Silver waters, golden sun: Inle Lake

Accommodation notes

Inle Lake (pronounced In-lay) was another two night, one full day affair, resting and setting up logistics the day of arrival and then doing the heavy-duty sight-seeing the next day. We had a very early departure from Bagan, but our hotel (New Park – definitely recommendable for the price. Simple, clean, nice staff) was kind enough to make us breakfast ahead of their schedule and arrange for a ride to the airport. Still, even with a couple of cups of decent coffee in me (i.e. not three-in-one 😉 ), I was still feeling pretty bushed by the time we arrived at Heho airport.

Our next hotel, May Guest House, was a short walk away from the busier water-front area of Nyaungshwe (the town at the edge of Inle Lake and the launching point for many of the tourist activities) and was very welcoming. Upon arrival, the friendly owner set us up with two generous pots of coffee in the cute (but chilly in the morning!) garden breakfast area, and helped us to set up the customary long-tailed boat tour for the next day.

True Myanmar, despite the tourists

Inle Lake, like Bagan, is one of Myanmar’s primary tourist attractions. A shallow but good sized lake (about 44 square miles according to Wikipedia), it’s shores, tributaries and the lake itself are full picturesque stilt villages around and on the water and some prime opportunities to experience Burmese culture, from local crafts to specialized fishing techniques to crumbling temple ruins.

It’s possible to rent a canoe and paddle around certain areas, but the most effective and common way to get around is to hire a motor boat. There are lots of popular and programmed stops along the water where tourists will tend to end up coagulating. Some of it can feel a bit contrived, like the many artisan shops where you wander through with the other westerners, get a cup of green tea and a demonstration and then of course ample time to window shop and hopefully buy a souvenir or two. Even though it’s less than subtle, the traditional crafts were beautiful and the techniques demonstrated very interesting, and the people working in the shops were always genuinely friendly and not pushy at all to us. Additionally, as Roman pointed out, having these areas where tourists gathered did seem to preserve some real space and privacy for the lake’s residents.

This point aside, Inle Lake was just stunning and definitely worth the visit. We were out on the boat all day long. We witnessed the sun burning the blue-grey morning mist off the waters, revealing fishermen with their distinctive rowing technique, one leg wrapped around the oar, as well as set in a blaze of gold that splintered across the lake as we sped through crisp, cold air back to Nyaungshwe.

In between we got to visit temples, workshops, a heritage house that was also home to the relatively rare Burmese cat and to float through some absolutely gorgeous stilt villages and floating gardens. The homes on the water just took my breath away. Some of the neighborhoods had houses different from the traditional bamboo homes that I was enchanted by in Bhamo, these were more sturdy looking wood structures and often painted with primary reds or blue accents – something about them actually made me think a bit of an old New England fishing town. 🙂

Other bits

I’ll let the pictures do the rest of the talking but I want to make sure I also remember a few things from our time in Naungshwe.
– Our first night when we were wandering trying to get our bearings, we ended up basically in someone’s back yard – they were so friendly and tried to be helpful despite the intrusion and language issues. It was cool to see their and other traditional houses, like the kind I’d admired from the boat up the Irrawaddy, up close. Some had no electricity and you could see lantern flames flickering inside and the family’s livestock hanging out under the house. Made me wonder how they kept warm as I was pretty chilly at night, even in our more sturdy hotel.
– The lovely restaurant with the friendly owner and his super cute little daughter who biked and laughed and played the whole time we were there. She was SO loved and so cute!
– Rescuing the stray kittens from the pack of street dogs. Wish I could have taken all three of them along with us!

Photo impressions

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Fishermen in the morning. The boats they use are so shallow, from a distance sometimes it almost looks like they are standing on the water

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The traditional rowing technique

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Tourists bargaining over trinkets

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Traditional Burmese puppets at one of the first (and most touristy) shops we visited. They had some women from the long-neck tribe working there and everyone was taking photos of them like they were a zoo display – made me feel really uncomfortable. No other place we visited was like that at all thank goodness. The puppets were really lovely though.

