Inle Lake Myanmar (April 2010)

Time was passing me by.  I had five days left in the country and the only bus going to Inle Lake was during the day.  I couldn’t lose a whole day so I took a flight.  I met some more travelers on the plane; Gavin and Maggie from Germany.  When we landed we were greeted by a crowd of taxi drivers.  My new friends and I decided to split the cost and share a ride into town.  Once we found a price we liked we hopped in the back of the truck and were off.  The drive took us through the mountains and down twisty roads.  The weather was cooler and less humid.  The driver dropped us off in front of the Aquarius Inn but I was quickly told they were booked for the night, time for Plan B.  I grabbed my heavy backpack and started walking in the direction of the harbor.  When I turned a corner I was in front of the Gypsy Hotel.  The hotel was quiet with only a couple of travelers.  The rooms were large with my own bathroom and shower and a friendly staff. I think I have found a place to stay.  I did however want to stay at the Aquarius the next night so I headed back up the road.  I saw Gavin and Maggie sitting in the garden oasis enjoying their breakfast.  They were smart and booked ahead of time.  I met another traveler while I was waiting on my confirmation for tomorrow night; Anna from Canada.  This was her second day in the town of Nyaungshwe and she was very knowledgeable on what to do.  Once my room was booked for next night we were off.  There were a couple of girls outside of the guesthouse renting bikes for a dollar, how could we pass that up.   We headed in the direction of the a Pagoda a couple miles outside of town.  The roads were dirt mixed with rocks.  Every so often we stopped to catch our breath or to gaze out at the mountains over the lake.  To our surprise there was a sea of steps awaiting us at our destination.  But it was all worth it when we made it to the top, the views were amazing and there was a cool breeze.    A nice older man, which later we found out, was the caretaker of the Pagoda showed us around and introduced us to his cat.

After several hours of enjoying our time at the Pagoda we headed back down the stairs and to our bikes.  Going back was a lot harder than getting there.  All those wonderful hills we enjoyed going down we were now pedaling up.  We stopped along the way at a small tea shop.  A group of men were busy cooking up pastries filled with raisins, dates, nuts and topped off with a powdered sugar.  We ordered a couple to have with our tea.  Still warm the sweet treats melted in our mouths.  After a little sugar we were ready to tackle the hills again.  The sun was starting to set.  The warm glow from the sun gave the road a golden color; small canals lined the road, and people were washing their clothes and dishes.

Arriving back in town the sun had set and the sky was getting dark.  My stomach was rumbling; it was time for dinner.  A sign for Pizza caught our eyes…  After travelling for a couple of weeks, it’s nice to have something familiar and that reminds you of home.  That night we decided to treat ourselves to Mr.  Cook’s, we thought Pizza in Myanmar?   We decided to give it a try.  The pizza took about an hour to cook; there was no electricity that night so we dined under candles and flashlights.  While we were waiting for our dinner we chatted with “Mr. Cook” and he was telling us that he learned how to make pizza from some Italian Chefs traveling in Myanmar.   They taught him how to make some popular European dishes and he shared with them his traditional Burmese recipes.   Anna, Gavin, Maggie and I noticed that some of the cooks were picking rosemary and vegetables in the garden and we knew this going to be a special meal.  I got a cheese pizza with tomatoes, zucchini and sweet peppers.  It was absolutely amazing.  The dough had exotic spices that gave it a little flair, the tomato sauce was sweet and the peppers were fresh and crispy and I cannot forget about the cheese; it just melted in my mouth.  Who knew I had to travel half way around the world to find the best pizza!

The next morning I heard a soft knock on my door.  It was one of the women that worked at the guesthouse reminding me that I should eat some breakfast before I went out on the lake.  I took a seat in a small café surrounded by plants and enjoyed pancakes and juice.  The boat didn’t leave for another hour but I had to get packed and over to the Aquarius to leave my stuff and meet up with my friends.  I thanked the kind people at the Gypsy Hotel and walked up the street.

Our boat driver was waiting in the garden at the Aquarius a half an hour early.  We walked down to the docks and boarded a colorful longboat with comfortable wooden chairs.  Traveling slowly down the canal I got a glimpse of daily life in Inle Lake.  People sat outside of their houses doing chores, kids played along the water and men tended to the farms.  Once we made it to the open water we sped up.  Dozens of fishing boats were in the center of the lake and we slowed down as we approached them.  Acrobats or fisherman, what were they?  They balanced on one leg and rowed with the other leg on a small wooden boat.  We were told that the reason they stand is so they can see the vegetation below better.  Once the fisherman had passed we speeded up in the direction of the Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda.  It is said to be one of the holiest sites in the southern Shan State.   There are four small ancient Buddha figurines covered in sheets of gold that makes it hard to tell what they are, and more gold is placed on as pilgrims make there way up the stairs.Leaving the open water we traveled down small canals.  Houses sat on stilts with the lake below and markets were being conducted from boat to boat.  Activity was everywhere.  People traveled by small boats down the canals taking care of their daily activities and walking along small boards connecting the houses.  The vegetation grew heavier and heavier as we traveled down the winding canal and then we came upon a small village. We got off the boat and continued on foot.  There were narrow walkways and small bridges leading us to an open market.  I saw two kids riding their bicycle wearing cool shades; I couldn’t resist I had to take their photo.  I gave them Polaroid’s back, they loved them and said to me in English you have to “Shake it like a Polaroid Picture”, so awesome!

