N.B. This post is the follow-up to Part I, covering the second half of our week in Myanmar.
Nearly 5 million people visited Myanmar last year, compared with just 800,000 in 2010. The rise of tourism here has been rapid here and the people are clearly still transitioning to new ways of life. American dollars (which must be crisp, unfolded and unmarked bills if they’re to be accepted!) are flooding the economy – probably for the worst. One of the positive effects of so much foreign money though is the potential for the restoration and preservation of the beautiful sites and sights of Myanmar. ‘Entry fees’ charged at the boundaries to archaeological areas, such as the 12,500 kyat we paid to enter Lake Inle (Inlay) and the surrounding land are one such way this money is being put to good use by the government.
Again arriving late at night – or early in the morning – we were immediately aware of the mosquitoes in Inlay. Noticeably numerous, we were glad for our antimalarials and long sleeves, though I was beginning to regret my shorts. The Manaw Hostel put us up, despite the hour, and showers turned into naps, which became a long and well-earned sleep. When we awoke to find that the sun had risen, we were impressed: it was the best-appointed hostel we stayed at on our trip.
The day was not entirely lost. Making use of the Manaw’s free bicycles, we headed downtown for our first cheat food of the week: a western pizza cooked in a wood-fired stove. Supposedly an Italian settler’s legacy, it was exactly what we needed midway through the trip, though left us feeling guilty and resolving to return to Burmese fare that night.
Turning back towards the lake and now well-fed, we cycled South for just under an hour. We made two stops.
First, we came across ‘Inle Art Gallery,’ owned by Mr L. Tin Win, a local artist. Three of the four of us invested in local art – all beautiful watercolours – and admired the rest of his gorgeous body of work. Whilst there is much ‘art’ for sale to gullible tourists in Myanmar, his work was of a different calibre altogether. It was more intimate, for once evocative of the true mood of the country; mostly stunning glimpses of dappled light on huts nestling in rich greenery. A real jewel in the backstreets of Inlay!
Second, we stopped to admire the view from a vineyard, enjoying a wine tasting sat perched atop a hill overlooking the floodplain as the sun set in the valley below. The lake glimmered in the distance, shining orange as twilight approached. Tomorrow, we would head out to explore the lake itself, having developed a feel for the lay of the land this afternoon. The wine was nothing to write home about, but the tasting offered a lovely aspect from which to chat and bond before nightfall and a tipsy cycle home, back into town.
A downpour met us that night of monsoon-like proportions. We hid away under cover in the One Owl Grill, enjoying local whisky, rum and tamarind-based cocktails (which have somewhat of a ‘rhubarb and custard’ taste to them). They went down a treat.
The next day, we met our lake-guide bright and early. Purporting to be called Justin Bieber, he treated us to the most wonderful day. Justin was simply a kind and generous man – so good that we all insisted on paying him double his fee upon returning that night.
Justin runs boat tours for a local hotel but fills the gaps freelance with small groups like us. He was a wealth of knowledge. We travelled on a long, thin, powered boat which was evidently of a traditional design, for we saw many more as we cruised along the canal towards the lake proper. The engine attaches to a propeller on a long stem so that the power can be vectored or even removed from the water to traverse the thick vegetation of the lake, avoiding getting the outboard caught. This also allows the locals, residing in homes built on stilts in the centre of the lake, to cordon off their property with floating, tethered logs such that boats can gently run over them, propeller out of the water.
The journey out was tranquil, almost meditative. The noise of the engine, coupled with stunning views of the lake, stretching away under the heat of the sun, made conversation impossible; even undesirable. Mountains framed the water in all directions, making for an incredibly memorable view. It took around an hour to reach the village perched in the middle of the water, stopping first at the floating gardens on the edge of town. Justin explained how the locals cut sections of vegetation, burning the dried grass on top, then covering the floating mass with seaweed to decompose into a natural fertiliser. In the resultant plot, sufficient nutrients are available for the farming of tomatoes, beans, chilis and more. This partly helps sustain a whole community on the water, supplemented nowadays by tourism.
