Inle Lake and the End of Our Journey in Myanmar

Inle lake and the end of out myanmar journy

The last stop.  Have you ever noticed how fast times goes when you are on holiday?  When you first arrive you think that you have so much time to see it all but when the time to leave comes you are surprised.  It happens to me every time.  Then I start to think back on what we did.  Which is always so much.  And yet I am still surprised.

And yet I am still surprised.

Inle Lake might be my favorite place in Myanmar that we visited. There is much less pressure to go go go and I enjoyed boating around the lake all day. I managed to sunburn my hand on the first day.  I forgot to reapply sunscreen after washing.  The sun hates me and doesn’t want me to have a good time.

inle lake myanmar

One of the first things that I managed to do was almost topple the boat and dunk my entire leg up to the in the lake.  Graceful.  In my defense I am four and a half feet tall.  Asking me to take a two-and-a-half-foot step onto a shaky boat is kind of unreasonable.  But since I was embarrassed and not hurt we pressed on.  Picture me riding around with one soaking leg and shoe.  Less noticeable than you might expect.

After two weeks of nothing but temples and pagodas it was refreshing to be able to see something else.  There was a five-day market where people from around the lake were making their purchases. I couldn’t quite figure out why the market is only every five days.  What benefit does that bring other than being on a different day of the week each time. 

It is a real market.  Sometimes when you go to a market in Asia it is a tourist trap and the the only thing for sale is souvenirs.  That was not the case with this market.  People were buys food for the week.  I even saw utilitarian underwear for sale which is my personal indicator that a market is authentic.   If they are selling underwear you know that real people are shopping there.  Legit travel theory…

Legit travel theory…

There are 17 villages on the lake.  Actually on the lake on floating islands or houses on stilts. It reminded me a bit of reed islands on Lake Titicaca.  Life is happening all around on the water.

Fisherman traditionally rock their teak boats with their legs on Inle Lake.  The boats used to be made from one solid teak trunk but there are less and less Teak trees of that size avalible so they have started making plank boats in a very similar shape.  You still see the told boats on the water but they are something passed down through the generations rather than a newer possession. 

One thing that was really cool was that when a boat of tourist approached some fisherman they often showed off their feats of balance by standing on one leg with the oar supported with one hand and a fishing net in the other.  I thought at first that this was kind of bait for tourists.  Be picturesque and collect some money.  After observing it a few times I am fairly confident that it is spontaneous.  No one ever pays them and after a few moments of showing off they go back to work.  I like to think that they are just proud of their skill and their way of life.  I hope that it lasts.  Tourist is mushrooming in Myanmar so fast that I imagine that soon they will be weary of tourist rather than enjoying them.

inle lake

Other than boating around the lake (which is interesting enough) we ended up doing a circit of handicraft workshops.  A silversmith, a boatmaker, a blacksmith, a cheroot workshop, and even a factory where women were making women out of lotus stems.  It was a crazyily time consuming process.  The hard and thorny stem is broken by hand ever few centimeters and when it is pulled apart there are filiments.  They stretch out the filiments and using a wet hand roll it into a thread.  This is only a few centimeters long so you have to do it again and again and again to get anything like a normal thread.  Then the thread is woven.  By hand.  It is rough as all get out but it is the most expensive fabric in the world.  We saw a simple men’s shirt for sale for 900$. 

 It is rough as all get out but it is the most expensive fabric in the world.

On our last full day we did not go out on the boat again.  We had decided to take a cooking class.  Burmese food like the people is a watershed of asia.  There are Indian, Bangladeshi, Thai, Chinese, Nepali, and Laotian influences in it.  Inle Lake is in the Shan District and Shan food is generally considered to be the best in Myanmar.  We started at an open market. A woman was selling fried tree ants (very tiny and red) as a snack in case you were wondering they have a naturally lime like flavor.

inle lake myanmar

I always like taking cooking classes and food tours when I travel.  Food is one of the best ways to get to know a culture and sharing a meal always brings you closer with people.  We learned how to make a couple of salads.  Myanmar has some amazing salads.  One of the best things that we ate the whole time that we were there was a fermented tea leaf salad.  Which does not sound delicious but definitely is.  They are big fans of using green tomatoes in salad.  There are many floating farms/gardens all over the lake and most of them are growing tomatoes.  I have never purposely had a green tomato but I was really impressed.  It has a much crunchier bite and it stays together much better than a ripe tomato.  The green tomato isn’t as sweet and lends  bit of a sour quality to the salad.  I am a far.  Then we mad a beef curry and a chicken curry.  I am not sure that I learned a whole lot aside from the actual recipe.  It didn’t really matter because the class was outside and we were cooking over coal fires.  Awesome and also terrifying. Everything turned out to be delicious.  When closely supervised by people who know what they are doing it is hard to screw up too badly.

