Hole in the Donut Cultural Travel

“There are only 54 steps to the top,” said my guide, Mu Mu. Easy-peasy, I thought. I can do that without even breathing hard. Halfway up the face of Shwesandaw Temple, I realized I must have tuned out the part where she’d said each step was at least two feet high and the climb was nearly vertical. I grasped the thick iron railings and pulled myself up one excruciating step at a time, taking comfort in the fact that people one-third my age were finding the climb just as difficult.

Crowds climb Shwesandaw Pagoda to watch the sun set over a plain dotted with scores of ancient temples

Crowds climb Shwesandaw Pagoda to watch the sun set over a plain dotted with scores of ancient temples

Huffing and puffing, I finally scrambled up onto the walkway that surrounded the pagoda’s pinnacle. Spectators were already standing three deep, jockeying for position to watch the sun set over the famous temples of Bagan, but more and more people kept shoving in. Just when I was sure the walkway couldn’t accommodate one more person, a group of women loaded down with shopping bags and gigantic purses pushed their way up from the terrace below. They barreled through the crowd, pushing me perilously close to the edge, where the only barrier against a fatal fall was a low brick wall. Terrified, I backtracked to the stairway and sat down, putting my head down on my knees and breathing deeply to regain my composure. Read More

Betel nut vendor at the Nyung Shwe market near Inle Lake, Myanmar. His teeth are stained from chewing the betel nut concoction.n

Click on title to view photo in large format: Betel nut vendor at the Nyung Shwe market near Inle Lake, Myanmar. His teeth are stained from chewing betel nut, which is shredded and wrapped in a slake lime coated-betel leaf, along with spices and alcohol-marinated tobacco. Over time, the concoction eats the enamel off teeth. Many in Myanmar, especially men, are so addicted to the substance that that their teeth are little more than red-black stubs. Though I tried to take photos Read More

Typical house built on stilts over Inle Lake, Myanmar, with floating gardens surrounding the home

Click on title to view photo in large format: Typical stilt house on Inle Lake, Myanmar, with floating gardens surrounding the home. Entire villages are built over the lake in this fashion, complete with monasteries, general stores, schools, restaurants, and even craft workshops. The stilts must be high, as the lake level fluctuates severely between the dry and rainy seasons. The gardens are planted Read More

Inle Lake, Myanmar (formerly Burma), is home to nearly 200,000 residents who have developed unique measures that allow them to live in harmony with the lake. As water depths can vary from eight feet in the dry season to 17 feet in the rainy season, they build their wood and woven bamboo homes on stilts that keep them high and dry.

Whole communities “float” above the lake on these stilt homes, including floating gardens, monasteries, general stores, and even workshops for creating traditional Shan handicrafts such as silver jewelry and silk textiles. But the most famous sight on Inle Lake is undoubtedly the traditional fishermen, who Read More

Some of the 1,047 ancient stupas that crown a hilltop at Shwe Indein Pagoda near Inle Lake, Myanmar

Click on title to view photo in large format: These are just a few of the 1,047 ancient stupas that crown a hilltop at Shwe Indein Pagoda near Inle Lake, Myanmar. Legend insists that the shrines were built by Ashoka the Great, who lived from 304–232 BCE, however there is no archeological evidence to support this claim. The currently accepted theory is that they were constructed between 1174 to 1211, during the reign of King Narapatisithu, who was the last important king of Pagan (today known as Bagan). Each of the stupas is unique. Some are the original brick, others have been Read More

The sun was setting when our tour boat arrived at an area of Inle Lake frequented by the famous one-legged fishermen of Myanmar. We drifted up to a young man in a grey and red track suit who was balancing on the front tip of his flat-bottom boat. From his birds-eye perch, he navigated through dense vegetation in the shallow lake, using a paddle strapped to his other leg as the only means of propulsion. Using his free hands, he pulled a gossamer net into the boat, pausing only to retrieve tiny fish that had become tangled in the netting.

Traditional fishermen on Inle Lake balance on one leg at the front of their boats, rowing with a paddle attached to the other leg. The elevated position allows them to navigate through dense vegetation that grows in the shallow lake waters.

Traditional fishermen on Inle Lake balance on one leg at the front of their boats, rowing with a paddle attached to the other leg. The elevated position allows them to navigate through dense vegetation that grows in the shallow lake waters.

The fishermen of Inle Lake have been perfecting this remarkable feat of balance over generations. Unfortunately, the lake itself is teetering on the brink of imbalance. It has always experienced severe fluctuations in depth over the course of each year. During the dry season, the lake ranges from 7-12 feet deep, but summer monsoons can increase the depth to as much as 17 feet. The surface area of the lake also expands significantly during the rainy season, as flooding inundates surrounding low-lying lands. Read More