Parul and I decided to visit Burma / Myanmar for a vacation in late February 2016. We ended up getting three full weeks to travel the beautiful country. In a country like Myanmar that has a rapidly evolving tourism industry, I intend to fill the gaps that I found while trying to plan a trip myself. That and a first hand narrative of the wonderful experiences that we have had.
This post is for the fourth leg of travel - Inle Lake (12 Mar 2016 - 15 Mar 2016).
Of Money and Wine
We reached Shwenyaung in the dead of the night. The bus dropped us at the turning point for Nyaung Shwe and went on it’s way to Taunggyi. We were the only tourists who got off the bus. A few taxi drivers swarmed us with offers to take us to Nyaung Shwe. The initial quote of 10,000 MMK promptly reduced to 8000 when we said we’d wait a bit. It was just half past 3 in the morning and we were in no particular rush. I was hoping that there would be more buses following shortly and we would be able to find someone to share a ride with. We sat at a small street side shop and I sipped on some extra sweet pre-mixed coffee while we waited and discussed lodging options. We had not booked our stay in Nyaung Shwe and walking around streets looking for a room this early in the morning did not seem like the wisest of ideas. For 30 minutes we sat looking at buses that zoomed past us on their way to Taunggyi. A couple of the buses stopped but they dropped only locals. The touristy ones turned for Nyaung Shwe without waiting. By 4, we had made up our mind to take the cab and ask him to drop us to a guest house that might be able to accommodate us.
We told our cab driver that we needed to stop at an ATM. Turned out that the closest one was in town. We were running really low on cash but due to lack of options we took the cab anyway and it started in the direction of Nyaung Shwe. We stopped at the entry ticket booth for Inle Lake. The price was 25000 MMK per person. I doubt we had that many kyats on us so I asked for a USD quote. 10 dollars per person. I remembered reading a post online that mentioned a 5 USD entry fee less than a year ago! This spoke of the pace at which Myanmar was seeing tourist action. I tried the bill that was rejected when I tried to use it for the Irrawaddy ferry. Worked! Seemed like the ticketing booths were less finicky about the dollar bills they would accept.
Myanmar Tip #10
The ticketing booths are less finicky about the dollar bills that they accept. Don’t be shy about trying your luck with previously rejected dollars.
We went straight to the ATM in town. Another KBZ with a similar problem. Then we tried another ATM : AGD Bank. This one threw a more cryptic error. We decided (or were forced) to give up our attempts for the day. Maybe the problem would be solved when we woke up in the morning. We did a quick check of the amount we had. We had just about enough to pay the driver so we asked him to take us to the guest house. He took us to Lady Princess Hotel and rang the bell. The receptionist woke up and showed us to the room. It looked okay and she was not charging us an extra night for arriving so early. We booked the room for a night despite the horrible USD - Kyat conversion rate she was quoting. Anyway, we settled down in the room. It was a small room with twin beds. The place did not have doubles. Parul was exhausted and went to sleep. I stayed up for a while trying to upload pictures for the blog post. The internet was HORRIBLE!
Myanmar Tip #11
It is usually economical to pay in dollars for hotels and guest houses. Unless it is extremely uncomfortable, you might want to carry good looking dollars in profusion.
We woke up late in the day. We had an important work at hand. Getting local currency. We went to check the ATMs again. The KBZ closest to the hotel gave us the familiar problem. I could see a stack of ATM receipts lying around that confirmed that we were not the only ones facing this problem. The AGD ATM that we had tried last night was next to a bank outlet. We decided to try going to the bank to see if they could help us in any way. We passed by most of Nyaung Shwe on our way to the bank. It is a small town with lots of hotels and cafes. Despite all the tourists though, it is not very crowded. We passed by cafes that gave out the inviting smell of food and coffee. But our situation was desperate; we did not even have enough money to buy us a breakfast! Imagine our state when we saw the shutter of the bank closed shut. I took out my stash of dollars to see which ones I could use to get some Kyats at a money exchange. Parul decided to try her luck at the ATM. I could not count many usable bills but the ATM machine whirred the familiar sound of counting bills and spat out Kyats! I was clueless whether the problem was with my card, the bank or the time but our troubles were alleviated for the moment. Parul’s ATM card had worked and we had local currency. It was time to celebrate!
We bought ourselves an extensive brunch of some awesome Shan food and beer. Shan food was not as spicy as it’s counterparts from elsewhere in Myanmar.
