After a few days in Bagan we were headed to Inle Lake, another hot spot for those traveling in Myanmar. The over night bus we were on was about 50% travelers and 50% locals (most of who were continuing onward with the bus to Yangon). We left and arrived pretty much just as expected: 7pm departure and 4:30am arrival.
Over our time in Bagan we had met and made friends with another fellow wanderer. Niko is originally from Minnesota although currently living and teaching in Vietnam. He had left the states a couple years back and was now steadily creating his life in SE Asia. We met him about mid-way into his month long exploration of Myanmar. When we found out that he was on the same bus to Inle, we made a small pact to stick together and find a room for the three of us, which would save everyone some money. This was a very common practice for the backpackers in Myanmar. Because the accommodation prices were higher than surrounding countries and couchsurfing wasn’t an option, many travelers would pair up in groups from 2-4 people to split the $20+ hotel costs.
As the bus pulled into the town limits it stopped along the side of the street and then turned the lights on. Everyone slowly began to wake up and gather there belongings while a man came through the bus and asked each person to pay for a ticket which was a fee of $10 or 10 euros, your choice. Inle Lake (or the town of Nyaung Shwe, to be more specific) is another one of those places in Myanmar that requires foreigners to pay a fee. Apparently here they were a bit more on top of the ticket regulation, unlike Bagan. Neither of us were really happy to be paying this fee since we weren’t even sure where the money went to. There was really nothing here to restore and technically you aren’t even on the lake yet, you are just in the town. We had weighed this forced ticket purchase into our decision on whether we should visit this area at all since we had received mixed reviews–in large part due to its increasing popularity and number of visitors. Ultimately the pros for us outweighed the cons for us. So, we begrudgingly paid the young Burmese boy who was collecting money for the obligatory tickets on the bus before we descended into the dark hours that connect late night and early morning.
After getting off the bus, we gathered our bags and declined all the tuk tuk drivers’ offers. We did what we did best when arriving to a new town: threw our bags on our backs and started walking. It took some time for us to get our brains working along with the assistance of some maps to get ourselves oriented and walking in the right direction. The town was completely dead and other than the occasional tuk tuk driver that passed us hoping for some business, there was no one around to ask for directions. Going off recommendations we received in Bagan we were headed to the Four Sisters Guesthouse. Having put in a good kilometer or two of walking we found ourselves passing the Gypsy Inn, which was also listed as a great budget option for backpackers. Wanting to give our feet a break and feeling like we had all the time in the world at this point we buzzed the gate and enquired about rooms and prices. Sure enough they had a three person room with a private bathroom for $18. Together we hung out in the lobby with another couple of Austrialian ladies who would also be getting a room after people began to check out at 10am. Nico and Ben tried to sleep some more but Amanda stayed awake reading, having slept plenty on the bus. All of us seemed to be well trained in the talent of making any place a good place to sleep if we were tired.
The Tourist ‘Lilly Pad’ of Nyaung Shwe
By 8am the sun was shining and the sound of motorboats was roaring. We now saw that the Gypsy Inn was directly across from a boat loading dock for trips to the lake. Our tummies were about as loud as the boats by this time as well, so with breakfast in mind we set out to get our first real glimpse (in the light) of Nyaung Shwe. We walked in the direction of the central Yadana Man Aung Pagoda where we found a little cafe full of locals. We were surprised to see we were the only foreigners in the cafe since the town was full of visitors. Perhaps it is because most the guesthouses serve breakfast with the cost of the room. Either way we weren’t shied away by this fact and the staff was eager to have us there as customers. The servers were all young boys, maybe twelve years or so. It was pretty common to see kids helping out in the cafes and shops in Myanmar. We also had had learned from the English Teacher in Mawlaik that school had just ended, which meant kids had even more time to help out with family businesses. We ordered coffees and Shan Kow Sway (Shan Noodles) which is served normally as a soup. This is a well known staple dish of the region and was a bit of a variation on the usual Mohinga Soup one would see anywhere in the country for breakfast. The young boys also filled our table with fried goodies (egg rolls, fried fluffy dough chorizo style, and fried samosas) that we could choose from to eat if we wanted (a pay per item you eat style) and a couple of large thermoses of Chinese green tea (which is always complementary). We were definitely more hungry then we had expected and many of the deep fried snacks were consumed along with the hearty Shan Kow Sway soups. All in all it was just what we needed and the bill came to about $1.50/person.
