On Inle Lake at dawn, our noisy longtail zips across calm waters towards Nampan Market, gently rocking the bow of a slender wooden boat where a fisherman poises as he casts his net. Paddling in the traditional Intha style, one leg wrapped snugly around his wooden blade, he is the epitome of calm, his attention focused intently on the simple act of catching a fish.
We pass on by with necks craned, weaving through the watery streets of stilted timber villages and past floating gardens where a beaming flower seller throws us bright pink chrysanthemum buds. High trestles of succulent tomatoes and beans tower above us, growing in unlikely garden beds and tended by farmers in canoes, not tractors.
On this vast, inland sea that stretches for an amazing 22km, fascinating scenes of daily life are played out against an ancient backdrop of crumbling temples and vibrant waterfront villages, bustling markets and welcoming monasteries that all bristle with authenticity. Touring the lake in a single day is a tall order, so we downscale our ambitious itinerary and go with the flow.
From the easily accessed travellers hub of Nyaungshwe, we hire a boat and driver for a six-hour-long tour of the lake (AUD$22). The first stop is Nampan Market where we join a surging crowd past stalls overflowing with sacks of dried red chillies and shallots, fresh green vegetables and aromatic teas. There’s a rush for serves of sweet, sticky rice pudding which we team with uber-strong, silty coffee at a make-shift café, sharing a table with a trio of colourfully swathed villagers who have crossed the hills on foot for their weekly shop.
There are bamboo poles and just-caught freshwater fish for sale, juxtaposed beside table after table of enough touristy trinkets to fill my backpack several times over – wooden carvings, gemstone jewellery and dazzling tribal fabrics. The beaming sellers are persuasive but gracious, and the smiles don’t diminish when I gently rebuff the offer of beautiful, but impractical handicrafts I could never carry home.
I don’t end the day empty-handed though. Across the lake at Indein, after a punchy upriver boat ride, a merry band of scarf sellers appears amidst the crumbling stupas of Nyaung Ohaf, plying me with bright swathes of pink cotton for a dollar a piece. The scarves bond tiny babies to their hips, and they marvel at the oversized backpack carrier I’m using to lug my three-year-old up the sacred hill.
A wild tangle of monuments sprouting shrubby mop-tops, Indein’s red brick ruins crowd the foothills that rise above Inle Lake, the oldest surviving from the 12th century. Losing our way along skinny foot trails, we step out of the glaring midday sun, past weathered stone elephants that stand guard over secret inner sanctums, to discover giant alters and chiseled alcoves adorned with golden Buddha images. Solitude and darkness disorient us, casting us adrift down an ancient timeline, when suddenly, a wizened, saffron-robed monk materialises.
He sizes us up for a moment, we nod and smile, then noticing David’s tattoo, he presents his forearm and shows us his. In the absence of a shared language, the tattoos tell their stories and once our brief connection has been made, he bows and disappears.
Out in the sunshine, a glittering hilltop beckons, and we climb a covered promenade lined with souvenir stalls, past slopes studded with 1054 whitewashed and gilded zedis. Getting to the top is half the fun as we shop and stop for cold drinks, our golden-haired three-year-old gathering trinkets from generous stallholders en route.
When the last stair is conquered, we slip off our shoes and enter Shwe Inn Thein, a modern paya for Buddhist pilgrims surrounded by glistering zedis of every shape and size. There are vast, panoramic views, and down by the river, a string of modest Burmese cafes that eventually lure us back down the hill to devour steaming bowls of noodle soup laced with fresh coriander and chopped chilli. Over mugs of milky, sweet coffee we decide that seeing Indein alone has more than made up for the 10-hour bus ride we’ve endured from Yangon to the lake. But the day’s not over and we are yet to be dazzled by U Kon Da La.
Strangely, one of the must-see sights on our day’s itinerary is Nga Hpe Kyaung, the jumping cat monastery (what’s not to love about performing cats?) But what no one told us before hand was that the cats were grounded a few years ago by the death of Nga Hpe Kyaung’s head monk. Instead we join a throng of tourists sitting around patiently on rattan mats with a serene, smiling monk and his merry band of wayward kittens, waiting futilely for the show to start. We sit, and sit, until it becomes painfully clear that the cats aren’t getting airborne, so we move on. While the monastery itself is lovely and its monks welcoming, I just couldn’t get past the disappointment of those cats!
