Cycling, wine and exit through the gift shop

Monday, August 15, 2016
Nyaungshwe, Myanmar
After the amazing temples of Bagan, meeting Monk's in Mandalay and the beautiful trekking we did near the picturesque quaint town of Hsipaw we had great expectations for Inle lake. We had spoke to a lot of other traveler's in Myanmar who had already visited there and we had heard only good things about the place. We took an overnight bus from Hsipaw to Nyaungshwe taking 12 hours. We really wanted to do the train again for this part of the journey as we had read that it's very scenic and worth doing but it would have taken nearly a full day to get there and it felt like our time in Myanmar was now precious so we opted for the quicker bus option. The journey wasn't too bad really, other than the fact the guy two seats ahead of us was violently ill for most of the journey. The roads aren't the best here and with a lot of winding down the mountains towards Mandalay then south a bit and back up yet more winding mountain roads to Nyaungshwe this poor guys motion sickness was in overdrive. The smell from the on board toilet didn't seem to help him much either but then again what do you expect on an Asian overnight least we had a toilet.

We had been toying with the idea of getting off the bus at a place called Kalaw a few hours before Nyaungshwe . You can do two day treks from there up to Nyaungshwe, past the lake and they will ferry your bigger bags on for you but after the trekking in Hsipaw our legs were still struggling so we stayed on for the full ride up to the North end of the lake.

As we neared the town we pulled over and were boarded by some local guy demanding that we pay the 'Tourist' fee of around $10 each to enter the area. We had avoided this fee in Bagan due to it's dubious nature and dodgy benefactors but had heard it was harder to get away without paying up here. There were a few other tourists on the bus and after around 15 minutes and all of us refusing to pay he left empty handed and we were on our way again.

Another half an hour and we pulled into the centre of Nyaungshwe only to discover he had obviously phoned ahead and we were boarded again by another guy this time with what appeared to be a Myanmar tourist Police officer in tow with him. We were basically told that if we didn't pay we would be forced to take the next bus out of town and away from the lake area . I glanced at the guys Police shirt and spotted the badge on the side so reluctantly we paid up and were allowed to take our bags and leave the bus. Now with hind sight and having seen 'real' Police around the area it's become clear that this guy was no Police officer. I thought his badge had looked a little poor quality at the time but thought that was maybe just the case in Myanmar and we didn't want any trouble. Having seen what a genuine badge looks like I'm fairly gutted that we have now paid some corrupt, made up tax into some local mafia types pocket. Damn it, it's so hard to work out what is genuine and what is not with these 'fees' at times and at the same time avoiding getting into bother with the Myanmar authorities.

So twenty dollars lighter and a ten minute walk up the road we arrived at our digs at around 6am. We couldn't check in early as it was still full until people checked out for that day so we mooched around for a while and then went for some early breakfast . Once settled in and with our bags now safe in our room we headed out to spend the day getting our bearings and exploring the local town. It's a fairly small town, maybe a little bigger than Hsipaw but not by much. What is noticeable is that it is definitely set up a lot more for tourists than Hsipaw is. Travel agents and tour operators are dotted about everywhere, with a few tacky souvenir shops slotted in-between. Still it didn't seem like a bad place and the surrounding hills either side of us looked very pretty, it wouldn't take much effort to get away from the toy wooden fishing boats and myriad of postcards. After wandering around all day checking out what treks/activities we could do here we headed back past the swarm of people offering you boat trips to the lake and got our heads down for an early night.

The next morning we decided we would rent a couple of bikes and go for a ride around the 'circular loop' we had read about. The bikes were really cheap, just £1 each for the full day and we figured we would need that long to get around the route we had planned . We headed out of town and then South towards the West side of the lake.We passed the natural hot springs on the way but were put off by the $10 each entry fee to go in. After about 2 hours riding we arrived at a small local village by the lake shore and it was a fairly interesting wee place.Very local and very quiet. There were a lot of wooden houses all with sheets of Tofu, soy beans and small salted fish outside drying in the sun. There was hardly a soul around and it was nice to park the bikes up and wander through the small winding lanes for an hour seeing what we could find. Once bored of looking at drying tofu we headed off in search of a local boatman to ferry both ourselves and our bikes across the lake to the East side. The roads and paths stop here and you can't get any further round the West side of the lake unless you have a boat.

