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(Travel Tuesday) The cats of Inle Lake (Burma)

So here I am, over 2 weeks back from Burma and yet to post one thing about the trip. I’m such a slacker. In actual truth, report cards, stomach flu and the first ever Food Bloggers of Canada conference planning (tickets on sale this Friday – eek!) have kept me pretty busy – so busy in fact that I have barely had a chance to look at my pictures.  Actually this is the first trip I have taken in a while that I have not immediately looked at my pictures on the day I take them. Which is a good sign – that I was too busy relaxing, eating and drinking to think about that stuff. So when I came to finally sitting down last weekend to look at one of my five (!) memory cards’ worth of pictures, I found myself also looking at our own little piece of Burma, Miss Cleo, who seemed quite indignant that I was going to look at pictures instead of spend quality time with her – and I knew exactly which part of the trip I needed to write about: the cats of Inle Lake. (NB: she sat on my legs the entire time I edited these pictures. I think she felt at one with this part of our trip).

When you typically think of Inle Lake, you might think of this:

Fisherman on Inle Lake in Burma

Located in the Nyaungshwe Township of Taunggyi District of Shan State, Inle is the second largest lake in the country with a surface area of about 120 km squared and has thriving communities (complete with floating gardens) located in the villages along the lake’s shore (population of the lake – the people are known as the Intha – is around 70 000).  Those images of the fishermen are ubiquitous (they even feature on the cover of the Lonely Planet which every tourist in Burma seems to be carrying!) and it’s truly enthralling to watch the “leg rowing” as it is known.  Balancing on one leg on the boat (!), holding the oar with the other foot (their leg is kind of wrapped around the oar), the fishermen push the boats forward with a kind of circular movement of the oar. This leaves their hands free to handle the conical nets which are their fish traps (though the picture above looks like it might be posed a little – see below for a better idea of the concept). It is quite the spectacle – be aware that the boats heading out to the hotels of Inle do tend to stop in a certain area where a bunch of the fishermen congregate (posing) and even come up to the tourist boats offering fish for money (yeah, thanks, I’ll take this dead fish to my hotel. Not.) In any case, the fishermen are all over the lake and during any one of your boat trips (the transportation around the lake) you’ll see many of them, just going about their business.

If you can tear your eyes off the fishermen, you will notice tiny, fascinating communities all along the shoreline, and if you’re really quick and paying attention as you whiz by on your way to see the lotus weavers, you might see a tiny sign for the “Burmese Cat’s Café” (sic).

Yes the Inthar Heritage House (as well as being a café serving real coffee not the “3-in-1″ you normally get in Burma) is also the permanent home to around 50 pedigree Burmese cats (which after World War II, became very rare in Burma) brought in from Australia and the UK to boost the dwindling population of pure-breds.  All I can say is that they have a pretty nice life….

As well as the indoor “sanctuary” there is also the outdoor “cat village”….

And they’re just everywhere you turn. And following you everywhere.  (When we were there one got out but was quickly retrieved before he made a dash for it in one of the longtails “parked” out front!)

And look. Burmese cats eat rice. Who would have thought? Well, I guess, on reflection it makes sense…

Yeah, they’ve got a pretty great life there. Cat heaven. Plus, did I mention they serve decent coffee?  This became a bit of an obsession as we travelled through Burma where the “3-in-1″ is pretty much all you get. And yes that’s instant coffee powder, sugar and non-dairy creamer all in one package that you mix into boiling water. Strangely addictive, but not quite the caffeine boost you might be used to.

But the cats of the Inthar Heritage House are not the only feline attraction around the lake. No, if you do a little bit of reading about attractions to visit, you’ll no doubt come across information about the Nga Hpe Kyaung Monastery. Otherwise known as the Jumping Cat Monastery, aka probably the most visited monastery on the Lake!

Jumping cats? I hear you ask. Why yes. Apparently for “centuries” the monks (in their down time) have trained the resident felines to jump through hoops (in exchange for treats). Ok then. Knowing our Cleo (who will come running if the treat cupboard is opened even if she is on another floor of the house but who would be fairly disdainful if she were required to jump through a hoop to earn one), Neil and I were hugely skeptical. I mean really? Cats just kind of do what they like, right? They don’t perform on command.  We couldn’t NOT go…

At first glance, Nga Hpe Kyaung looks like any other monastery. But if you look hard enough you can see the cats…

And then if you look just a little bit further, you’ll see crowds of tourists kneeling on the floor. Around a bunch of snoozy cats. Just kind of doing cat things (rolling around, sleeping, sitting). An optimistic guide tried to make one of the cats jump through her arms, like apparently they jump through the hoops for the monks. Uh huh.  Many tourists “oooh-ed” and “aaah-ed” but Neil and I were like “Ummmm, the cat is just jumping to get away from all the people. Not a trick at all. A cat being a cat.” Clearly the other tourists were not cat people.

