Inle Lake

Garden pool, Inle Lake

Inle Lake (for some reason it's never Lake Inle) is a large, shallow body of water with four towns around its coast (including Nyaung Shwe, where we were staying) and innumerable villages, most consisting of houses raised on wooden stilts. The trip notes had described Nyaung Shwe as a 'village' but it seemed more like a backpacker town with a mixture of tarmac and dirt roads, several large hotels, and lots of restaurants, cafés & bars, most with English signs.

Bar sign, Nyaung Shwe

After settling in we were led on our (by now) usual 'orientation walk' by Lae. She showed us a nearby mini-mart for essential supplies, a selection of trustworthy restaurants, and gave a useful sense of where the hotel was located in relation to the rest of the town. On the return leg several of us decided to stop in at one of the approved eateries for a drink and, once refreshed, a few stayed on to eat there too. My food was fine but one of my companions had gone for fish & chips and the resulting plate came with twelve french fries, daintily arranged along one side. On the way out I noticed pictures of Lemmy & James Hetfield (of Metallica) in the downstairs bar, seems like we weren't as off the beaten track as we might have thought.

The next day was to be spent on & exploring the lake. After a short stroll through town we reached one of the canals where several brightly coloured boats were moored - we were swiftly split into groups of three of four per boat, sternly told to wear our life jackets at all times, and were soon off speeding towards the lake. The boats were very similar to the canal boats I'd seen in Bangkok - long & thin with very little draught and a large motor driving a propellor at the end of a long shaft. We moved pretty quickly and although they kicked up an impressive plume of spray at the back there was hardly any water splashed up onto the passengers.

The lake was flat & calm with lots of boats criss-crossing it, several contained obvious tourists but many more were local, from single occupants to well-filled lake 'buses'. We passed several fishing boats but were warned that those using the traditional style - holding an oar in a folded leg and using a conical woven 'net' - were fakes, hoping to coax tips from tourist photographers. The lake spread out with hazy mountains off in the distance and once again, despite the speed and noisy motor, life was calm & peaceful. We passed houses perched above the water, a few birds flying overhead and various other vessels before docking at the floating market.

The market was in actuality solidly based on packed earth but only a few feet above the water level. The stalls were similar to those we'd seen in other markets, lots of small stands but not a lot of variety available - although there were appreciably more tourist trinkets than before. The stallholders were a little more insistent in their hawking but rarely intrusively so and by walking on, smiling and shaking your head it was easy to politely move past. Bartering was done by pointing at figures on a printed page (kyat on one side, dollars on the other) and although my usual 20% markdown was probably still way within the 'tourist price' it was a fun & amicable process. I bought an orange pattered headscarf that I'd seen several of the local women wearing and a couple of cotton scarves for giftgiving. (Interestingly the headscarf, something I though too garish to wear, has become a favourite scarf for me back home. Who'd have thought?)

Back in the boat we criss-crossed the lake to visit a weaving studio (where I bought a shirt), a cigar rolling workshop (small wooden box for my earrings), and a silversmith (no purchases but I was intrigued by the large, unexplained portrait of Herbert Hoover on the wall) before berthing at a large restaurant where an excellent lunch was had (and I finally managed to buy some local coffee beans).

Our last lake stop was the village of Indein, reached by sailing up a canal flanked with tall bamboo plants and broken with low weirs which our boat slipped over, the driver raising the propellor out of the water as it crossed. A long covered passageway with hundreds of stone pillars supporting the inevitable corrugated iron roof snaked its way gently upwards, for more than half its length filled with stalls selling tourist trinkets & clothes. At the end we reached the Shwe Indein pagoda, a fairly typical (by this point) temple surrounded by hundreds of stupas in various states of (dis)repair. There were so many, packed so close together, that it gave the impression of a stupa junkyard or secondhand stupa lot, neither (I suspect) intended by the builders.

As we rode back to Nyaung Shwe we passed through a floating garden, cultivated areas created by tethering floating lake plants (notably water hyacinth) with bamboo poles driven into the lake bottom and building them up with more plant matter and, eventually, sowing grass on top. The resulting land is highly fertile and we could see long stretches of lush greenery with their farmers tending them from adjacent boats. From here we sped back homewards with the sun dipping towards the mountains and the lake shimmering in the fading light. A splendid day out.

Khaung Daing village

That evening I joined a few of my campanions for pizza at the improbably named Asiatico Pub. Normally I stick to 'native' dining when visiting another country but my anchovy pizza was surprisingly good, especially considering the dubious other examples of wheat & cheese cookery I'd seen in Myanmar.