A visit the next day to Ywa Thit Monastery close to Nyaungshwe provides a humbling contrast. Sitting cross-legged on a foot-worn wooden floor, big windows framing rural scenes of rice paddies and a local soccer match in play, the effervescent Abbot U Kon Da La holds our attention, impressing us with his grasp of languages and his world views. He offers us bananas and we eat and chat, reveling in stories of the old man’s life and the solitude he enjoys as the monastery’s sole occupant (bar a roof full of pigeons).
At his invitation we take a look around, admiring row upon row of centuries-old Buddha statues and artifacts, but find nothing more radiant than U Kon Da La himself. As we cycle away, the sight of U Kon Da La waving us goodbye from a high monastery window, has become one of my most vivid memories of Burma.
Inle Lake by Bike
On the lake’s eastern fringe, a skinny dirt track perfect for biking leads to a peaceful forest monastery high above Maing Thauk. This picturesque riverside village that straddles both sea and land is bridged by a 400 metre-long elevated walkway and lies within easy cycling distance from Nyaungshwe.
If the monastery is indeed worth the long uphill climb I can’t say. Our morning’s bike ride is hijacked by a tyre puncture, which leaves us seemingly stranded a long way from town. I cringe now at the recall of my rising panic, and the local field workers who came effortlessly to our aid, leading us down the road and waking a sleepy motorbike mechanic who resolved our crisis singlehandedly (literally, he had one arm in a sling!) and delivered a much-needed lesson in calm. His asking price for the repair – a meagre 50 cents.
Our rides restored, we finally reach Maing Thauk and walk our bikes along that rickety timber bridge. A waiting canoe taxi whisks us across Inle’s shimmering sea to a café propped high on stilts where we order cold beers and flash-fried noodles, watching the world buzz on by and pondering daytrips to hot springs, sheer-drop waterfalls and secluded swimming holes.
There are more rigorous endeavours on offer too: multi-day hiking trips across mountains and through forests to Kalaw in the northeast, overnighting in villages en route. There’s an equally appealing trek to Kakku where a ‘stupa garden’ of 2478 monuments dates back to 3rd century BC. But before we strap on our hiking boots, we tackle leisurely jaunts close to town.
From a riverfront room in Nyaungshwe, where bed and breakfast is ours for a tiny AUD$25 a night, the entire lakeside region is within easy reach via boat and bicycle. Khaung Daing’s natural hot springs make a great biking destination across an incredibly scenic landscape dotted with whitewashed and gilded stupas, including the Phwar Ya Thay Paya, known as ‘Lady Monk’ for the lone female who resides there.
Sunset with a glass in hand from the elevated decks of Red Mountain Estate Vineyard is a popular travellers’ choice, as much for the views as the four sampler wines sold for a couple of dollars a head. In the heart of Nyaungshwe we join the throng of shoppers at Mingala Market, sourcing a picnic of ripe avocados, bananas, papaya and crackers, which we carry to the river and devour from swinging hammocks.
In all, a week slips by at Inle Lake before the urgency of seeing the rest of the country takes hold. When we do board the overnight bus to Mandalay, we resolve to shake out our tightly packed itinerary of must-see sights and allow much more time to get lost on the back streets and see, smell and discover the real Burma.
Essentials: visit www.yangonair.com for connecting flights from Mandalay or Yangon to Heho (an hour’s taxi ride from Inle Lake) or bed down on an overnight bus ride to Nyaungshwe for a fraction of the price. The town of Nyaungshwe on Inle Lake’s northern side offers a huge choice of budget hotels, restaurants and booking agents, with family rooms ranging from AUD$20-30. From Nyaungshwe, day-long boat tours of Inle Lake are arranged with ease, starting from about AUD$22. Bikes rent for AUD$2-3 a day. While in Nyaungshwe, check out the Aung Puppet Show, a grassroots performance of traditional Myanmar puppetry (AUD$4 a ticket).