After the most amazing few days touring Bagan with Lizzie, I made my way to Lake Inle, in Eastern Burma. Lake Inle is known for many things, floating villages, revolving markets, long necked Karen women, unique fishing styles, some hot springs, and a winery! So many things to do in Inle Lake, I was sure to stay entertained, even though Lizzie had to go back to work.
Bagan to Inle Lake Bus
Another night bus, the bus from Bagan to Inle Lake is a definitively non-VIP bus. It leaves Bagan at around 11pm, and is a mixture of tourist bus and local bus, meaning there are Burmese movies playing but the air conditioning is turned on full. I had pre-bought my ticket on the bus the day before, which was good, as it was packed!
The Inle Lake bus arrived in Nyuang Shwe, the main town on Inle Lake, at around 5:30am. Not an awesome time to arrive anywhere. I did not have a room booked, and I was really cold. I was cold enough that on the bus I had actually nestled my left side underneath the right side of the young gentleman sitting beside me. Use that body heat!
Once getting access to my backpack, I furiously threw on whatever warm clothing I had, so did actually wear my down coat that had been in a stuff bag since Kazakhstan, surprise! I also, in my cold madness, improperly pulled on my skinny cords over top of the yoga pants I was wearing, and completely splitting the backside of the pants. Not the first time I have done this in my life, no lie. The gluteus maximus is the largest muscle of every body, and mine wants to beat all of the other muscles even more.
Nyuang Shwe Myanmar
So with torn pants, I was dropped at a budget place by a taxi driver, and stumbled my way to a bed. A warm bed. A few hours later I woke up in serious need of food and a day of chilling. Nyuang Shwe, as I said is the largest, and really only town, near Inle Lake. It’s where most of the accommodation is, and is the jumping off point for travel fun of all kind. For my first day in Inle, my fun consisted of buying things at the local bazaar and eating. I also watched a great sunset from the balcony of the guesthouse, overlooking the river leading to the lake. Beautiful place to watch from…not peaceful, given the large amount of boats on the river, but very beautiful. And I like boats! I also managed to finish reading Gulliver’s Travels, there is a lot more to that book than just a bunch of teeny people running around!
(I’m going to interject with my story right now and share that I am typing this blog while in a mini van in Kyrgyzstan, driving along the shore of Lake Issyk Kul, looking at the lake to my left and the snow covered mountains to my right. So I’m writing about Inle Lake near another lake. Counts right?)
Things to do in Inle Lake
My second day in Inle Lake I decided to be less of a sloth and rented a bike. On another bike from the mid century with questionable breaks and a seat that could spay a panda, I set off on my bike riding through beautiful countryside, idyllic lakeside villages, solid looking huts on stilts and really friendly kids. Well…all of that is true except for maybe the last one.
A majority of people I met in Burma, on this day included, were very friendly and welcoming. Shockingly, this day I was slapped. Literally. I was riding my bike through a village, a threesome of cute boys ran out to the road waving and smiling, so I slowed down and was saying hello, when one of the hooligans reached out and full swing, open hand, slapped my nearest arm. It stung! His tiny hand and the velocity of the bike combined to feel like the towel whippings I used to get from my charming brother while doing dishes. Little bastard.
Of course I had to then pass the little urchins on the way back to the main road. This time I gave them a wide berth and while I pedaled by I shouted nonsensical sounds. Yep, I can be just as good a jerk as a 6 year old Burmese child.
Khaung Daing Hot Springs, Nyuang Shwe, Lake Inle
I kept riding my bike until I got to my destination of the Khaung Daing Hot Springs 30 minutes out of Nyuang Shwe. My mother loves hot springs, so really anytime there is the chance to wallow in naturally hot water, it’s a must. I arrived at the hot springs sweaty from the bike and ready for a soak. I was presented with two options: the normal pool, which was female only, or $7 for the special pool, which was co-ed and $10. Hmm, can I see the pools? Sure.
The special pool suspiciously came at the end of a pointing arrow labeled FOREIGNERS. Yes, it was a pool only for foreigners. Actually, there were three special pools, all different temperatures, clean looking, nicely made, with lovely poolside and bar. The normal pool, was one pool, for local women and their children, clearly not too clean. Oh the ethical crisis. Do I spend more money to be sequestered from the local population and revel in my foreigner status, or do I do what Gulliver would have done and get down with the people. Ok, let’s be honest, I didn’t want to be surrounded by children of any ethnicity and I didn’t actually think too long about shelling out for the ‘special’ pool. What if another kid slapped me? In a bathing suit!
I spent 2 hours basking in the heat of the water and being sufficiently ‘healed by it’s benefits’, while also chatting with a woman from California, who had been a Peace Corps Volunteer in Honduras in the 80’s. Everywhere you go, just mention Peace Corps…
Day Trip Boat Ride on Lake Inle
After my luxurious pool time, I rode further to a small village right on the lake, and grabbed a boat to take me and my bike across the lake. The ride was a delight, as I enjoy boats in general, but going through the reeds of the lake is like driving down roads, but that are made up of water. Very cool place, and then you actually get out onto the lake, and you run into fishermen, out on their long boats, most with no motors, who are fishing in their traditional water.
The interesting note about Inle Lake fishermen is the unique way they do not need a motor. The men have one oar, and then stand on the back end of the boat. They then wrap their leg around the oar, and swing the leg/oar appendage out wide in an oval motion to propel the boat forward. I’m sure there is a technique to turn the boat and reverse it etc, but I didn’t give it a whirl. The real triumph is that they are standing on the edge of a boat, on one leg, and they don’t fall in. Of course my first thought was that their inner thighs must be like rocks, and my second was of all the money Western women spend on pilates and yoga when all they really have to do is row a boat like a Burmese dude.
