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Asia » Burma » Mandalay Region » Inle Lake
April 1st 2017
Published: April 24th 2017
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FishermenFishermenFishermen

The local fishermen go about getting their catches of the day.
Wherever I go in the world, it seems that long distance buses never seem to stop for food at sensible times. 11am is a really awkward time to eat because you've only just had breakfast and it's a tad too early for lunch; likewise, 4pm is a bit too late for lunch but far too early for dinner. They never stop for long enough either, meaning you have to inhale your food if you do decide to go for any of the usual, unappetising options available.

Speaking of food options, arriving in the town of Nyaungshwe, the tourist enclave for nearby Inle Lake, I had now arrived in Myanmar's Shan State and the food here is supposedly a little different, with much more of a Chinese slant to it. I therefore hunted down some local food stalls - a night market of sorts, if you will - to try some of the revered local cuisine.
I started with the shan k'auq-sweh, or Shan noodle soup; which was nice, but not too different to other noodle soups I've had in the past. Not full from the noodle soup, I then went for htamin chin, or sour rice, a traditional Shan salad;
Floating VillageFloating VillageFloating Village

Many of the people living on the lake, literally live on the lake, in the form of these houses on stilts.
this was a bit strange and the pickled gherkin kind of overpowered everything else. Still not full but with the food cheap, I thought I might as well try the top'u thouq - Shan tofu salad - and this was actually a bit different; a mix of soft tofu and fried tofu, it is served simply with oil, chives, spring onion and coriander and was the nicest of the three local specialities I tried.
But you know what, I think my experimentation with Burmese food is over; I had to get up a couple of times in the middle of the night to get rid of it all and none of it was particularly solid. My stomach just can't seem to be able to handle the food in Myanmar; either that, or the hygiene standards in Burmese kitchens are even worse than those in India. Definitely sticking to food from fancier looking establishments from now on...

After getting to a decent level of Spanish after my time in Spain (where I had formal classes) and Latin America, it has been a regret of mine that since I left Spain last year, that my command of the language has receded significantly
Moises & The Long-Necked LadyMoises & The Long-Necked LadyMoises & The Long-Necked Lady

My Spanish friend sits alongside a lady that sadly seems to be wheeled out for tourists. The neck rings are worn as a tribal beauty custom.
due to a lack of practice. Nevertheless, while travelling around Asia so far, I have had more opportunities to practice my Spanish than you might think. For example in my mini-van from Mandalay to Inle Lake, there were a group of three Spaniards and then there was Laura and Moises; another Spanish duo that I had met in Mandalay and who were now also in Inle Lake. Both had lived in English-speaking countries so their English was far superior to my Spanish but I appreciated their wont to occasionally speak to me in their native tongue. And man, my Spanish is pretty rusty. I don't think I will ever forget the basics and basic grammar, but listening has always been difficult for me in terms of hearing and then processing all the words spoken to me; and then my vocabulary and conjugation arsenal has shrunk considerably, much to my frustration. I was even a bit embarrassed to have told Laura and Moises that I did indeed once speak Spanish to a decent level, with a particular emphasis on the word did.

Anyway, I joined my Spanish friends for a boat ride on the lake the next day; the quintessential
Floating GardensFloating GardensFloating Gardens

These floating gardens used to grow crops are impressive. Looking at the picture, it almost looks as if everything is on land.
activity to do while in Inle Lake. With my bowels wanting to get rid of whatever it was that had invaded my stomach however, I considered cancelling the trip; but I needed people to share the boat with and therefore cut the price - and Moises and Laura had managed to get a very good price - and based on the severity of my stomach cramps, I had faith I could hold everything in. It didn't feel as bad as when I was in Colombia for example.
Joining us for the tour was German Julia and on first impressions, her home country had better-looking lakes than Inle, but it wasn't really about the beauty of the lake, as we were to find out.

