Inle Lake- 4 days in and around Nyaung Shwe
I flew Air Bagan to Heho and arrived at 10:00am. I had heard you are at the mercy of the taxi drivers, since you are quite far away from Nyaung Shwe, the lake area. I rounded up a couple other folks when I was claiming my backpack, and I bargained down the price to 7000kyat per person (they start asking 25,000, beware!). The drive into the town of Nyaung Shwe took an hour, and we had to pay $5 each to enter the area.
I checked into my guesthouse, Remember Inn ($11, HUGE room + breakfast) and immediately headed out to see the town, on foot. Looking for a place to have lunch, I came across a number of restaurants for tourists, and the high prices to match. A friend of mine had suggested “Smiling Moon”, which was just around the corner from the guesthouse, so I went over to have a look. I ordered a chicken curry (the generic term for normal stewed Myanmar cuisine) and a beer and several minutes later was presented with a smallish dish of chicken. I asked about the rice and side dishes, and the woman at the restaurant said it is separate! I had to order a plate of rice and asked for 2 dishes of chilis (as the chicken dish hardly had any flavor at all) and my lunch ended up costing 4900kyat, when I had been paying just 2000kyat for a massive dinner every night for the past week! Forget this tourist cr@p, I thought, I’m finding something better for dinner.
The town itself has a sprawling market, great for browsing for souvenirs- nothing like Bogyoke in Yangon, but they have those great square tote bags (“loy ‘ei”) in various colors, qualities and sizes.
I went around looking at the main pagodas in town, as well as some old stupa ruins. There were no other tourists in the area and it was nice and quiet. The colorful Yandanamanaung Pagoda had an interesting collection of Buddha relics and antique-looking items behind glass cases, and that was nice to peruse. After walking around for a few hours, I decided to ask a woman at a street stand what place made good Burmese cuisine, and she pointed me to a small place, which looked like someone’s house. I went over and gestured to the woman if she could cook for me at 6:00pm this evening, and I think she understood. I went back there at 6:00, and she brought around a man who had a little travel agency next door. His name was Myint Aung and he helped me order dinner. Turns out the place is a little restaurant for local people, no sign, no menus, and they mostly do take-out. The food was incredible- a huge full-course for 2000kyat! I thanked the woman and Myint Aung, and said I’d be back the next night, and promised to bring some whiskey to share with Myint Aung.
The breakfast at Remember Inn was the best so far. They gave you a choice of Shan-style noodles, banana pancakes, or eggs, and every day included a freshly-made smoothie, a selection of fresh fruit and REAL hot coffee or tea. A word of warning about most breakfasts at budget hotels/guesthouses in Myanmar- you will usually get juice, eggs, some skinny slices of white bread, a yellow-colored substance (lard?) in lieu of butter, and a jelly-like sweet glob of something which doesn’t remotely taste anything like jam. The coffee is usually instant, served in “3-in-one” packets of instant coffee, sugar and creamer. Oh, and a lot of fruit! Fortunately I don’t usually eat much more than fruit & toast for breakfast, so I was fine.
On my second day at Inle, I arranged a boat trip. It was 15,000 for the entire day, and since I was going solo, could go at my own pace. It is quite cold in the morning, with the wind in your face, and while I was fine with my 2 layers of fleece, I saw some other people on the lake completely covered in blankets (the hotels will usually let you borrow them). We first stopped at Than Taung Market, which was not entirely impressive if you’ve already seen a million markets in Asia, but some of the ethnic tribes had colorful garments and wares. There were a lot of people selling cheroots and massive rice crackers. I bought some steamed buns to have for lunch. Our next stop was the impressive Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda, and the main attraction there was for men to go up and rub some gold leaf on these huge rock-like images. (Women are not allowed!) Turns out these huge gold rocks were actually smallish Buddha images, and after years and years of layer after layer of gold leaf, they became these large, gold snowmen! If one were to carve through 6 inches of gold on any one of them, one would surely find a tiny Buddha! After walking around there for a bit, my boatman wanted to drop me off at a tourist restaurant ($10 lunch perhaps?) and I declined, as I had already eaten the steamed buns I bought at the market. Next on out itinerary was a visit to a silversmith (not impressive, average-looking silver jewelry) and a weaving factory (nice, if you have never seen a loom before) and a cheroot-rolling workshop (half a dozen women were sitting around rolling cigarettes by hand).
