It was dusk and I was at the Mandalay bus station, poking around through the corner shops for a snack. My stomach was a little unhappy, so all I wanted was a loaf of bread, but everything I came across was stuffed with some sort of candy. Eventually I settled on bread that was stuffed with sweet butter. That seemed to be a more natural combination at least. It didn't taste very natural though. I think it did more harm than good. The bus was going to take us to Inle Lake, which is located in the Shan State. If you don’t know what the Shan State is, which I certainly didn’t, even when I was in it, it’s a region that is home to a number of small armies that were once fighting the Burmese government for independence. Each of these armies corresponds to a different ethnic minority living in the region. The Burmese civil war continues to this day, but a ceasefire has been signed with the armies in the Shan State, and things are stable. However, there are still large areas in the Shan State where the Burmese government still has no power. These places are pretty far off the beaten path, but they exist as Burma's equivalent to the 'Wild Wild West'.
I climbed aboard the bus, took 2 of my Vietnamese knock-off Valiums, a drifted off into an uneasy sleep. The bus stopped a few times throughout the night and was nearly always waking up from some sort of nightmare as the bus lurched. Eventually we reached our destination though, and I stumbled off of the bus and into the bed of a truck. It was about an hour’s drive through the darkness from the bus station into the town of Nyaung Shwe, the gateway to Inle Lake. I sleepily propped myself up against a corner to avoid all the bumps in the road. On the outskirts of the town we had to pay an entry fee of 10,000 MMK (7.78 USD). There a fee for everything in Burma.
Hotel Review: Joy Hotel
Based on a recommendation I had received in Bagan, I booked a room for 2 nights in a place called Joy Hotel. What an ironic name. This place was one of the worst places I’ve ever stayed at. There was no A/C, no functional Wi-Fi, and no English spoken by any of the staff. My insect filled room had 1 outlet, and it was at all times devoted to the small fan, which was set to ‘oscillate’. I unplugged the fan to recharge my phone, but the outlet was halfway up the wall so that almost no cord could reach it. If a cord did reach it, the holes in the outlet were too loose to keep that cord plugged in. Meanwhile, the bathrooms were disgusting, the walls were so thin that I could hear the geckos squeaking outside. Zero stars.
The Gateway To Inle: Nyaung Shwe
I intended to check out and find another hotel, but I had already paid for 2 nights. The fact that they ask for all the money up front and have a "no refund" policy should have been clue #1. At any rate, it was pouring rain outside, and with no wifi, I had no way to finding a different hotel. It was the perfect trap. In the end I decided to stay, at least for the first night. With that, we headed out the door to see the town.
Our first order of business was to find food, so after the rain subsided we took to the streets, aimlessly wandering in search of a place that was already serving food at 6:30 in the morning. A man with a motorbike and swollen face asked us if we wanted to go out onto the lake. We told him that we just wanted to eat. So he followed us. He followed every wrong turn we took, and backtracked with us, until finally we found a place that served us orange juice and rice.
The man had been waiting patiently for us to finish our breakfast. We were a bit put off by his stalker-esque persistence, but apparently he could supply us with a boat, so we negotiated a price of 15,000 MMK (11.67 USD) for the day. That is the normal price, and you can stay out on the lake for the entire day if you’d like. There were 3 of us traveling together at that point, so my share was only 5,000 MMK (3.89 USD).
Heading Out Onto Inle Lake
At the docks we hopped into a long boat that had 3 chairs situated in it. The man in the back revved the motor and then we were off. Inle Lake is at a higher altitude than most of the country, and it was an overcast day, so we were pretty cold as we sped out through the little canals of the town towards the lake. The canals looked like a low-key, Burmese Venice in the beginning, but as we got further out towards the actual lake, the building faded away quickly, giving way to miles and miles green grass, and scattered huts. Every once in a while I would see some construction vehicles working, and wondered how in the world they had even gotten that far out there in the first place.
After about 45 minutes going down this aquatic highway, we saw open water ahead of us. And there they were! The fisherman that I had seen so many pictures of! They are real!
To be honest, I’m pretty sure these guys were posing for us. One of them was at least, because after posing on the edge of his boat like the karate kid, he clumsily paddled his way over to our boat, grabbed a small fish from his net, held it up, and gestured for me to take a photograph of him with it.
“Uhh… sure,” I took his photo.
Then he put his hand out and quietly and said “Money.”
From there we continued on. It was at least an hour before we stopped again. I was very tired from the bus ride. I did not sleep well. With the cool breeze and the warm rays from the sun, it was a pleasant temperature, and it wasn’t long before I was slumped in my chair sleeping. Sorry guys.
I woke back up once we got into the villages though. It was pretty cool. It seemed like it would be such a clean place, with the fresh air and the mountains all around it, but as we floated through some of those villages the water was literally black. It looked like there had been an oil spill or something. It was weird.
We made 5 stops that day, all within the villages out on the lake. None of them were particularly thrilling. I was also just really tired. I’m getting tired again just thinking about that day.
Stop #1: Weaving
Stop #2: Metalworking
Stop #3: Cigar making
These first 3 stops were at peoples' homes, where the villagers create their products. We took a walk through and saw where and how the magic happens. I don’t want to sound like a bad traveler, but I was bored to tears. Here’s some pictures I took to occupy myself.
The cigar making was actually pretty cool. I hardly ever smoke, but I can appreciate a good cigar. These cigars were strange though. They tasted like liquorish. It was like smoking Good n’ Plenty. Did any of you eat that candy too?
Stop #4 : Lunch / Main Pagoda
Stop #5: Monastery / Market
We had lunch in what seemed to be the only restaurant in town. I had ordered ol' reliable: fried rice. In the town there was a large pagoda, since no settlement of more than 20 people in Burma is complete without a pagoda. We crossed the little bridge over the main canal, and took a look. They wanted me to pay to go in though, and I was sick of being nickeled and dimed for every little thing in the whole country, so I didn’t go in.
The monastery was more interesting, but there were almost no monks that actually lived there. There was a market full of trinkets to buy, but I didn’t buy anything.
From there we piled back into the boat, and made the 2 hour voyage back to shore. I passed out in that boat. I was so tired. When I woke back up I was pretty badly sunburned. :(
Does it seem like I’m a bit down on Inle Lake? I’m not going to lie; it was a bit boring. The town was pretty expensive too. When we got back into town we had a rest and went out again. It’s a pretty quiet town, but the locals do have 1 place where they can go out and get crazy….
If you couldn’t guess from my little cell phone pictures, that is a roller rink. That is what the youth do on a Friday night in the Shan State apparently. Clearly it’s not the most happening place.
After our boring day in Inle Lake, we decided to mix things up a little bit and stray from the beaten path. I hadn't been ambitious enough with my travel itinerary for Burma. I needed to get a bit farther off the grid. The next day we checked out of our hotel, and hired a truck to take us much deeper into the Shan State, where few white folk have ventured before.
To be continued…