We arrived on the overnight bus at Nyaung Shwe, the main village near Inle lake, at 6am so the sun was just rising as we walked to our hostel shaped like a giant boom box – gentrification at its finest? Despite not getting much sleep on the bus and the fact that the hostel had a travellers room for early arrivers, we decided to power on through the day. Bicycles were available to borrow for free so we cycled to the lake. Note to self; check the brakes first when choosing a bike. My brakes were tragically poor and made an ear-splitting squeak as they grinded non-responsively to a halt. It was actually a lot further than we thought (or Dave conveniently failed to divulge this to me) and we ended up cycling around 30km, taking regular “shade breaks” from the scorching sun. Fortunately, the roads were fairly flat. As we were cycling along, a local young lad started chatting to us and offered to show us his village up ahead. He pointed out his bamboo hut house where he lived with all his family. It made us laugh that despite the tiny size of this rural village, one of his first questions to us was whether we’d watched the final of the Myanmar Idol singing contest last night. He took us to the rice paddy where we stood right next to the farmers as they planted little clumps in straight lines with impressive speed and accuracy. We then carried on and arrived at the Maing Thauk bridge, a 450 year old wooden bridge spanning 500 metres. Though you can get a motorised canoe to cross the lake with your bike, we decided we’d just have a walk around the bridge, get a drink from a neighbouring floating bamboo hut cafe and then head back the way we came. We planned to cross the lake the next day anyway. We had a relaxed evening at the hostel, only venturing out for some Dim Sum.
We had an early start the next day getting up at 5am. We booked on to join the hostel’s day tour (only about £7 all in for the full day each). We were taken in a tuk-tuk (so crammed that two guys just stood on the back and clung on) to a canal where our 4 seater, motorised canoe was waiting for us. The boat went quite fast so it was surprisingly cold with the morning air stinging us but they gave us blankets which made the ride more enjoyable. We hadn’t realised how vast the lake was the day before; it’s actually 116km squared. We stopped in the middle of the lake, parking I suppose, in a thick patch of water plants to watch the sun rise over the surrounding mountains. As we were speeding along, it seemed the people on boats were the only life inhabiting the lake, but once we stopped and looked over the edge of the canoe, we saw the water was alive with water snails, dancing dragonflies and more. The sunrise was truly beautiful and everyone in the group was silent. We were also given breakfast whilst we watched; an interesting cheese and jam sandwich.
We headed to Maing Thauk bridge where we were the day before, only at this time in the early hours of the morning, it was much quieter and we were able to take in the surrounding rice paddies and admire all of these crazy bamboo stilts supporting the huts. We got back in the boat and went to another village to a market. Though we didn’t buy anything, it was interesting to meander through all of the little stalls selling both produce to locals and souvenirs to tourists. I noticed quite a few stalls selling necklaces which I said to Dave – “They look like teeth..”, then the vendor chimed in happily: “Yes! Yes! Traditional necklace. Buffalo teeth. You want?” I politely declined…
We drove on to another little village for lunch in someone’s house. Again, a little hut perched on fragile bamboo stilts. Lunch was what can only be described as a fish carcass with veggies and rice. One of the women in the house was applying the Thanaka (wood suncream). This was the first time we got to see it in action; a little log being ground and mixed with water. She then offered to apply it to everyone in our group, I went first! I’m judging the effectiveness based on the fact that Dave didn’t get burnt that day. After lunch, the women of the house took us for a little paddle on actual wooden canoes. We were each given a little oar, though we were basically redundant compared to their foot paddling. There’s a rowing technique unique to Myanmar where they sort of wrap their leg around the oar and rotate it as they paddle; it was quite a sight.
We then carried on to visit a hut where Myanmar cigars were made. The cigar rolling was really impressive as the women did it with such speed and precision. Apparently each person rolls around 700 cigars per day! They make 2 types; plain tobacco and a sweet version. We tried the sweet one where the main ingredient is star anise, it tasted like liquorice and I wasn’t a fan. Our next stop was a weaving factory, I say factory but it was just a larger bamboo stilt house. We saw women at work on traditional weaving mills and the highlight was seeing Lotus weaving. If you crack the stem of a lotus flower, there’s a sort of fine string that’s inside. This is extracted to make thread and then used to weave garments. A tiny scarf made from 100% lotus retails for $170 USD! Apparently they make robes for monks out of lotus as well and each robe takes about three months to make! Our final stop before returning to the hostel was a blacksmiths where we watched the four men it took to make a single blade.
We met three lovely guys from DC (our last stop on the trip); Andy, Eddy and Benny and went for dinner with them in the evening. It was a small restaurant run by an amazing woman called Zizi who strove to empower marginalised women in remote villages. She had a big poster of Aung San Suu Kyi saying “Freedom to Lead, Support Human Rights, Democracy in Burma”. It was only her doing the cooking/serving so the guys stepped in to help; chopping veg, serving customers. We had such a lovely evening with delicious home-made food. Unfortunately as we headed back to our hostel on our bikes, stopping at a restaurant to see if they had ice cream, 2 young boys on a motorbike (driving without lights and helmets whilst speeding) hit Eddy. Fortunately everyone was okay, though the 2 boys on the motorbike had to go to hospital.
On our last day, we went with the guys to the 5 day market which is predominantly where locals shop but with a few stalls with trinkets for tourists. There was the cutest little boy and Benny gave him a menthos mint and he was just laughing hysterically. I normally don’t take photographs of any kids on principle but I couldn’t resist taking one of this little one!
In Inle lake, if it’s possible, the people were even kinder and friendlier and reaffirmed how much we love Myanmar!
Thanks for reading!
Sophie & Dave
Sunrise on Inle Lake
Maing Thauk bridge
Maing Thauk bridge
Seaweed men at work
Bamboo stilt houses