It was 5 in the morning when I left my cozy bed and went out into the street to get a quick snack before starting the day. During the night before, it rained, the road was wet, the air was chilly and I was glad I was wearing my only sweater and scarf, even though I wished I had something warmer to wear. I knew it would have been colder later on while I was in the boat.
The combustion engines of the boats were already roaring in the canal since an hour or so and I gave them an irritated glance: my room’s window was above them and the noise brutally woke me.
The appointment was at 5.30 at the pier, and the girl I met the day before in the bus from Bagan was already there, eating a hard-boiled egg and chatting with friends that she made during the trip. We all had that slightly swollen face typical of the early mornings and rather watery eyes, but we were excited about the day ahead. We managed to be in Inle Lake for the last of the 18-day festival that happens once a year and we couldn’t wait to jump on the boat and start our day.
The long narrow boats had a line of chairs, one behind the other, 5 total. Getting to the seat was tricky and we had to climb over them one by one – I could already see myself falling in the greenish dirty water. Luckily I found that little balance in me and managed to land on my chair safe and sound. We wore the orange safety jackets and made our way out of the canal and into the open lake. As I predicted, I was freezing. The safety jacket helped to block part of the wind on my chest, but not enough. The sun was slowly rising behind the mountains on our left, but it was covered by some clouds and just a few of its rays were able to cut through creating beautiful bands of light.
There were just a few boats on the lake and we were all heading in the same direction to assist the Phaung Daw Oo Paya Festival, one of the bigger events happening in Inle Lake. The festival takes place between September and October, during the Thadingyut month. The four Buddhas that are normally at the Phaung Daw Oo Payd, are transported in the pagodas of the smaller villages around the lake. The 4 statues are covered in so many golden leaves that they lost their original shape and are transported on a royal barge that is designed like an hintha bird. The parade that drives the statues, proceed clockwise around the lake and the Buddhas are held in each pagoda for the night.
That morning the parade was almost at the end of the lake and most people were interrupting their businesses for the morning to be able to assist in the event. Small boats filled with entire families were rowing to find the perfect spot while other people were comfortably sitting on steps or the window frames of their houses. The royal barge wasn’t visible yet, but the traditional boats that were part of the parade were already rowing around prompting each other. The boats were long and flat and on each of them there were about 18 rowers per side standing and rowing with they left leg.
The sun was finally starting to slowly warm us up when the boat’s driver noticed some members of his family and drove us there to assist the event together. Boats were attached to each other along the narrow branch of the lake, kids were lightly moving to our boat to have a better view and everybody was waiting with excitement. I was watching people standing and moving between boats like if they were on mainland and I was jealous of their ability.
Finally, the parade started. The leg-rower boats, festively decorated with colorful umbrellas and radiant decorations, started to arrive. On them, guys from all age were rowing in unison, wearing colorful traditional clothes and playing all sorts of music. Some of them were more attached to the tradition with ritual songs while the younger crowds opted for some techno music, dance moves and a combination of traditional clothes with sunnies and smart jackets. Leg rowing by itself involve an impressive amount of coordination and balance, seeing so many of them together was spectacular and we kept looking at each other with surprise. The parade ended around 9 in the morning, closed by the bird looking barge brightened by the golden light of that beautiful sunny day.
People started to slowly move away from the site and go back to their daily business and eventually we moved as well and continued the tour of the Lake between floating markets, villages, and cigar shops.
Let’s face it, our day couldn’t start in a better way!