After eventually agreeing on the princely sum of £4 we were off in a long tail boat and headed across the water at a fairly brisk pace. It was all very pleasant really . Quite a nice way to continue the journey out and certainly a nice cool break from cycling in the baking sun. Once at the East side we hung around for a short while admiring the local village sat in the water on stilts before heading off in search of the road to take us back North towards Nyaungshwe. As we hit the right road the heavens opened in true tropical style and we darted into the nearest place to sit it out with a cuppa and bite to eat. An hour later and the street looked like a river with the rain still pelting down. We knew it would still take a few hours to get back and we didn't want to be out and about on the bikes with no lights or street lights to guide us. Thankfully it eased off just as we decided it was time to continue no matter the weather.

It was nice and level on this side of the lake and we pedaled along at a nice easy pace, past all the children riding home from school for the day waving and shouting hello at us. The kids here are great, so friendly and happy to see you . The scenery was really nice as well. looking back out across the lake to where we were in the morning there was steam rising from the recent down pour and a low line of cloud weaving in and out of the various hills and mountains. Before we knew it we had covered a fair distance and had arrived at the turn off for 'Red Mountain' Winery and Vin yard. We were in Myanmar wine country! We had read about it before we left Thailand and were really keen to check it out. Let's be honest after 5 months of drinking pretty much the same tasting lager everywhere, be it Bintang, Chang or Myanmar on draft and far too much Thai and Mandalay rum, the thought of a nice glass of wine was very appealing.

With a four glass sampler between us we settled down and took in the view of the lake below us from the Red Mountain hill. It was all a bit too pleasant and easy going and the wine went down a treat. The wine although not brilliant wasn't that bad either, better than I expected for Myanmar and we grabbed another glass each while debating on whether we should just throw caution to the wind and start on whole bottles instead . Still it wasn't cheap either, at least not against our lowly daily budget and along with the fact the sun was lowering and the darkness would be creeping in soon we reluctantly but admirably resisted the bottle option and started on the last leg of the ride back into Nyaungshwe.

It had been a really nice day. To get out on the bikes and into the countryside and tiny villages, away from the town. The lake seemed nice and we were looking forward to the next day and taking up one of the many offers around of a full days long tail boat trip.

Up early again and after eventually settling on which of the lady boat touts to go with for our days adventure we were all set for what should have been a nice day. Unfortunately this is the point of the trip that I started to take a serious dislike to Inle lake and Nyaungshwe. Hind sight has now taught me that we should have asked to speak with our boatman first before deciding who to go with . The women drum up the business on the waterside and it's the men who have the boats and take you out for the day. Despite the fact our woman was nice and friendly and spoke relatively good English our boatman did not and this made for a very bad trip. Don't get me wrong the guy was pleasant enough but the communication barrier became an issue as time went on.

As we left the small river from Nyaungshwe and reached the lake we passed various fishermen out on their boats. The fishermen here are well known for the technique they use to maneuver the boats. They use a single oar controlled and held by one leg as they balance precariously at the very of tip of their boat on the other leg. It's probably what Inle lake is most well known for and we were looking forward to seeing it. We passed quite a few and could see other boats on tours parked up next to them allowing people to enjoy watching these amazing guys doing their balancing act whilst fishing and working their nets . We didn't stop though and headed on further down the lake. It didn't bother me at the time as we figured we would see them on the way back and our guy was most likely taking us to the farthest point of our days trip and would then work back over to finish closer to town. Made sense really.

So first stop on our trip was to a small village on stilts and in particular a lotus mill. We were shown round the mill and saw the various stages of production. It was pretty interesting really. I had never heard of lotus being used to make clothes before and was surprised to find out that it commands 7 times the price of it's equivalent weight in silk. This is due to the fact of how painstakingly slow and labour intensive it is to get the fibers out of the plant and into a usable form to make clothes. Tiny sections of the plant are cut off at a time and around 6 inches of fiber is teased out by hand and rolled on a wooden board. This is repeated over and over with each extract being hand rolled onto the end of the previous section until eventually you have a big ball of lotus thread . The thread is then washed and dyed and eventually woven together into various patterns on an old school hand and foot operated wooden loom.

It was nice to see and you could appreciate how it commands such a high price. As we were leaving we were guided through and shown the huge gift shop at the end. Lotus, silk and cotton in a myriad of colours. I guess we should have expected it really and obviously you are under no obligation to buy anything and free to head off whenever you choose.

Next up on the trip was another small village and we pulled into a cigar making shop. Again interesting to see how they hand roll the various cigars here of differing quality and again it was another shop on the way out affair. We hopped back in the boat and without moving more than 10 yards we pulled into the next building on stilts...the silversmiths shop!

