Inle Lake, 1-2/3/2019
When I think about the night bus ride to Inle Lake two things immediately pop in my mind: the air con set on polar temperatures and the pungent stench of exhaust fumes (imagine my reaction when I finally unpacked at the hostel and realised that all of my clothes had adsorbed that smell). Naive me little knew that, in comparison to other night trips that were meant to happen, this was still a proper luxury. I mean, I was even given a toothbrush and a hot wet towel in the morning! Not long after waking up to the sun rising on the Kalaw’s hills, we stopped for breakfast on the road, a not so cheap portion of steamed garlicky rice with veggies and eggs.
As cheesy Burmese ballads played at full blast and I started to get very much irritated by what seemed to be the same song stuck on repeat (maybe it was?), I suddenly was asked to leave the bus and told that a tuk tuk would pick me up right from the busy main street. A bit skeptical at first, I had to change my mind when the tuk tuk actually materialised right in front of my eyes and a pretty rude driver made it clear that I had to jump on board. I was honestly a bit confused and slightly worried.
Paid the access fee to Inle Lake (about 10 euro), paid the tuk tuk driver (the 10 minutes drive turned out to be pricier than a 40 minutes taxi ride in Yangon), got delivered to the “Song of Travel” hostel, a fresh, modern and clean safe haven, where, while catching up on all the caffeine I hadn’t had yet, I made a few plans and rented a bike to explore the surroundings.
As soon as I left behind my back the few pagodas and inhabited streets of Nyaungshwe, the small village and main access to the lake, I plunged into a dusty rural world. Despite my bike being a bit of a wreck and the sun mercilessly burning my milky white skin, I still managed to cover a fair distance and ride along the western side of the lake until I made it to a cul-de-sac. There I came across three girls that immediately caught my attention: they were loud, as confused as I was about what to do next, and they seemed to be having a total blast. In a blink of an eye, we united forces (and brains) and asked a fisherman to take us and our bikes to the opposite side of the lake. That crossing turned out to actually be my first encounter with what I had previously seen only on Google: the lake was simply stunning! And even more jaw dropping was to sail in between floating wooden houses and gardens with a fresh breeze in my face. By the time we made it on the eastern coast me and the girls, two Venezuelans and an Uruguayan living in Panama, were already close to be besties. We made the most of our afternoon hunting for what the locals defined as a beautiful natural swimming pool, that, sadly turned out to be neither beautiful nor natural (we still plunged in and took a chance to cool off). What was actually indeed remarkably pretty was the countryside we rode along. That simple beauty made us forget about how often we picked the wrong unpaved road or the mud all over our shoes and bikes.
As we eventually hit back the main road, we opted to treat ourselves to a sunset wine tasting session in a winery on the hills that both me and the girls had been advised to check out. The location was indeed lush (if we skip the close to vertical road to get there), but, quite predictably, the wine was a total fiasco. I mean, who’s ever heard of Burmese wine anyway?!?
Tipsy and cheerful, as we seemed not to struggle at all to keep the conversation going and almost forgot about how shitty our wine tasted, I suddenly had a revelation: I didn’t want to watch the sunset on the lake from that scenic point. I wanted to be right at the lake! In a run against time, as the golden hour shone at its brightest, I cycled down the hill and made it back to Nyanungshwe, with the aim to rent a small boat at the main dock. Of course I got lost. Several times. And, of course, I ended up being guided directly to my destination by a benevolent local, that seemed to have mistaken my FOMO for something way more urgent and worth of his help/time.
I got myself a boat for something like 5 euro and made it to the lake while herds of buffalos swam across the river and every other boat seemed to be sailing in the opposite direction.
Was it was too late to see the fishermen in action?
For those maybe yes.
As the engine of the small boat went off and the sun descended towards the western hills, the silhouette of three “fishermen” appeared in the distance and swiftly got closer. Their shiny matching outfits made it immediately clear that there was no attempt here to fish for anything that wasn’t a fat tip or applauses. They were performers, taking the traditional Inle Lake one leg rowing to a whole new level. As they balanced on one leg on one side of their narrow boats they lifted up the other and a humongous conical fishing net in the most dramatic way.
