Friday 10 January 2020

"Mingalaba" Myanmar - Part IV | Lake Inle Day 1

The bus ride with J J Express was comfortable. I had caught more sleep than I had anticipated, thanks to their comfortable seating. There was a night halt around 9pm and one more later in the night. Just before 6am, an announcement was made informing us of our arrival at Nyaung Shwe and advising us to prepare the 15,000 kyat required as entrance fee to the Lake Inle region. The money goes in the development of the area and its inhabitants. Some non official looking locals boarded the bus and made the collection.

"Mingalaba" Myanmar - Part I | The Arrival
"Mingalaba" Myanmar - Part II | Yangon Day 1
"Mingalaba" Myanmar - Part III | Yangon Day 2

I was still not sure how far my hotel was from the final stop of the bus. As I had mentioned on my first post about the planning "Mingalaba" Myanmar - Part I | The Arrival, it was very difficult to come by information about travelling in Myanmar. I had tried enquiring with the bus company, but the language barrier did not help. However, they did assure me that they would arrange my onward travel if required. Thankfully, Google map showed it as a short walk.

Lake Inle is a large body of fresh water in the Shan hills, in the central part of Myanmar. Situated at a height of 900 metres and covering an area of 120 square kms, it is one of the highest and the second largest lake in Myanmar. Nyaung Shwe is a major township in the area located to the north of Lake Inle and connected by a river to this massive water body. Along with the other ethnicities, the area is mainly populated by the Intha people. The livelihood of the inhabitants is totally dependent on the lake. They live in stilt houses, have floating farms and fish in its waters. Transport is by long, narrow motorised boats that crisscross the lake and the rivers and canals which are home to the many small villages in the area. There is a tarmac road that circles around the lake, connecting the villages and towns over land.

Tourist accommodations at Lake Inle are available in the overland villages as well as on the lake itself. While staying on the lake would definitely count as a unique experience, mobility is completely dependent on the boat service. As we were getting off the bus, a group of boatmen had gathered to offer transport for anyone with accommodation on the lake, as well as to take bookings for boat cruise on the lake. I had decided to book my cruise through the hotel the next day.

I was staying at Mother's Home hotel, and the locals showed me the way even without my request for help. The neighbourhood was still waking up this early morning. I passed a group of monks dressed in maroon robes carrying their bowls, collecting their daily alms. I spotted my hotel and was walking towards it when I saw a group of young girls dressed in pink outfit queuing up outside homes. They waited for their turn as the lady of the house poured the offerings in their wooden bowls. My camera was still packed securely in my backpack. However their furtive glances made me feel that these young girls were reluctant to be clicked. They are probably fed up of tourists shoving their cameras in their faces. I watched them for a while, completely at awe at their display of discipline as each stood for their turn patiently and respectfully.

I was met by smiling staff at the hotel. They were a truly friendly bunch as I came to know through my stay. I checked into my room which was far more comfortable than my tiny space in Yangon. After a massive breakfast, brought along largely due to miscommunication with the kitchen staff, it was time for me to explore. I rented a cycle from the hotel for the day at 3000 kyat. The plan was to take the road on the west of the lake, cross it on the boat, then cycle back by the east coast, taking in a few sights on the way. The total ride distance was of 25kms and I expected it to be a leisurely day. However, what I did not consider was the heat.

I started at around 9am. The sun was already beating down, but at least being at a higher altitude, the air was cool. I stopped at every opportune moment to take photos of the landscape, only to realise the sun's angle wasn't the most flattering. Yet that did not dissuade me.

The first couple of kms by the river was on narrow, broken roads with intermittent heavy vehicles passing by. As the road ahead started climbing up, I realised for the first time that the bike gears were disconnected. It was an uphill slog for a while before I gave up and walked the cycle. The next five kms or so though not as bad, remained undulated. But at least the road was well tarmacked and almost no traffic. I had not cycled in about four years, and with the added heat, I was struggling. Thankfully the road went downhill after this and I gleefully let gravity take over, even whizzing past the hot springs I had planned to stop by. I realised my mistake only when I spotted the village of Khaung Daing. It was too hot and too tiring to cycle back uphill. Later I checked the photos of the hot springs and they did not impress me, therefore nothing lost.

