Saturday, December 29, 2012

Lake Inle

This post contains notes from my writings on the road in Myanmar, but is still a work in progress.  

The following installments of this traveler's tale are posted with photos:

Inle Lake and Bagan be edited and posted shortly (but not today :-(so, stay tuned :-)

Lake Inle is a destination, like saying you're going to Lake Tahoe. Fine if you're in San Francisco, but when you near the lake, then where? It turns out there is a road junction that the bus drops you at. First I must mention that in late December, and you are rising in altitude, it's cold at night. I had a flannel shirt and a fleece, but my coat was in my pack. I also had an under-layer of pants in that pack (stored in the baggage hold under the bus) but was wearing on the bus only my khaki ones. When the bus stopped every few hours en route and everyone got out and the doors were locked, the later at night we traveled, the more it was cold waiting for them to open. I got chilled. And the bus reached the junction at about 3:30 a.m, way too cold and too early. 

Fortunately there were cabs there, and the drivers seemed to know which hotels were full. My driver agreed to take me to the Remember hotel in Nyaungshwe, which I couldn't even pronounce at the time. On the way we stopped at a roadside kiosk where I had to pay $5 foreigners entry fee to the Inle area. My driver woke up people at the Remember hotel but there was a tour bus outside that had booked all the rooms. We were heading for another that he thought might have rooms but he pulled off at yet another place he thought might work, where he was able to rouse people. The lady who ran the place appeared and said she could accommodate me for 2 nights not one. She had no time for one night stands she said. This would be the following night and next, not starting this one. For this night, wee hour of the morning actually (still dark outside) they had a bed I could use (turned out to be a divan in the common room off the dining area). She took the money up front, $50 a night, so I paid $100 on the spot. Later I found that this was a routine ritual for people coming in from Mandalay. Get off the bus, get pitched up at Teakwood Hotel, pay up, be promised a room, and then crash on the beds and couches in the upstairs dining area. 

I had trouble with that at first. The nearby paya was playing loud music for ceremonies at 4:30 a.m. So I tried to get on the Internet. That wasn't working so well, so I went back up to my couch. It had hard pillows but I had my blowup one and the hard pillows over my head blocked sound, and I cratered and slept till past 8:00 and only barely made it to breakfast by 9:00 which was when they stopped serving, officially, but in fact, as I noticed in the days ahead, they took all comers whenever they wandered down for breakfast, since this was Burma, not France.

I was awake now but not all that rested. Breakfast was good, fish noodle soup a palatable option to any kind of egg. I met some Canadians at breakfast who clued me in on some of the things to do in Inle, like go on the lake for starters. So while I was waiting for my room to be cleaned I went for a walk. The main street was typically Asian and as it assimilates travelers, travel shops were cropping up advertising boat trips, trekking, bus and plane tickets. I made my way past a pagoda to a bridge where there were boatmen asking if I wanted to go on a journey. I wasn't ready for it at the moment, though I went the next day.

The Canadians had said they were going to rent bicycles and ride around, and that is what I ended up doing. When my room was ready, I moved into it. It was comfortable and I ended up extending my stay for a third night. I needed the rest, I realized, and in Inle basically I bicycled around the first day, went on the lake the second, and pretty much relaxed the third, and organized my trip to Bagan, which was not all that straightforward, so I ended up spending a 4th night there trekking in the hills above the lake.

In Inle, or Nyaungshwe, the city just up the river from the lake, I was beginning to feel the press of other tourists. It started with trying to find accommodation that first night, with being told I could have the room for two nights, not one, and pay up front, this was a seller's market. We were between Christmas and New Years. A few years ago I was in Laos at this time and didn't feel this kind of pinch, but Mayanmar was full to bursting with tourists. I was starting to find I couldn't just do whatever I wanted, when I wanted.

At least I had accommodation for two nights paid so I decided to take a cue from the Canadians and rent a bike. There were rough hand drawn maps at reception showing that you could cycle left or right from where we were. Right went over the bridge where the boats depart each morning to take tourists out for all day trips on the lake. Trips start at 15000 kyat in this seller's market and went up to 20000 if you wanted to extend the trip to Intien, and that was for the whole boat. I didn't know all this my first day there, but the sellers made it difficult for tourists to share boats with other tourists. They tried to get people to book boats the night before and the people who booked his way were disinclined to share when they turned up at the wharf. I tried later that day to organize some sharing from my hotel and through an agent opposite the hotel, but this would mean one less boat going out that day, so in the end, when I went on my trip next day, I was alone in a boat, and I saw other tourists alone as well. I tried up to the last minute to team up with a lone tourist but I didn't see any where I was standing. By then I was prepared to pay the $25 but I got a last-minute price, only 18000 to go to Intien as well as the market on the lake for that day.

