Myanmar – Inle Lake

We arrived at Inle Lake (well, Nyuangshwe, the main resort town) after a long and winding bus then tuktuk ride from Bagan. Based on previous experience in Bagan, we had hoped to find accommodation pretty easily, but this was the first failure of the 'turn up and hope' methodology as we had to try five hotels before we could find a room. Initially we thought that we had been quite blessed to find a place close to the river, however this soon revealed itself to actually be a curse - the boats would start their excesively noisy engines at 5am, thus starting every day unnecessarily early. The town itself is a fairly dull grid-layout place, with no real sights of its own, though the sight that we wanted to see was the lake, about 4km downriver, so that wasn't a major problem. Most of the hotels will organise boat trips on the lake for you, and we took that easy option - we were ushered the few yards down to the main dock in the morning for a circuit of the lake. The boats are pretty narrow, with a loud engine at the back, and in the case of tourist boats a line of small chairs down the centre. Our driver wasn't very communicative, so we just let him get on with the standard tour - a decision we'd come to slightly regret. Heading out of the river mouth into the lake itself, the first tourist trap presented itself - a group of traditional fishing boats whose crew/fishermen would demonstrate their unique fishing and boating techniques in exchange for cash. The rowing method involving a leg curled around an oar, and the fishing with a large wicker basket-like object was interesting to see close up, though a more natural setting would have been nicer.
Kids demonstrating their boating skills

Kids demonstrating their boating skills

Stilt houses on the lake

Stilt houses on the lake

Ironmonger's fire

Ironmonger's fire

Ironmonger making machetes

Ironmonger making machetes

From there, the boat headed around various parts of the lake, including a weaving workshop, a blacksmiths, goldsmiths, umbrella workshop, local market, and a 'jumping cat' monastery. Sadly the constant sales pitches put a real dampener on the experience, and it was only really getting away from those places where we could really appreciate the area. In particularly, a collection of one thousand stupas at the top of a hill was quite eerie, as there were very few people around.
Daniel looking pensive at the weaving workshop

Daniel looking pensive at the weaving workshop

Old stupas by the lake

Old stupas by the lake

On the second full day at Inle Lake, we decided to rent some bikes and see how far round the lake we could get. After the trials of Bagan, about an hour was spent looking for mountain bikes - as many gears as possible, and big tyres - and we did eventually find somewhere that had plenty to choose from. The plan for the ride was fairly simple - head down the east side of the lake, visit the 'Forest Monastery' and then work out the rest of the plan. The road turned out to be far better quality than expected, and we made good progress in the morning, passing farmers working in the fields and one of the country's only vineyards. We even popped in to one of the big lakeside resorts to see how the the half live - very luxuriously, it would appear. After a few more miles we turned off the main lakeside road, and headed uphill towards the forest monastery - though after a lot of effort we both gave up trying to cycle uphill and pushed the bikes to the top, which took around an hour. The top welcomed ups with a small pagoda and a monk who seemed to know far too much about Manchester United - though this was becoming a standard part of the trip, meeting football-obsessed monks. What would have been a perfect vista was spoiled somewhat by a brand-new electricity pylon right in the middle of the view - poor planning, I say. The monastery itself was a little further on from the pagoda, and was a strange mix of Mediterranean styles - you could almost imagine that you were in Greece or Spain. Heading down the hill was a joy, although a brief one, as the hour long climb became a five minute descent at hair-raising speeds. Bouncing over rocks, back wheels constantly threatened to slip out, and the worry that I'd not really tested the brakes made for a fun ride - I would have to try this again. Lunch at the bottom of the hill was followed by loading the bikes on to a longtail boat - this would ferry us across to the other side of the lake, where we could start our trek back to Nyuangshwe. Before boarding however, we did walk a 400m teak bridge over the marshes, linking one of the lake villages to the shore - it was definitely a more intimate approach to the locals than the standard tourist route we'd taken the previous day.
A rice paddy field

A rice paddy field

A farmer in the floating gardens

A farmer in the floating gardens

A stilt house with a unique entrance

A stilt house with a unique entrance

Fishing in the evening

Fishing in the evening

The trip across the lake was also far better than before - our driver would notice us trying to take pictures and slow the boat down to help us - he got a good tip for his efforts! The trip back to Nyuangshwe was fairly easy, but long, and with few great sights. A pagoda at the top of a long flight of steps would have had a good view, if it wasn't for the haziness of the air. There was also a hot springs spa on the route, but it seemed expensive and was swarmed with busses in tourists so we gave that a miss too. The final stage, a dirt track running through paddy fields, was very picturesque - though I don't think Daniel appreciated it as much as his shoes - patched and mended with gaffer tape for a week - finally fell apart, and he had trouble cycling. We made it back into town after a gruelling day on the road, but it was a very satisfying tiredness that I carried that night. The final day in Nyuangshwe was effectively killing time before our night bus to Mandalay. Apart from being annihilated at cards by Daniel, the only other thing of note that we did was to go for a Shan traditional massage - the Shan being the dominant ethnic group in the area. This was a nice, if painful massage which focussed on circulation - and being walked on and kicked in the back several times! Feeling fairly relaxed, we headed up to catch the bus and on to the final destination of the Myanmar experience - Mandalay.
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