And so our trip ended.  We flew back to Yangon for an evening departed Myanmar the next morning.  But I don’t think that this is the last time that I will visit Myanmar.  There is still so much of it to see.  The jungles of the west, the islands in the south, the beginnings of the Himalayas in the the north.   Once isn’t going to be enough.


On the Road to Mandalay...

On the way to Mandalay

Mandalay is much more touristy than any of the other places where we have been so far. I don't know if this is because there are more limited options or because the activities happen at certain times so the tourists are concentrated.

Over a thousand monks went by us in two single file lines. 

Driving from the airport we stopped at the Shwenandaw Monastery, a large teaching monastery here. Every day at 10:15 the monk from a procession on their way to lunch. Over a thousand monks went by us in two single file lines. Unfortunately, since this is a once a day event every tourist in Mandalay was there. We were standing next to the most obnoxious Italian group in history. It make me super uncomfortable. There were so many people here that are picaresque. Almost everybody all the time. But it doesn’t feel like you should be taking pictures. I don’t want them ever to feel as if they are being treated like zoo animals. The hundreds of people taking pictures right in the monks (who were often quite young) faces crossed that line for me.

monks mandalay myanmar

We decided to take in the sunset view from Mandalay Hill. These things are never as simple as you might expect.  First: Yet again there is a crazy drive to the top of a hill.  This time it is only ten minutes or so but we get caught in a traffic jam and end up walking the last portion.  To the giant escalator building where you have to leave your shoes because there is a temple right where the lookout area is.  Something new that I learned:  Going on an escalator barefoot is incredibly uncomfortable.

You can see across to the hills over the river and down into the Mandalay Palace.

We scouted out a spot. You can see across to the hills over the river and down into the Mandalay Palace.  It reminds be a bit of the Forbidden city in that it is a whole walled off collection of smaller buildings rather than one large palace. We visited it earlier in the day but I got distracted because my shoe broke on the way down the Nan Myin Watchtower. The watchtower is one of the few parts of the Palace that is original. The rest was destroyed during WWII and rebuilt.  My search for the perfect travel sandal continues.

mandalay hill sunset myanmar


If you have ever seen a travel guide, website, or even novel about Myanmar you have seen U Bein Bridge.  It is the longest teak pillar bridge in the world. And sunset at this bridge is one of those iconic images of Myanmar

This is one of those moments where expectations do not live up to reality. I mean... the bridge and it is hard to take a picture of it without it looking awesome but the atmosphere that is was expecting is definitely lacking.

Find your moment.

There is a ton of trash around and so many goddamn tourists. We walked along the bridge about a kilometer which is more scary than you would think what with the huge gaps between boards. There is a little “restaurant” set up on the island (is that what it is call in the dry season?) and sipped in coconuts until the magic moment. Because sunset only lasts about 3 minutes there is some intense competition to get that perfect shot. Carsten and I had resigned ourselves to not getting it and tried to just enjoy the moment. We got some shots with the selfie stick (judge all you want, we live in Asia)  and some after the sun had hone down when the light was actually better in my opinion.   Find your moment.

mandalay myanmae ubein bridge

Temples, Pagodas, and Hot Air Balloons: Three Days in Bagan

Temples, Pagodas, and Hot Air Balloons: Three Days in Bagan

What shocks me is how unlike Angkor Wat Bagan is. Angkor Wat is an ancient ruin of a city that was rediscovered. There is something solemn, mysterious and hidden about it. Bagan on the another hand is a complex of temples started in the 9th century and continually updated until today. These are living buildings and people are worshipping there. Because if this they have many an anachronistic modern touch. It isn’t often that you are able to feel as if you are discovering something. It feels more as if you are joining a party.

It feels more as if you are joining a party.

I feel kind of bad saying it but there isn’t a whole lot of variety here. The architecture is the same, the décor is the same, the frescos are the same. Seen one seen them all? We were initially disappointed that we would only be spending one day touring Bagan. I am cool with it now.  Pagoda, temple, seated Buddha, reclining Buddha, Buddha in the enlightenment position.  Sprinkle with gold leaf. Then accidentally spill all the gold leaf.  