When we returned to our hotel we collectively made some loose plans for the following days. The hotels here were used to travelers as Inle Lake has been a highlighted destination (much like Bagan) for many years now. They have also adapted well to the backpackers and solo travelers scene (which was slightly newer) by having whiteboards listing people who are wanting to do boat rides or other tours. This allows groups to merge easily, which makes the cost slightly lower for everyone in the party. We put our names on the board, noting we were hoping to do the long boat ride to the very southern part of the second smaller lake which was the less popular option because it was slightly more expensive–but we’d heard it was a better experience. With this, we had put our intentions and potential plan out there to the universe and now we would spend the day exploring the town on foot. Our hope was that we would get at least a couple more people to join our boat for either tomorrow or the following day.
Having walked through much of the town very early that morning, we randomly chose to walk south and try to get some views of the canal leading up to the lake. Nyaung Shwe is a couple miles north of Inle Lake, but the scenery leading down to the lake itself is just as pretty. We choose a path that led us to the edge of the town. At the furthest point south we discovered the Bawrithat Pagoda that appeared to have just been finished, with a fresh coat of baby blue paint on it. We were now on the outskirts of town, and unless one of the long-tailed motorboats was going by in the canal bordering the path, all we could hear was the little bell chimes on the pagoda as a light wind brushed through the tall grassy fields. We walked a little farther, and talked to a couple young guys on scooters about their prices for a boat ride (seemingly everyone has a boat and is a captain here) before turning around and heading back to the Gypsy Inn to relax a bit and read.
Other than a couple of pagodas and the many restaurants, street food, and night market, the town of Nyaung Shwe itself doesn’t have all that much to see. Being the closest town to the lake and the hub for all tourism in the area (since in the past it has been the only place on the lake that has had any guesthouses) it has grown to be mostly that — a small town to accommodate the tourists offering a range of hotels, travel agencies/bus booking shops, and eating spots. We actually weren’t expecting it to be as small of a place as it remains to be today. We appreciated the fact that the town wasn’t as overwhelming, spread out, and jam packed with vehicles as the two main cities we had started our time in Myanmar visiting. We also were able to still find reasonably priced street food here even as a town that is primarily known as a tourist hub for Inle Lake. Each day we would mix up dining on some of our favorite Myanmar go-to dishes like Lahpet (tea leaf salad), Nangyi thoke (noodle salads), and curries with some new Shan State specialities like Kayin Thee Thoke (roasted eggplant salad), avocado salad, Tohoo Thoq (shan tofu salad), and Shan Tamin Chin (tomato and spiced rice with meat).
The town can easily be explored in only half a day, which when added up is about how much time we devoted to it. However we didn’t constrain ourselves to just the boundaries of the town and a tour on the lake. Just like almost any other part of the country you can easily find a bike to rent for the day for a low cost. Having wheels gave us the freedom to explore the surrounding lakeside areas which have just as much beauty to offer.
Day Long Bike Adventure
We rented bikes on a couple occasions during our time in Nyaung Shwe. At the cost of $1/day you could justify renting them for even an hour if you were just being lazy and wanted to bike across town for a meal (which we didn’t do but now that we think of it, it’s not such a bad idea.) Our most notable bike adventure was when we decided to do a full day bike outing that would loop around most of the main lake. We had spoken with the two gentlemen running the Gypsy Inn and they had shown us a nice bike route on a hand drawn map that went along the lake. They showed us how it passed the hot springs (which Amanda was interested in checking out) and then continued down toward a small town, Khaung Daing, where we could catch a boat (with our bikes) across the lake. From the east side of the lake we could then continue up the road looping on the northeast side of the lake, passing Red Mountain Winery, and then eventually ending up back in Nyaung Shwe.
