Life and Tourists on Inle Lake

I went straight from Bagan to Inle Lake. I considered doing the two-day trek from Kalaw to Inle Lake, like most people do, but in the end decided to just take the bus straight there. Two reasons: 1) I am a little tired of jumping around and kind of just wanted to get there; 2) I am a lot tired of the Banana Pancake Trail and didn’t feel like being in another organized group of Westerners escorted through a prescribed tourist-friendly route.

There’s one problem with going straight to Inle: I arrived at 3 am. Why they run night buses here from 7 pm to 3 or 4 am I’ll never understand. Just leave at 10 and save everyone the hassle of waking up in the middle of the night. This is the case with all night buses to and from Yangon, Mandalay, Bagan, Kalaw, and Inle.

The early arrival meant that I had to book accommodation in advance. All the hotels are used to people showing up at that hour, but they also ask if you have a reservation. I heard from a few girls who tried to get a bed on the fly that our guest house in Bagan had said it was full when there were three open beds in the dorm; they blamed it on the receptionist just wanting to go back to sleep. So I booked on Agoda and suffered the pain of a jacked-up price and a booking fee. My advice to you would be if you chose to book ahead, call the place instead of booking online, then you should get the right rate.

After a nap in reception I was led to my room around 8:30 am, immediately showered, and treated myself to a latte and chocolate croissant lunch at a wifi-strong french cafe in town. I caught up on the news. It was a lovely leisurely morning. Then it was time to explore.

I rented a bike for the day at Lonely Planet-recommended Thu Thu (where I also took my laundry, so much cheaper than the hotel) and followed the road northwest around the top of the lake. Another day on another bike; cycling seemed to be the theme of Myanmar, but with such pretty scenery it makes sense.

And then the universe did its thing where it was like “no worries I got your back” and I made friends. I stopped to take a picture on a bridge, where someone else had also stopped, and we started talking. Another American! We cycled and chatted, and I learned that Riki was traveling with his wife Julie and a Swiss girl they’d just met Katarina. Soon after I met them as well and boom, just like that I had friends not only to bike around with for the day, but to drink wine with and get a boat with. Talk about right place right time. You win universe, you always do.

We biked down the one main road, eventually making it to a pagoda with a view of the lake. Finally, there it was. The town everyone stays in, Nyaungshwe, is not actually on the lake but a river that leads to it, so to see the lake you have to either bike an hour or take a boat. The ride home we suffered two flat tire casualties – Julie had to hitchhike home on a dump-truck and Katarina had to stop a few times to get enough air in her tires to make it back – so when we finally reached their hotel we made the executive decision to take a tuktuk to the winery. Nothing could hold us back from the wine.

The view from the winery was beautiful, but the wine itself was not. We each had our own tasting of four wines and no one liked the last three, but we decided the Sauvignon Blanc was good enough to split a bottle as we watched the sun go down. Conversation with new friends, wine, and a sunset, what more could you ask for?

The next morning was an early one; we left at 7 am for our boat tour around Inle Lake, the main attraction. The way the boats work is you book a boat for the day for a set price – 15,000 or 18,000 kyat for more stops (the one we chose) – whether you’re alone or have people to split it with. This is another reason it was so fortunate to meet three new friends; most boats take 4 people so I filled their last spot, and I didn’t have to pay for a boat all by myself, which also would have been pretty boring.

I have mixed feelings on the boat trip. I’ll start with the negative. Many of the stops felt like a tourist shopping trip. All of the local crafts – silversmith, lotus and silk weaving, cigar rolling – had shops attached, and one stop – the floating market, which isn’t even floating right now since it’s dry season – was purely shopping stalls selling all the same paraphernalia. Boats full of tourists disembarked and swarmed. Luckily we had left a little earlier than most so at each location we docked while it was still quiet and left when the masses arrived. The only saving grace was that seeing people make everything was actually interesting. They can roll a cigar in 20 seconds! I was impressed.

The positive part of the boat trip was the boat part. We rode past and through fascinating scenes, from the morning fisherman to entire towns built on stilts. I didn’t realize just how expansive these towns would be. We stopped at a monastery on stilts, and the restaurant we had lunch at slightly swayed with the movement of the water. There’s even the floating gardens, where crops grow in the water and people tend them from boats. It was incredible to see life lived on water in this way.

The strangest part had to be the Burmese cat village. Inthar Heritage House on Inle Lake has taken it upon themselves to make sure this breed of cat doesn’t go extinct; they have 35 cats right now, and those cats live both in part of the house and on their very own island with little cat-sized bungalows. Seriously. It was different, to say the least.

At the end of the day the boat ride was worth it. I’ve always enjoyed any day spent on a boat, where motors replace horns and canals are highways. But one question is still bugging me: in a country where cars drive on the right side of the road, why do boats drive on the left? Anyone know?

That night I had a final tea leaf salad dinner, which turned out to be my last tea leaf salad in Myanmar (so sad), and said bye to my new friends, as I’ve had to do so many times in the past 8 months. Such is the travel life. The next day I departed for Kalaw, happy to have seen Inle but ready to move on.

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