In and out of Inle Lake

By the time we came to leave Bagan, the recently recovered Nick was probably thinking that just about the most uncomfortable thing he could imagine was the hot, 7 hour bus journey to Inle Lake. Thankfully, the bumpy 45 minute journey to the bus station in the back of an open truck at 6.30 in the morning proved him wrong, and from that point things could only get better (kind of).

The plus side to our early morning jaunt in the truck was – as we were jostled from side to side and had to keep scraping the flying dust from our eyes – that we were able to see for one last time the sheer beauty that is early morning Bagan. With temples on either side and all around us aglow in the new morning sunshine, we also enjoyed the smell of burning leaves and early fires that in places choked the roads with their smoke, and the sound of chickens, dogs and people starting with their day.

The bus trip was indeed long and pretty uncomfortable, especially as we were loath to draw the curtains on the changing landscape (flat plains to mountainous jungle) and therefore ended up baking in the sun coming through the window.  On the way we mainly saw farms, on which we spied oxen used for grinding corn as well as ploughing and pulling carts, as well as herds of goats and sheep complete with their shepherds.

Oxen grinding something

With all these scenes of rural idyll flashing past us it was then a bit of a shock to suddenly find ourselves in the middle of a military landscape. The road seemed to pass right by an army compound, where soldiers could be seen performing exercises in HUGE armoured tanks and with HUGE cannon-like gun things. It all looked very strange. I didn’t even want to risk taking a photo… just in case…

We finally reached Nyaung Shwe in the late afternoon just as the sun was doing its thing and making it look all golden and rosy and welcoming, very nice. Although it didn’t seem like it, the trishaw (basically a wooden seat attached to a pedal bike) driver who approached us assured us that he could take the two of us (and I was probably bigger than he was) as well as our 2 massive backpacks and a rucksack each to our guesthouse ‘no problem’ so we hopped in and hung on to the bags with dear life. Yep, no problem.

The Remember Inn was a rather large if charming guesthouse that seemed to be run by a gaggle of lovely, giggly teenagers who spent their time when not working sitting on the steps and singing pop songs along to a guitar. As well as the staff the highlights of The Remember Inn were the fact that it was overrun with kittens and that it served fantastic breakfasts on the rooftop – perfect for sunrise. The breakfast that had us starting the day in a typically Burmese fashion included banana and papaya, two deliciously oily veggie samosas and a bowl of Mohinga – a spicy fish soup containing noodles and hardboiled eggs, all washed down with coffee sweetened by condensed milk.

Mohinga - a typically Burmese way to start the day

The town of Nyaung Shwe is basically the gateway to Inle Lake. You can stay on the lake itself but you’d have to be super rich and get boats everywhere. Lonely Planet describes Nyaung Shwe as one of the ‘backpacker hubs’ of Burma, however as we’ve found in much of Burma, you are much more likely to find tour groups of French and German retirees than backpackers. And, like the rest of Burma, most places around here close at around 11pm at the latest, so the nightlife is a bit of a far cry from similarly named ‘back packer hubs’ in Thailand or Vietnam, for example. Anyway, that didn’t bother us as we soon found that Nyaung Shwe had lots of interesting places to eat, drink and generally wander around (including a maze of a market), as well as the fact that from its busy dock we could get out on to the lake.

The market at Nyaung Shwe

The busy docks at Nyaung Shwe

On the day that we headed out there we started earlyish and set sail in our personal motorised longboat about 8.20am. By 8.30 we’d just about left the dock and by 8.32 we’d come to a spluttering halt a little way up the river. After a good old tug on the motor, we were off! And then we weren’t again. Enlisting the help of a passing boatman, our chap had a good old tinker and finally got us going again about 10 minutes later. In the meantime we had a good old look at a hot air balloon overhead, and even better, got to observe the reaction of a playground full of school children watching said balloon.

We are sailing

Once we’d cleared the rather busy channel from Nyaung Shwe all of a sudden the lake opened up and it almost felt like we were the only boat out there – it was massive! As we continued we saw fisherman (from the Intha tribe) who are known for their distinctive leg rowing technique (they basically stand with one leg on the boat whilst the other is wrapped around the single oar that they use to steer and propel the boat, using hands free for fishing with huge conical-shaped bamboo fishing nets / baskets).

Intha fisherman and his friendly offspring

A bit more acrobatic

Showing us his catch

When the fisherman in the middle of the lake see tourists such as ourselves they will head over and do a few poses for a few kyats, but it’s most interesting to see them going about their daily business down the smaller channels where there are less boats.

Intha fisherman at work

After around 40 minutes of sailing we reached Indein Village on the banks of the lake, which is the main tourist hot spot thanks to Shwe Inn Thein, a huge shrine of literally thousands of stupas on a hillside above the village.

Nick and I luckily went the wrong way when entering the village and by happy accident ended up at another set of ruined stupas up a gnarly little hill, which we consequently had to ourselves.