There is a lot to see, including a silversmith, tobacconist and local restaurant, but the leading attraction has to be the village’s handwoven fabrics. Cotton, silk and lotus (pictured below, fibres extracted) can all be spun and weaved into beautiful clothing and accessories by the talented workers. However, despite the resultant products being of incredible quality, the memory of that stop is somewhat tarnished for me by the presence of noticeably young girl of perhaps fourteen whom we saw working on the looms. Sobering to see.
I got badly burnt that day, but it was worth it for the journey back North and home. The sun was setting amongst the mountains as we sped over the mirrored water, wind buffeting us as night descended is an image that will forever stay with me. We barely made it back before dark; so close that it was tense! Description cannot hope to do it justice though, so instead photos will have to provide a poor imitation.
After leaving Justin, we made our way back out on bicycles towards the downtown. We happened upon a restaurant, Min Min’s, and were convinced to dine there by the owner, the eponymous Min Min. Luckily we accepted, as that set into motion a serendipitous chain of events making our final day particularly memorable.
Min Min’s food was good, but Italian again. We ate gnocchi, of all things, which he’d learnt to cook from an Italian immigrant to Myanmar. More importantly, he moonlighted (daylighted?) as a tour guide and we agreed to let him take us out for our final day by Lake Inle.
…this entailed a 6am wake-up, despite us ostensibly being on holiday, for a morning run. There was no excuse for apathy heard by our guide as he cut a slight figure aged 41, running through the backstreets and dirt tracks, introducing us to his friends for tea and to admire their handmade bamboo homes as we passed. This man, for example, was eager to show off his intricate tattoos.
We climbed as we ran, seeing the view of the river basin again from a different side as we passed women on their way to market. We were also shown the new plot of land Min Min had bought, intending to develop it into a bar and guesthouse – he told us of his plans for the future of his business and the family he had to support, despite his desires to commit more time to Buddhism and meditation.
Once back, fed and showered, we were picked up again by Min Min outside the Manaw, ready for the day ahead. He drove us out to the mountains we’d seen the day before, where a cave system nestled hidden between a monastery and orphanage. The descent into rock was dark and entirely unlit.
Almost as if placed for dramatic effect, an ancient tree dangled its roots through a natural skylight, bored from water through the rock, dappling the sunlight which managed to find the cavern floor below.
Thousands of tiny buddhas littered the caves. Quite eerily, they watched as we were left by Min Min to explore alone. We turned out torches and embraced the darkness, ears pounding and hearts beating.
From there, it was off through more villages, to taste shan noodles (a local dish of the province – yummy!) and to spend time bathing in natural hot springs, seeing snapshots of rural life. We decided to risk it, ‘kit off’, for all four of us! No photos of that though, I’m afraid…
Eventually, we made our way back to Manaw Ta Kha, collected our belongings and bid Min Min farewell as we caught our final overnight bus. In many respects, we ended on a high; it was even the nicest bus of the trip! I managed a solid six hours in fits and starts, the others mostly managing the same.
We awoke to find ourselves back where we’d started, in Yangon, with little time to spare. After givings alms to a monk over breakfast, we ate local food with a 5am coffee and headed off to see the reclining Buddha at Chaukhtatgyi Temple – barely squeezing it in before our flight. The sixty-six-metre long statue was surprisingly larger than we expected – it filled a building the size of an aircraft hanger and felt decidedly man-made, in stark contrast to the nature we’d seen the day before.
The surreal scale of the buddha is hard to put into words but occupied us for only a short amount of time before we felt awkward about our lack of meditation. Time was running out, so that was the last thing we saw before flying home. It was somewhat of a whistle-stop tour, looking back, but a deeply powerful and impressive tour nonetheless. I can’t wait to visit again in a few years. In particular, seeing how tourism affects the country as ever-larger numbers are drawn to this amazing country will be a unique experience. I can’t recommend seeing Myanmar before commercialisation forever changes the culture of the country enough.
If you’ve got any questions about our little adventure in Myanmar, please don’t hesitate to get in touch. I even have Min Min’s contact details for anyone who wants his (highly recommended) tour of Inle – you won’t find him in the phonebook!
Also published on Medium.