Cooling off at Inle Lake

Our overnight bus – resplendent with go-faster stripes of vomit (stale and fresh) down the side – wove through the mountains and, a mere fourteen hours later, eventually arrived at Nyaungshwe – the little town on the shore of Inle Lake. I don’t like to pick favourites with terrible journeys but it was probably our most unpleasant bus ride in Myanmar. As in Bagan, we were relieved of $10 each for the privilege of merely surviving the journey by way of a “tourist tax”.

After the hot, dusty towns (have I mentioned yet that Myanmar is dusty in March?), I’d splashed out on a hotel with a pool to refresh us for our final few days. So there was much eye rolling when we stepped off the bus to find that temperatures at Inle Lake were about ten -fifteen degrees lower than everywhere we’d experienced so far. The universe certainly has an excellent sense of humour.

Surprisingly, given that Inle Lake – along with Bagan – is one of the most popular destinations for tourists in Myanmar, Nyaungshwe didn’t feel that touristy. Sure, there were plenty of guesthouses and restaurants but there was a lack of tacky souvenir shops in the town and still signs of local life going on around the visitors.

After a post-bus nap in our new room, we decided to hire bikes and head out to explore a 10km loop that would take us along and across the lake. The sky was dark overhead, with gentle rumbles of thunder being batted back and forth between the Shan hills that surround Inle Lake. As we pedalled across the bridge out of town, a spot of rain landed on my cheek. It was oddly welcome; the first rain I’d seen since New Zealand four months ago. The spot quickly turned into a shower, and we pulled up at a roadside shack housing a few locals supping Myanmar beers. We ordered a couple of Sprites, and were presented with a bowl of fried tofu – a Shan speciality – which we practically inhaled. As we got up to pay the bill, he smiled and – with the aid of a homemade phrase book – thanked us for coming. It was incredibly humbling to receive such a welcome. We managed another couple of kilometres before the rain came back. With a vengeance.

Rain Inle Lake
First rain in four months. On the day we take a bike ride. Typical!

Soaked to the skin, we took shelter under a lean to for the best part of half an hour until the rain died off. We hadn’t gone a hundred metres down the road before it started up again and, shrieking, we dived for shelter in the Worlds Worst Restaurant™ to wait it out. This time, we gave up and headed back to town, yet to even set eyes on the lake.

Inle Lake rain
Soaked to the skin! (And yes, am giving Craig selfie lessons)

Thankfully, the next day dawned clear which we were grateful for when our 5:30am alarm went off! We’d booked a boat tour of the lake and our tour guide had suggested the early start to beat the crowds. This turned out to be an excellent suggestion – as the sun rose from behind the hills the only people on the lake were us and the fisherman who, famously, paddle their boats using their legs so that their arms are free to cast their nets.

Fishermen Inle Lake
The fishermen of Inle Lake

Our boat ride took us past entire villages set on stilts to protect them from the fluctuating water levels of Inle Lake. Even the electrical wires were set into the water! As we glided past, we watched as women washed their clothes in the lake water from their front steps, and little fishing boats slid between the – surprisingly large – houses.

Inle Lake village
A village on Inle lake

After an hour, we arrived at the local market. It was fabulous. Our early start meant we were the first visitors, and we walked amongst the hill tribes who were selling and buying everything from fruits to brightly dyed cloth bags. Old ladies sat puffing on cheroot cigars, waiting for customers, as men set up mini barber shops amid the bustling crowds. Even the souvenirs – local silverware and (probably not authentic but beautiful nonetheless) opium weights tempted me, although Craig tactfully questioned the wisdom of buying actual weights to carry in my backpack given we still had several months remaining on our trip.

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Towards the back of the market were food stalls, and these were the highlight of our visit. We took a seat next to three ladies in bright Shan headdresses, and gestured to the giant pot in front of us. We were presented with the most fabulous dish of our trip so far – Shan noodles in a thick, slightly spicy (she’d toned it down for us!) gravy. YUM.

Shan noodles Inle Lake
The Shan noodle stall
Shan noodles Inle Lake
Shan noodles. YUM

Our next stop was a silk factory, where we got to take a tour around the workshop and watch as intricate patterns were set in the looms. Apparently it can take as long as a day just to prepare the loom pattern for weaving, and the scarves and clothes being created were stunning. Sadly, the $25 asking price was a bit beyond our souvenir clothing budget though.

Inle Lake silk factory
Setting up the looms for silk weaving

We’d felt slightly pressured to buy in the silk shop, so decided to skip the silverware shop and head straight to a cheroot cigar factory, where we got to sample the goods. Compared to a normal cigarette, the cigars tasted much more fragrant and were… whats that? Oh, HI MUM! I’ve never smoked a cigarette ever. Honest. Anyway. Moving on.

Smoking cheroot cigars in Inle Lake
Trying the cheroot cigars. As you can see, I’m a pro.

After a brief stop at what I assume is a sister branch to the Worlds Words Restaurant™ that we visited the day before for lunch, we headed for a peaceful tour through the “floating gardens”, watching as the local villagers planted, pruned and harvested their floating crops. Our last stop before heading back to Nyaungshwe was a wooden monastery which, like all surrounding buildings, was set on stilts. The monastery developed something of a reputation for trained “jumping cats” – trained by one of the resident monks. Alas, the monk has apparently passed away and the incumbent cats don’t seem to be up for doing much beyond chewing the shoelaces of unsuspecting day trippers.

On our final day at Inle Lake we decided to attempt another excursion on the bikes. To avoid tempting the rains again, we set off in the opposite direction along the quiet, winding roads with the lake shimmering in the distance. After a few kilometres we came across something rather unexpected – a vineyard! We puffed up the steep hill past grape vines to the top of the hill, where we were rewarded with stunning views across the plains and sat with a sampler of four of the wines produced here – a 2011 Muscat, a 2014 Sauvignon Blanc, a 2013 Rosé and a 2013 Shiraz. The Rosé was far too sweet for my taste and the Shiraz – whilst palatable – lacked much of a punch. The Sauvignon though really wasn’t too bad!

The Inle Lake vineyard
Wine tasting in Myanmar… who’d have thought it?!
If you plan to visit Inle Lake

  • We stayed at the Min Ga Lar Inn, which had a swimming pool, free breakfast and decent wifi. We’d recommend it, and they helped with booking bus tickets.
  • We hired bikes from Min Ga Lar Inn for K1,500 (£0.90) each; most guest houses will probably have them. Check the brakes!
  • Our boat tour cost us K18,000 (negotiated) – about £11.50 – for our own boat. We departed at 6am – a little earlier than most tours – and were back by 2:30pm having skipped one of the stops. It’s well worth leaving early to beat the crowds. Don’t bother with lunch at the touristy river restaurants unless starving, but they are worth a drink for a spot of people watching.
  • Our overnight bus left Hsipaw at 4:30pm the day before and arrived about 6:45 the following morning. There is only one company plying the route currently, as far as I am aware. Tickets were K15,500 (£10) each.
  • We took an overnight bus back to Yangon for our flight with JJ Express which cost K22,000 (£14) each and took 12 hours. It was by far the most comfortable of our overnight buses and only made one stop.
  • A couple of eating recommendations:
  1. Unique Superb restaurant – set down a dark little side road, the food (thankfully) lived up to the ambitious name!
  2. Linn Htet (town centre) does really good Burmese cuisine, and they are happy to answer any questions you have about Burmese cuisine.

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