It’s a long bus trip from Bagan to Inle Lake – 10 hours although we had a good run and got in 30 minutes early. The bus left at 6:30am and was to pick us up from outside the hotel. We thought this was a benefit of being on the route to the small bus station until we were the first to be picked up and we spent the next 1 and 1/2 hrs driving through Nyaung U, Old Bagan and New Bagan stopping at hotels collecting the rest of the passengers. Randomly the bus said Airport Limousine on the side, a remnant of a former life?
Bagan is on the plains and Inle Lake in the mountains so it was definitely a journey of 2 halves with the lunch stop almost smack bang in the middle. The temperature dropped quickly as we climbed higher, just as well since the air con was as ineffective as it had been on the previous long bus trip. The road condition wasn’t too bad and we had a very smooth gentle driver so there were no feeling ill problems as we wound up and up. We peaked in the mountain town of Kalaw, which is somewhere we are thinking of stopping on the way back, and half the tourists on the bus got off. Then we dropped down for an hour or so into the valley where the lake sits.
The bus dropped the rest of us tourists at Shwenyaung junction from where we got shared taxis’ (cars) 20 minutes down to Nyaungshwe. The town is not actually on the lake, it is by a main channel leading into the lake but this is where everyone visiting the lake stays unless you can afford to spend a lot of money and stay on one of the ‘floating’ (stilt) resort hotels on the lake itself. Shared taxi touts were waiting to hussle business as we disembarked and each can take 4 passengers. Our driver was smart, he picked us out as the first pair to get off and by the time we had collected our bags he had picked out a second pair of older women from Hong Kong so had his quota very quickly. We were the first taxi to leave the junction, everyone else was still making up groups of 4.
It is always useful to be ahead when you and many other people arrive at once and don’t have hotel reservations. The hotel we had picked to try first was the one that the Norwegian couple had recommended to us and happened to be the same one the Hong Kong women also wanted to try. The driver said it was good with a good location, quiet and cheap. The driver waited while Emma and the Hong Kong women bailed out, checked the place out and then checked in. Marie stayed with the car and all the bags and chatted to the driver.
Being in the mountains and this being the wet season in Burma means that not only is it much cooler (about 25C in the day dropping to 21C at night) but that it would also rain, maybe quite a lot, while we were there. We were happy to take the risk of rain in return for cooler temperatures. Everywhere seemed pretty dry when we rocked up but the taxi driver said that 2 days before it had rained all day and all night. We dumped the bags off and headed out to explore the town while the going was good.
We hadn’t barely gone a block and a half when a boat driver approached us and offered us a day trip on the lake. That is what everyone that comes here does and every hotel, travel/tour agency and boat driver touts. He spoke good English, knew what tourists want to see on the lake and seemed a nice guy. He offered us a good price as by going directly with him we would not be paying any commission to anyone. He also suggested we leave 30 minutes earlier than the boats usually go so we would be well ahead of the other tourists. We agreed to meet him at 7:20am the next morning in the same place we’d just bumped into each other. We had a wander down the main street, watched the sunset over the rice paddies and mountains the other side of the canal before having a early dinner (we were famished) and heading back to the hotel to settle in.
The next morning we woke to overcast weather with a very light drizzle. We breakfasted and were just about to head out the door when it turned to light rain. We made the last minute decision to switch the fleeces for waterproofs, which turned out to be a very good move as it rained (ranging from drizzle to medium rain) the whole day and all that night. Our driver was waiting for us at our arranged meeting point, he had a trishaw driver friend with him and paid for us to get a lift down to the boat jetty while he rode ahead on his scooter to set the boat ready.
The boats are long like canoes and have very noisy putt putt engines on the back, They have low wooden chair designed for the boats and we got courtesy cushions to sit on and umbrellas and lifejackets which helped keep us warm. We cruised down the canal and onto the expanse of the lake, then gently down the middle of the lake slowing to watch the fishermen and guys harvesting lake weed filling the boats until they sat only just above the water line.
Inle Lake boats are perfectly balanced and the fishermen have developed a unique technique of leg rowing where they balance on one end, the single oar is placed under the armpit and a single leg wrapped round it and drives it through the water in a squiggle type motion, this allows them to keep both hands free for setting/bringing in the net and dealing with the catch. We carried on down to the village of Ywama where we visited a silversmith and watched them work a block. It was no different to shoeing a horse but on a much smaller scale, they had a mini forge heated with a bello, that the block was held in until it heated up, then worked with a heavy hammer on a mini anvil. Of course it had a showroom of jewellery there. We looked out of courtesy and they put a bit of pressure on to buy, but they kept pushing the fancy intricate items (presumably the highest price) that would so not suit us so that made it very easy to say no thanks.
From there we took a short walk to the rotating 5 day market that was in the village that day. We had to run a gauntlet of souvenir sellers that had set up on all the access routes. Their pitch is ‘just looking’ ‘please look at my shop’ and ‘not expensive’. The real market was mainly fruit and veg, some of which we have never seen before and fresh fish, so fresh that most of it was still alive.
Next we went to Kyaing Kan to visit a weavers – their uniqueness being their use of thread made from the lotus plant; they take the stem, lightly cut it on either side of the stem, snap it and pull the 2 pieces apart revealing very fine threads. Rolling them together, repeat a few times and you have usable thread. It is more expensive than silk.
