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. ◊
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.
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.
Fantastic pictures specially the one with the boats!
Judging from all the comments, it sounds like those shots of longboats are clear favourites!
it most beautiful..
Nyaung Shwe was truly a visual feast.
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!
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.
You get a sense of this cat being quite nonchalant about all the sacred surroundings 😉
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.
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!
Good to hear … and I see that you got together with Madhu! How fun!
Thanks – I’m glad you like them.
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?
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.
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.
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.
I love each photo. wonderful!
Thanks for that!
What a beautiful building
Yes, the monastery is a must-see – not just for the lovely teak architecture but also its spiritual atmosphere.
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!
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…
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!
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!
Great post. But one correction. I can see what those two young monks are reading…it’s a McDonalds menu!
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.
omg…the downside to globalization, Coke rots your guts, and teeth
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.
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.