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Lotus land

Myanmar offers floating gardens and temples galore

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Myanmar -- In this land of many wonders, even attentive travellers risk missing unique opportunities. Or at least so it was with us during a tour by boat of Inle Lake, where villages, religious sites and workshops rise from the water amid floating gardens of flowers, fruits and vegetables.

Since just after dawn, we three friends had marvelled at the beauty of the lake and its distant cloud-covered mountains.

We'd analyzed the one-leg rowing technique used by fishermen and the friendly inhabitants of the teak homes that stand tall on stilts over the lake's placid waters.

In the morning we had conversed, via hand gestures, with the fishers, viewed an upscale lake resort, visited first a jewelry-maker, later a shop full of souvenirs made by local artisans and then a place where freshly rolled cheroots could be sampled.

All of these places were accessible only by boat.

Our afternoon itinerary included a visit to a lakeside market frequented by area tribes, a walk on a floating vegetable garden and a stop at a monastery famous for its jumping cats -- felines trained by monks to jump through hoops.

All that stood between us and a restorative lunch was a visit to a weaving factory. As our boat approached it, we could hear the repetitive click-click of looms.

But our sun-baked bodies could also hear that cold luncheon beer calling us. We voted to skip the weavers and head to the restaurant.

Fortunately, our boatman chose to ignore us. And we found ourselves in the only place in the world where fibre from lotus flowers is woven with silk into fabric.

"About 4,000 lotus stems are needed for a length of scarf," said a saleswoman at Myat Pwint Chel Silk and Lotus Weaving, pointing to the narrow scarf among the offerings for sale.

The lotus flower has a spiritual significance in this part of the world, which helps explain why the number of lotus stems needed for a set of monk's robes is a tally known by the staff.

As many as 220,000 lotus stems and 10 days of work by 60 weavers are needed to complete the set, the woman said.

The art of teasing sticky fibres from the stem of the sacred flower and combining them with raw silk has been practised by the women of In Phaw Khone village for about 200 years.

Thoughts of lunch evaporated as we reached for our cameras to capture the weavers and their wares.

This country, officially called Myanmar but known as Burma, is a camera buff's dream. Not only are its people and places incredibly photogenic, Myanmar has been off the beaten path for decades because of its repressive regime.

Some sanctions have been in place since 1988 when a military junta seized power and crushed peaceful pro-democracy uprisings. But Myanmar's politics and place in the world are changing.

In April 2012, Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi was elected to parliament, and Burma's shift away from pariah-state status picked up speed. In November 2012, Barack Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to visit.

One month later, when we visited Yangon -- the country's former capital, also known as Rangoon -- its citizens were still waving photographs of Obama and Suu Kyi together.

 

By Christmas, the hotels allowed to house foreigners were overflowing. Most had at least doubled their rates and, according to several accounts, some had turned away guests who booked at lower rates.

 

At busy intersections, hawkers peddled copies of the investment law for foreigners. And cash machines offering U.S. dollars were popping up in Yangon.

While slack-jawed tourists were snapping photos of the 99-metre-high golden Shwedagon Pagoda -- the country's most sacred (and strangely psychedelic) Buddhist site -- the locals were giddily taking pictures of the ATMs, the city's new status symbol.

 

The only folks who may have been happier than hoteliers, taxi drivers and the like were tourists like us who felt the country we were just getting to know was changing before our eyes.

Six-hundred kilometres north of Yangon is the vast archeological heritage site that is Bagan. Marco Polo was quoted as describing it as "one of the finest sights in the world."

In this old Burmese kingdom, boutique resort hotels with private gardens are sprouting from the dusty soil. Yet it is still possible to rent bikes (from a young mother who will also do your laundry) and set off into a temple-strewn plain said to hold more than 3,000 pagodas, temples and stupas, dome-shaped monuments that house Buddhist relics.

Especially when viewed at sunset, this forest of pagodas is a magnificent sight. Certain temples draw throngs of people every evening.

But in Bagan -- perhaps more than anywhere else in this fascinating country -- it is good to sometimes drift where the local winds take you.

And so we closed one wonderful day outside of a temple in the company of two generations of temple guardians. While the 90-year-old brought chairs for the two visitors, his son used a stick in the sand to tell a tale of secret underground passages once used by monks to take sacred treasures to the river.

 

-- Postmedia News

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 17, 2013 E1

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