Bagan & Inle Lake (via Kalaw)

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November 5th 2015
Published: February 17th 2019
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Arriving on the night bus from Yangon meant that I got into Bagan just in time to tag along with a small group of fellow travellers staying at the same hostel to go and see the sun rise above the hundreds and hundreds of Buddhist temples and pagodas standing tall over the Bagan plains. I arrived blurry-eyed and definitely not bushy-tailed but I was with it just enough to jump on one of Bagan's super fun electric scooters and follow the others who knew where they were going. We travelled towards Old Bagan and then swerved off the main road, down a dirt track for about 200 metres. There we parked up and climbed one of the taller pagodas (I wonder how much longer they'll let people do that!), and from the top I stood, and gazed and thought myself one hell of a lucky guy! The view was simply stunning. As the temples came into view little by little with the rising sun, the extent of the 104 square kilometre site, comprising some 2000 temples, pagodas and monasteries became clear! It was going to be so much fun exploring them! And I had the perfect base to do it. I stayed in a place called Ostello Bello Bagan, 17 USD a night getting me a bed in a very comfortable 8-bed dorm. It was located in "New Bagan", just 5 kilometres south of "Old Bagan". It wasn't a party hostel as such, although they did have things like happy hours, bingo nights, food tasting and a fun Tuesday night quiz, which I was proud to be on the winning team! The people were great and there seemed to be a good crop of travellers here, unlike the mindless morons you tend to come across in other parts of Asia!

My days in Bagan were basically spent exploring, exploring and a bit more exploring. Oh, and filling up on awesome burgers at the fantastically-named "Weather Spoon's" restaurant over in Nyaung-U, 10 kilometres from New Bagan! All of the main temples were ticked off the list early on - the tallest Thatbyinnyu Temple, Shwesandaw Pagoda (from where I would watch sunrise for a second time), the impressive Ananda Temple, Bupaya Pagoda, Shwezigon Pagoda, Htilominlo Temple and the largest of the lot Dhammayangyi Temple. Not to mention the 1000-year old Tharabha Gate! But these were just the well known ones. There were literally hundreds to explore. The best thing to do is to get off the beaten track. One day however, we not only got off the beaten track, we went off any track and got into a little bit of trouble from a local farmer and when our bikes got stuck in sand! The idea of the electric bikes is brilliant. They don't go as fast as normal scooters and therefore I imagine there are far fewer accidents involving ditsy and/or drunk backpackers! However, despite never having a problem myself, they are prone to breakdowns and all that can be done is to leave it on the side of the road and hitch a lift back into town from one of the incredibly kind and welcoming locals. My advice is to keep an eye on the battery level and don't over commit! Make sure you've got enough juice to get where you're going and back again!

In between the temple hopping, breakdowns, quiz triumphs and burger munching we arranged a visit to Taung Kalat (Pedestal Hill) monastery. It's a Buddhist monastery that sits atop a 657-metre rocky outcrop about 56 kilometres from New Bagan - so don't even think about using a scooter! The expression "no pain, no gain" springs to mind when talking about this monastery. To get to the top of the hill and enjoy the spectacular panoramic views of Mount Popa and Bagan, you first have to climb some 777 steps in oppressive humidity, all the while making sure the thieving monkeys don't steal your shit! I can confirm, however, that it is very worth the effort!

So, after a few very fun and entertaining days in Bagan, I sadly said goodbye and headed on over to Kalaw for a short stay at Nature Land Hotel and just enough time a brief visit to a Bamboo Buddha in Hnee Pagoda, before embarking on a two day / one night trek to the beautiful Inle Lake, booked through an agency in town. On this occasion we really lucked out. There was a group of 5: Geeta (the guide), Anke & Mark from Yangon, a guy called Marco, and myself... the plan was to go through some villages of the Pa'o tribe and stay a night in one of them and continue the next day to Inle Lake, our final destination, around 40 kilometres away. It was a great trek from start to finish. Geeta was a patient, soft spoken and very informative guide and she really helped make the difference between just your average excursion and one to remember. We walked through valleys and hills and farmland where locals grow beans, mustard plants, watercress, sesame plants, chillies and many other crops. Our first stop was at a cute little village called Pinnwe, where we rested to have lunch, ate some of that fresh, locally produced food and spoke with some of the Pa'o people. We then walked all afternoon until we reached the most beautiful village called Pattu Ptuk hidden behind a mountain and only accessible through a narrow pass with a mud road. We arrived at the house we were staying in and met Nuyge (Lovely Moon) Tauk Kyar (Friday) and all her family and we found our rooms. I had a good old-fashioned cold water bucket shower around the back of the house and then met the rest of the family including the sister Khanshwe (Golden Girl) Inyha (Tuesday) and their mother Danpae. After another beautifully cooked dinner we chatted for a while and then we all slept in the guest room on blankets on the floor and were all in bed by 20:30 as they had no electricity and it was pitch black by 18:30! The next day we said goodbye to our fabulous hosts and walked the rest of the way to the lake, about another 18km. Just as we were reaching the end, however, with about 2 kilometres to go the heavens opened and we got absolutely pissed on! I thanked God for remembering to pack a waterproof poncho and spared a thought for the poor people back in Kalaw who were probably just starting their trek! When we arrived to the lake we took a boat to the main town, Nyaungshwe, checked into our hostel called Manaw Thu Kha Hotel to the northeast of town, had a lovely warm shower, some comfort food at the One Owl Grill, got into some comfy beds and went straight to sleep after our adventure. I've done a handful of treks over the course of my travels, but this one will stick out as one of my favourites!

We only had a couple of full days to explore Inle Lake before moving on to Mandalay. We were told a good way to explore the town was by bicycle so we rented some from the hotel and headed straight for the Khaung Daing Natural Hot Springs, 10 kilometres away! We couldn't think of a better thing to do after our two day hike than to while away the afternoon, soaking our aching muscles. Despite quiet a few negative reviews I've since read of this place, I found it to be pretty decent and a great way to rejuvenate a little before some more exploring.

The next day, our last at Inle Lake, we did a boat tour of the lake with a friendly local who had made a pretty decent business pitch to us the day before. The tour was excellent and our guide was friendly, as everyone in Myanmar seems to be! We visited plenty of workshops including where they make long boats, cigars, blacksmiths and silversmiths, lotus weaving and, of course, the local balancing fisherman who use one leg to stand and the other to control the oar therefore leaving both hands free to control the nets. We stopped for a great lunch at a floating restaurant where I swear I overheard some excruciating tourist ask if there was Wi-Fi available! The tour finished with a visit to a small settlement where we got to see some long-necked Paduang women, so-called because of the heavy metal rings they wear around their necks which actually push their collarbones down as opposed to stretching the neck! The Padaung consider the longer neck they have, the more elegant they are. It's an age old custom and it was impressive to see that it's still maintained even today - I only wish that other tourists wouldn't be so unbelievably disrespectful towards them! It's a sad sight when you see a hoard of tourists with more camera equipment than Jessops treating these women as if they literally were models, even changing their stance and telling them where to look. I took one photo and even then I felt a little guilty!

Still, on the morning of November 5th, along came a minibus to take us to our final destination in Myanmar - Mandalay.



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