Much quieter ruined stupas

From here we had great views of a similarly abandoned group of temples across the valley, and could experience the sense of creeping ruin and peaceful quiet much more keenly.

We were glad to accidentally find this view...

We then headed over to the famous one, Shwe Inn Thein, and by contrast joined a crowd of tourists for the long walk through a covered market heading to the stupas. The market was just like Scooby Doo – the same images kept repeating themselves in the background as we walked: carved buddhas, cotton trousers, lacquer bowls,  carved buddhas, cotton trousers, lacquer bowls… you get the idea.

Shwe Inn Thein can only really be described as bizarre.  The sheer number of stupas is, of course, impressive, but what is being done to them now somewhat ruins the scene. For the last few years, one by one the stupas are being restored with plaster and gold paint. The difference in old and new is startling, and although the desire to preserve is understandable, the original stupas are much the more beautiful for all their crumbling glory.

Strange medley of new and old

The untouched ones definitely had more character

Walking round the stupas was a strange experience as it feels weird, in Burma, to have to dodge other tourists in such a way. In the end we bought some oranges from a lovely woman with a gorgeous baby and sat and ate them in the company of a very sweet puppy.

Lovely mum and baby

After a walk through the market and spotting some doughnuts that looked so amazing that I dropped and consequently lost my hat, we went and drank a very healthy coconut by the river whilst thinking about all the deep fried stuff we’d much rather be eating (I wasn’t allowed due to having eaten a pancake smothered in condensed milk and 2 samosas washed down by a coffee drowned in condensed milk for breakfast).

A colourful bus at the market

Coconuts at Indein docks

We did however get to have a lovely lunch downriver. I can’t remember what we ate but the restaurant was brilliant – individual bamboo huts on really high stilts over the marshes, all linked by a wooden bridge.

High Lunch

In the afternoon we did the old tourist conveyor belt experience and went to several workshops (with an obvious difference however – they were floating!) where we watched the process of weaving cotton, weaving silk, weaving lotus, making cigars and repairing canoes. We declined seeing the silver and gold factories so we were able to step off the conveyor a little early, which greatly agreed with us. On the whole we do find it quite interesting to visit the workshops, and it’s usually really good to meet and talk to the people who show us around, but most places stick to the formula of ‘explain the process briefly + show them the shop’.  As we have a daily struggle to fit anything other than our limited wardrobe into our bags (and believe me, we’re starting to smell) there’s no way that we can buy anything at the workshops  (tempting as it is) so it can all turn a bit awkward and embarrassing if the workshop goes for the aggressive sell. Luckily, the ones we visited in Inle were hardly even on the assertive side of aggressive so we had a pretty pleasant (if stingy) time of it.

Cigar making at speed

We also went to the brilliantly named ‘Jumping Cat’ monastery where we were hoping to see the ancient practice of cat jumping. No, really. Unfortunately what we mainly saw was ‘cats and monk sitting around’ and ‘monk having a laugh at tourists by pretending to get up and exhibit cat jumping but actually just getting cat food and feeding cats’. Fair enough.

Floating gardens

After the surreal world of monks and cats we started to make our slow way across the lake and back to Nyaung Shwe.

A typical street on Inle Lake

On the way we passed by the beautiful floating Intha gardens (imagine having to do all the watering and weeding from a canoe every day!) and then probably one of the highlights of the day: the end of the school day, Inle Lake style. Never before I have seen such a charming and brilliant school run. Out of the school doors the children came dashing, straight into a huddle of shouting and waving mums and dads all congested in their long boats at the bottom of the school steps. Into the boats the kids hopped before the parents manoeuvred the boats out of the crowd – oars flying – and rowed them home down little canals as the children jabbered on about their day at school. Just brilliant.

The school run, Inle Lake style

We finished off the day eating the best Dim Sum we’ve had so far, washed down with a Myanmar beer for Nick and a rather nice Myanmar (grown in fact, just a few km down the road) red wine for me. Hopefully we’ll be seeing it on the shelves of Wine Rack very soon….

First red wine in ages, and it was produced in Myanmar!

We managed to catch the sunset on our last day in Nyuang Shwe before a tuk tuk came to pick us up to take us to the bus station once more. Unfortunately the three kittens who’d climbed in to the tuk tuk with us were swiftly pulled out again by the staff at Remember Inn so we headed back to Rangoon on the overnight bus slightly disappointed, but with lots of jazzy music to accompany us into the wee small hours (I guess the driver needed to keep himself awake somehow?).

NEXT TIME: Our Burma trip comes to an end with a packed last day in Rangoon / Yangon

BREAKING BAD UPDATE: Series 4 (oh yes) Episode 2

And finally, just to say a huge huge thank you for the donations so far to MNDA for our Everest Base Camp trek. We really appreciate it – not only is the sponsorship going to a great cause, but it’ll also help with our nerves ahead of the trek!

If you missed the last post and want to know what we’re up to in April then please take a look here:

http://www.justgiving.com/nickandjenstuart  Thanks again! xx
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