Again a very quick tour showing what the process is for extracting pure silver from ore and we were then guided around the massive gift shop . This one even accepted credit cards...a building out on a lake, on stilts and they had credit card facilities. Unbelievable.

A short while later and we were off again to the next village. This time we stopped at the bamboo paper making shop. You starting to see a pattern emerging here? At this point I was getting a bit irritable and fed up shops. It was rinse and repeat... a quick look at the various techniques employed then sitting around for ten minutes before being whisked away again to the next tourist shop.

The next one we went to after the bamboo paper wasn't even any particular shop at all. They had a few ladies inside, the ones that wear the gold rings round their neck and ankles that stretch the various parts of their bodies out over the years as they slowly add more and more rings. I felt sorry for these women. One was old with her neck at least 12 inches long and the wieght of the rings must be hard work to carry around at her age . I didn't feel sorry for them in the sense that it is a part of their tradition and way of life but sorry for them in the fact that they spend all day sat in a shop purely for tourists to be ferried in and out to look at them. The rest of the place was one big generic tourist shop selling everything from postcards to huge carved wooden Buddhas. Not much of a life for these poor women being stared at by strangers all day like some kind of modern day freak show.

Thankfully as we pulled into the next stop it didn't look like a shop at all but a huge Pagoda...some real culture at last, something genuine to visit and experience. Oh no maybe not. As we hopped off the boat and headed toward the big golden stupa we passed the governments bank ATM machine. An ATM at a Pagoda, why would you need that? As we neared the Pagoda we didn't even bother going in. The entire ground level floor under the pagoda was awash with tourist shops selling everything from t-shirts to photo books .

Instead we went and sat around at the waters edge for a while as we didn't want to rush around the trip too fast. Before we left that morning we told the lady who sold us the trip that we wanted to stay out on the lake for sunset. Normally you go out for the day but are then brought back and spend yet more money later to be taken back out for sunset. We paid a smaller amount more than you usually do for the full days trip in order to not have to come back and pay again to be taken out for sun set. She said not to hurry round the places as we would be sat for hours in the middle of the lake just waiting for the sun set to come so may as well spend more time at our various stops. So we did stop, and chatted to some guy trying to sell us a small home made wooden fishing boat for half an hour. He was canny enough though.

From the Pagoda we headed to the jumping cat monastery. Yes that's right a monastery full of jumping cats. Except none of them were jumping and it should have been called the sitting cat monastery instead . Apparently years ago the Monks here used to train the cats to jump on command. Nowadays though it seems the government have deemed this to be animal cruelty somehow and banned any future cat training regimes the monks may have had planned. This animal welfare considerate action from a government that still uses forced labour from the human population of it's country for various projects was mind boggling. Still there were indeed a lot of cats on this floating island monastery. Most probably sitting around motion less in protest against the forced jumping their grand parents were subjected to.

Again we sat and spent quite a bit of time here as there was still a good couple of hours to go until sun set and it was a lot nicer, more peaceful place to sit than anywhere else we had been to so far on the lake. But eventually we grew bored of the sitting around so went and looked for our boat man. We had spoke a few words to him earlier and established he hardly spoke a word of English and that's fine, I don't mind . I'm in his country and if he doesn't speak any other language at all that's fair enough. But I also think when someone is selling you a trip and haggling you out of as many dollars as possible and your working in the tourist industry taking people out on trips every single day you should have some basic level of communication. So in order to kill some time until sunset we asked if we could go out on the lake and watch the fishermen that we had sped past earlier that morning. He nodded and repeated fishermen, great stuff, we headed off.

