Nyaung Shwe: a photo essay
The name Nyaung Shwe may not ring a bell, but if you are heading to one of Myanmar’s most well-known tourist destinations, there’s a very great likelihood that you will stay in this colourful, rambunctious place.
The main gateway to Inle Lake, Nyaung Shwe is a hive of activity, especially when the rotating market comes to town, or if an annual, multi-day pagoda festival celebrates the arrival of four Buddha images from a major temple at the opposite end of the lake. It can get even busier, as we found out firsthand, if both events are held simultaneously. The dusty streets become thronged with trucks and other vehicles, sometimes with three or four people to a single motorbike, while residents from the surrounding villages stream into Nyaung Shwe atop their improvised tractors. Walking through the crowded street market, you might rub shoulders with Intha lake-dwellers and turbaned Pa’O women.
Beneath the tarp and bamboo structures lie a huge assortment of clothes, pottery, thanaka wood for natural sunscreen, even DVDs, but what catches our attention the most is the street food: a young vendor selling cold, milky drinks in vivid colours from a small metal cart; a stall with various cuts of pork, dyed ochre from the bubbling sauce they were cooked in; and thinly crusted scallion and chickpea pancakes sizzling over firewood. There is no shortage of mystery sweets and pastries, each one looking more enticing than the last.
Bama and I spend several days exploring Nyaung Shwe at a very slow pace. Each one begins with a hearty breakfast – fresh fruit, samosas, and perfectly fried egg on fried rice with chilli flakes and dried fish – at an outdoor area fronting the small canal at the back of the guesthouse. We observe people on bicycles crossing a wooden bridge, and local women doing laundry as the rays of the morning sun cast an ethereal glow on the scene.
Our guesthouse is a stone’s throw away from the Shan Cultural Museum, formerly the ‘Haw’ or palace of local Shan chieftains. The artifacts and descriptions inside wouldn’t let us forget that the first president of independent Myanmar (then known as Burma), Sao Shwe Thaik, was in fact the last Shan chieftain of Nyaung Shwe. A 20-minute walk to the north of town, the teak monastery of Shwe Yan Pyay was built in the early 19th century with unusual oval windows and intricately carved roof finials. Inside the ordination hall we find novice monks reciting sacred verses, indifferent cats basking in the sunlight, and a gilded Buddha seated on an elaborate pedestal inlaid with jewel-like coloured stones.
Nyaung Shwe is also a culinary adventure in itself. At Lotus, a restaurant where all the menus are scribbled in by hand, we enjoy generous plates of noodles and tea leaf salad, washed down with a zesty blend of avocado, banana and lemon juice. Another memorable experience lies just across the street, as we sit perched on tiny plastic stools, nibbling at onion fritters and slurping up the best Shan noodles I have tried so far (we are in Shan State after all). Sometimes the gateway is just as fascinating as the place to which it leads. ◊