I’ve heard a lot of negative comments about this new trend. I honestly thought it was extremely cool and it made me feel like ever drop of sweat I’ve shed and every curse I’ve thrown while trying to make it there in time, had been extremely worth it. Points of view, I guess.
After getting, once more, completely lost on my way back to the hostel (always thought I could rely on my sense of orientation…) and a long shower, I ended my first pretty intense day on the lake with a chinese/burmese buffet at Live Dim Sum House. Oysin duck with watermelon, pork with chilli in clay pots, sesame balls and the sweetest dreams. Felt like a happy stuffed piglet!
4.50 AM. The alarm rang. Outside: pitch dark.
In that moment I was possibly asleep for not longer than 5 hours and all I could think of was “F*** me! Why do I always have to go for a sunrise tour?”. I crawled out of my log and somehow managed to get dressed and walk down to the main hall to get myself some coffee. A bunch of other messy haired, yawning zombies soon joined me. Obviously they all had my same thought on their minds.
Well, 40 minutes later, as we cozily sat on our long boat in the middle of Inle Lake having breakfast with samosas and steamed rice in banana leaves, sipping chai tea under the warm comfort of our blankets, we all had to admit that yes, that effort we had made was more than worth it. In a matter of literally ten minutes the sky lit up in purple, orange and pink hues and so did the lake. The only black detail on the horizon was the silhouette of the hopeful fishermen.
As everything around us took a golden shade, we left the floating gardens (can you imagine floating tomato plants?) where we had docked and sped up to reach Ywama village.
After a brief visit at a goldsmith (apparently Inle Lake has a reputation for silver handcraft), we finally shook off what was left of our drowsiness while browsing the multitude of items sold at a local market.
When I typed on Google something like “best Burmese pagodas”, in order to come up with a sort of itinerary before my trip, amongst the most famous ones that could easily be tracked down on the map, I saw pictures of this absurdly mind blowing place: where hundreds of tumbledown pagodas in proper Indiana Jones style surrounded a hill of another hundreds shiny golden ones. Unfortunately I couldn’t find its name nor its location.
Now, imagine my face when, as soon as we reached Indein village and got told we could spend there a good couple of hours before heading back to the boats, that whole complex unexpectedly appeared right in front of my eyes?! Can’t describe how low my jaw dropped.
That was the Shwe Indein pagoda.
Very much on cloud nine we left Indein to join a Burmese family for lunch. They hosted us in their floating house and set up a buffet with dozens of different salads, including the traditional one with tea leaves, and a grilled carp. Once we got close to burst, they took us for a canoe ride around the village canals, which kinda killed the last spark of energy we still had in our bodies. No surprise they offered us to have a thirty minutes nap before we moved on. I guess I don’t even have to tell you how we all instantly dozed off. Never though a wooden floor could feel so comfy.
“Thanaka” on my cheeks, made very much unnoticeable by how white my skin still was, we moved on first to a lotus weaving factory, followed by a few puffs of banana and anise cigars at a family run small cigar factory.
The last stop of the tour happened to be exactly where I had tracked the day before after crossing the lake. There, exhausted, we picked a shack and ordered a few ice cold beers while we got to know each other better and opened up about the reasons that had pushed us to venture Myanmar as solo travellers. I felt extremely connected and blissed.
That day spent on the Inle Lake has to be between the highlights of my Burmese adventure. Sure, the location was astounding and very much unique, but what I appreciated the most was how sustainable and supportive of the local communities the experience turned out to be. In contrast with situations I’ve come across in other countries, the weird show the local tribes put on in Puno, Peru, just to name one, this was authentic and gave me the feeling that this people’s lifestyle was really valued.
Miranda Sensomat RE, Fujcolor C200 (35)
Canon EOS 300, Kodak Gold 200 (35)