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 For months we egged each other on to do more research, only to be set back by the lack of — and outdated — information available online, especially for the bus schedules.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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.