The markets rotated every five days. When you decided to go, the boat would take you to the market town for that day, and on the day I went that town was Nampan. I might as well describe the trip now. The boat landing by the bridge is very picturesque with a silvery pagoda next door. Boats went whizzing under the bridge carrying boat loads of monks and other interesting passengers and cargo. The boat traffic in the morning was generally heading down the river to the lake to take the tourists on this day to Nampan. My boatman was only 17 years old but had lips and teeth stained with betel. He spoke some English and was a friendly chap. He seemed kind and considerate. Later in the trip he told me that taking one passenger around was easy. He had a set route, and he delivered on all his promises.

At the mouth of the river right on the lake there were fishermen fishing with iconic Inle baskets. They had a way of manipulating the oar with their ankle while they balanced and positioned their baskets, very photogenic. My boatman pulled next to one and the fisherman showed me a fish and went through a routine like a dance. Since we lingered there I had the uncomfortable impression I was expected to pay something. I tried to be polite, but stopped taking pictures. I wasn't sure what to make of the situation, but later the boatman slowed up next to people fishing with nets and didn't linger. These people were playing the nets with their hands while steering the boat with an oar caught in their ankles.  Once they had positioned the net they would encircle it in their boats and slap the water with their oars to drive the fish into the nets.

The goal of our trip in the morning, before the shopping, was to visit the market. This was actually the second market I had visited that morning. The one at Nyaungshwe was also on the day's rotation and I went there on foot at 6:30 a.m to see what was on offer. Venders were just setting up but it was clear it would be massive. Some of the fish were still slapping about, so all that fishing on the lake was being fed into the markets in the form of very fresh products. Timing was crucial though. I needed to get breakfast at  7:00 in order to get to the wharf at 7:30 to negotiate a boat and get across the lake to Nampan when that market would be in full swing.

The sun was low in the east on the trip out. Skies in Burma in December were flawless with wispy white cloud. It was cold on the lake. I was wearing my white long-sleeved PADI instructor shirt with a flannel shirt for more warmth, but I got seriously cold crossing the lake. When we reached Nampan and slowed down it was to meander through the stilted village. We passed first a pagoda on the water with a gold fanciful dragon and navigated the byways to get a glimpse of people's lives around their houses on the water.

The boat traffic was heading for the end of a channel where hundreds of boats were moored. We slipped in between them and my boatman indicated I should go ashore and return when done. The market was quite interesting. The first thing we came to was a line of trinket sellers asking politely if we wanted anything (we being me and the other tourists). There was little hard sell, and no annoying persistence whatsoever. The fish were on display nearest the water and in from that people were eating meals. Further into the market were vegetables and tea and cheroot cigars. People didn't mind photos and smiled approvingly when shown the result. The market was very crowded and colorful with women and men in tribal dress, women and old men wearing turbans, and younger men with shoulder bags that looked like sashes across their clean white shirts.

During the trip we stopped at factories on stilts on the lakeside. There was always a tour lined up, but they were pleasant, hadn't got the hang of hard sell yet, and made good photo ops. We stopped at a fabric weaving place, where looms were clacking, and a silver jewelry shop where I was shown the process of melting and pouring molten silver liquor. The workman there was about 12 or 14; I hope he was just posing. Another shop had some long-necked ladies on display. LPG had warned us these people were being exploited. Bobbi and I visited an encampment of them on the Thai side of the border and found the ladies to be articulate and kindly, and not objecting to photos. Here on the lake they seemed out of place, on display. I walked out of that shop and other tourists on the veranda had done the same. 

At another shop I was shown how they make paper from lake reeds and convert that to umbrellas and wrapping paper. It was nice but when I was asked to look in the shop, well I don't like shopping in any event and have enough junk around my house, so I would go sit with the boatman and watch him prepare his betel and he would pour me tea. It's his job to take the tourists to the shops, so we were going through the rituals. I was cooperative and got out and checked out what was on offer. He got his breaks, and the people there were all so nice, it was quite pleasant. They haven't learned how to pressure tourists yet.

One stop was for lunch, at a restaurant on the river bank opposite a pagoda where people were applying gold leaf to a trio of small Buddha statues. As LPG pointed out, the gold leaf had pretty much obscured the shape of the Buddhas. To reach the pagoda you crossed the river on a wooden footbridge that took you by the wharf where the golden barges were kept. Inside the pagoda, as in Mandalay I was asked to put my shoes outside, but once I complied, I was free to go up to where the men (only men, no women allowed on the platform with the Buddhas) were applying the leaf and take photos. No one seemed to mind, and no one posed or even raised an eyebrow. Indeed worshipers were photographing one another. While I was gone my boatman was deeply engaged in a game of something like backgammon, enjoying himself with his mates. I had already had my lunch of Thai soup which turned out to be boiled vegetables in curry with a pair of mean peppers lurking within. Lunch was at a table on an upstairs balcony with a great view of the pagoda across the river, and of the passing boat traffic, nice lunch stop.