Meanwhile, a few metres away….

They’re thinking “Tricks? What tricks? Where are the treats?”

And one lonely kitty played on his own with a piece of bamboo…

Yeah, um, that was the most “cat action” we saw.

To be fair, we were there later in the day and the monks were not around and certainly not setting up the tricks on the “cat stage”.  We actually overheard one guide telling his group that the head monk has discouraged the cat tricks and training because it’s encouraging tourists to visit the (gorgeous) monastery for the wrong reasons. Well, yes. It’s an irresistible concept ;)  We did take some time to look around the beautiful wooden structure (on stilts) and it warrants a visit in its own right for sure.  And yes apparently the cats do/did do the tricks. Well kind of. They are just jumping through hoops. You can see proof in a couple of videos here.

The cats had the last laugh there for sure! I think they need to head over to the Heritage House for a much more tranquil life!

Meanwhile, around Inle Lake…

and those fishermen again…

The lake is at its best at dusk…

And then even better at sunset…

Inle is a very special place and a must visit if you make it to Burma. More (non-cat) Inle adventures coming soon. Stay tuned!

Congratulations to Deanna H who won my EatSmart Precision Pro Digital Scale Giveaway! I’ll be in touch to get your shipping details soon!

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26 Responses to (Travel Tuesday) The cats of Inle Lake (Burma)

  1. Kavey January 22, 2013 at 05:22 #

    Hoorah, it begins!

  2. Sally - My Custard Pie January 22, 2013 at 08:26 #

    I want to get to Burma before it’s too late and has been completely over-run by Lonely Planet Touting tour parties. You’ve whetted my appetite further – but cats from afar please. Terribly allergic :)

    • Mardi Michels January 26, 2013 at 08:21 #

      There are plenty of other things to do on the Lake apart from the cats!

  3. Cher January 22, 2013 at 08:35 #

    Wow, Mardi – beautiful.

  4. Colette @ JFF! January 22, 2013 at 13:04 #

    I’d jump through hoops for food, too!

  5. Stephanie January 22, 2013 at 17:54 #

    I love this post!!! Thank you!!! : ) ^^

  6. Mr. Neil January 22, 2013 at 18:18 #

    I realised going there – and it was me who made the longtail go – that is was compltely likely to be a dismal tourist thing now…as indeed it was.

    The monks looked thoroughly unamused by the tacky tourists. (Some of whom were relentless with the kitties, unfortunately.) It was a tad embarrassing.

    But the origins are decidedly better…

    • Mardi Michels January 26, 2013 at 08:20 #

      Yeah well we would have been cross if we missed it, right…

  7. Paula January 22, 2013 at 19:04 #

    Your photographs are wonderful and this story of the Burmese cats was quite interesting. I just love your shot of the monk walking away from the camera.

  8. Martha January 22, 2013 at 19:27 #

    So happy to read about your trip!

  9. Liz January 22, 2013 at 21:28 #

    What magnificent photos of your trip, Mardi. The lake shots are spectacular with the sunlight reflections…and I adore all the cats with their moods and antics!

    • Mardi Michels January 26, 2013 at 08:19 #

      The cats definitely have their own personalities for sure!

  10. Geoff January 22, 2013 at 22:17 #

    A nicely told story, Mardi. Raconteur exceptionelle.

  11. cat January 22, 2013 at 23:02 #

    oh, mardi, your photos are absolutely gorgeous!

  12. Wandergirl January 23, 2013 at 09:24 #

    Great photos. Beautiful cats!

    Having grown up with a cat, I too would have been skeptical about cats jumping through hoops. But I can understand the monks’ concern with not wanting that to be the only reason for visists to the monastery.

    My husband’s allergic, so alas, my new dream of living in a cat sanctuary in Burma doesn’t seem feasible…

    • Mardi Michels January 26, 2013 at 08:18 #

      LOL! You definitely need to visit if you ever go!

  13. The Mistress of Spices January 29, 2013 at 21:31 #

    Amazing photos! Can’t wait to read more about your Myanmar adventures and to go there…perhaps this month or next!

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