Photo: The delicate process of teasing out lotus threads.

Handicraft villages

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Some of the lake’s villages specialise in various handicraft and cottage industries and the workshops form regular stops on most Inle Lake itineraries. Some are indigenous to the lake and others more contrived, but they are on the whole at least traditionally Burmese -- even the contrived ones create work and income for the villagers.

Stops at the villages provide some structure for your tour, and give you a chance to get out of the boat from time to time and stretch your legs in between gaping at the beautiful floating gardens and stilted houses. Most have souvenir stands or even occasionally full-on air-con showrooms, but they are never really a hard sell. Bear in mind that if you stopped at all of them it’d take all day, so which ones are actually interesting enough to stop for?

Hanging the silk out to dry, In Paw Khone Village. Photo taken in or around Handicraft villages, Inle Lake, Burma_myanmar by Mark Ord.

Hanging the silk out to dry, In Paw Khone Village. Photo: Mark Ord

Of course, the bosses rake in the cash and the cheroot workers, for example, are paid a relative pittance -- but that doesn’t only happen in Inle Lake. These tourist sites do provide employment plus many would go on, whether tourists visited or not.

The most controversial workshops are the ones employing Padaung or the so-called ‘long-neck Karen’. The women we’ve talked to, at least, say they are happier to be here than stuck in their remote home villages scraping together a monotonous living with no electricity or running water. The Padaung are not native to Inle. They originated from Kayah State just to the south.

Padaung woman at work weaving in traditional style. Photo taken in or around Handicraft villages, Inle Lake, Burma_myanmar by Mark Ord.

Padaung woman at work weaving in traditional style. Photo: Mark Ord

On a recent visit, the women were fascinated — and taking photos on their own phones — of an Englishwoman in our group who had a pierced tongue. "That must be really uncomfortable — doesn’t it hurt?" asked the Padaung women with several kilograms of brass around their necks. They sell various trinkets, jewellery and fabrics, and of course the deal is that you make a purchase and take a photo. Some speak basic English, or if you have a guide they can translate, so communication needn’t be a problem. Several workshops/handicraft stores are located in the area between Ywama and the start of the In Dein River.

The other main handicrafts covered are lotus-weaving, cheroots, blacksmithing, boat-building and silversmithing. Having visited all several times, we’d say the former two are very interesting and generally popular – with lotus-weaving being as far as we know unique to Inle Lake -- while the blacksmithing and boat-building are of more niche interest. The silversmithing is more showroom than workshop.

Making cheroots, or Burmese cigars, in Nam Pan. Photo taken in or around Handicraft villages, Inle Lake, Burma_myanmar by Mark Ord.

Making cheroots, or Burmese cigars, in Nam Pan. Photo: Mark Ord

While the handicraft workshops are spreading across the lake somewhat these days, traditionally the weaving takes place in In Paw Khone village and cheroot rolling in Nam Pan. Ywama and associated villages have silver factories, parasol-making and Padaung handicrafts, and Se Khong has the blacksmiths.

These are the spots where boatmen and guides get their commission, sip on free tea and munch snacks, and chat with their mates, so it can be difficult to persuade them to change itineraries. There are also non-tourist alternatives in some of the less-visited lakeside villages such as Khaung Daing, which is famous for tofu. We’ve stopped at Thale Oo, a lakeshore farming village where no handicrafts at all were on sale, but locals were happy to show us, and even let us participate in, various farming activities going on in the village.

Smiths at work! Photo taken in or around Handicraft villages, Inle Lake, Burma_myanmar by Mark Ord.

Smiths at work! Photo: Mark Ord

Some villages can get very busy during high season, which is another reason to skip them, but at the end of the day it boils down to personal taste. As we said, there is never a hard sell and if you’ve made a stop and are finding it dull, sit and have a tea with the boatmen or simply move on somewhere else relatively quickly.

The handcraft villages are usually visited on a day trip from Nyaung Shwe, which will take in floating gardens as well. Standard day hire for one of the Lake’s motor-powered longtail boats is 18,000-25,000 kyat, from dawn to dusk. Book directly with a boatman at one of the jetties, though you’ll encounter plenty of touts in Nyaung Shwe’s streets, too. Pilots – most of whom will speak at least minimal English - may offer discounts during quiet periods. Agree on a price the day before, but don’t haggle too hard or the pilot will spend the day trying to minimise fuel usage. Make sure you know where you’re meeting, as there are several jetties. Destinations further afield such as In Dein or Thaung To will cost a little extra. A small tip of say 5,000 kyat or is customary. A maximum of five foreigners per boat is permitted; better boats come equipped with blankets, umbrellas and even sometimes waterproofs.

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