Chilling out at the sleepy Inle Lake (Day 139 -143 by Chris)

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Asia » Burma » Mandalay Region » Inle Lake
February 2nd 2016
Published: February 10th 2016
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Tuesday 2nd February 2016

Today we were heading across the country to Inle Lake, a place that comes highly recommended by things we've read and people we've spoken to. The distance is only 140 miles but the journey time would be a whopping 8.5 hours passing over a small mountain range which again and again circled back on itself so felt like you were getting nowhere.

We tip-toed around our room at 7am so not to wake our other dorm room mates and having packed the previous night we were up and out in no time. We had our final breakfast at Ostello Bello and bid farewell when the mini-bus arrived at 8:30am to drive us the short distance to the bus station. We had again decided to travel with JJ Express on account that we'd experienced a good journey with them last time. When the packed mini-bus arrived I was happy to hear from the driver that he was only shuttling us to the main bus station and we would be leaving on a bigger coach.

At the bus station the minibus load of people boarded one of 3 buses heading in different directions. We had a huge coach with only 10 passengers and were happy to be furthest back in the bus meaning that we could recline the seats without the worry of squashing someone behind us. The bus left on time and the next 8.5 hours consisted of a few toilet breaks but were mostly lost in a dream world. About 6 hours into the journey we began crossing the mountain range that separated east and west sides of the country. The mountains weren't high, or as precarious as those we crossed in Laos, but took almost as long to maneuver. Annoyingly, there was a Chinese man who for some reason decided to play musical chairs for the whole trip trying to find the most comfortable one. Bearing in mind there were at least 20 available, he settled on the one directly in front of Gemma. He then quickly reclined his chair which almost dropped backwards and smacked Gemma in both knees, both of which were still heavily bruised from her tumble a few days before. I gave him a smack on the shoulder and he grumpily fixed his seat back into a more up right position.

We eventually arrived after a long day of travel, but a very comfortable one might I add, at Inle Lake, in a small town called Nyaungshwe having just paid $10 each to enter the area (a tourist tax of some sort). We jumped into a tuk tuk and traveled 400 metres across town to our hotel, Inle Palace Hotel. This town is very small and we quickly discovered that it can be covered on foot very easily. We checked into the room and quickly popped back out to get some food. We tend not to eat or drink too much on long journeys as you never know when you will have access to a toilet! As a result, we were very hungry so ventured out into the dark dusty streets of Nyaungshwe to find something to eat. We stopped at a place which had an English menu and without much thinking ordered some shan noodles (local noodle soup) and chicken noodles. We sat and ate which watching some kids skate around on their roller blades on the run down skate park opposite. Utterly exhausted we only managed one beer with dinner before heading to our rooms for a 10 hour sleep.

Wednesday 3rd February 2016

The lake (Inle Lake) is bloody massive. Its 35km the whole way around and lots of people hire bikes and cycle the whole way. We are not those people! Instead we decided to explore only a small section. After breakfast we popped into the nearest shop offering bicycles for rent and after handing over 1000 Kyat (pronounced 'chat') each, the equivalent of 50p each we had our Dutch style bikes with a solid mental frame and granny basket on the front. We had seen a place the previous night offering top of the range mountain bikes but we were more than happy with parting only £1 for a full day rental. We were given a map and told to turn right out of the town and after 3km turn left and cycle for 11km where we would find the ferry crossing and once crossing, it was another 11km cycle back to town. Not being the fittest people in the world we decided to take our time and already being midday we thought 6 hours was enough to navigate this route.

After cycling 100 metres down the road trying out the gears, my chain fell off. I was immediately transported back to my teenage years where I constantly had chain oil on my hands and clothes. Thankfully the chain was fixed very quickly and we were on our way. The first section of the route took us down a narrow road covered in pot holes with buses, trucks and tractors heading in the opposite direction. Roughly 10 minutes into our 3km section of the route Gemma changed gear to tackle a steep looking hill and after a big 'CLUNK' I heard Gemma call out that her chain had also fallen off. Again the chain was repaired and after a few laughs from a few local teenage boys we were on our way, but on foot. There was no way that our granny bikes were getting us up that hill, so we decided to push. At the top of the hill we had reached the left turn that we would follow for 11km until we reached the ferry crossing point. A hard 11km later, passing a good mile inland of the lake which we could see in the distance to the left of us, we arrived in a small town where we saw a restaurant. Utterly exhausted and dehydrated after a hot and tiring bike ride, we decided to order some very greasy stir fried noodles and a huge bottle of water.