Indein was by far the most interesting for me (one has to pay a camera fee), and after hiking up the hundreds of steps to the top of the hill, I was surrounded by stupas old and new, many painted a bright gold, many others in a state of disrepair. It was pretty amazing, and I regret not staying there longer, but I wanted to go to a mountaintop on the opposite side and check out a little monastery there. My boatman gave me an hour but I was determined to get to that little hilltop area, so I had some local guys point me in the right direction. The hike up was only 10 minutes or so, and that is where I had the best views of the area. I hiked up it in my bare feet as there was a lot of gravel and I didn’t want to slip and fall in my flip-flops(did this in Hsipaw and my wound was still healing!), so I had to gingerly climb up some rocks to get some nice photographs. When I climbed back over the rocks, an old monk was waiting for me in front of the monastery and poured me some tea. I sat there, wiping the sweat off my face, and enjoying the much-needed refreshment. I said “Cheezum bay” and headed back down.
Afterwards, a visit to the “Jumping Cat Monastery”. The wooden building itself was actually quite impressive and it housed some interesting Buddha images et al, but there were heaps of tourists. A group of about 30 Germans gathered round to watch a couple of the temple cats jump through hoops (My cats certainly wouldn’t do that!) and I watched with them. The place was teeming with cats, all of them who are rumored to jump. Later, we floated through some stilted villages and also some gardens- it was very interesting to observe how row after row of beans and tomatoes grew on large patches of floating soil. After watching a dazzling sunset, we headed back to town (Brrr!).
I met Myint Aung at the little restaurant and we drank whiskey and I had yet another memorable meal. The lady brought around a dish of large sunflower seeds and everyone in the restaurant was cracking away, and spitting the shells out. The perfect end to a wonderful day!
On the third day, I had Myint Aung take me on a trek. We left at 8:00am and spent the entire day walking through the mountains. Passed a lot of villages and people carrying corn (livestock feed) in baskets. It was a nice, hot, sweaty day! That night, too, I dined at the little restaurant and drank whiskey with Myint Aung.
On my last day at Inle Lake, I rented a bicycle from the guesthouse(1500kyat) to see the western part of the lake. I packed up a large bottle of water, some excess fruit from breakfast and some bread I bought at the market. I first went past the Inle Lake entrance to see the teak monastery (Shwe Yan Pyay) which was very cool, and then another 10 minutes up the road to a nice, newish pagoda. I spent the rest of the day stopping at mountaintop temples, my favorite by far being one that was occupied by 2 nuns. I noticed a walkway up to the pagoda (a bit of a hellish climb I will admit) and then reached what I thought was the top. Not so, just a stupa. I went through a rocky area and came to a little monastery-like building, and a Buddha in a shelter. Some angry dogs approached, and I shooed them away and ate lunch. Later, an elderly nun and a young nun came out to see what I was doing. They were friendly, but didn’t want me to take their picture. The older nun held my long ponytail in one of her hands, made scissor gestures with the other, and loudly said “No! No!”. After gazing at the view a while longer, I waved goodbye, and, descending the pagoda, I counted 241 steps!
I got back into Nyaung Shwe (after stupidly making a wrong turn and going through Shwe Nyaung, 40 minutes out of the way!) at about 4:00. I had to fold up my fleece jacket and sit on that on the way back as my butt was pretty raw from hour upon hour of riding on a bumpy road! Once in town, I headed the extra 3 kilometers (Oh, my aching butt!) up to the Red Mountain Winery, to try their tasting set of 9 wines (3000kyat) and watch the sunset. I met up with Myint Aung and ate dinner at the little restaurant once again, and we shared a bottle of “Columbus” whiskey, which he recommended and was quite good (I still liked the Grand Royal Special reserve the best!). After dinner, we cycled over to the soccer ground to hear a rock concert, which was part of the Independence Day celebrations. I said goodbye to my friend, and hoped we’d meet up the next year.
The next day, as I couldn’t find anyone to share the taxi with me to the airport, I ended up paying 15,000kyat to get there. Oh well. From Yangon airport I paid the usual $6 to my hotel, and once in town, I immediately set out to see Shwedagon ($5 admission, no camera fee) which I hadn’t the time to see before. The place was just amazing, and there were so many local people there despite the heat. I walked back to my guesthouse (45 minutes) and had an icy cold beer. I had my last meal at that great Burmese restaurant on 29th street, then walked back to Shwedagon for some night photography. The place was all lit up and just as magical as it was in the daytime (only a lot cooler!). Since Bogyoke market was closed for a few days for a national holiday, I made some last-minute souvenir purchases at the arcade at Shwedagon. They had some very nice sandalwood carvings, Buddha images, etc.
Bottom line: Did I enjoy Burma? Yes, I LOVED it! Will I go back? Absolutely! And next time, I’m taking my mother with me! Also, many thanks to BonzaiReservoir for all of his useful information! :-)
See pictures of the above on my flickr site here: