Burma - Inle Lake and Bagan

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May 15th 2013
Published: May 17th 2013
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Inle Lake and Bagan are Burma's top two tourist attractions, and constitute 2 corners of an almost equilateral Golden Triangle between either northern Mandalay or southern Yangon. You'd expect this frequently-plied route to boast an abundance of comfortable and efficient tourist buses. Unfortunately, our bus to Inle Lake from drizzly Mandalay ranks as one of the worst journeys either Chris or I have taken, and it left us with crippled backs and minutely short fuses when, at 4am and rattled to oblivion by the roads and knackered suspension, we stepped off the bus into the village on the outskirts of the lake. After having a few arguments with the various touts who swarm like flies, even in the middle of the night, around the newly-arrived buses, we took a trishaw to the nearest budget hotel. Chris sat on the back first and flipped the whole thing up. We had just about enough spirit in us to laugh.

We secured a bed for the night, tipped our trishaw driver for helping us get a room, and fell flat on our faces into our mattresses for a very deep sleep. Waking at near to midday, we went out to explore the Lake area, which we ended up exploring for 3 days, though we'd expected the over-touristy feel to drive us away quickly. It was low season, so there were few tourist boats on the water, and every restaurant sat empty, the proprietors lurking in the doorways, moodily staring at the empty village streets. Thus, we managed to get some good deals and Chris made his full recovery from the sickness he endured in the mountains, with some decent Western grub to fortify his stomach. After nearly 2 solid months of Eastern food, my pizza went down exquisitely.

The lake is most famous for the local traditional fishermen, who photogenically sit at the brow of their wooden canoes, paddling with an oar wrapped around their leg which leaves their hands free to play their nets as the wind blows them slowly across the lake. It is mesmerising to watch and did make for some great photos but, when, on our full-day boat tour, we came upon an especially picturesque group who were attempting to do their jobs, while 2 other boats of tourists hovered around with their cameras out, we urged our driver to move on. That sort of camera-pointing made us both feel uncomfortable. Likewise, we were not happy when we went into an umbrella-making house on stilts by the lake, and were shown into a room where a single "long-neck lady" (the tribal tradition of putting rings around womens' necks to lengthen them) sat sewing, and posed for photos for us. She seemed like a side-show for camera-totting tourists. Since viewing her, I saw her photo in an advert in a bus station a hundred miles from her "house." Clearly Burma is running short of authentic long-neck ladies. I can understand why.

Despite these inevitable sour moments, and let-down tourist traps, we did see some very fine traditional cottage industries that take place all along the fringes of the lake. From metal-shaping to cigar-rolling (we felt like mafia dons smoking them, pretending we knew something about the various flavours); there was a factory for every trade. What fascinated me most was the lotus weaving factory, where the fine strings inside lotus stems (which I had no idea existed) are laboriously made into string, thread and eventually clothing, which is more expensive than silk! We were shown through every step of the process and then played a game of Burmese pool (or Indian Karambor(sp.)) with a couple of locals. We also took a canoe out from a lake-side village too, which we paddled ineffectively for 3 hours around the tiny waterways which serve as roads for the lake-dwelling locals. The level of dexterity with which children as young as 6 were maneuvering their boats was embarrassing, as we weaved awkwardly around the lake. At one point we abandoned navigating altogether as some cursed wind sent us rotating perilously whenever we attempted to paddle. We eventually made it to an abandoned mansion which rises on long poles from the centre of the lake and ought to be prime real-estate in a few more years of tourism.

Bagan, for those who have never heard of it, is a vast plain upon which thousands of 900-year-old temples are built, their steep-sided peaks constituting one of the most amazing skylines in the world. The whole area deserves to be a world wonder, and it's criminal that the place is not more well-known. Chris and I arrived there, again, in the middle of the night and so, when we got up in the morning, we were even more in-awed by our surroundings; we were literally surrounded by red stupas, tall pagodas and hulking temples that made up just some of the 3000 or so currently discovered monuments. With our colonial bamboo hats on and guffawing like idiots, we had great fun on our first day, winding on terrible road bikes between the sandy tracks that seem to lead off in every direction over the temple-studded plain. We concocted a brilliant plan which we put into action the following day: we'd rent bikes, cycle as far as our legs could take us into the depths of the desert plains, and camp out for the evening under the stars, which would be especially bright on the dark moon night.

