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Inle Lake

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Into Inle Lake While slightly touristy, this spot remains mesmerising.

When the morning alarm went off, I crept out of bed and slipped out to our small balcony, hoping to see a sunrise that was as magnificent as the sunset the night before. The sun was no where in sight, and the sky was just a mass of dull shades. But before I could register my demise, the sharp chill hit me, and I had to run back in to announce, “OMG guys it’s fucking cold.” It is of utmost necessity that I make a big deal out of the cold weather because I’m Singaporean, and anything below 25°C is something to shout about. It was 15°C that morning, and we were just so bemused because we didn’t do our research at all, and was expecting a hot and humid climate throughout Myanmar.

After a lavish breakfast of eggs, toast, a platter of mixed fruits, and tea served by the scurrying girls that run Hotel Brilliant, we were lead into the mini van that would  take us to the edge of Inle lake to begin our boat tour. The open-air ride through the foggy morning made us shudder, and overhearing the other American passengers pronounce the names of Burmese cities with their overtly American accent made us snigger.

Inle Lake Myanmar
The rather ignoble jetty.

We got a longtail boat to ourselves, as did the rest of the tourists, and we only forked out 20,000k (USD20) in all for ours. The tour package also came with a dashing captain, who would be our tour guide for the day.

Inle Lake Myanmar
Towards Inle Lake!

Our handsome and skilful captain navigated us out of the tight artery, and we soon made it out onto a wider stream and into the arms of mother nature.

Inle Lake Myanmar
Amongst a flock of seagulls.
Inle Lake Myanmar
Occupying a pole each.
Inle Lake Myanmar
The fuzzy blankets saved our frigid asses.

It took us about an hour to reach the mouth of the lake, and we were soon greeted with a sight that we’ve seen a hundred times while researching on Inle Lake.

Inle Lake fishermen
The famous fishermen of Inle Lake.

They rowed the boat by wrapping one leg around the paddle, and waded the pole around like it was part of their body. The action made them look like hobbling captain hooks though. Found a video that depicts exactly how they do it:

Inle Lake Myanmar
Misty mountains in the backdrop of the serene lake.

The lake stretched out for miles in all directions, and if you drifted off into a reverie, you would’ve thought that you were out in the open sea. Despite Inle Lake’s reputation for being overcrowded with tourists, we still felt like we were the only ones on the waters sometimes because the lake was large enough to give every tourist a genuine sense of tranquillity. Without tourists walking into the frame every few seconds, capturing gorgeous photos was pretty easy here.

Inle Lake Myanmar fisherman
A private moment in this tourist spot.
Inle Lake Myanmar
One of the locals heading off with his seaweed harvest.

We then came alongside some floating tomato gardens (not in season though), and our handsome boatman tried to charm us into stepping onto the floating vegetation to no avail. One reason we decided to stay put is because the moment he set foot on it, something like 50 mosquitoes arose and started buzzing around in search for their newest victim.

Inle Lake floating villages
Floating towards the floating villages.
Inle Lake Myanmar floating village
Waterfront residences, bitches!

The first obligatory tourist stop was a silversmith showroom. We listened patiently to their sales pitch, and then completely bypassed the phony showcase and headed straight for…

Inle Lake long neck women
I felt extremely uncomfortable witnessing this set up, where a couple of long neck tribal women were displayed like animals in front of a bunch of photo-hungry tourists.

Tourist stop number 2 is a little place in land called Indein village.

Inle Lake peanut sauce noodles
And then we had the most delicious peanut sauce noodles at the market for 500k (USD0.50).

It was high noon by now, so our boatman led us to our lunch spot at the kelong-style Shwe Yaung Inn for a seafood meal.

Shwe Yaung Inn lunch

Everything tasted really fresh, especially the simply-made yet succulent grilled fish. The stir fried watercress and soya bean paste chicken didn’t disappoint either.

After lunch, we decided to skip all the other stops as they were all tourist-catered workshops which we had zero interest in, and asked our captain to cut short the tour and send us back. The afternoon heat was getting quite unbearable, so imagine our relief when our captain presented each of us a large umbrella to hide under. In this scorching dry climate, outfits that cover up as much skin as you can really proves to be the most effective and comfortable. Lulled by the gentle sways of the boat, I fell into deep sleep in no time under the drowsy heat, waking only halfway through the journey back to take one last glance at the gorgeous lake.

The day before, when we had just arrived at Inle Lake, we too hurriedly booked a night bus to Bagan for today and regretted immediately after seeing the gorgeous sunset at the winery. But it was too late to change plans as the efficient staff of Hotel Brilliant had already booked the seats. If I could edit the trip, I’d definitely spend another day or two at Inle Lake to either do the Kalaw trek or just cycle around the many other villages dotted around the lake.

But oh well. We had to pack up and jump aboard the 9-hour overnight bus towards Bagan, which we each paid 13,000k (USD14) for. I’ve always loved bus rides, but this one was blasting country music and Celine Dion. But even with that, I managed to be lulled into a good night’s sleep.

Inle Lake to Bagan coach
The night bus to Bagan was not too shabby at all!

Next, magical Bagan.

Bagan sunrise

An Introduction to Myanmar Sometimes the best plan is to have no plans.

Going without a plan wasn’t part of the plan. For months we egged each other on to do more research, only to be set back by the lack of — and outdated — information available online, especially for the bus schedules. Even the official flight schedules were hard to make sense of, so we soon gave up and decided to just arm ourselves with a very rough idea of the places we wanted to visit and a list potential accommodations, and wing the rest of it. It was all very exciting because being Asians, we feel safe when there are plans to follow. Without any direction, I was expecting to waste time and money. But nothing prepared us for the heightened sense of adventure that not making plans could bring.

