Inle Lake is one of Myanmar’s most prolific tourist destinations. The vast pool of shallow water that surrounds the small but vibrant town of Nyaungshwe with it’s rows and rows of tall stilt homes that precariously rest upon flimsy bamboo stems creates a charming and relaxed atmosphere, unique to what we saw from the rest of Myanmar.
A particular highlight of my time spent in Inle Lake was a trip to a simple little factory that made Longyi, the traditional dress in Myanmar for both men and women (usually made of a wide piece of cloth about 2m long and 2ft wide resting around the waist and tied at the front in a large knot). The Longyis produced in the factory were made both by hand and by old wooden looms that slowly wove intricate patterns onto colourful pieces of cloth.
We were taken to the factory by our guide that day who dropped us off at the entrance to the factory and told us that he would wait whilst we looked around. Underneath the factory, in the rafters the young children of the seamstresses ran wild, blissfully ignoring the multiple trip hazards strewn across every floorboard, close to the water’s edge.
After exploring the ‘basement’ of the factory, we were guided upstairs to the main factory floor by a member of staff. She briefly explained that the factory produced Longyi for the local community, as well as more premium items made of a more luxury fabric; lotus root silk. She guided us to an older lady who was given the laborious task of carefully breaking the stem of the lotus flower and rolling the inner threads into one larger piece for production later on.
Our guide told us that the lotus silk threads produced are usually turned into scarves. The scarves are often sold to tourists as they are much too pricey for the local community due to labour costs and production time. We checked in the gift shop later on, and whilst a ‘normal’ cotton scarf was sold to tourists for about £7, the lotus silk scarves were being sold for about £90. Considering that around a quarter of all citizens from Myanmar live under the poverty line making it the poorest nation in Southeast Asia, the costly nature of the lotus silk scarf in its native country is suggestive of its rarity.
Travelling further into the factory we came across a lady who had the job of threading dyed yarn onto a large platform, ready to be woven into patterned longyis on one of the large wooden looms later. The arduous task was done by hand, the woman walking to and fro’, repeatedly, picking up another piece of coloured thread every now and again adding to the process. Her work was hypnotic, made even more incredible by the fact that the process was done with the absence of machine.
Dotted around the factory many large, industrial, archaic, wooden looms worked tirelessly, with seemingly no plan to stop. The majority female workers, operated in repeated motion. The whole factory felt as though it was lifted straight from Metropolis. Industrial, hypnotic and cyclical. Noises looped into an infinite rhythm. It was quite an experience to witness a factory untainted by modern technology, working just as it did over 50 years ago, unchanging except for the faces.
The factory is relatively easy to get to. If you have an Inle Lake boat trip planned, ask your guide to take you the longyi and lotus silk factory in the stilt village. Otherwise, all around the ports at Nyaungshwe, there are many local fisherman who will happily take you to the factory for a small price. I imagine they will get commission for taking you there, especially if you buy something (which we did, as gifts for family back home).
Where to catch the boat:
(Walk down Yone Gyi St and towards Viewpoint Lodge until you see a very small and modest docking area).