My final stop in my Burmese journey was to Inle Lake. We were dismayed to learn that Inle Lake is freaking cold, with lows in the low 40s and highs only in the 60s. This meant we would be forced to wear our dirty pants for three more days, and I didn’t even have a coat! The drive to Inle Lake took about an hour, driving through some windy roads through low mountains, plus straight ones through small towns. We stayed in Nyaungshwe, a small grid of a town with lots of hotels and English. The banks of the lake are covered in long, parked boats and men asking us if we needed a boat. We passed a couple of golden pagodas and people’s small homes in the marshes of the lake.
For our first day, a nice sunny though fairly brisk one, we rode bikes all around the lake, renting a couple of cruisers from our hotel. At first we kept making wrong turns and would go far down dusty paths but then have to backtrack. But this brought many interesting sights – a strip of market in Nyaungshwe with some delicious-looking samosas, small villages of houses with woven walls on stilts in the marshy land. Lots of chickens and dogs roaming about. Again, the locals–mainly Intha people, an ethnic group found primarily around this lake–were very smiley and greeted us with a “Mingalarba” or hello. The kids would wave at us or even try to high-five us as we passed on our bicycles. The kids are so cute, happy and friendly; they must be well-loved.
The road going east-west along the northern edge of the lake was brutal as it was unpaved but reinforced with bumpy rocks, and occasionally uphill. Motorbikes and trucks kept passing us, blowing dust in our face, all over our already dirty pants and sweaters. This road went mainly through shady trees.
After about 3 km we turned on the western road going north-south, a big improvement as this was paved and in the sunshine, going along the mountains. We passed a school full of kids in forest-green school longyi before arriving at the hot springs. These were lamer than expected, actually lukewarm pools run by a couple of spas. We paid $5 each for entrance to the public pool which had dirtier water but no tourists. We lounged and half-napped on the deck in the warm sun, very relaxing after the long bike ride. Two puppies were sleeping in the shade of one of the chairs. Their mischievous brother came to nip at them. In a plastic chair restaurant nearby, a middle-aged lady gave us lunch of Shan noodles – chewy, spicy and delicious.
A guy offered to ferry us and our bikes across the lake for 8000 kyat, so we followed him to the jumping off point and settled in our long wooden boat. We first traveled down some marshy canal for a while before entering the big open lake! Speeding across it for the first time, with the mountain backdrop and bright sunshine, brought big smiles to our faces. Apparently the lake is only 12 feet deep at its deepest point. Reeds are visible all over Inle Lake’s inky waters.
On the east side, mothers were paddling in their own boats to pick up their children from school, the kids walking merrily down the pier. Biking up north alongside the mountain we passed lots of agricultural lands, including these tall pale pink cat tails (might have been rice?) while lots of vehicles passes us on our bikes: little Chinese-made trucks carrying crops or gravel or wooden planks, motorbikes, little open buses with lots of locals piled in. They would smile and wave at us. This road was mostly paved but was heavy with truck traffic at this hour, so I got lots of exhaust in my face. They were doing work in it in some places, though no road crew was out at this twilight hour.
Our final stop for the day was Red Mountain Vineyard, which required biking and hiking up a hill covered in grape varietals, numbered and labeled. The restaurant at the top of a hill had an amazing view of the mountains, valley and lake, all bathed in late-afternoon sunlight. We paid 2000 kyat each for a tasting of four wines – one Cabernet, one rosé, one Shiraz-Tempranillo and one sweet late harvest. They were all actually quite good – at least, better than the crap I usually buy. Wine in Burma – awesome!
So far I loved Inle Lake, and could see why it continues to be a major tourist destination. The setting is enchanting and unique–floating villages, watery life, mountain backdrop, strange pink plants– and the locals were so charming and friendly. I don’t mean to romanticize poverty and I’m sure the situation is much grimmer outside of the tightly controlled tourist areas in Burma, but the residents near Inle Lake honestly looked truly happy, which is all the more impressive given the level of development. The next day we would go on our typical Inle boat tour.