Kevin samples the delicious Shan food
Parul’s practice on the chopsticks had paid off as well and she showed off her skills on the noodles.
Parul and chopsticks make peace
We headed back to the room after the brunch and Parul slept a while while I finished the uploads and pushed out the Bagan blog.
Towards the evening we rented out a couple of bicycles from the guest house and headed out to a vineyard and village to the south east of Nyaung Shwe. The road was rather plain but the scenery was nice. There were mountains in the backdrop and greenery on both sides. The road barely saw any traffic, which was a pleasant change from the rides of Indawgyi.
Biking on the rustic roads
We rode slow and steady and were at a board announcing Red Mountain Vineyard and Winery in about 15 minutes since we had started from Nyaung Shwe. A small lane shot off the main road and inclined it’s way to the winery. A group of four girls on cycles passed us by and the inclination separated the six of us in two groups. I was second in the faster group and Parul was leading the slower one. I waited for Parul at cycle parking and she came flustered at why I had not rode up the incline “together” with her. We had one of our silly spats and went to see the winery.
The beautiful vineyard
The winery was a huge building in the middle of a sprawling vineyard. The setting looked quite beautiful. It was an unguided tour and we simply roamed around aimlessly in the non-functioning winery. There was a restaurant up front which offered wine and some finger food. We decided to sit for a bit before continuing to the village. The place had a nice view of the western sky and was supposedly a famous place to see the sunset. People started pouring in as the sunset got closer and we realised the we had unintentionally gotten lucky to have reached the winery just a few minutes ahead of the crowd. We altered our plan and ordered the cheapest bottle of red wine. We had gotten into the habit of not rushing ourselves to see places so we postponed the village for another evening. I asked for a plate of cheese to go with the wine. Neither was much good but we made do.
Cheap wine and cheese
As we sat looking to the west and sipping on the mediocre wine, a couple walked up to us and asked if they could share our table. The place had filled up fast and there were barely any seats left. We agreed and they sat down and ordered a couple of glasses of their own. We guessed each other’s nationalities. Despite not having detected one Spanish word in their conversation, I guessed that they were Spanish. My guess was far off. They were Israelis : Noam and Michal. They guessed us as being Indians; no surprises there. We started talking and got to know each other a little better. Noam had been travelling for a while now. Michal had just joined him and they were planning to go to Nepal next for Holi. Thence to India! We introduced them to Bob and invited them to follow his adventures on Facebook.
Bob makes new friends!
We talked till the sun set. The hazy sky made for an unremarkable sunset but we were not too crazy about sunsets anyway. The tables had started getting louder as the wine started taking it’s effect. It was a mildly amusing scene. Noam and Michal left first. Their tuk-tuk driver was waiting for them and they had a bus out of Inle that night. We stuck around for a bit and then paid our bill and fetched our cycles. The dark roads and the slight headiness of the wine made for a amusing ride back to the hotel.
The “Shan” Experience
We checked out a few hotels as options for shifting to the next day. Our receptionist had not been too keen on retaining us and we had discovered a leak in bathroom doorway that flooded the room whenever either of us took a bath. The cheaper options that were listed online turned out to be without WiFi. Not that the one in our current hotel worked any. We eventually booked a certain Bright Hotel around the jetty. We had Shan noodles for dinner. They were cheap and delicious. The restaurant, like many others that we had noticed, was airing “Myanmar Idol”. The people of Burma are addicted to the show like we were to “Indian Idol” in its first few seasons.
The next morning we checked out of our hotel and walked to the new one. En route, we dropped by a place offering cooking classes that we had seen the previous day. Since Inle was so full of tourists, we decided to become one of them. We walked into a small house with a board of “WIN Classes” hanging outside. We talked to the pleasant hosts who explained the entire process to us. We fixed a time of 1:30 PM and went to drop our backpacks in Bright Hotel.
The room at Bright was in a much better condition and was definitely much better value for money than the one at “Lady Princess”. We rested a bit and then rented out a couple of bicycles and went back for the cooking class. Our instructor, Tu Tun, took us to the Nyaung Shwe market first. It was quite a familiar experience. Reminded me of the haat that I went to with my parents as a kid in Bokaro. The market had everything; vegetables, clothes, groceries, jewelery, handicraft, etc. Upon my insistence, Tu Tun kept telling us the Burmese names of various vegetables and flowers. I recorded most of it and managed to remember a couple. She kept quizzing us through the rest of the afternoon and we performed pathetically.