I was elated to travel with my best girlfriends Priya and Adeline again, who are the easiest people to make travel plans with. We allocated 10 days for four places: Inle Lake, Bagan, Ngapali Beach, and Yangon. We had to fly to the capital first, and our SGD150 return flight by budget airline Jetstar served us well. We landed early in the morning, and planned to hop on to a domestic flight to Heho (Inle Lake) via Air Mandalay which Adeline had reserved through email. But the Air Mandalay booth was empty when we arrived… So begins our unpredictable journey.

There wasn’t an overall flight schedule that we could refer to, so amidst the chaos in the domestic terminal, we had to go to each airline’s booth to ask for the next available flight time, and its price. It was a great relief to find out that all the staff spoke immaculate English. In fact, I was very impressed by their crisp and accurate diction.

So we got managed to secure a flight for USD92 (+ 1000k airport tax) each to Heho with Myanma Airways in the end, and I was very amused that they didn’t rely on a computer to do their bookings. Everything was done manually, and the cash that we handed over for our tickets were stuffed into a laptop bag.

Myanmar travel domestic flight
Domestic flight booking with a pen, paper, and cold hard cash.
Myanmar Inle Lake travel
Propelling on towards Inle Lake!

The plane was the smallest commercial flight I’ve been on, and it smelled funky. But it was a short 1.5h flight, and I was knocked out for most of it. I wasn’t even jolted awake when the plane bumped and bounced onto the Heho airport runway.

Myanmar Inle Lake travel
Loving the warm afternoon sunlight in Heho airport.

Heho airport had two casual immigration counters, and the officer tending it wore slippers. I love this place already. The place has the familiar cool breezes and languid silence synonymous with mountain towns, and I was immediately seduced by its drowsiness.

We chose to stay in Nyaung Shwe, which is away from the lake itself. (We’ve read that it can be quite noisy to stay near it). The cab ride there cost us the standard 25,000k (USD26), including a USD10 tourist fee into the main town, which had a “Take care tourist” campaign signboard opposite the toll booth. The movement surely worked, because everyone we’ve met so far have been genuinely jovial and happy to assist us.

It was also very interesting to survey the arid, dusty landscape during the drive — nothing like the lush tropics I expected.

Our stay for the next couple of days is at the aptly named Hotel Brilliant, where we enjoyed a large, clean room with a large, clean attached bathroom for USD55/night. We didn’t make any reservations, so it was a relief that they had a room for three. But Nyaung Shwe is populated by clusters of hotels, so we could’ve easily searched for another place on foot if this one was fully booked.

Hotel Brilliant is located a short ride from the main town in the quiet village suburbs, and the place was run by a clan of incredibly sweet and polite  young girls. We were so impressed by the place and how smoothly our first unplanned day was running along that we decided to coin this trip #holidaybrilliant.

The lady at the reception told us in fluent English to visit the nearby Red Mountain vineyard to end the day off, and we did a double take — a winery? in Myanmar? What’s going on??? Apparently it was pretty popular. We obviously didn’t research well at all.

So we hopped on the bicycles that the hotel lent us for no charge, and cycled for about half an hour through the surrounding village. A gorgeous cloak of golden sunlight covered the entire place, and for a few hours, the dirt paths and bare fields turned into dusty golden lands.

Myanmar Inle Lake travel

People we passed along the way waved at us politely, flashing us some big smiles as they did so. I was also surprised and delighted by the cool and dry climate of this area.

Myanmar Inle Lake travel
Chasing the sunset.

We sped on, resisting the urge to stop for photos lest we miss the sunset view at the winery. We soon spotted the little house at the top of the hill, surrounded by the estate’s Sauvignon blanc grape vines. It sounds lame to say that the golden sunlight that was cast upon this place was much more magnificent in reality, but it was truly so. Here are some lame photos that don’t justify its glory at all…

And the view that greeted us when we reached the hill top left us completely flabbergasted. It was a scene taken right out of the vineyards of France or Italy, something we did not expect to find in South East Asia at all, let alone rural Myanmar.

Red Mountain Myanmar Inle Lake travel
Potential photo for a Tuscan wine tour brochure.

We took an alfresco seat next to a chill Swedish couple, who told us that we’ve just arrived at their favourite spot in Myanmar. (We’re going to be so spoilt by this amazing first day!) We ordered a sampling set of their red, white, and dessert wines, and snacked on tofu fries while admiring the massive sun descend beyond the never ending mountain range.

Red Mountain Myanmar Inle Lake travel
Sampling wine amidst the mountains that cradled Inle Lake.
Myanmar Inle Lake travel
The magnificent sunset view
Myanmar Inle Lake travel
One of the most memorable twilights of my life.

Most tourists leave before the night falls because the roads leading up to this estate are not lit, but I think it’s way more exciting to stay and then tread your way back in pitch black darkness. With our iPhone torch lighting the way feebly, we managed to cycle slowly back into town, and stepped into a local eatery for dinner. The shack seemed to be the place where the local workers gathered after a long day because the place was filled with men knocking back whiskey and shoving down rice.

The meal cost us 8,000k (USD8) in all including beers, and I really enjoyed the soup noodles even though it wasn’t particularly spectacular. I guess I was just basking in the holiday mood, grateful to be back in nature again, thriving on simple pleasures and being away from it all…

Next stop, a proper visit to Inle Lake.

Inle Lake Myanmar travel

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