Chapter 1, Part 17
Far from the crowds and bustle of tourists and locals at the center of Inle Lake, our small boat headed to the southwestern side of the lake. Our boatman skillfully navigated the calm waters to Indein (Inn Thein) creek, past Phaung Daw Oo pagoda with its gleaming spires, and moved upstream towards the village of Inn Tain Kone. Occasionally the boat sheered away a few inches to avoid collision with local men who were collecting rocks and minerals in the river.
The shallow waterway, at some points shaded by dense vegetation, is navigable only in the rainy season, leaving me wondering how the locals do their activity in the dry season as boat is the main means of transportation in this part of the world. After almost one hour, we were finally approaching the village where almost naked men were bathing near the pier, nonchalant of several tourists and local boats around.
We paid a small entrance fee and walked towards a group of ruins perched on a higher ground just a few meters from the river. Ancient red-brick temples in various states of neglect and decay dotted the area amid dense overgrowth, some appeared to have succumbed to the forces of nature more than the others. Historical notes on the temples of Nyaung Ohak, Burmese for ‘group of banyan trees’ as the compound is called, is sketchy. Some believe the shrines, together with Shwe Indein pagoda, were built during the height of the kingdom of Bagan, although most agree that a lot of structures were constructed in a later period long after the fall of the ancient Burmese dynasty.
A Buddha statue half buried in the debris of a fallen spire, as well as tree branches protruding from the crests of a number of shrines, were testament to the abandonment of Nyaung Ohak by the locals as a worship site. Carvings of what seemed to be Vishnu astride Garuda hinted at a period of syncretism between Hinduism and Buddhism by the people who built the temples.
Not all was neglected, though. As we ascended the hill through a long, covered stairway, studded with souvenir stalls on both sides, we found newly-painted spires sitting next to the austere ones. Shades of gold, grey and terra cotta rendered this group of temples a rather playful appearance. Unlike Nyaung Ohak, Shwe Indein was still very much alive and used by the locals to pray and for other religious purposes. The contrast between the two could not have been starker.
Click here for the full list of stories from the Spice Odyssey series.