When I first started planning my trip to Myanmar, I spent hours pouring over the Google Image search results. Pictures of mist-covered mountains dotted with ancient temples were first to pop up, followed by the iconic Shwedagon Pagoda in the country’s capital. I had seen these images before. Heck, they were the reason I was making the trip to Burma in the first place.
But as I continued to scroll down the pages, I began to see another part of the country–a lesser-known part. Pictures of aged fisherman standing on the ledge of wooden boats, women and children poking their heads through windows of stilt houses, and rolling green hills that seemed to touch the sky.
Inle Lake, located in the western Shan State, is quickly becoming one of the most-visited places in Myanmar, due to its floating villages and unique way of life. But despite the growing interest among tourists, it still seems to retain a traditional charm and tranquility– something I hope will remain in tact throughout the years. One of the things I enjoyed most while there was taking a boat trip around the lake, to see how the locals live. Tours can be arranged through hotels, and cost about $15USD for the day. I would recommend requesting an earlier departure than the suggested 8am pickup time in order to avoid crowds and to see the community come to life. I would also ask to see the itinerary in order to remove stops that you’re not interested in. Typically, outfitters take guests around the lake, passing villages, floating gardens and fishermen showing off their one-legged paddling technique. They also stop at a variety of handicraft workshops, markets and pagodas. For me, I avoided some of the handicraft stops, as I wasn’t interested in buying silk clothing or silver trinkets. However, some might find this interesting; I just personally found it a bit too touristy.Since I went during shoulder season (beginning of October), there were hardly any other tourists, and I had the boat to myself. It gave me a chance to really soak up the culture and spend the day chatting with my guide. In fact, when the rain came pouring down in the afternoon, he took me to his village, where we spent a little over an hour having tea and rice cakes with his family.
On his family’s weathered wooden floor, we sat in a circle in the center of their living room, listening to the rain patter on the tin roof. The wind whistled through the cracks of the old stilt house, and we warmed ourselves with hot Chinese tea and blankets. No one spoke English, except for the guide, and he was still learning.
Across from me sat his wife–a beautiful woman, in her mid-40’s. Cross-legged, she would get up from time to time to fill my cup from the large thermos. She never stopped smiling. Next to me was the guide’s brother, and on the other side, his father-in-law. Their kids were at school. They all lived together.
It was one of those experiences that makes you understand the importance of travel–a moment that gives you a glimpse into another life. A deeper understanding of a culture that is very far from your own.
Where I stayed: Hotel Brilliant in Nyaung Shwe. While it wasn’t on the lake, it was also removed from the bustling center of town. The staff was delightful, and even went to the market one morning to get me a bowl of tofu noodle soup I had been dying to try. The bungalows were clean and comfortable. Would highly recommend.
Where I ate: Sin Yaw Restaurant was pretty good for local food and fried fish, and ViewPoint Lodge & Fine Cuisines was great for a more expensive, fancy dinner; although I wouldn’t have splurged on my own. I was lucky enough to meet a generous family earlier that day at a winery, and they insisted on buying me dinner. The waterfront restaurant (no name) I was taken to on the tour had whole fish curry for $4USD and was excellent. The other food I ate came from the local market and the cooking school (will post a whole write-up next week).
What I did: I spent a few hours learning about and preparing traditional Burmese food at the Bamboo Delight Cooking School. I also borrowed a bike from the hotel and rode to the Red Mountain Winery, which was a great spot for sunset, but not so great for wine. To wrap up my last day, I treated myself to a massage at the highly-touted (and slightly overpriced) Lavender spa.
Have you been to the Shan State? Anything I missed?