Based on our first four stops, it felt a bit like being taken on a free ride by an Indian taxi driver as we visited two handicraft workshops and a silk and lotus weaving one. After lunch, we also stopped at a Burmese cigar making workshop. Unlike shops that Indian taxi drivers are commissioned to take you to however, the locals do really want to teach you a bit about their culture. For example, at the second stop there was an old lady who was wearing
Burmese Cigarettes & CigarsBurmese Cigarettes & CigarsBurmese Cigarettes & Cigars

Completely organic - and supposedly healthy - these cigars and cigarettes come in a variety of flavours.
gold rings around her neck - lots of them - that helped elongate it; it did feel like they had her there solely to be wheeled out for tourists, which felt a bit stink and contrived, but it was nevertheless quite fascinating to see her. We also saw there, how they make the paper that is used in the parasols they were making and selling. At the third stop, we were surprised and interested to know that the locals take out the fibre that exists inside the stem of a lotus flower - a fibre we didn't know existed - and use it to weave scarves. Apparently, you need to cut through and extract the web-like fibre of 4,000 lotus stems to make one scarf. I'm glad it's not me but at the same time, someone here actually does that all day, every day.
The most interesting stop however was the cigar workshop. Burmese cigarettes are rolled with local leaves and are laced with fragrance before rolling. Filters are made from plant stems and the tobacco comes from somewhere just outside Mandalay. The whole process is completely organic and the cigarettes come in a range of flavours including star anise,
Cruising Through The VillageCruising Through The VillageCruising Through The Village

We cruise through 'side street' in one of the floating villages.
banana, mint and honey. I tasted a banana one which was lovely, sweet and mellow, but the mint one was a bit too harsh for me. It had a great aftertaste though!

The best part of the tour however, was simply floating through the floating villages and observing local rural life on the lake. It is quite incredible; these people live on houses built on stilts in a sort of Waterworld existence. As smaller 'streets' of water branched off the main 'highway' the tour definitely had shades of Kerala's backwaters although with a powered boat this time, it wasn't as tranquil a tour. But the whole place had the feel of a much simpler, agrarian Venice.
The most impressive feature of Inle Lake were the floating gardens; rows and rows of crops simply growing on the water. Looking at all the greenery, if you were to ignore the fact you are cruising on a long canoe, you could just as easily be looking at farmland either side of you. Also floating - well, sort of - was a massive market selling again, handicrafts, with a few stalls selling Burmese snacks, which I stayed away from.
No tour in Myanmar would
Nyaungshwe JettiesNyaungshwe JettiesNyaungshwe Jetties

The launch point for many a boat tour on the lake.
be complete without a visit to a monastery; we visited the Nga Phe Kyaung, which like everything else in the lake, is floating, and which is known for the monks training cats to jump through hoops! Sadly, there were no cats jumping while we were there - just a lot of them sleeping.

The next day, we all decided to cycle to the Kaung Daing Hot Springs, an excursion ranked as "unmissable" by the Lonely Planet. Though part of the 45-minute countryside ride was scenic and pleasant, the hot springs themselves were...a bit disappointing. K7,000 for the "public" pool was laughable; a tired-looking pool about ankle deep, was filled with rather cloudy-looking water. The "superior" section featured four jacuzzis in a much nicer setting that didn't look like the backyard of a 60s suburban house, and offered shade for K10,000; but Laura, not unfairly, makes the point that having cycled here and sweated out arses off, we were expecting a much nicer facility with an accompanying cold swimming pool for the price we were paying. Instead of a swim, we just had a beer. Much better value for money!
As for the village of Kaung Daing itself, it was
FishermanFishermanFisherman

One of many fisherman making his livelihood out on Inle Lake.
quaint but nothing amazing. After cycling back to Nyaungshwe, we literally didn't do anything else of note on the second day.

On my last day by the lake, I met up again with the Spaniards to visit the Nyaungshwe's local Mingala Market; a market is really just a market though I did enjoy walking through the gruesome part of it which had sheep's brain and wriggling fish on sale - the Spaniards weren't so keen. Nyaungshwe's Yadana Man Aung Paya was again nice, but again, a pagoda is a pagoda although this one was unlike the rest that I have seen, with its golden stepped stupa.
Just before catching my bus outta town, Laura and I cycled out to the Red Mountain Estate Winery which was worth the ride even if I couldn't sample the local product; the views were amazing and the setting lovely.