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Football by the water’s edge

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Amazing ruins at Shwe Inn Dain Pagoda

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The ruins outside the main temple were awesome – overgrown and silent. We were the only ones there and couldn’t help feeling a bit like Indian Jones. 🙂

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Water jugs inside the temple

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Amazingly beautiful houses! I love the electricity poles in the water. 🙂

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House detail. So many of them had lovely verandas with pretty potted houseplants. I really like the simple but lovely stairs leading down to the water too.

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Detail from one of the workshops we visited where people created thread from lotus plants and silk, died the materials and wove beautiful materials that became scarves, longyis, ties, shirts… Our tour guide at the shop was a chill young man and the place and goods were all gorgeous. If only we weren’t traveling light… In the photo: A woman works the wooden loom with her feet.

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At the Inthar Heritage House, where they have a lovely home for dozens of cuddly Burmese cats. They are gorgeous animals and known for how affectionate they are. Their trademark is to jump up and hang out on people’s shoulders. I had one do this nearly as soon as we got into their enclosure and it was sweet and lovely – until the thing sneezed kitty snot all over me! 🙂 Our very sweet host at the House was mortified and helped clean me up. 🙂

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The house itself was also amazing. A project of love for the woman who owns it, it was reconstructed from old wood and is full of her family memorabilia. Very gorgeous and another inspiration for my future dream home. 🙂

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Stilts reflecting in the water

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Our boat driver taking a break in the late afternoon sun

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A woman trimming cheroots at the last workshop we visited

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Cheroot filling

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Homes, hill and lake in the afternoon sun

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Another gorgeous house

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Sun setting beyond the floating gardens on our way back

The land of a thousand temples

Our next destination after Mandalay was Bagan, another major tourist stop in Myanmar, and with good reason. Quoting from Lonely Planet’s description: “Bagan fills a 26-sq-mile plain of 4000-plus temples that date back centuries. It’s one of Myanmar’s most wondrous sights and rivals Cambodia’s Angkor Wat in terms of scope and jaw-droppability. ”

We weren’t sure exactly what to expect, but it sounded impressive and we wanted to make sure we had a chance to see it before we left the country.

But first we had to get there.

Ghost airport

After breakfast the next morning, we got a cab to Mandalay’s airport. We drove for nearly an hour, emerging from the dusty city streets full of the rumble and hustle of rusty buses, rickety cars, skinny trishaw drivers to yet another empty Burmese highway. The airport itself was also surreal.

Seemingly in the middle of no where, we approached it on a wide, sweeping, drive that was devoid of any signs of life. The airport looked new and modern and big enough to handle a good deal of air traffic. However, when we got inside, we found only a small crowd waiting in one end of the cavernous, pristine arrivals hall, where the gift shop and cafe nooks stood sadly empty.

The security check was essentially a glance at the outside of our passport, and although the airport had eight of them, all passengers were directed to the same gate. There we waited while flights were announced by clipboard-carrying airport staff calling them out to the crowd and two TVs suspended from the ceiling played the government sponsored channel (shows included a pair of hands playing songs on a piano for a half hour, a recording of a Buddhist ceremony and what looked like a tourism-type famous-sights-of-Myanmar infomercial). By far the most subdued and bizarre airport I’ve ever been to!

The land of a thousand temples

The flight to Bagan was easy. Before we knew it, we were descending over a green and yellow landscape and already catching glimpses of a few of the ancient brick pagodas the region is famous for. We had an easy ride to the hotel, and spent the rest of the day settling in, exploring the neighborhood and grabbing a bite to eat.

