell stuff to travelers. The promises of "I give you good price!" could have happened in any country in Asia.
One example was this silversmith. When we first entered, the shop floor was abuzz with activity: silversmiths assembling jewelry, pumping fire under hot coals, etc. The guy with the best English explained what each artisan was doing, then he hustled us into a gift shop.
I sneaked back to the shop floor 5 minutes later. All the "silversmiths" were gone, probably chewing betel nut or having a smoke. Busted! Total scam.
One of the most famous attractions at Inle Lake is the "Jumping Cat" monastery. The prevailing theory was the monks got so bored of meditation and isolation that they trained cats to jump on command.
For someone expecting a circus-style act with lions leaping through flaming hoops, the jumping cats were a bit anticlimactic. Walking around looking at the Buddha statues was more rewarding.
Speaking of circus acts, we went to see the long-necked women. They're of the Padaung Hill Tribe. A Russian girl I'd met said you could also see long-necked women in Mae Hong Son in northern Thailand. They're the ones who escaped from Myanmar.
Strangely enough, the youngest long-necked girl kept staring at me as I took photos. (She's the one on the far right in the second photo). It was like she thought I was the exotic, interesting person.
Our last stop was a cigarette-making plant. All the cigarettes were hand-rolled by women, some of them young girls.
This was the only workshop that felt real. I commented to other travelers, "It gives you the feeling that they were working before we arrived, and they'll keep working after we leave."
Jeroen, one of the Dutch backpackers, set out to calculate how much a cigarette girl earned in one day. They got paid 2 kyat (US$0.002) per cigarette. If a girl made 1,000 in one day, she could make US$2. That's depressing.
On a more positive note, Myanmar's infamously small travel world worked its magic again. In Yangon, I'd met a group of cool French and Belgian backpackers at the Shwedagon Paya. We were supposed to meet up in Mandalay next, but I wasn't able to get a plane ticket.
While I was wandering around Nyaungshwe (the gateway city for Inle Lake), I ran into the group! We caught up on each other's travels and arranged to have dinner together at the Golden Kite Restaurant.
Their laughter, conversation and bubbling energy were fun to be around. It reminded me why I travel.