Surprisingly, even though the road goes by the lake, there are not much views of it. As I approached the village of Khaung Daing, a young boy standing by the roadside asked me if I needed a boat, which I did. He quoted a price of 10,000 kyat. After some bargaining, I could get it down to 8000 kyat. Though I had been told that 5000 to 6000 kyat would be the normal price. At that point, I could just think of food and shade and a lot of water.

The thirty minutes ride on the boat took me to the east side of the lake to Maing Thouk village. The long boats sit very low and the young boatman cut his way through massive chunks of water hyacinth, even stopping a couple of times to untangle them from the propellers. We were going past stilt houses and floating farms. Every time another boat passed, ours rocked precariously. There were fishermen out and about on the lake. It was definitely a different perspective from the water.

The village of Maing Thouk spreads over from the land on to the lake, with a long teak wood bridge connecting the stilt houses on water. Even before I got off the boat I had spotted a restaurant  on the bridge. An old man was sitting under a shed and observing me quietly. As I caught his eye he signalled me to go and eat there. We did not have a common language, but it wasn't difficult to understand. I kept my cycle in the shed and walked in.

The restaurant was in one of the stilt houses and the visit gave me an opportunity to closely look at one. Made of teak wood, this was a two storey building with a balcony and two large rooms on each floor. Furnishing was minimal, and sleeping arrangements as I figured was on the floor. The bedding was rolled up by the wooden wall. The bathroom was a separate stilt house connected by a wobbly teak board. They were sparkly clean, but the toilets seemed to empty straight into the lake. There has been a growing concern with increasing tourism as more accommodations are being built on the lake without proper waste management. The kitchen was a tiny room in the lower floor and the eating area was on the second floor balcony with a grand view of the lake and the bridge.

Rather than looking at the menu, I asked the girl taking my order what she recommended. Her immediate reply was the grilled fish. That's our most popular dish she said. The fish came with rice and the sauce served with it blew my mind. I ordered a young coconut and they probably brought along the biggest one they had. It was massive and I sipped on it for literally hours. The fish had cost me only 1500 kyat. It was the cheapest meal I ever had in Myanmar, but definitely the best. The carp being served is a local fish of the lake, available nowhere else. Unfortunately it is now struggling against invasive species and is on the endangered list. I later visited the kitchen and saw them grilling the fish on wood fire. That would explain the awesome flavours.

I lingered over my meal, waiting for the hottest part of the day to pass. There were enough tables to serve guests and I was not bothered by anyone. It was about three when I decided to continue on my ride.

I was now cycling back towards Nyaung Shwe, on the east coast of the lake, again stopping a few times for photos. My next stop, Red Mountain vineyard and winery.

Myanmar has only two vineyards and both of them are in the vicinity of Lake Inle. While visiting a vineyard and tasting the wine does sound tempting, I was more interested in the views. Reviews said that this is the best place to watch sunset in Inle. The road to the winery rose sharply from the main road and it was impossible to cycle up. Actually, on my way back it was difficult to cycle down either as I did not trust the brakes of the bike. It was still a couple of hours to the sunset, so after gulping down two glasses of chilled water, I ordered a glass of their late harvest wine and waited. The sun started going down with much promise, the rays streaking from the surrounding clouds. However, it fizzled out when it mattered, the cloud playing a spoilsport. I cycled back to Nyaung Shwe, passing a few impressive looking pagodas. It was too dark, and I was too tired to click.

Back at the hotel, the owner greeted me. She was a young, dynamic, confident woman with a very warm personality. She confirmed she will book the boat for next day's sunrise visit to the lake. After drinking a few bottles of water and indulging in a refreshing shower, I was ready to venture out for food. Nyaung Shwe has its own night market which wasn't too far from my hotel.  However, the food did not impress me. I looked up a few other places on the map but my legs were reluctant to comply. I spotted a busy Indian restaurant named Inlay Hut and I walked in. The guy running the place was indeed a character, and his wi-fi password said a lot about him. Despite the place being busy and almost refusing me entry, he still got me seated and then started serving me complimentary food. Knowing I was an Indian, he talked about his love for India and hoped I would appreciate the food. One of his parents was Nepalese and the other a western national which I can't recall now. But he definitely was a character to be remembered. The food was all right.

I needed a good night's sleep especially after spending the previous night on the bus. I would be picked up at 5am for the boat trip, one of the many early starts in the days to come.

For more about the Myanmar visit and much more, visit my page on Facebook: Breaking out Solo
My Facebook post from the day.

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