After a one hour flight from Bagan, a 45 minute taxi and a 50 minute boat ride, we were in a hotel room on stilts in the middle of an expansive and beautiful lake.
Lake Inle | Southern Shan State | Myanmar
We did so many activities by the lake in those three days but best of all was the just the thrill of the boat-ride, taking in the sights of Shan lake-life, whizzing around in those single-stroke-engined long boats, with the breeze on our faces and getting splashed from the wake of oncoming boats; it was a cinematic showreel of rural life and I wished each boat-ride wouldn’t end. It was such a real buzz.
The boat-rides unveil the kaleidoscope of Myanmarese lake-life; narrow channels at the edges of the lake take you to entire villages on stilts, the noisy fruit and veg markets or quiet temples; there are boats lined up with maroon-clad monks speeding to their lakeshore monasteries; people and cranes fishing; boats transporting sacks of onions, beer barrels, anything; water buffaloes cooling off with only their eyes, nostrils and horns above the water’s surface; people planting crops on islands in the lake. It’s a cinematic show all laid in front you as you whizz by at 10 knots.
We visited many places on the shores of Lake Inle, some were historical and inspiring; some were less inspiring and little more than commissioned shopping trips. One of them concerned wine.
A cycle ride to a winery in Myanmar
Our friend Anita had told us about a winery she’d visited some years ago beside Lake Inle. I was so intrigued. A winery? In Myanmar of all places? So we hired bicycles at Nyaung Shwe, the town at the northernmost part of the lake, and found the road going south-east for a half hour ride.
Once we found the turn-off for the winery, we came across a road that sloped upwards sharply. Yes it was called Red Mountain Winery; it should have given me a clue.
The problem was, Sarah’s bike was stuck in 4th gear and my bike didn’t have gears so going up that slope proved arduous to say the least.
We huffed and puffed and made it all look very inelegant and sweaty, pushing down on each pedal with all our bodyweight and moving about 10 centimetres each time.
If we were cycling to a tea or or a coffee plantation I would most probably have called it a day. No one wants to go through all that hassle just for a cup of coffee really do they? But a glass of wine? And not just any wine. Myanmarese wine.
Only the thought of a chilled, crisp glass of vino kept me going. I could see it hanging in front of me like a mirage. Sadly I did have to walk the bike the final half a mile.
The Red Mountain Winery produced surprisingly good wine (Myanmar throws up lovely surprises like this, often when you least expect them.)
We stayed there sipping our wine-tasting of two whites and two reds, looking over acres of undulating vineyards with a view of the lake from where a gorgeous breeze cooled us down. It couldn’t really get any better than this. And going back would be all downhill.
The long necked Kayan women
The hotel had arranged a tour for us. Little did I realise that some of this would be just going to shops on stilts from which the hotel would take a cut on any sales.
For example, we were told we’d be visiting the Kayan people, whose women are famous for their long necks, where they wear brass neck coils,
Girls start wearing the neck coils at the age of 5 and gradually add more and more rings. Coils soon start to feel natural, like part of their body after some years. The coils actually don’t stretch the neck but give the illusion of the neck being stretched by lowering and deforming the breastbone.
I was expecting to visit a tribe on the lakeshore, to enter their village, and speak to them and understand their way of life. Instead, our boatman took us to a souvenir shop.
Sure it sold beautiful local crafts like carvings, metalwork, lacquerware, silverware and woven silks but it wasn’t quite as billed.
At the front of the shop sat two Kayan ladies resplendent in their neck coils. We chatted to them, but it felt a little awkward as if they were being objectified. It certainly wasn’t the experience I was expecting.
The local handicrafts of Lake Inle are beautiful
The local silverware is rather exquisite, and we visited a silversmiths at the lakeshore village of Ywa Ma. They fashion the silver in to different widths of wire and then coil them in to rings, bangles, earrings and they can make little flexible fishes that wriggle in the hand. The style is similar to Celtic or Anglo-Saxon jewellery, although not as intricate.
The silversmiths was actually a shop and they tried their very hardest to sell to us; it was all in very good spirits though and even when they didn’t make a sale, they still saw us to our boat and waved us off.
The people of the lake are also skilful weavers and we visited a weaving shop where women at looms were making cloth from silk and and fibres from the stems of the lotus plant.
In Dein Monastery
In Dein monastery was a beautiful walk from the lakeside, past a small village of shops selling delicious snacks fried in small black pans by the roadside, paintings and souvenirs, and then up a stone covered walkway lined with stalls.
A quick left outside the walkway and we were suddenly left gobsmacked. There was a forest of stupas some dating from the 12th century, lining the hill, dotted all across the hillside. We reconnoitred them with no one else around except an old lady with a pile of firewood on her head smoking a cheroot; she puffed away with such aplomb for Sarah’s photo, I was sure she was a performing model for tourist photographers (although Sarah got some classics).
A Visit to the Jumping Cats Monastery
Sarah was keen to visit a monastery called Nga Phe Kyaung at Kay Lar in the centre of the lake. Its other name is the Jumping Cats monastery.
At this old monastery there are beautiful old Buddha images carved in wood and inlaid in gold. The building had a lovely open, airy feeling looking across wide expanses of the lake.
There are also lots of cats, some dozing in the shade, some sleeping by bowls of rice. Those cats had it good. Some were so lazy they would wake briefly, eat a mouthful of food from their metal bowl and then go back to sleep, keeping one paw on their food to guard it.
A few years ago, and encouraged by the now-deceased head monk, the cats would jump through hoops.
When I heard this I was very sceptical; anyone who knows anything about cats knows that you can’t just make a cat jump through hoops. They are very different to monkeys, circus animals or people who do Cirque du Soleil.
Cats are self-absorbed and self-serving, and it was after some investigation that I found out that the monks would leave them pieces of fish on the other side of the hoops. That made more sense.
My advice for people visiting Lake Inle, is to take in its atmosphere and watch the lake life pass you by. Sure you can rush around to the silversmiths, the shops and everything else to see, but the hero of Lake Inle is the lake itself.
We stayed at a hotel situated on stilts in the middle of the lake and in the evenings we’d just stare west on the balcony and watch the natural son et lumière of colour changes in the clouds, the hills, the corrugated lake surface of splashing waves and the imposing sky. It sometimes felt like being on a boat, only the occasional outboard engine noisily passing us would bring us back to earth.
The hills and the waters change colour
Lake Inle is cupped in gentle hills which change colour throughout the day, from light-green, to dark green when the cloud-shadows pass; after dusk the hills turn a moody violet under pink-edged clouds, as the first stars appear.
Even Lake Inle’s waters change their colour too, from dark grey to iron-oxide brown and sometimes whole floating fields of water hyacinth greeted us, bedecked with purple flowers.
There were so many places we missed, but on a 90 day trip visiting 8 countries and over 30 places, some things have to give. I know we would love to return one day, to see it more, to see how it develops.
The people here, and how they interacted with us and with each other is a little special. Their nods, their ready smiles even when you’ve declined a sale, their attentive natures are all endearing. It’s all with a real sense of authenticity. The Myanmarese really are a lovely people.
This post is part of the series called ’90 Days in South East Asia’ about our travels in India, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Myanmar, Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia in March to June 2019, and was written on-the-road mainly on buses and in airport lounges.
All the links to blog posts in the series are as follows: