Nyaungshwe, Inle Lake

Again the road beckons, I was heading across country to Inle Lake and not being a 25 year old backpacker any longer I opted for a 45 minute flight at 55 bucks as opposed to a ten hour bus ride. I know it is low season but being the only one on the plane really puts things into perspective. Heho airport (field and small building block) is around 45 minutes from the township of Nyaungshwe at the north end of the lake. The town is a little collection of touristy restaurants, guesthouses and travel agents; it is the main backpacker hangout and starting point for trips out onto the lake. Accommodation on the lake itself is primarily upmarket five star resort style where they have a captive audience and can charge whatever they want for food and beverages.

Having arrived 8 hours before the bus would have I decide to cycle out to a hot springs today, the single lane track takes me through the wetlands north of the lake and between two vast ranges of green carpeted hills. Locals will compulsively wave at you and call ‘mingalabar’ as you ride past; you begin to question your own sanity after a while when going round all day with a big smile and saying hello to pretty much everyone you meet, it is certainly a world apart from Thailand. After a dip in the scalding hot pool I pedal the 15km journey back and rest up in town with a Mandalay beer and some tea leaf salad (a little like the Thai somtam but with tea and less chili).

There are about 20 young Burmese girls working at my empty hotel, all wearing identical orange uniforms, smiling and singing to themselves, and tirelessly buzzing around meticulously cleaning everything. The power is out again and rain is approaching from the hills to the east.

Today I’m taking a boat trip out onto the lake which is around 20km long officially but it is hard to tell where the lake ends and the marshes begin. My guide and I leave the jetty at 07.30 and head down the waterway that links the town to the lake. Local Intha tribe people fish the lake using small flat bottomed skiffs and rowing with a technique using one leg to paddle in a figure eight type motion. We arrive at a market where Shan tribeswomen come down from the hills to trade produce, though the amount of stalls selling trinkets, amulets, longyis, t-shirts, and lacqueware to tourists far outnumber the traditional market vendors. Still there is a little buzz about the place and it provides for some good photo opportunities.

There are various small home industries around the lake such as silver smiths, umbrella makers, lotus and silk weavers, blade and knife smithing, and cheroot rolling. Naturally all of them have a little tourist shop attached to them where you can purchase the handmade wares for what are undoubtedly inflated prices. I grab some anise and tobacco cheroots and a longyi for the better half as my knowledge on silver and gemstones is minimal.

We continue on to the Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda where five ancient Buddha images have been turned into amorphous blobs by sheer volume of gold leaves applied over the years by worshipers. Lunch is taken at a small restaurant on one of Inle’s many canals and waterways before we head into the village of Nampan with its high stilt houses built over the water. There are small local shops and a post office with ample parking for canoes, kids paddle their way around the liquid streets and daily life here goes on at a much slower pace. A foliage cloaked river takes us a little inland to a town called Inthein where there are more tourist shops and a long walk up to the Shwe Inn Thein Paya with over a thousand weather beaten chedis.

My guide, who by now I have a little rapport with, then takes me across the lake to his own floating village whereupon I’m given green tea and snacks and introduced to his family. They are boat builders and are currently applying thick black layers of tar to seal the hull of a newly finished vessel which is essentially a very long canoe. His brother takes me on a tour of the village, paddling around tiny waterways and hollering at every stilted house he passes to broadcast the arrival of the white man. I’m then introduced to the family cat which has been trained to jump through a hoop for tidbits of fish; this definitely isn’t on the tourist trail. I’m told that during the wet season the waters can rise by up to a meter and there is literally no dry land to use.

The journey back is through the floating gardens where the local tribes grow tomatoes, squash and various produce to sell at Inle’s rotating markets. It has been one of the best days of the trip and seeing the lake without the crowds is definitely the way to go.

On my final day in Shan State I cycle to a local vineyard to sample some of the local wines which are not bad at all. The Red Mountain Winery also offers some great views across the valley and a perfect way to round of what can only be described as an epic journey through magical Myanmar. It was time to get back to Mandalay and fly out, my 28 day tourist visa was almost up but in the words of Arnie … “I’ll be back”.