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Nyaung Shwe: a photo essay

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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.

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One of the few traffic lights in town

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Going to the market – a family affair

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Deep fried snacks for sale

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Pottery spilling out on the street

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Two Pa’O women and the pottery vendor

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Thanaka wood, a natural cosmetic ingredient in Myanmar

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Its ground bark is made into a paste and used as sunscreen and skin whitener

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Candy seller in a pensive moment

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Thick pancakes being made

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Unknown sweet pastries – I was tempted to buy one!

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.

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The former Shan Palace of Nyaung Shwe, now a museum

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The steps lead up to an audience hall housing the royal throne

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Longboats on the canal leading to Inle Lake

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Disembarking at the pier

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Boatmen steering their longboat into place

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The ordination hall at Shwe Yan Pyay monastery

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Exuberant details on the roof

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The monastery was once daubed in red paint, which has now faded beautifully

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Inside the ordination hall

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The gilded Buddha at the centre of Shwe Yan Pyay

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Novice monks pondering over life’s big questions

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Four faces, four expressions

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Little Buddhas in niches, with many funded by donations of foreign visitors

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Black and white at Shwe Yan Pyay

31 Comments Post a comment
  1. This bought back some wonderful memories. We were in Nyaung Shwe for market day – what a wild scene. And of course in one of those long boats on the canal to the lake – more than once. nice post James.

    November 23, 2015
    • Thank you, Alison. Your posts on Inle Lake (and the rest of Myanmar/Burma) were instrumental in convincing me to plan this trip! I had so much fun taking pictures and strolling wide-eyed through the markets.

      November 24, 2015
  2. DD #

    Fantastic pictures specially the one with the boats!

    November 23, 2015
    • Judging from all the comments, it sounds like those shots of longboats are clear favourites!

      November 24, 2015
  3. it most beautiful..

    November 23, 2015
    • Nyaung Shwe was truly a visual feast.

      November 24, 2015
  4. Remarkable! I’m particularly amused by the cat on the edge of a sunbeam inside the ordination hall. 🙂 And those boats! The food, sights, sounds, stories… marvelous!

    November 23, 2015
    • Carissa, I have no doubt that you would love this place! 🙂 Funny thing is, I came close to publishing a close-up shot of that cat. He (or she?) was very blasé about all the activity around him – he wouldn’t even look directly into my camera lens.

      November 24, 2015
      • You get a sense of this cat being quite nonchalant about all the sacred surroundings 😉

        November 25, 2015
  5. I was thinking about you guys when I heard the recent news about a landslide in northern Myanmar; I assume you are safe. Loved these photos, especially the longboats and the young monks.

    November 23, 2015
    • That’s really sweet, Lex. Thank you for thinking of our safety – we didn’t go that far north while travelling around Myanmar last month. Bama and I are now across the Bay of Bengal, in Pondicherry. It’s amazing how time flies even when you’re on the road!

      November 24, 2015
      • Good to hear … and I see that you got together with Madhu! How fun!

        November 28, 2015
  6. Stunning photos.

    November 23, 2015
    • Thanks – I’m glad you like them.

      November 24, 2015
  7. Wonderful photos, James! I’m intrigued by the traffic lights, though. They just look like metal signs on a post! How do they work? Or is it a sign warning that they’re ahead?

    November 24, 2015
    • Much appreciated, Steve! The staff at our guesthouse pointed out one intersection with a traffic light, and when we got there that was what we found. I think you are right about it being a warning – there was an actual (but non-functioning) light at the next junction.

      November 24, 2015
  8. JMD #

    The monastery is definitely worth a visit. The city is colourful but not the most authentic place in this region of Myanmar. I did prefer the other Lake Inle villages.

    November 24, 2015
    • I can see what you mean, with Nyaung Shwe being the place of choice for most guesthouses and hotels, but I didn’t feel that the pagoda festival and markets were set up for tourists. The workshops on Inle Lake itself were a different story.

      November 24, 2015
  9. yuniamelia #

    I love each photo. wonderful!

    November 24, 2015
  10. What a beautiful building

    November 24, 2015
    • Yes, the monastery is a must-see – not just for the lovely teak architecture but also its spiritual atmosphere.

      November 24, 2015
  11. Hi James, I love your pictures of Myanmar, although I’ve never been there your experience sounds like a place I would love to go. The food looks and sounds delicious! Thanks for sharing this experience!

    November 24, 2015
    • You’re welcome, Liz! The food in Myanmar was certainly an eye-opener, although I didn’t have the courage to try as much street food as I had hoped. At least it partially justifies going back a second time…

      December 3, 2015
  12. Ah yes, with these photos and introduction I remember this place well (Inle Lake was one of my favorite places in Myanmar…then again, I am very much a water person). You’ve got such a great blend and diversity of photos here – each one capturing pieces of life in this area. Everywhere in Myanmar seemed to have such a great spirituality to it, yet each area so different than the others (which surprised me as it is such a small country that I did not expect so much diversity). Safe travels!

    November 25, 2015
    • Thanks Randall! Seeing how the Intha lived completely on the water was pretty mind-boggling. I especially enjoyed going through the floating gardens and seeing the rows of utility poles standing in the middle of the lake. I agree about the spirituality – even Yangon had that touch in certain places outside Shwedagon!

      December 3, 2015
  13. Great post. But one correction. I can see what those two young monks are reading…it’s a McDonalds menu!

    November 28, 2015
    • Ha! Maybe in a couple of years Myanmar will actually get a McDonald’s… Coca-Cola returned to the country in 2012, after an absence of more than six decades. They’ve even got a local bottling plant in Yangon.

      December 3, 2015
      • omg…the downside to globalization, Coke rots your guts, and teeth

        December 4, 2015
  14. Of all the places on your trip, I think I am most jealous of Myanmar and the Spice Islands. I am happy to hear that you like the food – that is one negative I’d heard. Great photos.

    I am intrigued by the “zesty blend of avocado, banana and lemon juice.” That sounds strange but good.

    November 29, 2015
    • Thanks Jeff. Once you get past the oiliness, the food in Myanmar is pretty awesome. We were lucky to find a couple of places that made excellent local dishes with a lot less oil.

      When I first ordered that drink, I was not so sure about the lemon juice. But it added a refreshing twist that cut through the richness of the other two ingredients.

      December 3, 2015

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