From the hand drawn maps this all looked very simple and we left feeling confident. By the time we departed at roughly 10am our group of three (us and Niko) had turned into a group of five with the add-on of a young British girl who wanted to join and an elderly German man. It didn’t take us long into the ride to realize we had already gone down the wrong path and gotten ourselves a bit lost. The one path we had gone down led us directly to a monastery where some monks were looking at us, a bit puzzled. Asking for directions wasn’t all that easy as very few people spoke English but knowing there was only one trail back we knew which way to go. At first getting lost wasn’t all that bad as we were still enjoying taking in the scenes from the smaller out skirting parts of the main town. Kids ran around naked, we saw small clusters of wooden hut housing, fields of greens, and large trees planted along the roadway. But after about thirty minutes of going down a gravel road that was in the process of being built by hand and riding our bikes through thick dust from the tiny dirt road (one lane due to construction) the joy of being lost wore off and the scenery’s allure began to fade a bit. Finding our way took top priority.
At this point it seemed like we were going in the right direction and those we tried to ask kept pointing in the direction we were going, but the unfinished road made us second guess ourselves. We were all too used to people pointing (thinking they understood what you were trying to communicate) and ending up somewhere way off track. Without any option other than to turn around completely, we pushed on forward in hopes it was the right way. Oh the joys of biking in thick dust on bumpy dirt roads in mid-day heat, not knowing if you are going in the right direction. But that’s life sometimes, right?
We finally knew we were on the right track when a guy we were riding past asked us if we would be wanting a boat ride across the lake. We kindly told him no thank you for now and continued onward hoping the hot springs wasn’t too much further. Sure enough the hot springs was just a couple minutes further down the road. Located just across from the town of Khaung Daing’s hilltop pagoda, Khaung Daing Hot Springs is one of the highlighted activities for tourists and travelers visiting Nyaung Shwe. Amanda had been looking forward to them and it had been one of the things listed as a pro when deciding whether or not to come to Inle Lake. We should have known not to have high expectations, but even with no expectations we think we would have still been disappointed. We had come prepped with swimsuits and towels ready for something similar to our Laos sauna experiences only with a small relaxing hot spring water pool instead of a sauna. What they offered was far from relaxing (at least from what we could see when shown the facilities) and the prices were also much higher than we had imagined them. To use the non co-ed pools (which literally looked like large bleak pools in the middle of a concrete slab surrounded by a tall brown metal fence for privacy) it was $5, and to use the co-ed pool it was $10. The co-ed pool was much nicer looking (like it had been kept up) and also had some chairs, a bar, and overall much better ambience. It also, however, had a group of about seven people already in it enjoying themselves and the bar. This was a far cry from what we seek in a hot springs (detox and relax) and paying $10 for something that wasn’t what we wanted just didn’t feel right, especially when $10 would pay for our accommodation and food for the day. Usually making these decisions between the two of us would be easy, but as a group it always adds new and different dynamics. We didn’t want to disappoint anyone or have them feel like we biked all this way for nothing, as it had been a tough bike ride. But we also didn’t want to just pay and go to the hot springs for the sake of doing it. The elder German (who spends a good deal of time in Indonesia each year at amazingly beautiful wild hot springs) agreed with our decision to continue on.
As a group we all agreed to pass on the hot spring experience. Our next stop would be Khaung Daing, where we could cross the lake via boat with our bikes. Ben and Niko took the role of negotiators (the least favorite of the roles we often had to play) and Amanda and the others decided to hike up the steps of the pagoda across from the spa to take in the views. After a short deliberation, the boat taxi guy dropped the price about $1 per person, to a figure that is still probably three times what a local would pay but also something we felt comfortable paying. He was on a scooter and had been waiting on the road outside the hot spring facilities. He was obviously the business man (and possibly brother or friend of the boatman) who wisely would nab any tourists who wished to cross the lake via boat before others in the town could get the business. Once the deal was made he told us to follow him to the boat. We rode via bike behind him down the road a half mile or so. The small village was off the road at an unmarked turn and indeed lakeside. Finding it would have been very challenging so we were grateful to have our local boat businessman to follow. He led us to a swampy expanse where we had to walk our bikes over boards and narrow land strips that weaved through areas of garden and houses on stilts. Finally we reached an area where the water was deep enough for a boat to float in and he motioned for us to wait. We waited a few minutes in the sun and watched two men drive a large bamboo shoot into the mud about ten feet before our boat arrived. This would be our boatsman. Once we confirmed he was the man to take us across and that the price was the same, he smiled at us and helped us load our five bikes onto the long-tailed boat. Once the bikes were loaded we each took seats between the bikes on the floorboards of the boat. The boatsman made a quick once over to be sure all cargo (including us) was secure and then slowly pushed the boat off the shore. He puttered through the houses (all on stilts somewhat floating over the lake shores) and in a few minutes we were in the open lake.