We walked across another bridge, where kids played below in the water and women washed their clothes.  We came upon a covered walkway, lined with people selling souvenirs.   The walkway eventually turned into stairs and we came upon a field of aged Zedi (a solid shaped paya).  Greenery had grown over and around them.  Some were crumbling and some just faded from the weather.  There were hundreds.  We made our way to Shwe Inn Thein Paya home of hundreds of Zedi built in the 17th and 18th centuries.  There were so many of these structures; the new mingled with the old each standing out on their own.  We spent several hours wandering through these fields.  We had a long day planned so we rushed back to our boat.

For the next several hours we traveled to weaving houses.  We stopped at one where women from the Karen Tribe better known as the “Long-neck tribe” were making scarves and posing for pictures (The women wear heavy brass rings around their necks giving the illusion that there neck has been stretched which in fact it pushes down the shoulders).  I was first introduced to this tribe years ago when I was travelling in Thailand; I stayed the night in their village and learned a little bit about their weaving techniques and the history of their tribe.  The women are beautiful and exotic, I felt a little weird about sticking a camera in their face; maybe it was because they were constantly on display.  So I filled up my Polaroid and handed them the camera.  One of the younger girls immediately started taking photos of her friends and family.  They passed the camera off to me a couple of times to fill it up and take group photos and I posed in a couple of photos with them.  It was really fun and I enjoyed watching them make funny poses for the camera.  After a while we said goodbye and headed back to the boat.

Finally I had arrived at the Jumping Cat Monastery!   After years of watching these cats on You Tube I was excited to see them jump thru hoops… but unfortunately they were not jumping that day. The Monks and cats were taking a rest from all the excitement of the water festival.  However I noticed when people came into the temple they would pick up a cat, feed them and brush their hair.  The people of Myanmar really love their cats.  Reason # 458 to come back to Myanmar, must see cats jump thru hoops!

Off in the distance I could see what looked like islands in the middle of the lake.  But as I got closer I could see it wasn’t an island but gardens, or as our driver referred to them as the “Floating Gardens”.  These fruit and vegetable gardens sat on top of the lake.  Farmers tended to their farm in small wooden boats.

The sun was slowly disappearing.  The wind picked up and we were going against the waves.  The water sprayed into the boat.  We were soaked; eventually we rigged up some umbrellas to keep the water from coming in.  By the time we got back to port the sky was dark.

The only thing I had on my mind was food!  I quickly got cleaned up and headed back to Mr. Cook’s for round two of pizza.  After dinner a couple of us went to check out Aung Puppet Show.  We read about him in our travel books and all day long I had seen beautiful crafted puppets.  It would be great to see them come alive.  He had a small stage in a garage like space and plastic chairs for his audience.   He had his puppets on display around the space along with photos of him performing.  He dimmed the lights and the show began.  The puppets told stories of Burmese history and legend with an English voice translating.  The puppets danced, flipped and even balanced a small wicker ball. One word, amazing!

By the time we left the puppet show the electricity was off.  There were just a couple of generators operating but for the most part the streets were dark.  We had only one working flashlight for the three of us, so it took us a little while to get back to the guesthouse.

For the first time in two weeks it rained.  Thunder could be heard off in the distance and rain drops fell softly on my windowsill putting me fast to sleep.

The next morning I woke up feeling rested.  Today was my last day in Inle Lake.  In the afternoon I was catching a flight back to Yangon.   There was still plenty that I wanted to see.   That morning I feasted on crepes and fresh fruit for breakfast in the garden.  I was joined by fellow travelers and after fully stuffing myself it was time for me to head out.  I said goodbye to my new friends and wished them well on their travels.   I had hired a car for the morning to take me to the airport but we were stopping at all the sites along the way.

First stop was the Shwe Yan Pyay Monastery.  The building was made of teak and painted in red.  Built 150 years ago; this building rest on stilts one floor above the ground.   The first thing that caught my eye were the beautiful oval shaped windows surrounding the building.  A couple of older Monks sat by and in front of them.  The Monastery is quiet; most of the Monks had left for morning alms.  Some local kids were playing outside and introduced me to some tiny kittens that were living in a basket in the shade.  They pointed to all the unique things about the building.Filling the rest of the day with markets and temples the time flew by and before I knew it was time to head to the airport.  We traveled back over the mountains and into Heho.   My driver dropped me off and I was back on route to Yangon.

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