Upon leaving the restaurant and now on the lookout for the crossing point a local man on a scooter approached us and told us he could take us there. Turns out that there is no official ferry to cross the lake but a pier with locals trying to make some easy cash ferrying tourists over. He led us into a very small area situated on the lake which was basically a collection of houses on wooden stilts. We meandered our way through peoples back gardens, all the while pushing our bikes, until we reached his boat. This was a wooden boat approx 20 feet long and parked under his house and we agreed to pay him £4 to take us the 5km or so across the lake. Whist loading our bikes he held a conversation with his wife who we could just make out through the floor boards above us. He was probably boasting that he'd conned two foreigners into parting with £4 and she was no doubt congratulating him. Before we left, the local man plonked his son,who was about 4 years old, into the boat and we slowly motored our way out of the floating village which was absolutely stunning. The best way to describe it is like a flooded farmers field. Lots of green grasses and vegetable patches all floating on the water. We entered into the open lake and skimmed over to the other side creating ripples as we went in the flat mirror like lake which reflected the mountains surrounding us.

When we paid the man and got our bikes off the boat and onto the jetty we wheeled them to the main road and continued on our journey. This section was also 11km long but felt like a much easier route as it was mainly down hill. It was also more scenic being closer to the lake and surrounded by fields of sunflowers and sweetcorn. After a slow cycle whilst reminiscing on our favourite journeys so far on our trip we spotted a sign for 'Red Mountain Winery' which is something we planned to visit. We took the right turn and suddenly felt like we'd been transported into Tuscany. Ahead of us was a steep hill leading into a vineyard and on top of the hill a building which turned out to be the winery itself. After wheeling our bikes to the top of the hill (did i mention the bikes were rubbish!?) we parked them up and decided to find a table. There were 4 tables all on the edge of the hill with the best views for the sunset over the lake and countryside which was only 45 minutes away. Each table already had people sat down and we looked for the most approachable people of the lot to ask if we could share tier spot. It was at this moment that Gemma noticed the bloke sat by himself was in fact Mike who we had met and shared a dorm room with in Bagan. We sat down and caught up on the previous day. We told him about the broken E-Bike and he told us how he thinks he got engaged to a village girl whilst taking part in a 2 day trek, but couldn't be sure. We spent the next 45 minutes sampling some wines, none of which were brilliant, which I'm sure wouldn't surprise you as Myanmar wine inst very well known, but the views made up for this. After the sun went down, we hopped back onto our bikes and made our way back to town.

We dropped off the bikes and planned to meet Mike in a bar a little later, although we didn't actually bump into him again that night as he had to make some future travel plans so didn't come out. Gemma and I did go to a bar though which was opened only 2 day before. We sat at the bar which resembled what an American's idea of what an English pub would look like and spoke to the English bar man whilst drinking the promotional Myanmar beer at only 33p per glass. He explained how he and his girlfriend were cycling the world and decided to settle down in Yangon and has been in Myanmar for 2 years. I cant see why anyone would want to settle down in Yangon for 2 years, I spent 3 days there and thought that was enough. I personally think the chain fell of his bike and he doesn't know how to fix it. He only had to ask and I'd have taken a look. After a couple of beers and eating an amazing burger and possibly the best chips we've ever had from their sister restaurant down the road, we returned to the room and then got some well deserved sleep.

Thursday 4th February 2016

We were exhausted from the long bike ride yesterday so decided to take it easy today. There isn't a great deal of things to do at Inle Lake other than a bike ride (done!) and a boat trip on the lake, which we decided to leave until tomorrow. Today we wanted to find a cafe and relax and drink coffee and sort some of the next few days out.