Bagan myanmar sunset

We did get to an abandoned temple. The grass was taken over and it felt as if we aware all alone in the world. There aren’t many tourist or local but this is one of those times when finding a moment alone enhances the experience. It is different than at the other Pagodas that we have been to. There the crowds were part of the fascination.  You can only see so many Pagodas without going mad. When there is so much authenticity to soak up. It is the best part of Myanmar. No one is performing. No one is putting on a show. No one cares that I am here. They are going about a part of their life and for a little bit I get to share that.

They are going about a part of their life and for a little bit I get to share that.

While we are in Bagan we decided that we should go all out and take the balloon ride over the whole site. First of all we woke up at 4:30 in the morning. For the second day in a row. I had never been in a hot air balloon and aside from attending the Wellesley Balloon festival several times.  My knowledge of balloon travel is limited to The Wizard of Oz and the part in The Silver Chair where Jill is riding a cloud (weird CS Lewis references FTW!).

Balloons over bagan

The wind shifted before we were picked up so the balloons had to start in a different place than we were initially driven to.. I was surprised (although I shouldn’t have been) at how many people we picked up. Three separate buses arrived at out hotel. They separate out the different balloon groups. Second surprise: there are 16 people to a balloon. 17 counting the pilot.  Our pilot was a young blond man from the south of England who had been doing this for five years. Sometimes real life is so weird.

Sometimes real life is so weird.

There was a safely lecture which was reassuring.  I was impressed with how professional and well-handled everything was.  I guess I was expecting it to be like what I imagine a hot air balloon ride in China would be like.  Which would not include safety.  There was an enormous crew of energetic young men who I imagine are the unsung heroes of the operation running about pulling ropes, untwisting balloons, keeping the inflating balloon from rolling over and squashing us.

bagan temple myanmar

The take-off didn’t feel like an elevator (I was surprised by this and surprised by my surprise. Why wouldn’t it?) there was a slight initial lurch and then it was airborne. I am surprised by how fast we rose in the air. We were allowed to stand pretty much right away. There are four separate compartment for passengers and Carsten and I were on the inside.  Damn Australians and their, “After you's” Jerks.

You don’t really feel as if you are moving.  Even when the balloon spins it feels as if it is the world moving and not you.

Even when the balloon spins it feels as if it is the world moving and not you.

Bagan lays spread before you and it is only when you are this high you can see just how huge an area it covers and just how many temples, pagodas, and shrines there are. The gold glints in the morning light and dazzles the eye.

We were incredibly fortunate in our visibility this morning. Often it is too hazy to see as much as we did. We had to stay about 500 feet most of the times because of new regulations which is unfortunate because the lower views were pretty damn impressive and allow a glimpse of life that you normally don’t see.

Afterwards we sat in a makeshift area of a harvested rice paddy and sipped champagne. There was a 4-6 year old trying to sell us “postcards” crayon drawings of Bagan.  Both the children and the drawings were so cute that I almost caved and bought one ever though it is pretty clear that it is never a good thing to buy things from children in a random field in Myanmar.   No.  But so cute.

over bagan myanmar

The afternoon was spent at Mount Popa.  It is about an hour's drive from Bagan.  It is sheer sided volcanic protrusion with a bustling little town at the base and a truly endless set of stairs to the top. Possibly a couple of thousand. Every time I thought that we had almost come to the top there was another staircase. Barefoot.  Because we were going to end up in a monastery. Three things that kept it from being hell: a) the stairs were even b) it wasn’t that hot and there was a breeze c) there was almost constant shade.

We have had to been barefoot a lot on this trip and usually the temples are spotless and people are constantly cleaning them as an act of merit.

The stairs were filthy.  We have had to been barefoot a lot on this trip and usually the temples are spotless and people are constantly cleaning them as an act of merit.  But these steps were covered with paper and pieces of eggs and other shit I do not want to think about.  There were people who were half-assedly sweeping and mopping the steps and ask for money.  It was constant but it only made the steps slippery.

There were monkeys everywhere and people feeding them.  The monkey food was wrapped in paper for some reason and monkeys are not particularly conscientious about disposing of their trash. They are also not afraid of people in the slightest.  The monkey's were blatently grabbing peoples food. We were told that sometimes they steal cameras and hold them for ransom in return for more food.  I hope that that is an exaggeration because I don't think that the world needs a super smart gang of monkeys in it.  One is enough.

monkey myanmar

The view from the top however was worth it.