Red Mountain Winery, Lake Inle, Myanmar
Once across the lake, I biked back in the direction of Nyuang Shwe, but made a pit stop at the local Red Mountain Winery, because when there is a wine tasting… you have to taste the wine. That’s a saying right? The views from the winery are spectacular, and the wine is pretty dang good too. I had a sampler, I needed energy for the bike ride back to town after all!
Lake Inle Boat Tour
For my second day in Inle, I went back onto the lake, but this time with a group in a long boat. We made the round of the lake, hitting the hot spots like the market, a big pagoda in the middle of the lake, floating gardens, some workshops, and lastly an amazing cluster of pagodas called Inle Shwe Inn Tain.
Inle Lake Market
The market we visited started off as a classic tourist market with all of the souvenir kitsch, but once you walked beyond that and got to the regular people market, that’s when things got real. Meat sections, fruits and veggies, locally grown tobacco and lake made cigars and everything else you can think of. My favorite part were the fish sellers, all kinds of fish, most of which were being kept pseudo alive by having water thrown on them periodically. People buying were getting the freshest possible! I sat behind a fish vendor for a while, watching people pick their faves and then having them weighed by the fish lady. The scale is a piece of wood with another piece of wood that can be adjusted in the middle. The bag of fish goes on the opposite end, and somehow it gives some kind of measurement. I don’t know which kind, but something that people seem to agree on.
Long Necked Karen People
We also made a very brief stop at a ‘Karen’ village, which is odd, since the Karen people are not from this area of Burma. What the Karen people are famous for is the now almost defunct tradition of stretching the necks of the women, thus becoming The Long Necked Karen women. Rings are added over time to stretch the neck muscles, which are presumably then dependent on the rings for support. We walked into a shop with several women with long necks just sitting at the entrance, a made photo op. I am not a fan of this kind of cultural voyeurism and frankly it makes me very uncomfortable. I studied this tribe during my undergrad degree, so knowing that this is not a custom that is really practiced in neither this area, nor many areas any more, it does make me suspicious of the motivations of stretching necks at all. For tourists only? I hope not, but…
Inle Shwe Inn Tain
Our last stop was Inle Shwe Inn Tain and was very cool. Hundreds of small stupas on the top of a hill, in the Inthein village, all different ages and in different states of repair. Made for a pretty great photo op, and an excellent and relaxing way to finish the day. Interestingly, one of the guys in our group, a Malaysian dude, had been there 5 years previously, and had made a donation, so one of the restored stupas had his name on it. He made another donation this time around, I like to think he will be the king of the stupas soon enough.
Travel from Inle Lake to Yangon
After a very long day on the lake, I got back to the hostel in time for a quick shower and a ride to the last night bus I was taking in Burma. Heading from Inle Lake to Yangon, I was to go to catch my flight to Cambodia the next day at noon. This time the bus was super high class, I even had a personal television screen! I watched Indiana Jones, I was very happy. And I did sleep, thanks to ¾ of a codeine pill Lizzie left for me for this exact bus ride. It didn’t totally knock me out, but enough to not make me lose my mind.
What to do in Inle Lake
My first night in Inle I splurged and ordered a traditional Shan set meal for dinner. Shan food is delicious! Curry, salads etc, plus I had a really lovely dog come and sit with me, presumably not for my charming company as much as the possibility of a table scrap. Whatever, I’ll take it.
I tried the bark face lotion rub stuff that Burmese women swear by. I think it made me more beautiful. And younger.
There was a beautiful French guy on my bus back to Yangon. We ate dinner together. He apologized for his poor English, I apologized for my poor French. I would have been cool just gazing at his face. I think he had been into the bark lotion rub stuff too.
Speaking of French, there are a lot of French people travelling in Burma. And I spoke French quite a bit the day of the boat adventure. Though sometimes it came out as an ugly French Kyrgyz English child. Glad Monsieur Polloni, my grade 6 French teacher wasn’t there… Anybody want to travel in France for Summer 2016?
I roomed with the Kazakh girl I met on the bus. We chatted Central Asia and compared Kyrgyz and Kazakh language. She was funny when I first asked her where she was from, though I suspected she was Central Asian. She got all awkward and said “Oh, you’ve probably never heard of it, its near Russia, Kazakhstan?” Ha, yeah, I’ve heard of it.
I ate dhal bhat at a Nepali restaurant in Nyuang Shwe. Dhal Bhat power!
The bus to Inle does not drop you right in Nyuang Shwe. Instead you stop at some guys house and transfer into a small truck or a taxi. I have no idea why. It was here that I ripped my pants.
There is really great wifi in the Yangon airport. I also managed to find, at the last possible moment, a Myanmar flag for my backpack!
Otreas 2, Sihanoukville, Cambodia
For the last few days of my vacation, I went to Cambodia, met up with Lizzie again in Phnom Penh and then headed to Otreas 2 Beach in Sihanoukville for three days of laying down. Cambodia is so different that what it was in 2005-6 when I was there with Lindsay. No longer are there ox carts in downtown Phnom Penh, streets are paved, heaps of stores and restaurants, I mean, Phnom Penh is a real city now. Blew my mind, and made me slightly nostalgic…
The good news is the beach of Otreas 2 is still white and soft and the ocean is still blue and warm. Otreas 2 is the furthest south beach in Sihanoukville and the least developed. Most of the rest of the coast has been bought up by big hotels and are infested, so I went as far as I could. Ran on the beach, slept in a bungalow, drank beers, watched the sunset, and had a wonderful Valentine’s Day dinner listening to the waves crashing.
Love Southeast Asia. Will see you again, hopefully sooner rather than later.