It took us about 15 minutes to get across the lake in the little boat with its eggbeater engine. On the other end we were dropped off at an actual dock, which made us feel better that we wouldn’t get lost on our way back. After unloading the bikes and paying the boat driver he gave us a big smile and then he was back on his way. The views from this side of the lake were much more stunning to us. The fields of green seemed much brighter, villagers and ox-drawn carts passed us frequently and everything was set to the backdrop of immense mountains. It was a vast contrast to the dry and dusty experience we had on a majority of our bike ride on the west side of the lake. We chose to look for lunch while we biked north toward Nyaung Shwe and Red Mountain Winery. There were plenty of options, but again–being in a group made something that was usually a simple decision for us instead a more involved process. As we stopped at a few places (all ranging from street side food spots to restaurants clearly catering more to tourists) we learned what peoples preferences were in regards to prices, food options, and the fact that they needed to serve beer (the elderly German man was not about to have lunch without beer). After a few spots we did finally find a place that looked pleasant and met all needs of our group of five.
What we had thought would be a quick and simple lunch stop turned into a ninety minute comedy of errors. The two brothers running the cafe seemed to have had a couple of drinks, and although they spoke a moderate amount of English, they couldn’t keep the orders straight, and seemed to be completely confused by some of our questions. We were very close to going back in their kitchen and helping them cook the meal for us. In fact, we actually did go back to retrieve some garlic and hot pepper to add to our dish, because the young men didn’t understand when we asked for them. When they insisted and repeatedly shook their heads ‘no’ to our inquiry for garlic the older German man said it was impossible. Everyone in Burma had garlic in their kitchen. They loved it and ate it all the time. He then got up and showed them what ‘garlic’ was by retrieving it from their kitchen.
So far our bike ride had been a mixed bag and the day had been filled with what felt like a few wrong turns (both literally and metaphorically). It hadn’t been miserable but we were definitely struggling at moments to keep our heads in a positive state. By this point in the day we were dirty, hot, and now pressed for time to get back to town before our night bus. But at least we had food in our stomachs and the ride (and road) from this point onward seemed to be smooth and pleasant. It was a short trip to the winery by this point, so we managed to have enough time for one glass of wine before we departed the Shan State for good. We took some deep breaths and kept our heads in the present as we pedaled past locals in their longyi and ox-drawn carts. Any time we felt our thoughts entering a negative state we could turn to the world around us. Somehow the simplicity of life and the balance with nature would bring us back to an equilibrium.
Red Mountain Winery
The ride to the winery from Nyaung Shwe itself was an easy 30 minute pedal along a fairly smooth road (relatively speaking) with calm small village scenery along the way. The turn off to the winery led through a large gate where the name “Red Mountain Winery” greeted those that entered. It was the beginning of a road that went directly uphill. We pushed our one speed bikes with all our power up the hill but on both occasions our bikes were no match for the incline. The furthest we would get was about half way before we had to jump out of the saddle and walk the bike up the remainder of the hill. The climb was worth it though. At the top there was a shaded area to park bikes just across from a well marked path that led to the large tasting room and patios that surrounded it.
