We arrived around 4 am after a nauseatingly windy eleven hour bus ride. Admittedly the bus was luxurious, featuring reclining seats and snacks, but it still helped to avoid the window. From the bus stop we took an open back truck across the bridge into the main populated area around Inle Lake - Nyaungshwe. We arrived at our hostel shortly before they opened, and had to wait for access to our rooms. After a few hours of sleep we woke ready to explore the town.
The town consists of a dusty main stretch of road with hostels, hotels and general stores. Nyaungshwe is described as probably the closest thing Myanmar has to a backpacking scene, and whilst this is probably true, it has nothing on other countries I have travelled to. We spent morning exploring the market and checking in with our tour guides for our trek in a few days time. I also managed to snag a legitimate bottle of Star Cola (notice the rust around the top in the photo showing the bottle’s age). Star, along with Blue Mountain and others were local soft drink companies that seem to be struggling now that Coca Cola and Pepsico are around. Although we found Blue Mountain a few more times on our trip, I never managed to find Star Cola again, or its elusive cousin - Twist. It tasted okay.
In the afternoon we decided to cycle to the nearby hilltop winery. The road was windy, and required frequent ducking to the shoulder of the road to avoid large trucks of dubious road worthiness. The traffic thinned as we moved away from the township and left us cycling in wonderful weather, passed roadside shrines and farmers working on sugar cane crops. A lot of the chimneys and architecture reminded me of something dreamed up by Studio Ghibli in a nostalgic look back at the Age of Steam. The winery was on top of a large hill which offered awesome views of countryside beside the lake. I didn’t try the wine, but the weather was perfect. The only thing that ruined the scene was a particularly annoying Australian tourist who refused to pay the 2 AUD charge for tasting wine. We would later run into him at a popular dumpling shop in Nyaungshwe being insufferable to the owner on an exceptionally busy night. He really sucked (I also saw him the other day on Brunswick Street, no doubt fresh from tormenting some poor service staff member).
On our second day we woke a bit late but decided we’d try to head down to catch a floating market on the lake anyway. We hired bicycles again but as we got out of town, we realised we had no real idea where we were going. Luckily a friendly gentleman named Mr Red (he’s in one of the photos giving us a thumbs up) happened to be cycling passed and after asking us where we were going, pointed us in the right direction. However, he also informed us that we had missed the market for the day, but asked us if we wanted to come with him to a floating village. We were a bit wary of falling into a tourist trap, but decided we’d follow him to his boat and suss it out. After cycling through a tiny village we arrived in a near abandoned field (on the lake…I’m not sure if you’d still call it a field), where Mr Red proudly showed us his house. He then explained he was normally a fisherman, but ran tours to make a bit of extra income. After seeing his boat (it was tiny) we decided as we were keen to see the lake anyway we might as well give it a go.
After leaving our bikes precariously balanced on a strip of land between two lengths of water, all four of slowly entered his boat which he used his feet to steer with a paddle, before starting a small outboard motor (about the size of a brushcutter motor) which sent us racing between floating fields of various crops. After travelling for about fifteen minutes we came to a small floating village. It was pretty magical, and quite astounding to think that people lived their lives in stilt houses a decent boat ride away from solid land. Eventually we came to a large structure, a monastery with lots of cats and where children played cards on their day off from study. Mr Red organised some children and we played a game of volleyball (Mr Red was pretty good at volleyball) and we spent some time sitting in the sun enjoying the idyllic location.
After the monastery Mr Red took us to local restaurant for lunch. We ate on the second floor (on the ground floor some ladies were rolling cigars that were quite a common site in the country). The room was full of light and we sat on cushions around a tiny table. After about fifteen minutes we were brought green tea and an incredible lunch of rice, water crop, fried chickpea tofu and tomato salad. The water crop is sort of like a salty spinach, and surprisingly nice to eat on its own with rice. Chickpea tofu is a common snack in Myanmar, and has a lovely texture and flavour (definitely better than regular tofu, and I’m a pretty big fan of tofu), almost like a healthy chip. The tomato salad was potentially one of the best meals I’ve ever had. I don’t normally eat fresh tomato, but having read a bit about the Burmese tomato salad, decided to give it a go. It was a good call. The Burmese tomato salad is salty, vinegary and just pretty awesome. This particular salad was so good that I ordered it at nearly every restaurant we travelled to in Myanmar, and although some were good, none could match my memory of this salad in the well-lit room. In fact, the salad was so good I now eat fresh tomato all the time. The salad was literally so good I have changed my eating habits because of it.
After lunch Mr Red took us back through the village to his small house. When it came time to pay, he insisted that he had no set price, but for us just to pay what we felt. Although I recognise this is also a bit of a tactic, had had been such a wonderful guide that we were happy to pay him far above what we would have paid for a tour booked in Nyaungshwe. It was really one of the best days on the trip, and the only thing I regret is that I can’t easily tell you how to find Mr Red. If you ever travel to Inle Lake, try getting lost on a bicycle and maybe you’ll get lucky.
On our last day we decided we should actually venture out onto the lake. We organised a half day tour at our guest house and set off quite early in the morning. The boat we took was much larger than the one the previous day, but even going quite fast it still took about forty minutes to get from Nyaungshwe down to the lake. Our first stop was a large monastery in the centre of the lake. It was brimming with people, and while nice, was nothing exceptional.
On our way home we stopped by a cigar factory. The whole experience felt very manufactured. We had heard from a few people in Yangon that Inle Lake had been a low point of their trip because it was so touristy, and after the day out on the lake we could understand this. Although it provided lovely views, we were glad we only booked the half day tour and were especially happy for our chance encounter the previous day.