As we left the water ways and hit the main part of the lake again we passed the occasional fisherman but sped past. He probably knows where there are more I thought or maybe he wants to get back a bit closer to Nyaungshwe, so after the fishermen then sunset we don't have far to head back in the dark. So on and on we sped until a dark cloud appeared in the distance ahead of us. Hmm I guess he will keep away from it and maybe find us fishermen around here . I turned and looked to him, he gave an acknowledging smile and continued full steam ahead. Full steam until we hit the dirty grey cloud and proceeded to head through it, rain beating painfully in our faces. Again fine, it didn't bother me, he does these trips every day I'm sure he reads the weather well, knows the various fishermen spots etc and then before we knew it we were headed back up the river towards town. Even at this point it didn't bother me. It was lashing down and we still had a good hour and a half until sun set. He had said "sunset...early now.....we come back" I took this to mean that due to the rain and the fact it was early we were headed back for an hour then would come back out again. As we reached where we started and hopped out we spoke with his Lady friend who speaks the good English only for her to tell us there wouldn't be a sunset that night and we were already back now. She said it would take more petrol to go out again later on just for the chance there would be a sun set. I wanted to see these fishermen, rain hail or shine so we pretty much demanded that we go out again having paid the extra money earlier for it to cover petrol etc . She agreed we should pop back in an hour so went back for dry clothes and a quick cuppa. By now the rain had stopped and yes it was still a bit cloudy but bright enough to go out and see the fishermen if nothing else. Low and behold when we got there she told us that her boatman had now gone home for the day. I could have pinned her up against a wall. Dragged round tourist shops all day, hardly any interesting sites visited, no culture, no fishermen. We were absolutely livid, so disappointed, let down, genuinely gutted that we were here around the world and hadn't seen the one thing the lake is renowned for after spending good money. So with our tails between our legs and a sour taste in the mouth we headed back to our digs to plot our next move.

We hadn't really found much else to do around here when we had read up on it and we wanted to move on and try and explore somewhere else with the 3 days we had left in Myanmar. After hours of searching we could find nothing between here and Yangon either worth visiting or that was accessible due to the long travel times involved . Even if we wanted to do the train journey back down from these hills and then South to Yangon it would take a full 2 days on the train to get there. We were stumped. Yangon was OK, we had enjoyed it especially the Shwedagon Pagoda but it was still a city. We wished we had stayed longer at Hsipaw now but there was no going back, so despite the bad experience and the fact I wasn't enjoying Inle that much due to the tourist nature of it we decided to stay on for another night. Not brilliant but better than heading straight back to the city I thought.

Our extra day there was cheaper and much more enjoyable than our over priced shopping tour on a boat the previous day. We went and had a look round the local market for a while then parked up at a local tea house, drank plenty of local beer on draught and sat and watched the world go by. Guys leaving the tea room worse for wear on a lunch time struggling to ride their scooters in a straight line. Monk's wandering past on their monky Buddhist way, all sorts of interesting characters and faces came and went . It was a really enjoyable day despite the simplicity of it. I love doing this sort of thing when traveling, it gives you a great feel of what daily life is like for some folk. Slightly wobbly we left the tea shop and grabbed a small bag of wrapped up Betel leaves. It's the local drug of choice out here. A mild stimulant that is sold on nearly every street corner. It's usually called Betel nut but isn't a nut as such. It's a leaf from the betel plant, coated usually in a lime paste, with different ingredients put in the middle and wrapped up. Usually some form of chopped nuts and tobacco. You pop it between the gums and cheek just above your teeth and mush it up over time, releasing the flavours and ingredients. It makes you salivate non stop and you have to keep spitting the juices out. All over Myanmar you can see bright blotches on the ground from chewing betel. Over time it just destroys your teeth and turns them bright red but hey when in Rome and all that so we gave it a try. For it being a stimulant I was out cold and sound asleep within an hour of getting back in! Not sure it was my reaction to the Betel or just tiredness but I was wiped out .

The next day was time to leave Inle and we grabbed yet another over night bus back to Yangon. We figured one extra day in Inle was enough and we could have one easy day back in Yangon doing a similar thing of sitting round a local tea shop, eating food, drinking with the locals and watching the world go by.

I probably don't really recommend Inle lake if you ever come here. Other than a few villages, riding round on a bike for a day it doesn't really have much more to offer. The boatmen get paid a comission by the shops that they take you round to so the shops are pretty much unavoidable. Hsipaw I guess doesn't have much more to it really, but the scenery is nicer to get yourself out and about in and it is a lot less touristy than Inle with a more sedate local feel about it. The level of tourism here is what really puts me off but I certainly won't let this one place tarnish what has been an amazing experience in Myanmar. If anyone is panning a trip to Asia in the near future then please please put Myanmar top of your list of countries to visit. Do it sooner rather than later as it's changing so fast and is a different place from one day to the next it's developing that fast. Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam Bali...all those other places have had tourism for decades and will still feel pretty much the same place in a years time, Myanmar wont. Enjoy it now before mass tourism takes over. We are genuinely quite sad to leave the country and wish we had more time here, it's certainly somewhere we will come back to agin to explore more of.

Back to Bangkok it is now to sort out our next move.

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