As we walked up to the winery on our first visit, we learned this was Niko’s first time wine tasting. Wine tasting is something that we take for granted with Ben growing up in Sonoma County and Amanda’s grandfather operating a vineyard. Niko on the other hand was from the midwest where tasting wine was not as common of a practice. We found a table on the large patio that sat on the edge of a hill overlooking a few acres of planted vineyards. Beyond the vines was the lake and beyond it the mountains, reaching for the sun with increasing success as the afternoon went on. It was beautiful, familiar, and strange to us all at once. Stumbling across a winery in southeast Asia was not something we had anticipated, especially in a country like Myanmar. And while we hadn’t yet tasted the wines yet, there was no doubt that the scenery was beautiful and helped melt away any stress that tried to creep into your bones.
For only $2 we got to sample four different wines. Having not had the greatest experience with wine (all store bought purchases) in Thailand we weren’t really sure we would enjoy what we were about to taste, but for $2 we thought it was still worth the try. All of the wines offered here were “western” style, meaning they were not the Asian sweet wine style that is more like a flat-bodied port. All four of our wine tastings impressed us, leaving our palate happy and wanting more. Together we opted to share a $10 bottle of Syrah that was our favorite. Ben paired this with three of the hand rolled green-leafed 10 cent cigarillos we had bought upriver on the Chindwin. With a glass of wine in one hand, a cigarillo in another, good company by our side, and a melting sun that transformed the sky over the expansive lake below, we relaxed into our first evening on Inle Lake. It wasn’t such a bad way to start the journey.
Ironically, Red Mountain Winery would also be we where we would end our time in Inle Lake, as we mentioned above. This second and last visit wouldn’t be nearly as relaxing though. The young girl from the UK didn’t usually drink wine all that much and the German gentleman only preferred sweet wine. It wasn’t the relaxed and mellow experience we had the first night, but still a nice final stop for our trip. The beautiful views and a glass of our favorite wine from our prior tasting even with a small window of time allowed us to remind ourselves to be in the present moment and take a few minutes to reflect on our time at Inle Lake.
The All-Day Longboat Tour
The main highlight for most people’s stay around the Inle Lake area is a boat tour on Inle Lake itself. In fact many people will come just for one or two days, do the boat tour and then move on to another place. From the very first morning in town we learned that these tours (and the sound of the motors on the boats) would begin early at 5:30am and run all night until about 7:30pm. You could hire a boat from just about anyone around because almost everyone knew of someone that owned and ran boat tours.
Visitors to Inle Lake can create just about any type of boat trip they want to. We had heard people do small sunrise boat trips, or evening sunset trips. But most people opted for the full day lake trip that included seeing the famous Inle Lake fishermen, the floating market, along with many other stops at local craft shops on the lake. This common route stays within a couple miles of all the guesthouses and hotels and resorts, and bounces from one souvenir shop to another, stops in a village to watch women with rings on their necks, and is essentially sponsored by the businesses selling trinkets. However, this full day trip was marketed the best around town and by far the most popular option among tourists, which also made it easy to gather other people to join you so you could all split the boat cost for the day, $25. The piece of advice we had gotten from our Canadian friends we’d met in Laos had been to pay a bit more and take a boat all the way across Inle lake, through another canal which led to the lesser-visited southern segment of the lake. We had put it out there to the universe (and on the whiteboard) that we were looking for a couple more people to do the full day southern boat trip at the slightly higher cost. The next day the guesthouse owner was happy to announce he had found two more people to join us and a boat would be ready to go at about 9am. He ensured us it would be a long day but very worth it.
The boats for the all day tours were set up for comfort much more than any boat for locals. This was a blessing because we were on the boat for a majority of the time between the hours of 9am and 7pm. The long boat had five wooden chairs that were almost as wide as the boat placed in a line all in front of the driver. And each chair came equipped with two blankets, one for us to sit on and another for us to use to keep warm when the sun went down later that day. Overall it was one of the most comfortable boat rides we had been on in a while.