We left the room at about noon and headed to a nice looking cafe called 'The French Touch'. It had a very Moroccan feel to it, being pained in a very vibrant orange and lots of sun shades made from big sheets all different colours draped over head. There was some very relaxing music playing and all of the customers were either reading books or sitting quietly. This was the perfect atmosphere to sit and relax. Gemma wrote a few blogs and we then started to plan some of Singapore and Malaysia which were on the horizon. We were also entertained by a grey fluffy cat with orange eyes. He entertained himself by climbing the walls on the hunt for any sort of prey. He found a Gecko which was either dead, or very cleverly playing dead and had fun pawing it back and forth across the floor.

The day whizzed by and before we knew it the sky had gone dark and we were on the lookout for dinner. We popped into a traditinoal looking Burmese restaurant and quickly discovered, although there was absolutely no indication to this by the decor, that this was an Italian restaurant. We orded ourselves a pizza and were again entertaint, but this time by a puppy, before heading back to the room. We packed our bags as we had an early checkout the next day and a busy schedule during the day and fell to sleep.

Friday 5th February 2016

At 6pm this evening we would be leaving Inle Lake for Yangon on the night bus as we had to fly from Yangon to Singapore in a few days time. As we had a full day ahead of us, we checked out of the room by 7:30am and were met buy our tour guide for the day at 8am. We had arranged with the hotel to take a boat trip around the lake for the whole day returning at 4pm. The whole day only cost 1800 Kyt (£9) in total. Our tour guide, who didn't speak a single word or English and was probably about 15 years old, as was his mate walked us to the jetty and ushered us into a boat. We then traveled for about 15 minutes out into the lake with the freezing cold wind in our faces and the blanket they had provided didn't do much to defend us from the cold. As we entered the lake our boat boy took us directly into the middle of about 10 fishermen, all with their own boat. I though this was a but unfair of him as surely the propeller from our boat would disturb their fishing. Turns out they were not fishing at all and were there only to pose for pictures for a small fee. Feeling torn between wanting to take the snap but also feeling that this could be the first of many 'lets get some money from these rich tourists' stops we eventually parted with 50p and snapped away.

Gemma and I then discussed how these could be the early signs of how Myanmar, having only recently opened itself up to tourism, could be on the verge of mimicking places like Thailand. Thailand, which although very well set up for tourists, also has a knack of squeezing as many pennies out of your wallet as possible by turning once natural daily things into tourist attractions. Take their floating markets for example which are no longer places where locals buy their daily fruit and veg from ladies in long boats floating down the canals. It is now a river full of tourists in boats buying stuff they don't need from the women who would've at some point worked in the markets. We only hope that this isn't the fate of Myanmar. We can appreciate that the locals here, who are by day fishermen probably earning little money, now have an extra source of income. We just hope that in years to come tourism doesn't change Myanmar and in particular Inle Lake into a Disney Land where traditional daily activities are replaced by people acting and honing in on tourists. Then again, who are we to say that poor local people shouldn't change their traditions for the benefit of us. They have to feed their families and if adapting to the influx of tourists is the way to do that, why shouldn't they?

Any way, back to what we did during the day. We traveled along the lake from north to south and entered into a small village. The village is set on the lake and all the houses are up on wooden stilts but all have gardens which are in simple terms, lots of grass and roots all intertwined floating on the water. They have long bamboo sticks through the middle of the grass patches which stick into the mud at the bottom of the lake, which prevents the grassy islands from floating away. As a result of this, if it wasn't for the visible water, you'd think you were looking out at a field of green grass and weeds. We spent 10 minutes slowly weaving along the watery streets before stopping off at a big house. This house, as the sign explained, was a traditional weaving factory. Gemma and I quickly discussed whether we should wave the boat boy on as we didn't want a day of visiting places where we would no doubt be hounded to part with money. It was too late however and the boat was already tied to the dock. We reluctantly climbed out of the boat and into the factory. When we arrived the factory went from silence into noisy from the factory workers using their weaving machines. We were shown the steps local people take to produce clothing from lotus plants and eventually taken into the gift shop. As much as we didn't want to stop here or have a day full of these sorts of stops, we actually found it quite fascinating. So much so that Gemma bought herself a hand weaved jacket.

