INLE LAKE, Shan State — It was just after daybreak when the long wooden boat carrying Ma Suu Khaing touched the shoreline of Nam Pan market beside Inle Lake. After four days of relative desertion, the waterfront was back to life, with merchants greeting each other as they moored their boats and unloaded sacks full of goods.
Minutes later, having spread out cauliflower heads on a tarpaulin sheet, the 34-year-old Ma Suu Khaing was ready to sell her home-grown vegetables.
“Today is Nam Pan market day,” she explained.
Like most of the bazaars in Shan State, Nam Pan market on the southern shore of Inle Lake—known internationally for its floating gardens and iconic leg-rowing fishermen—is only open every fifth day. Each market square in the area has its own designated market day, a centuries-old tradition based on a five-day rotational system that no one quite knows the origins of.
On market days, most residents in the vicinity of Nam Pan make their way to the bazaar to purchase food, household items and any number of other wares on offer. Sellers also become buyers, taking advantage of the close proximity of fellow merchants to stock up on household needs with money from the day’s earnings.
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Upon landfall at Nam Pan, visitors must nudge their way to the market through a large crowd of ethnic Intha, Taungyoe and Pa-O peoples. They mostly communicate with each other in their local dialects, but warm smiles also serve as a universally understood language for the non-local who makes eye contact with a member of any of the numerous ethnic groups that call Shan State home.
“Some of the tribes here live in the hills and there is no market there, but we can buy everything here,” explained U Htotoe, a 60-year-old ethnic Pa-O man who made the two-hour trek downhill from his home for his weekly shopping rounds.
A brief tour around the bustling bazaar is all it takes to realize that U Htotoe is not exaggerating.
One of the biggest markets around Inle Lake, the Nam Pan square sells a wide assortment of goods, from home-grown vegetables and heaping portions of dried tea leaves to Inle’s trademark tomatoes and imported biscuits. Stalls selling foodstuffs brought in from neighboring China and Thailand are particularly thronged, and a kiosk of pirated Korean soap-opera DVDs also attracts many market-goers. Waiters at a nearby teashop are not immune to the frenzy, hurrying from table to table seating patrons on their way to or from the market.
“We only sell our stuff until around 2:00 in the afternoon and then leave for home,” said a seller of betel leaves and nuts, Ma Nu Yi, while weighing leaves on a hand-held scale for a waiting customer. A neighboring woman sitting among bolts of hand-woven traditional fabrics explained that the market day comes to an end only when the shoppers and sellers have dispersed.
“It happens mostly in the afternoon, when people finish their shopping and head for their homes. So we leave, too,” she said.
But the market is not just the place to be for buying and selling goods; those in need of a tidying up are also encouraged to drop by.
At a makeshift barber’s shop just outside the market square, Khin Hlaing has been busy with his razors and scissors since morning. While shaving one man, and with another shaggy customer waiting for his chance in the wooden barber’s chair, the 70-year-old explained his presence.
“I usually do hair-cuts and shaves at home,” the veteran coiffeur said.
He added: “But I come here every market day, as I can make more money because there are more people here.”