Our trip started down the small canal that led from the town of Nyaung Shwe to the open expanse of the lake. Here we had our first ‘Disneyland’ experience. About five ‘fisherman’ boats were there at the mouth of the canal ready to put on a show. If you have seen photos of Myanmar, there’s about a 90% chance you have seen of the famous fisherman of Inle Lake striking this distinct pose. Well, chances are that a majority of them are of these fake fisherman (or maybe retired fisherman and now showmen) that dot the entrance/exit of this canal. We watched as other boats ahead of us would put over to one of the few fisherman boats where the man would balance with the oar and hold the net up in the air, specifically for photos and not doing anything at all practical. Then he would grab the edge of the boat so the boats were right next to each other and he would hold up one of a few fish that were laying in water at the bottom of the boat. His child/helper would assist with some of these activities and then also help collect the tip that was expected for the photo and show. We understand this is a new form of making money for the locals but it wasn’t what we had signed up for at all and felt about as fake as it can get. Being the first experience as we entered the lake we really hoped it would not be a reflection on the remainder of the day.
Our boat departed the fisherman/showman only a few moments before another boat behind us pulled up for him as he repeated the show. And now we were off, into the open air of the lake. The views from the lake gave a different feeling than those from land and it was quite a nice perspective. After about thirty minutes of traveling southward we made our first official boat stop. The boat pulled up to a dock along a house on stilts which was marked as with a sign indicating it was a silver smith. We took the chance to use the bathroom here (which was a very nice western style toilet to our surprise). We could see on the way to the bathroom in the back that the little shop with full of silver items and that there was a sort of assembly display line where a couple of people would show you how things were hand-made (although it is hard to be sure what you are buying is actually hand made). Ben took a glance as he walked back from the bathroom and noticed they seemed to be waiting for our group to enter so they could show us. But were happy to see the other couple in the boat didn’t even bother to leave the dock. We came to learn at this time that the girl was from Singapore and her male friend was actually a local Burmese guy from Yangon. It was obvious that neither of them were much into the touristy or shopping aspects of this ride either. The boatsman picked up on this quickly as well, when none of us really looked around the silver shop. After smoking a cigarette he gathered us back in his boat and we continued southward.
As we neared the southern edge of Inle Lake the land began to get more marshy with long reeds poking out of the water frequently and clusters of homes becoming thicker as well. There were less and less tourist boats that we encountered and instead more and more local boats. Already, here on the southern part so of Inle we saw some real fisherman off in the distance balancing with a net in one hand and steering an oar propelled by their leg (which is wrapped around it) in the other hand. Every now and then you would see them smack the water with their oar really hard. We assumed this was to scare fish into the nets. We didn’t approach (or bother) these fishermen who were obviously actually fishing, but instead enjoyed watching them and their skill from afar. We also passed many boats of people gathering grass and greens from the shallow parts of the lake into their canoes which they paddled softly along the water. There were some cargo boats that traveled along the deeper parts full to the brim with people sitting on the wooden floor planks of the boat between and on top of cargo. These would usually include a person bailing water that was spilling over the edges into the hull. This was the kind of boat scene we were used to from our trip on the Chindwin River.
When our boat started weaving through was seemed to be a floating village we weren’t sure if it was just a part of the journey for us to take in the scenes of life on Inle Lake or if it was for another stop at a local shop. It actually turned out to be much better (depending on perspective). We weren’t sure what was going on at first when we made our next stop at a dock near what seemed to be a home and a couple of elderly people came out to help. If it weren’t for the other Burmese guy in the boat (who conveniently spoke fluent Burmese and English) we probably would have had a much more difficult time figuring out what was going on. He explained to us that the boatsman needed to replace a part on the boat and we would be resting here (at his family’s home) for a few moments while he did so. For us this was an added bonus to be able to get to spend a few moments of our day in a local home with a local family. Amanda was immediately fascinated by the large pots of fermenting tea leaves on the dock just outside the door of the home sitting in the sunshine. Laphet was one of her absolute favorite things to eat here in Myanmar but she hadn’t yet gotten to see exactly how the leaves were fermented. The family welcomed us with open arms and motioned for us to go inside. The home was pretty much one large room that balanced on the stilts above the water. We sat on the floor in the middle of the room while the family brought us large flat loafs of bread (that we had just witness being delivered via a man selling them via canoe) and tea. We smiled and thanked them. The family began to chatter among themselves and we got to know a bit more about our boat partners. This definitely beat the chance of getting stuck in the middle of the lake with a broken boat.