Tu Tun takes us to the market
Back at Tu Tun’s home, we started with the preparations. Shan cuisine seemed rather easy and simple; or maybe the dishes for the classes were tailored so. We made some fish and fried vegetables. The Shan food uses a lot of oil and very little spices in their food. We also made some Shan Tea Leaf Salad and fried rice crackers. The ladies of the house helped us throughout but we did most of the work ourselves.
Basic spices used in Shan food
Learning to cook the Shan way
The fish turned out rather well. It took us a little less than an hour to prepare the food and a little over it to finish what we could! We enjoyed the meal and left with full stomachs and a happy smile. Tu Tun even gifted us a couple of aprons that I still use while cooking.
We took our cycles and rode to the village (Maing Thauk) that we had skipped the previous evening. The traffic was minimal again and the road a pleasure. It was a little past four in the evening and the sun was still bright. We rode lazily, as was to be expected from people who had recently stuffed themselves with delicious food. The road to Maing Thauk was lined with resorts. We had been forewarned that Inle Lake was touristy but the scale was slowly dawning on us. We crossed many others who were cycling down the road. The number of foreigners that we quite a significant fraction of the number of locals around! Perhaps the only reason Inle was not as crowded as Bagan was the lack of local tourists. Bagan was full of Burmese tourists thronging to see the pagodas. Perhaps it was the religious significance of the pagodas and temples in Bagan or maybe the lake itself did not hold any charm for the Burmese populace.
At Maing Thauk we were courted by boatmen offering to take us to the lake to see the sunset. We declined the offer and walked along the teak bridge that seemed like a miniature version of Amarapura’s U Bain. The only difference was that the bridge did not connect to another landmass on the far end. It ended abruptly in in front of the village that seemed to be standing entirely on water! It was a novelty for me and I was quite impressed.
The village on water
All the houses sat a few feet above the water on teak stilts. Houses, farms, restaurants; everything was built on water and people used boats to navigate through the “lanes” of the village. We waited for the sun to set. There were not many people around; a few locals and a handful of tourists. It was much more peaceful than U Bain. I saw the boats making their way to the village (or beyond) with it’s load of daily commuters. Parul took some pictures of the bridge and the setting sun.
Another sunset over a teak bridge
We left once the sun was low in the sky and pedaled back to Nyaung Shwe. The way back was a slight decline and we reached the town just as the darkness set in. We returned the bikes at the hotel, took a bath and headed out to eat something only to realise that neither of us was hungry. We were still digesting the late lunch. We returned to the hotel after making some inquiries at the jetty for a boat ride and booking a ticket for Yangon for the day after the next. We grabbed a few beers and some grub and settled down in our room to watch the new Tarantino movie : The Hateful Eight. I liked this one. Tarantino grips you from the first scene and then it’s a ride.
Inle Boat Ride
We woke up somewhat early for the boat ride the next day. We had a passable breakfast at the hotel and then went to the jetty to look for the woman we had inquired with the previous night. She seemed to be quite a busy person, juggling several customers at once. Despite the confusion, she had a constant smile on her face that made waiting for her while she arranged our boat painless. Eventually she led us to the boat and introduced us to our boatman, who was also her brother. We paid her the money for the package we had chosen. There were several trip on offer and we had chosen the one that was the longest. It cost us 20,000 MMK between the two of us; not at all expensive. We set off with our boatman Maum Pyaw. The boat zoomed down the river that would open into the lake. There was a cool breeze and the sun was not as hot as it would eventually grow to be. The lake was beautiful and vast. There were men going about their daily work, catching fishes or cleaning the lake of it’s weed. Ducks and gulls flew over or swam in the lake as our boat sped across the waters to the southern side.
Taking the boat
Men at work
The boat ride was much better than I had anticipated. I had expected a quick tour of the pagodas and villages around the lake and stops at some touristy shops trying to sell their goods. All that happened, but the boat ride was not at all rushed or forced. We enjoyed the various workshops that we went to and looked around at the goods that they had on sale. We barely bought anything since all of it was too expensive for our budget but we did complete the majority portion of our souvenir shopping here. I was extremely impressed with the skills of the boatmen in the area. They were navigating with expertise in the waterways. There were bamboo gateways and speed breakers designed for the boats. It was all so cool!
Our expert boatman
Myanmar Tip #12
The Indein market is a pretty good place to get things in one place at competitive prices. Although if you are looking for quality, it is way better in the specialized workshops. If you want the usual souvenirs though, even the Nyaung Shwe market will suffice.