We watched some weavers at work using the old loom then got shown various items in the showroom. We had no problems politely declining. We found our boat driver quite happily sat on a woven bamboo mat playing a game with one of the guys there, Emma replaced the guy and learnt how to play. It uses a wooden table, smoothly polished with a hole in each corner. This was the simple version that uses only 2 counters. You flick one and you are aiming to knock the other in a corner hole. The only two rules seemed to be you couldn’t hit the counter directly – you had to hit the side of the table first and when launching the counter you had to do it from behind a faint line drawn on the table. After numerous games we are not sure who won.
Our final showroom stop was a local cigar makers (the name is misleading as they smoke them like cigarettes) they are smoked all over Burma because that are so cheap. We watched the women making them while a guy explained the process. The tobacco comes from central Burma, the leaves that form the paper are from the local mountains and the filters are made from sweetcorn skins and the glue is a sticky rice made very very sticky. They make 2 blends, a shorter cigar has star anise added which they gave us to try and the other had a blend of banana, pineapple and honey which are made into longer cigars, we’d tried one of these when our old man in Yangon gave us one. The rule of don’t smoke things that strange old men give you on the street doesn’t apply in Burma.
We bought 10 of the star anise for less than $1NZ to use as gifts later in the trip, e.g. for nomad families in Mongolia who apparently like gifts of cigarettes, better 1 cigar than a packet of cigarettes we figure, although we’re still conveniently ignoring the health implications of course.
Our boat driver was a sociable guy and was eating snacks with some other guys when we came out. We were in no hurry so Emma joined him as she is fond of toasted sunflower seeds. As luck would have it there were some fishermen directly in front of the hut so Marie was able to get some photos from the dry of the porch.
After lunch we visited a pagoda and then a monastery. The monastery was very cool, the main part was a huge wooden meditation hall with ancient Buddha statues in the Shan, Tibetan, Bagan and Inwa (local) styles. It rained quite hard while we were there so we hung out until the worst had passed. Our boat driver had taken us to the monastery via the floating gardens. The lake weed we had watched them harvesting in the morning becomes floating fertiliser beds that are kept in rows by bamboo stakes. As the lake level rises the beds simply float up the poles. Last wet season the lake rose 2m higher than it currently is. The main crop is tomatoes, 20 trucks full a day leave the lake for the cities. We also saw a lot of aubergines and cucumbers and some kind of marrow.
Our boat driver asked if we minded if he picked up his wife and a friend on the way back as they needed to go into town. We didn’t mind at at all and got a nice detour down some narrow channels. We kept our brollies low over our heads as they got on, we only clocked his 11 month old baby wrapped up tightly in a big bundle, it was only when we got off we realised another 5 people had got onboard, they had all huddled under a multi umbrella shelter.
The next morning there was still low cloud and the threat of rain. We had intermittent drizzle as we explored the town properly. We reached and explored the outskirts of town on either side. On one side we met a man and woman and their youngest boy. Mum was trying to get the kid to say hello to us while dad was hacking branches off a thin tree he’d cut down. We stopped, talked at the kid who was determined not to say anything and asked about the tree. The trunk and branches would be used for firewood and the leaves would be cooked and eaten. They lived in a tiny, slightly random shack on stilts over a small stream, despite this the woman insisted on pouring us big mugs of green tea and seating us out the front on the family’s little stools. We established the kid was 3, then their other son came home from school for lunch – he was 5. We think mum just wanted the kids to practice English with us but they were both shy. There is something quite special about hospitality from people that are clearly very poor and have very little.
As we hopped back into town we passed rows of tomato warehouses and saw them at different stages of packing. The tomatoes get brought in off the lake in big bags or baskets. Men carry these to the warehouse where they get sorted into big crates, by ripeness it seemed, then they get put into small box size crates lined with newspaper. From there they are loaded onto trucks for distribution. The town only has narrow streets but they are big trucks!
After lunch we went on a walk towards the mountains sat just behind the town, not going anywhere in particular, just seeing what we could see. As we left the road for a dirt road at the foothills of the mountains we overtook a very drunk but very happy young man. He was weaving about from one side of the path to the other and at one point we thought we might be dragging him out of a ditch.
At the top of the ridge we hit a dirt road junction. A young guy resting there on his motorbike asked us in English where we were going ‘just for a walk’ we replied. He asked us if we were going to the cave ‘there’s a cave?’ we replied. He pointed which way and when we asked he said it was only about 10 minutes away. We followed it and dropped down into a village where we had to ask directions and got pointed down a narrow dirt track. This led us to a handful of buildings on the outskirts of the village. We guessed which path and managed to find the cave entrance that someone was using as a storage overflow. We could see steps down so gestured to a monk chilling out in the doorway of a nearby building if it was ok to go down. He gave us the nod. Someone had gone to the trouble of concreting the floor but there was nothing else really down there except a weather sculpted cave. We have no idea if it has any significance or meaning or not.
On the jaunt back to town the showers got heavier so we headed for coffee when we got back. They reached their heaviest during dinner so we had a very muddy wet walk back to the hotel.
- There are heaps of toads and frogs in the ponds and ditches by the roadside which can be deafening.
- The earth here is really red in colour and it takes some washing out of your socks.
Click on any image to enlarge and scroll through