Fifteen minutes later the boatsman seemed to be satisfied with the part he had now replaced and was ready for us to re-board and continue our tour. At this point we were at the tip of the wide area of the main lake and now entering a small canal waterway that stretched for 15 kilometers and connected to a smaller part of the lake. On a map the two lakes appear as if they are separate and do not touch, but even in the dry season there is a wide enough stream connecting them so you can get through on a long-tail boat.
This was the part of the tour that we had wanted to see. The part that went beyond the areas that had been developed around the increased number of tourists and travelers. The ride through the canal was a long one but watching the scenery and the life along the shores was something really special. On a number of occasions we would have to slow our boat as water buffalo would swim across the more narrow parts of the waterway. We watched carts full of vegetation drop cargo along the shore that was then loaded into boats to be delivered to the lakeside floating villages. Kids would be playing and running around happily. Clusters of homes on stilts would appear at various points, seemingly without rhyme or reason. When the banks of the water seemed to start growing apart and we emerged into the southern segment of the lake the boatsman quickly steered us to Thakaung Pagoda. Already the views from the boat made us feel like we had arrived somewhere enchanting. When we pulled up to the dock there were a few kids playing in the water that helped guide the boat in between some splashes, right next to a stupa that was partially submerged in the lake and met with green water lilies climbing all over it. The temple had a covered walkway that led up to the main center building which was then surrounded by many smaller stupas.
The grounds were large and every few feet you encountered more stupas in this maze of almost 250 points of buddhist prayer. Without losing any of its magic, it almost seemed like a parking lot for stupas because of the way they were packed in so densely. We fanned out and explored, quickly losing ourselves in the curiosity of the place. There were 4 or 5 other people visiting the grounds, but because of the size and labyrinth-like setup it felt like we had it all to ourselves. There was no one path or route to explore, instead each turn you faced many options of ways you could wind through the stupas, losing sight of all others, just hearing the wind gently blow the thousands of little bell chimes on the pointed tops of the majestic and ancient structures. Once again, as we had found in Bagan, there were so many stupas with roughly the same architecture, yet not one was the exact same as another. The biggest difference was usually inside. As these were small stupas, at the front there was a small arched entryway that looked like an oversized brick bread oven you could walk into far enough to kneel down and pray. Before you would be a tiny altar, big enough for an image of buddha or occasionally something buddhist mixed with Hinduism, and a place for offerings of flowers or candles, etc. The expressions on the buddha, buddha’s position or clothing or facial features were different in every one. In one section, we also came across many placards at the base of the stupas indicating where the stupas were donated from, with many of the newer ones being sponsored or paid for by religious groups in Singapore.
Once we had explored every crevice of this pagoda mystery-land, we gathered back at the edge of the covered walkway and watched the little children play and climb on the statues at the entrance to the pagoda while waiting for the boat group to assemble. When we finally all gathered, we pushed off with the help of our little friends once again, and moved north toward Inle Lake and Nyaung Shwe. After spending so much time traveling south, we breezed north and while we knew we’d been going at the max speed of the boat the whole time, it seemed much faster as we saw everything in reverse that had unfolded for us that morning: from dilapidated houses on stilts to bamboo forest patches and pockets of reeds where locals were collecting seaweed to dry and cook.
Once in the middle of the main section of Inle Lake our boat companions revealed small bags of dried bread treats and popcorn they had brought with them. They began to throw these into the wind at the seagulls off to the side of our boat. Before long we were engulfed in a swarm of squawking seagulls. They would fly stealthily alongside the boat staring each of us down as they waited for their treat. We each took turns tossing crackers and popcorn to the birds, hoping our toss would be the one that was caught mid-air. It was one of those exhilarating yet somewhat frightening experiences that made us feel at times like we were in a scene from Hitchcock’s movie, “The Birds.” Our bird treat supply lasted us about twenty minutes, at which point the not-so-stupid birds realized we no longer had anything of value to them and took off to find another boat.