And with that, my Myanmar adventure was almost over. But before I sum up my time here, just a couple of observations about the country;
- I swear Burmese sounds a lot like Mandarin sometimes.
- Where local music was predominantly popular in India and Nepal, it seems that Western music has caught
Shop On StiltsShop On StiltsShop On Stilts

A general store in a floating village.
on more here in Myanmar. Amusingly, Western pop songs are always translated into and sung in Burmese. Likewise, Burmese pop songs are always played in a Western style, whether it be pop, rock or country.

While Yangon looked and felt more developed than I was expecting, rural Myanmar definitely wasn't. Yet despite the poverty, the people are the friendliest I have encountered in eighteen months on the road, spanning three continents. For me, this is what has made me really like the country so much and my experience seemed to hark back to a pre-globalisation era. If there is a time to visit Myanmar, it is now; before it gets too consumed by tourism.
In terms of things to see, Bagan was definitely the highlight; and I felt I got a fairly authentic cultural experience here in Inle Lake. I won't go as far as saying Myanmar is in my Top 10, but it is definitely worth visiting for something a little different and a dash of Asian authenticity.

Looking ahead, I have a bit of an adventure ahead of me to get to Chiang Mai in Thailand - not really what I wanted after Nepal and Darjeeling,
Down On MainstreetDown On MainstreetDown On Mainstreet

Except that Main Street is a canal in this case.
but needs must. After eighteen months on the road, I am definitely feeling a bit jaded and am looking forward to my one month pit stop in Malaysia in about a month's time. Before I get there however, I hope Thailand will be easier and more comfortable to travel through than what I experienced recently!

မကြာခင်ပြန်ဆုံကြမယ် (makyaarhkain pyansone kyamaal),
Derek


Additional photos below
Photos: 25, Displayed: 25


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Floating MarketFloating Market
Floating Market

Marketplace out on the lake. In reality, the market is on a small island.
Mingala MarketMingala Market
Mingala Market

Nyaungshwe's local market.
Nga Phe KyaungNga Phe Kyaung
Nga Phe Kyaung

View from the floating monastery of Nga Phe Kyaung.
Weed GatheringWeed Gathering
Weed Gathering

A farmer collects weed from the bottom of the lake, with which he will construct floating crop beds on the surface of the water.
Head Out On The HighwayHead Out On The Highway
Head Out On The Highway

We cruise down the 'highway' connecting the lake to Nyaungshwe.
Blue LizardBlue Lizard
Blue Lizard

These "iguanas azules" (nod to my Spanish pals) were a pretty common sight not just in Inle Lake, but all over Myanmar.
Shan CountrysideShan Countryside
Shan Countryside

Scenic countryside just outside of Nyaungshwe.
Red Mountain EstateRed Mountain Estate
Red Mountain Estate

Vineyard a twenty-minute bike ride outside of Nyaungshwe.
View From Red Mountain EstateView From Red Mountain Estate
View From Red Mountain Estate

View from the Red Mountain Estate Winery just outside of Nyaungshwe.
Country RoadCountry Road
Country Road

Lovely tree-lined road that leads to Nyaungshwe.
Yadana Man Aung PayaYadana Man Aung Paya
Yadana Man Aung Paya

Nyaungshwe's most important temple is unusual for its golden stepped stupa.
NyaungshweNyaungshwe
Nyaungshwe

Rather unassuming town that is the tourist hub for visitors to Inle Lake.
Jewellery MakingJewellery Making
Jewellery Making

One benefit of tourism is the creation of alternative ways of making a living on the lake.
Golden DuckGolden Duck
Golden Duck

A golden duck isn't a good thing in cricket - but may well be in Buddhism.
Sheep's BrainSheep's Brain
Sheep's Brain

At least that is what I think it is...


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