Next morning I was up early to see the local monks receiving alms, too early for the hotel staff who had to scurry to turn on lights and find the keys to the front doors. The monks duly appeared, walking in single file and accepting food from locals who would stand outside their houses with pans of (presumably) rice. One line was all in orange robes, one was all in maroon (apart from a single person in orange) - I'd asked the novices on Mandalay Hill about the significance of the different colours, one had said it was just personal choice but I suspect there's a deeper reason. I loved the idea that people could choose a spiritual path and be voluntarily supported by the community to do so, even in a relatively poor country like Myanmar, and even if this is a highly simplified explanation it still warms my heart.

Today was a day of excursions and the first was cycling out into the surrounding countryside. I'd been looking forward to this (I'd had some wonderful bike trips in Vietnam amongst the rice paddies) but the reality came as a big disappointment - we rode single file along potholed tarmac roads with motorbikes & trucks honking their horns as they overtook us. It never felt dangerous but at the same time it was impossible to relax and take in the views & surroundings, let alone stopping to take pictures. Even our destinations weren't particularly inspiring, it felt like a very safe route had been planned and we'd be shown around whatever lay at the far end.

There were quite a few examples of what felt like an overprotective attitude towards us - during the bike ride we'd seen other obvious tourists cycling on their own, usually without helmets (which none of the locals wore), on the lake we seemed to be the only people actually wearing our life jackets, and when taking a tuk-tuk ride our driver was driving so slowly that we were overtaken by a ten year old on an oversized bicycle. It's hard to argue against safety measures, especially in an unfamiliar country, but there were times when as seasoned travellers we felt we were being treated like schoolchildren.

Things got a little better on the return leg when the more adventurous riders were permitted to follow our cycling guide all the way back into town at a much faster pace. This was much more enjoyable and it was interesting how easy navigating the traffic was from in the saddle.

Temple loudspeaker, Nyaung Shwe

That afternoon I set out on a quest - I'd seen lots of distinctive flags throughout the town (& a few on our approach) and I wondered if I could buy one as a memento. This proved a fruitless task but an interesting process, I'd been told that the flag was that of Shan State (the part of Myanmar that we were in) but discovered that it was in fact that of the Pa-Oh people who were holding their annual festival in the town that evening. A couple of people misheard 'flag' as 'flight' and I found myself directed to travel agents, one person gave me directions to a bookshop that I never found, and several seemed bemused that a foreigner would want such a thing. I never found a flag and although I considered stealing one of the dozens on display I wisely decided that this would be either horribly disrespectful or likely to end in a dank police cell.

The second excursion of the day was to the Red Mountain Winery, just outside of town. I wasn't planning on going - I'm not much of a wine drinker nowadays - but after a dusty afternoon walking around Nyaung Shwe the prospect of a country setting to watch the (inevitable) sunset seemed quite inviting. The location was indeed very nice and I made the right choice in not going to the wine tasting - people who did rated the taste between 'rough' and 'undrinkable'. They seemed to be doing a roaring trade so maybe tastes differ.

That evening a group of us set off to find an Indian restaurant that Lae had recently added to the approved list. Her directions were a little ambiguous and the name didn't exactly match the one she'd given us but after some reconnoitring of the area we decided it was almost certainly the one she meant and so went in. It was a tiny space, maybe six tables, and when the waiter came over we were given definite pause for thought - 'Stan' was a big Eminem fan and spoke in a gangsta style that, unfortunately, sounded more Ali G than Dr Dre. Despite all the warning signs we stuck with Stan and were rewarded with an excellent Indian feast.

Pa-Oh festival band

As we left the restaurant the Pa-Oh festival was in full swing on the other side of the road so we went in to check it out, although in the crowd I found myself quickly separated from my companions. A large stage was hosting a very western looking band (bass, drums, keyboards, two guitarists & a singer) with maybe a dozen dancers in identical traditional dress doing fairly simple synchronised movements. A big, mostly seated, crowd looked on while behind them were a host of food stalls and, here and there, a few remnants of the night market that would normally be found in the space. The music was, to my ears, rather bland and conventionally poppy and the audience seemed politely appreciative rather than wildly enthused but there was a really nice atmosphere and I felt like a welcomed guest rather than an intrusive outsider. After three or four songs a second band took the stage, they were dressed identically to the first but with different coloured accessories (hats and sashes/tote bags) and, sadly, sounded very similar.

Our hotel was just a couple of street from the festival which ran on into the early hours but I was tired enough to fall fairly swiftly into sleep. Tomorrow we'd be returning to Yangon for the final night of our trip before heading home again - what else did Myanmar have in store for me?

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