We were meeting our boatman at 6am. Which meant it was still dark, and very very cold. I walked with a blanket wrapped around my shoulders, telling myself I was on a warm beach, and we climbed into the longboat. First light on the lake is magical. There is fog and mist everywhere, and the boundaries between the mist and the sky and the water and mountains simply blend, confusing the senses and playing their magic. I was captivated.
We proceeded out onto the big lake (22km) and stopped occasionally to watch some of the small boatmen. When we would go near them, and turn off our motor, it would be completely silent. The only thing you could hear was breathing, and the almost inaudible sound of the water moving under the one oar controlled by the boatman’s leg. Watching them move their vessels in the water is watching a being completely in harmony with its own environment; the fluidity of the movements, the muscles working in ways that they have been, day in and day out, for decades. It has a surreal quality that words and photos cannot do justice to.
At around 7:30am, we arrived in a village. The light was what struck me and will stay in my memory forever. The water is so clean and clear, producing startling reflections of the huts, the boats, and the people. The people come out of their houses to wave, shout Mingalaba!, and watch as you float your way away.
We visited a floating market, which I am sure over the years has grown increasingly to cater towards tourists, but still retains much of a local atmosphere, especially when visited at the right time; since many tourists head out of Nyaungshwe as the sun is beginning to warm the lake, we arrived early, and had the whole place to ourselves. The people from various tribes shopped, gossiped, chatted, drank tea, ate breakfast and snacks, and we wandered through the aisles.
We proceeded to the Jumping Cat Monastery; a bit bizarre, and also a different pagoda, and decided to head back to Nyaungshwe.
In the evening, we decided to eat on the street by the market; street vendors had set up little frying pans and pots, and we at delicious mini-pancake like things; fried dough with green onion and corn, with chili dipping sauce. There were children playing in the street, their faces bright with full smiles, dressed in rags, with no toys, yet their souls were intact. They would be playing games simply tagging and running, but their laughter and ability to play amazed me. As we walked back in the dark, we stopped to watch a group of children playing hopscotch in the street. Kids everywhere in the world are the same, aren’t they?
On the 28th, I was totally exhausted and lazed about in the morning before heading off into town with no direction whatsoever. I stopped to watch the watermelon seller play checkers. I asked if I could play and they were surprised but delighted, and even more delighted when I lost. The man, a thin, wiry man with an old fading purple longyi gave me a big slice of watermelon, and as I tried to pay, said present with a very firm look in his eyes, and I accepted. I strolled down the street with watermelon juice dripping down my face and hands, and entered a pagoda, where a family sat in the front with a thermos of tea. They immediately tried to sell me an offering to the Buddha, which I refused, but after my walk around the temple I accepted their invitation to sit and drink tea. I took photos of the family as well as their 3 year old son, and they ooh-ed and ahh-ed when I said I was from Japan. The woman that spoke the most English (really not much) said take me to Japan, I can teach Myanmar language. I smiled and said I would if I could. This was not the only time, by any means, that a person in Myanmar asked me to take them to Japan. I thanked them kindly for their tea and promised that if I visited Nyaungshwe again I would stop by the temple.
On my walk back I passed the watermelon stand and since I had no agenda, decided to make some cranes for my opponents who I had lost to. The group of 7 or 8 men were very pleased, and asked me to demonstrate again, giving them sheets to follow along with. A few of them also made me things they knew how to make, a boat (hle), an envelope, an airplane. They asked me to write their names in Japanese, and we sat around with my phrasebook, taking minutes to convey single-word thoughts. Lovely. Sateen, the original watermelon seller that had given me the juicy slice as a gift, now insisted that I eat his lunch. I was delighted to try some real local food, but also realized that this was a poor man and I didn’t want to take what little food he did have. I also didn’t want to refuse and offend him, so I decided I would take a few bites. He dismantled the stacked silver cylinders, and the first container had a lima bean curry. The next, plain rice. The last had plain rice and a few tablespoons of chili. Excuse me, but not a very nutritious and sustaining meal for a man that is presumably working on the street from daybreak to dusk. I did take a few bites, offered a few hundred kyat, at which he vehemently resisted and instead brought me tea. I drank, and explained that I should go and meet my friends, and we shook hands and waved with big smiles. I cried as I walked away.
Somehow the town had transformed, or I had transformed, or my role in the town had transformed, within the few short days that I was in Nyaungshwe. People that recognized me from the watermelon stand waved and smiled, whereas just a day before I had been stared at, I think mostly because people had no idea where I was from. I was in love with Nyaungshwe.
I met Ricard at the hotel, and he told me he had just eaten some delicious noodles, so I asked him to show me where it was. We walked back to the market, waving again to Sateen and Co., and sat at the tiny noodle stand with a very motherly woman with a grin covering more than half her face. She delighted in the fact that I was enjoying her Shan noodles and everyone within a 10m radius burst into laughter when I asked for a second bowl.
Sadly, it was time to go and we headed back to Joy Hotel to pack our things and take the pickup to Shweyaung where we would get the bus to Mandalay. We had a lot of time to kill at Shweyaung so we sat in a teashop, drinking delightfully sweet tea and munching on greasy samosas. The bus arrived after dark and I happily slept for the majority of the journey to Mandalay.