"Outrageously beautiful," says Lonely Planet. I agree.
Proving to myself how unbelievably lazy I can sometimes be as a traveler, I opted to fly from Mandalay to Heho - the nearest airport to the Inle Lake area - a flight that takes all of about 25 minutes. After landing I was introduced to another bizarre aspect of travel in Myanmar - at many of the smaller airports they don't let any vehicles near the terminal, requiring all passengers to walk several hundred meters to the parking area. Fortunately, airport personnel take all the bags to the parking area in a push trolley and don't demand any money for this service.
I spent two and a half days in the Inle Lake area. I devoted my first afternoon to just walking around the town of Nyaungshwe. I spent my second day exploring the lake and some of the villages on the west side. My third day's activity consisted of a 22-kilometer trek through the eastern hills. Like Hsipaw, this was another destination I could have stayed longer and been quite happy for having done so.
Most travelers will stay in the town of Nyaungshwe. Like Hsipaw, this is another town I took an instant liking to. It doesn't take long to see the town making it all the more leisurely and enjoyable to explore. Though Nyaungshwe sees plenty of foreigners in consideration to its small size, nothing I experienced would indicate the least bit of jadedness on the part of the resident population. Friendly place.
I stayed at the Joy Hotel Guesthouse, your basic Myanmar budget deal - friendly staff, good service, and free breakfast with peculiarly greenish yellowish bread. Well, at least the coffee was okay... and they have a nice outdoor sitting area to relax and drink it. The guesthouse has the advantage of being located along a busy canal. Here, many people arrive and depart in long boats as they travel between the town and the lakeside villages.
On and around Inle Lake
I hired a private boat - just me and my own boat driver. The trip around the lake begins with a two-kilometer sprint down the main canal. Right from the beginning, the scenes of life amid the water begin to play out - along the main canal children swim while their parents bathe, wash the dishes, and do the laundry. Plenty of waving at the foreigners. Enjoyable as it is, it's merely a preview of much better things to come.
At the end of the canal the boat passes under a large sign whereupon the landscape opens up to the crystal clear shallow waters of Inle Lake with the hills rising on each side creating the perfect natural picture frame. Around the lake, men in their boats, paddling with their legs, seek their daily take of fish.
Cutting across the lake, we headed for the villages on the west side. People of the Intha minority group inhabit most of these villages. Turning down a narrow canal, electric green rice paddies, wooden houses, and colorfully-dressed villagers are the order of the day. The same scenes of life in the canals that I had observed leaving Nyaungshwe are replayed again and again.
Making our way down the ever-narrowing canals we continued as far as physical limitations would permit. I had wanted to see a market, but not a floating market. Although floating markets are plentiful and would expectedly be well worth a visit, all the reports say they often turn too much attention on the foreign visitors as would-be souvenir sellers lay siege to the tourist boats. I chose not to visit one, instead opting for a land market in the village of Kanywa. This necessitated walking a couple of kilometers. The effort was worth it.
Scenes from a local ground market in Kanywa. In the photo above center the two women were arguing over one thing or another. The seller (on the left) had just taken back her fruit and was handing the money back to the would-be buyer. After further heated exchanges they eventually reached an agreement - and then both laughed when they realized I had been observing them.
Returning to the boat we navigated more mazes of canals before stopping at a crafts shop. Craft shops and souvenirs were the last thing on my mind so I struck further visits from the itinerary.
In an aquatic landscape where dry land comes at a premium, the local Intha villagers have devised a most ingenious way of growing food - floating gardens. Kept in place with long sticks, all types of fruits, vegetables, and flowers are grown.
Last on the agenda was a trip to the Nga Phe Kyaung monastery - better known as the Jumping Cat monastery. Bored monks, perhaps weary from the demands of their spiritual endeavors, trained the resident cats to jump through hoops. The "hipper than thou" and the "more cultured than thou" travelers like to write this off as a mindless tourist trap, but I know deep down inside you really want to see the cats jump through the hoops. Just admit it. If you need some justification, the monks are quite friendly and several speak English. They'd probably be delighted to discuss matters of Buddhist philosophy with you while simultaneously goading cats through hoops - which of course you won't be the least bit entertained by --- will you? ;)
Returning to Nyaungshwe, an afternoon storm chased us across the lake but not before I had the opportunity to observe and photograph many more local fishermen plying their trade.
Trekking in the hills east of Inle Lake
The next day, in the accompaniment of a guide, I took a long hike into the hills flanking the eastern side of the lake. I had originally planned to take the shorter hike to the Koun Soun Taungbo monastery at the top, stop in a village or two and then come back down again. That plan didn't last long.
It was a hot morning with a blazing sun and minimal shade as much of the vegetation is brush and weeds. Part way up the mountain we stopped at the sacred Ta-Eh Gu cave where a monk was at his prayers. My guide led me deep into the cave to more chambers where monks will often go to meditate in the darkness. Fortunately for us and the monks the caves were vacant on this day.
A steep walk brought us to Koun Soun Taungbo where we took lunch. Most of the monks are teenage novices who were entertaining a few teenage visitors from the nearby villages. Their antics were exactly what you might expect from a group of unsupervised teenage boys. It was lively and humorous to say the least. It's not every day you're in the presence of a group of monks making endless jokes about noisy bodily functions.
As parts of the hike up the mountain were a little steep - aggravated by the hot dry blazing sun, it was satisfying to hear my guide exclaim, "no more up!" So with his encouragement - I really think he was more interested in having me see all the villages than end his day early, I decided to extend the hike across the mountain ridge passing through the numerous villages. A good choice and a big thank you to my guide.
The villagers are friendly and at no time did anyone try to sell me any trinkets, crafts, or what have you. There was, however, one instance where a few children approached me asking for (demanding?) pens and/or money. That disturbed me for it only means that other foreigners before me have already caved into the children's demands. My guide told me he personally doesn't permit giving anything to the kids, and he then directed a few sharp words to the kids as he chased them off. Please folks, don't turn these people into beggars. This however, was an isolated incident and overall, trekking here was a very positive experience.
Halfway across the mountain we stopped in at the home of a friend of my guide. A spacious wooden home, once inside I could quickly appreciate that this was a truly authentic village home. The walls were not adorned with native crafts, weavings, or other local products designed to enthrall the visitor, but instead were generously covered with magazine and promotional photographs of Myanmar movie stars.
A welcome tea break and we then continued through more villages before starting the steep descent. Along the way we passed a group of people on the side of a hill picking tea leaves and then a monastery provided an opportunity for another break before we reached the lake and a boat returned us to Nyaungshwe.
I spent the evening absorbed in a Michael Crichton novel and the following day was devoted to sleeping off the hike and traveling to Kalaw where after this single day's rest I began two more days of satisfying hill treks.
Inle Lake is, to quote one travel guide, "outrageously beautiful". That some of the short package tours skip this area is a crime. Inle was three days of a beautiful lake, hills, and numerous and diverse villages - lakeside, hillside, townside, anyside, all with people as friendly as anywhere in the country. Like Hsipaw, my stay was entirely too short.
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