The highlight of the trip for me was playing chinlone at a pagoda with a bunch of tourists and locals. I was not as bad at it as I had imagined myself to be! We also saw the weaving workshop and I fell in love with a sling bag. But it was way out of my budget and I somehow managed to convince myself to let it go. The blacksmith was probably the best and most natural of the workshops. There were not many tourists there and some really kickass swords. The workshop that featured the Kayan long necked women was the only one that felt a little unnatural and forced. It seemed to have the women on display for the tourists to click their pictures and complete their “Myanmar experience”. I felt extremely uncomfortable though none of the other tourists seem to mind. They were happily clicking away to get that perfect shot.
We have far too many pictures of the boat trip to post here! You can find them in the album embedded at the end of the post.
We spent the final hour before the sunset at the Cat Monastery (also known as the Jumping Cat Monastery). We rode back to Nyaung Shwe as the sun started to set. The lake looked really nice and beautiful. The fishermen were ending their day’s work; pulling lines and carrying the day’s catch home. At one point our boat slowed down in front of a “fisherman” who started performing the typical poses for us. It seemed too good to be true. It was exactly like the pictures that we saw all over the internet! As his boat pulled closer, we realised that he was in the traditional fisherman dress unlike the other fishermen we had seen working on the lake. But his boat had no fishes. He came closer still and asked for a tip. Made sense now. All those pictures we saw on the internet were posed. We tipped him a few kyats and resumed our ride back to Nyaung Shwe.
The posing "fisherman"
We got back to the jetty and clicked a few pictures with our boatman. We happily tipped him a couple of thousand kyats. He had been an awesome at his work we thought that he deserved the tip. We headed back to the hotel and washed up before looking for a place to dine. We walked the roads for an option and eventually settled in Sinyaw 2 for some food. Neither of us felt like drinking so we gave the beer a miss. The food options in Nyaung Shwe are more expensive than the ones we had had thus far but the food is invariably good.
Another delicious dinner
The next morning we went to the local market after breakfast. The market was an exciting glimpse into the lives of the people of Nyaung Shwe. We moved with the crowd of people who examined and bought food, clothes and other utilities.
Scenes from the local market
We bought some tea leaves (we were big fans of the green tea) and completed the remainder of the souvenir shopping. I got a few chinlones for people back home. The prices were pretty good in Nyaung Shwe. We blew another wad of cash but this marked the end of our souvenir shopping. We went back to the room and packed everything up. Tempers flared and we argued over who was to carry what. Eventually we managed to pack the bags shut and left them at the reception after checking out. We had a few hours to kill before the bus to Yangon.
First up, we withdrew money so as not to repeat the unnecessary adventure that we had had when we arrived in Nyaung Shwe. Then we went and sat at the Chillax Bistro that boasted of the best coffee in town. We did not try the coffee but I had some very good tea at the place. We spent the afternoon there; eating, drinking and working on our things.
Idling at Chillax Bistro
Around 4 PM, we went back to the hotel and waited for the pick-up to the bus stand at Shwenyaung. We were the first to be picked up. Then came a French girl, a group of French hippies (lots of French in Nyaung Shwe), two girls : American and Scottish and two more women. The pick-up being stuffed to it’s maximum capacity, we set out to Shwenyaung while the French indulged in loud conversations and smoked cigarettes and cheroots.
The ride took less than half an hour and we reached Shwenyaung by 5:15 PM. The bus to Bagan came first and all the others hopped in. Apparently, this was the usual route that backpackers take in the country; landing in Mandalay or Yangon, thence to Inle and then to Bagan. Our bus arrived in another 15 minutes. It was a big and comfortable bus. I was expecting it to be a run down one after our journey from Mandalay to Shwenyaung. There was a rock concert playing on the screen inside the bus. I thought I recognised most of the tunes but all the lyrics were in Burmese. I had barely drifted off to sleep when the bus stopped for some food. It was European supper time! We had fried noodles which were quite good and cheapish.
Fried noodles en route to Yangon
Right after the food break the bus hit the hilly roads and people all around me started vomiting. The driver’s assistant made rounds distributing and collecting the sickness bags. Parul was distraught after a continuous hour of throwing up and finally fell asleep when the bus stopped for refueling. Even I fell into a deep sleep and did not wake up till 6 in the morning when we reached Yangon’s Aung Mingalar Bus Station.
All bordered images are credited to Parul.
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Previous posts in this series :
And here is the complete album of the Inle leg of our trip.