Getting to Nyaungshwe from Mandalay by air is a surreal experience. But then much of travel in Burma is, in one way or another, surreally beautiful or incongruous. In this case it’s the latter. One drives for an hour passing curiously little traffic on the approach to Mandalay International Airport. Considered to be the most enormous waste of resources with the longest runway in Southeast Asia, it’s been little used due to, politely speaking, miscalculations by the military government. From Mandalay my destination airport was Heho. I got on a plane outside a city with little to recommend it and got off after 35 minutes in the beautiful back of beyond.
At the airport in Heho industrious fellows with handcarts made piles of the luggage and what started as orderly perusing turned into a scrum of sweaty passengers extracting belongings from the heap. Escaping with my worldly goods and leaving the building I headed for the parking lot. Passengers being politely approached, transport deals negotiated, some of us wanting to share, destinations declared with question marks and a couple going my way miraculously identified, we hired ourselves a driver and his battered vehicle and headed off.
It’s about half an hour’s drive to Nyaungshwe, complete with check points and tolls to enter the Inle Lake district in Shan State. The town is the pushing off point for most visitors to the area, at the northern end of the large shallow lake ringed by villages, towns, temples and resorts. A day spent touring in a motor boat is the most efficient way to see it all and the only way to encounter local fishermen rowing their craft in the much photographed style known as leg rowing.
Nyuangshwe is a congenial place, low-rise and busy in a small town sort of way. There are a few unlikely spots around the world in which I can imagine staying indefinitely and Nyaungshwe is one of them. It’s the crossroads of the Inle region with the lake to the south and the airport and train station to the north, well off the beaten path from a wider perspective but convenient in many ways. One could find, I’m sure, an inexpensive tropical garden spot to hang one’s hat and would certainly not starve, decent to excellent food easy enough to come by.
I was taken with the town immediately on arrival and it wasn’t long before I found the heart of the place, physically as well as socially, as markets tend to be. Called the Mingalar Market and at the crossing of the main north-south and east-west roads, nowhere is far from it. I stayed at the southern edge of town where buildings gave way to farms, a short horse cart ride or an easy walk away, and it became the focus of my perambulations on a number of the days I was there.
The market is fronted on the two sides that face the roads by shops with green-painted shutters. Several entry points between shops lead into the market and while the outermost ring of stands sell tourist goods these days one need go only a bit farther to find the real deal. Vendors in imaginative combinations of tribal and western clothing sell all the staples for daily living presented in the most beautiful ways, the better to stand out from their neighbors selling essentially the same things. Some items I could readily identify and some I couldn’t. But it hardly mattered. Everywhere I looked composition after artful composition made from the simple necessities of life reminded me how, in all things, less can most definitely be more.
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