Our last stop for the day was at an unusual shop in the Ywama village near where the rotating floating market is held every 5th day. It was interesting boating into this floating village because in contrast to the many other little clusters of floating villages or farms we had been through prior that day it was more of a hodgepodge of local houses, shops for tourists, farms, pagodas, and a floating market of sorts. In comparison to the other areas it was like the ‘city,’ being a hub that was well visited and combined so many parts of the daily life (both modern and traditional) here in Inle Lake. Since we were arriving later in the day it was apparent that most the other visitors had already passed through. When we did stop at the shop’s dock (remember, no parking lots in a village built on the lake), we unloaded and went inside. To our surprise the shop had many really neat items, not just the typical things we had seen in so many other stores of the region and country. If we hadn’t been just carrying backpacks and instead been on a shorter term vacation we would have likely bought a few things.
In one corner of the store there was a weaving workshop set up with a couple women from the Padaung tribe working on their looms. This tribe is one of the popular ‘long neck’ tribes of the region where the women wear heavy brass rings stacked around their neck, legs, and arms. While seeing the people of this tribe had sounded interesting we had also heard that many of the treks or tours (sometimes referred to as homestays) felt again more like a Disneyland experience rather than a truly cultural moment. The “come to see and take a photo” kind of experience, almost like a human zoo. We are sure that the money from these experiences goes toward the tribes and helps to support the community, but it isn’t the experience we look for in our wandering. But as far as running into a moment to see people of this tribe without actually being in a situation that was 100% natural this was probably as good as we could have asked for. Our boat was the only boat visiting the shop and the vibe was very relaxed. Near the weaving section there was information about the Padaung tribe and the family that came here to work. We were able to talk to the shop owner about the tribe and the ladies working there, along with finding out their names and seeing photos of the rest of the family.
Afterwards we sat in the chairs just outside the shop on the deck, observing the women at work weaving through the large open air windows of the shop. Along the canal in front of us women came by in canoes trying to sell us flowers and fruits. Amanda bought a bundle of bananas which we shared with the other locals and boatsman there on the deck while sipping the customary tea that was offered everywhere. Overall we walked away more educated and feeling like this stop had added to our experience and day, even if we were still empty-handed.
We now set off in our boat back toward our Gypsy home in Nyaung Shwe. By the time we were in the center of the main lake nearing the northern tip which would return to our guesthouse, it was 15 minutes to sunset. The boatsman found a portion of the lake where the grasses grew long and we could sit in the boat peacefully without drifting too much. Here we rested in silence broken sporadically by the crazy motors of the boats zipping around the lake. But even with these motor noises (which we had grown accustomed to since they started at 5am just outside our guesthouse) life was peaceful and watching the sunset from the lake filled us with a sensation of gratitude. Here was another successful day filled with experiences and images that we will surely never forget. We realized there on the lake that whether you are watching the sunsets in Myanmar from a pagoda, a hilltop winery, or on a lake, you always seemed to be filled with the peace and beauty of everything around you and the moment. It was a perfect way to close the boat trip and our day outing.
We had come to Inle Lake with mixed expectations and to be completely honest, somewhat closed minds. We knew this was one of the hotspots and having to pay a $10 fee to even get off the bus to a town bordering the lake wasn’t the most affable welcoming. But the gateway town of Nyaung Shwe and overall Inle Lake had surprised us and in the end we were happy we had come. As Niko highlighted during our time there — “Sometimes staying on the beaten path isn’t such a bad thing.” We had been learning that there is a reason that the beaten trail is well traveled. And usually that reason is because there is something that has drawn people there, something that others have thought is worth seeing. So why always try to be the pioneer? Sometimes it is okay to follow. In fact, sometimes it can be the wiser choice. Learning to balance these roles of leader or follower had been important to us as a traveling couple in our relationship and also as a wandering unit exploring a world full of knowns and unknowns.
So with these final few days of scenery, exploration, sunsets and making friends, we found our time in Myanmar quickly coming to a close, and shortly following would be the conclusion of our global adventure. But if there is anything in the world that will make you happy when once chapter is ending and another is beginning, it is watching a beautiful sunset with someone you love.