The next day, on even worse bikes than before, but this time loaded with blankets, sleeping bags, a wok, some rice noodles and assorted veg purchased from the local market, we cycled out (fairly doggedly after a grim night's "sleep," I'd have to say) in search of adventure. The thermostat must have hit 38 or higher at 10am, and it did not cool down until 6 in the evening, so our progress was slower than we might've hoped. That said, by nightfall Chris had located the ideal spot upon which to camp; in the shadow of an old crumbling and abandoned-looking red temple, on a bare(ish) piece of land and far enough away from any of the smaller roads and paths to be unseen by any midnight wanderers. We watched sun setting from a nearby temple's roof. It's a sight that I couldn't erase from my memory, even if I wanted to. The green of the bushes, the sepia of the blowing dust and jagged rocks that make up the desert floor, and the deep, aged red of the stubborn temple and pagodas paint a picture that might belong in a different millennium. As Chris observed, the scene before us could be anywhere on earth, in any of the great civilizations. Not at any point in the panorama did a stray satellite dish, power line or passing motorbike mar this ideal; it was what life might look like on another planet. Only with this view, as the orange sun melted down into a distant ridge and the hundreds of long triangular shadows all over the plain fell away into darkness, did the full scale and might of the Bagan empire dawn on me. The preceding two days had almost been readying me for this moment, and when it stuck me, I had to drop my camera by my side and admire a view that seriously and almost impossibly rivals that of the Taj Mahal.

After admiring the outstanding sunset, we hopped down the temple steps and headed to our "camp," where Chris and I set about preparing a much-anticipated dinner. Finding dry twigs was easy (too easy - they were everywhere and I was a little worried about the possibility of starting a forest fire) but finding the sort of monster logs with which you make cooking coals was more difficult. The unsuccessful hunt was abandoned after countless thorns and splinters had found their painful ways into our hands and feet, through flip-flops, and so we were forced to make a fire from logs no thicker than my thumb. As I sat down to cut up the veg, Chris tended to the fire and piled the white embers for the boiling of our noodle water. We are both nostalgic ex-scouts and so enjoyed this part of the evening, setting candles around our camp as the darkness set in fully, and working by flickering orange light. The fried veg turned out to be really tasty, but the embers were, as feared, insufficient to really cook the rice noodles, and we only braved some of them and then cast the rest into the fire. For desert we had 6 cakes each. Meanwhile, about 500 flying beetles had flown into the candle and fire-light and had either singed themselves on impact sufficiently to plummet like the foolish insects they are, or were crawling and fluttering pathetically all around us, and in the hair on my head and legs. This was a grim and unexpected side-effect of our hearty meal, and so we wasted no time in extinguishing lights, and sat back with full bellies on our beds (me with towel and sheet, Chris with a couple of sleeping bags).

As our eyes adjusted, a beautiful starry night sky revealed itself to us. Huge streaking shooting stars shot across our infinite ceiling as we both lulled into a king of sleep. I found it too difficult to sleep, as whenever I shifted position I would jab myself with a stray thorn and wake myself up, so I headed into our nearest temple to bed down in there. A looming dark Buddha greeted me with seemingly accusing eyes as I went inside, and I confess, I knew it was far too scary a night-warden for me to fall asleep there, too. Anxious to find somewhere to lie, I ended up finding a set of unbarred, unbroken stairs that led up to the temple roof. Chris saw my torchlight in the darkness, 50 feet off the ground, and followed to investigate. Part of the roof was flat and comfortable, and so it was that Chris and I spent the night on top of an 800-year-old Bagan temple, the desert breeze whipping at our bodies and the starlight illuminating the pyramid peak that lay still above us. What a way to spend a night. We both got some decent sleep (which can mean anything from 40 winks to 8 hours, coming from a backpacker) and rose to a sunrise that shoots to number one in my favourite-ever sunrises, beating the lazy Varanasi morning. White wisps of cloud lit up in shades of red and yellow, the towering shadows flipped to the other side of the brick temple bodies, and with every blink and every camera shutter, there were revealed more temples in the distant horizon. On the down-side to this unique experience, I had to cycle something like 10km back to our hotel with 2 flat tyres. Typical!

On Chris' last day, we took a pickup to Mt. Popa, where a volcanic plug emerges from the ground vertically in a very photogenic way. There is a non-descript temple at the top of the 777 steps, which completes the photo when seen from a distance. Chris and my legs were shattered from the 2 days of solid cycling, and we struggled on the down-hill walk. That evening, Chris took a bus to Yangon, where he started his 48-hour journey home after 7 heroic months on the road, while I took another bus back up to Mandalay. Traveling with Chris has been a breath of fresh air, and I have been readjusting reluctantly to life as a solo backpacker once again. It has been reassuring that Chris, who has finished a similar-style trip to mine, has emerged with the same attitudes and reflections as I so far have over his countless experiences. Still, I'm only just over halfway through my adventure, and can only regard returning home as a distant treat, where I shall have all the mature cheddar, Heinz beans and chocolate rolls a man could wish for! Before then, I have my last 2 weeks in Myanmar to enjoy before meeting Sam, Sam and Harry in Saigon! Roll on June!


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