The next day was our only full day in Bagan. Ideally, one would have a bit more time to explore and soak it all in, but since we didn’t have this luxury, we opted to hire a guide and horse cart to make sure we saw as much as possible. Aung just happened to be the first driver/guide we met, but he turned out to be lovely, friendly and easy-going and we enjoyed the tour he gave us very much (phone number 0947208587 in case you ever happen to be in Bagan! 😉 ). It was also nice to see how healthy and cared for his horse seemed to be – in India the horses always seemed painfully neglected, skinny and threadbare.

Aung took us to 9 different sites over the course of the day (with a break for lunch in between). For those who are interested, I’ll include a list of the sites we visited below, but as amazing as each individual temple was, when it comes to Bagan, the sum is greater than its parts.

The landscape is just magical. The climate was very different from the north, with a touch of sun-baked partial desert to it like the American southwest or Italy’s Umbria. We were really enjoying trundling along the dusty, scrub-lined roads, cooking in the heat of the sun reflected of the stone courtyards of the gold gilded pagodas or escaping it in the cool, dark atmospheric tunnels of the ruins. But it wasn’t until we emerged from one such tunnel at the top of an old temple high enough to see the expanse of the Bagan plains below us that we were hit by the full majesty and beauty of the place. The entire landscape, as far as the eye could see, even on the distant edge of the flatlands where they began to blur into the far hills and river was dotted with hundreds upon hundreds of pagodas. The full effect of this sight is indescribable. Roman and I could only sit one those ancient bricks and let it watch over us. We didn’t want to leave, but were rewarded later with an even more spectacular vista from another building (Okyaung Gyi) at sunset.

The final highlight of the tour came after the sun had set. Riding through the dark, Aung took us to one last temple, where a ceremony was being held. We heard music as we entered but still were surprised when we rounded a corner and discovered about 25 people sitting around in one of the rooms. The majority of them were in front of a large buddha statue, and were the source of the hypnotic, soothing chanting that reverberated around and outside the temple. A few others were further back in the room, socializing, drinking and eating and smoking. We plopped down in a corner just to enjoy the scene, but soon were being handed tea, tea leaf salad and even a cigarillo by some of the lovely folks there. It was just magic.

With floating hearts, we finally left the temple to head back to the hotel. I was dreaming, enjoying the feeling of cool night descending as we moved through dark streets, when suddenly, something caught my eye. The profiles of two people on the side of the road looked awfully familiar. We asked Aung to stop and I hopped off the cart to go greet Elmer and Ohmar who had themselves just gotten to Bagan! Another happy crossing of paths and another lovely night of food, beer and conversation. 🙂 We also had another flight the next morning to our next stop – Inle Lake, so eventually the evening wound. At this point our intended destinations were diverging, so we said goodbye – till Yangon.

Our itinerary

These are the sites Aung took us too. Apologies for any spelling mistakes.

1.Shwezigon Pagoda
2.Kyansit Thar Cave
3.Tha Gya Hit
4.Ananada Temple
5.Menyein Gon
8.Okyaung Gyi

Photo impressions

None of my pictures can convey the incredible vast vista or atmosphere of the place – I’m sure you can find much better with a quick search on-line. I have included a couple of my attempts to capture it, but most of these are just snapshots of some of the details of our time in Bagan.

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Young novice at Shwezigon Pagoda

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Tile floor inside one of the temple

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Roman bargaining with one of the vendors outside Shwezigon

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Old wall painting inside one of the temples

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Big buddha inside a shadowy temple

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Money in one of the donation boxes at (I am pretty sure) Ananda Temple

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Devotees entering one of the temple’s rooms

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In a wall alcove

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Door detail

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Roman ascending Menyeingon (I think) to take in the amazing view. None of the temples had lighting or hand rails or anything like that. Outside that patch of light it was practically pitch dark inside. Loved it. 🙂

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Temples as far as the eye can see!

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Temple detail

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Woman praying before a massive reclining buddha (note the eye and eyebrow…)

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Sunset from Okyaung Gyi. Another bigger-than-life sun!