The next stop was a cigar making factory, despite telling the boat boy that we didn't smoke and didn't want to visit. He received a bag of the red chewing tobacco though for taking us there, so we had no choice but to play along and smell the cigars but didn't buy anything. Then we arrived at a Pagoda, which after a few minutes we left having seen hundreds already in Myanmar. We then went to another factory, this time a gold and silver smiths. This we also found very interesting and witnessed how silver is extracted from the ore and then melted, hammered and filed into the shapes necessary to produce jewelry. Gemma was so fascinated that she bought herself a silver ring. I'm pretty sure I gave her a lovely ring only recently! We were then taken for lunch which was in a restaurant with a beautiful setting. We had a table high up on wooden stilts overlooking the lake and all the vibrant colours of the sky, water, mountains and farmland. After lunch we floated to another traditional shop but I waved the driver on much to the annoyance of the man waiting on the jetty ready to tie us up. We then told the driver to take us back to the main town. It was already 2pm and we'd had enough of visiting these small factories with obligatory gift shops. Despite enjoying the weaving and silver smith factory, we only really wanted to see the lake and experience travelling across it and considering we'd covered that on the journey in the morning, we were satisfied enough to return to town.

On the way back to town, which was almost an hours journey, we passed a boat which had broken down and Gemma and I were told to move our seat back to make way for 10 local people, who we were now giving a lift back to town. They all climbed aboard with lots and lots of bags of prawn crackers and stared at us. Our first response was to take a picture of them, which we duly did and funnily enough that was also their first response. We smiled at each other and settled into the final part of the journey.

When we arrived back at the town we popped into the French cafe from the previous day for a drink of tea and to play some bananagrams (a version of scrabble without the board) and then headed back to the hotel to collect our luggage. We had another pizza and at 6pm boarded the the JJ Express which was heading south to Yangon. The journey was comfortable, as far as bus journeys go and a whopping 12 hours later we arrived at a dark and cold Yangon.

Saturday 6th February 2016

For our second visit to Yangon, although this time only for 24 hours before flying off to Singapore, we decided to stay at a hostel called 'Lil Yangon' as we'd heard positive things about it from people we'd met so far. We arrived at the hostel at 7:30am and couldn't check in until 2pm. We were given a free breakfast and then sat down to rest. We had no plans of visiting anywhere today as we'd already done what we wanted in Yangon previously and thought it would be nice to catch up on some sleep as the bus journey didn't allow us a full nights sleep.

After sitting still for only 1 hour we decided to take a walk and find a cafe. We headed outside into the blistering heat, still only 9am and found a cafe that served some strong coffee and some dim sum. After eating some more and a strong coffee we felt a little more human so returned to the hostel hoping that that we would be given a room early. Thankfully when we arrived back at 11am we were told that our room was ready. We were staying in a 6 bed dorm and when we entered the room Gemma closed her curtain and fell to sleep and I wrote these very words.

In the afternoon we decided to go and watch a film. With the directions from the lady on reception we quickly found cinema with only 1 showing per time. As we arrived there was a mad rush at the counter so without properly knowing what movie was on show we joined. We paid only 50p per ticket and only £2 for popcorn and some pringles with 2 drinks! This is how cheap cinemas back home should be. We entered the seating area and quickly found our seat. What we had entered was an old theater converted into a cinema. Its was old and no doubt dirty (happy that the lights were off) and uncomfortable with little leg room and the back of the seat reaching only the middle of your back. Having said that, it was an enjoyable experience and thankfully the movie was in English. Before the movie started we had to stand for the national anthem and during the film phones would ring and people would have full length conversations. We had the feeling that it was more of a social gathering rather than attending to watch a film. As we were leaving we were shocked by how many sunflower seed shells were on the floor. Literally piles and piles of chewed up and spat our shells covered the floor and seats. The cinema staff were quick to enter and begin the cleaning process ready for the next showing.

In the evening we packed our bags and got chatting to a few people in our dorm. First was a Norwegian chap called Thomas who was on a short holiday having just finished medical school. We were tempted to ask how to treat Gemma's twisted ankle but thought that would be taking advantage. We also chatted to a Polish couple who coincidentally had been on the same night bus as us from Inle Lake yesterday. Even more of a coincidence was that there were also flying to Singapore tomorrow on the same flight and staying in the same area as us. We agreed we'd travel together to split taxi fees. Surprisingly, but also happily for us, everyone in the dorm got an early night and the lights went off at 10:30pm and we manged to get some good sleep following the short sleep on the night bus previously.

Next stop Singapore!


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