Now it was time to head down the channel to Intien, about half an hour's journey by boat upstream against a slight current that passed under a number of picturesque bridges. There were towns and farms and boat houses to protect the longboats along the riverbanks. Eventually we pulled up to a wharf just short of Intien proper, where there was again a very picturesque boat harbor with restaurants around where you could get a beer, but I declined because I was already tending to fall asleep on the boat just from lack of rest. Past this you walk over a bridge and come on a field that looks like it might make a good soccer pitch but on closer inspection those marks on the ground are where the stalls go up on market days. To the left of the open space there was Intien's permanent outdoor market, not very active in the mid-afternoon languor. As you enter the space you notice on the left ahead a cluster of crumbling stupas, and further up the mountain, more stupas, with a higher hill topped with a gilded white pagoda.

So the first part of the visit is spent walking up the hill to the golden pagoda and its stupas. They are in some disrepair but a monk lives there with some gentle cats and he offers tea from his flask and puts bananas in front of you and sits impassively while the visitors refresh themselves. Some give him money as they go.

There are more stupas on hills lower down, worth a scramble uphill to check them out, but you ain't seen nuttin' yet. As you walk back past the market you notice that there is activity further on near the bridge over the river. This draws you to where women are bathing beneath the bridge and on the far bank longboats are being offloaded with lumber. Then you notice more ruins across the bridge and go there. These are reminiscent of Ankor Wat in appearance and state of ruin, but on a much smaller scale. Still they can consume your attention and invite photographs. There are more on the opposite side of a long corrugated roof. Passing through there to reach the ruins beyond you notice that this roof is supported by white pillars that stretch, because of the slight bend, as far as the eye can see, with stalls with things mainly of interest to tourists lining the way. This goes on and on for maybe a km and it dawns on you that this is the covered walkway leading to an apparently important pagoda, to have so many white pillars, and though salespeople linger here and make half-hearted attempts to interest you in their wares, on some days, or at certain times of day, this must be a busy place indeed.

And this brings you to the stupas. As you reach the top of the looong covered stairway you arrive at the stupas. Many have plaques saying who donated them (people from western and other Asian countries). They are like graves in the Buenos Aires cemetary. They are all around. They have bells on them high above the ground. The bells tinkle in the wind. They are stupa-fying!

After that my boatman took me to the monastery with the jumping cats. The cats were still there, but apparently the head monk has prohibited the spectacle of jumping cats as unbecoming to the order, so not much to see there but cats, and the monastery's collection of ancient Buddhas, itself incredible. That's Burma!

The monastery was in the area of the floating gardens, fields of greenery held in place by bamboo poles struck through the thick verdure (to keep the gardens from floating off) that undulated gently from the wake of boats passing. There was a huge tomato growing industry here, hydroponic agriculture on a large scale, interesting to see.

Back in town I returned to my Teakwood Hotel refuge which I'd booked that night and next with intent to take a day off for rest and organization of travel next day, Dec 27. I had a bus ticket to go to Bagan the following day the 28th, which I'd bought in my first attempt at travel arrangements as a plan of action my first day in Nyaungshwe. But I'd soon discovered that it was impossible to book a room in advance in Bagan, and as that fact sank in, arrival in the evening was looking increasingly unwise. The bus companies that ran by day were different from the ones at night, so I was going to have to simply eat my ticket, about $13, if I wanted to change to a night bus and get there in the morning, no huge loss, but taking the time off to think it through turned out to be best in the long run.

Nyaoungshwe was a pleasant place to sit and think things through, and hanging out there could be energetic. The roads ran east and west from there and then turned south along the west and east banks of Lake Inle. My first morning there I had got a bike and opted for the east shore. There was a winery there with a sign on the road leading to it saying it was open to 4:00, so my first time passing that way I decided keep that in mind rather than drink wine in the middle of a long bike ride. I continued another 10 km to a town called Maing Tauk which was bult half out over the water at the edge of the lake. There was a long pier along a channel leading to the part on stilts so I walked there and got as far as I could without a boat.

There were boatmen about looking for work and one of them convinced me that it would be a good idea to put my bike on his boat and have myself ferried to the opposite side of the lake. It would cost 6000 kyat, about 7 or 8 dollars, and would save me having to bike all the way back up the lake, an hour retracing my ride out to get back into town, and another hour to the hot springs on the opposite shore, leaving me only the hour long back-track to Nyaungshwe, rather than twice the round trip. I hadn't been out on the lake yet so it was quite pleasant crossing it, and the wharf on the opposite shore was at a monastery where I stopped to snack on fruit and nuts I'd brought from Abu Dhabi and listen to the inmates chanting their lunchtime prayers in unison.

After I'd been to Intein the next day I understood how the road to Kalaw went from there. Kalaw is where many start their visit to Inle. It's a 3 day trek from there down the mountain to Inle, and another few hours walk up a rough road to the hot springs where I'd been let out. The hot springs must be nice if you're just getting in off a long trek, but I didn't feel like visiting when I was there. Instead I was thinking if I headed north and back to Nyaungshwe I should get there around 3:00 and be able to make the winery in time for a sample before it closed at 4:00 as a bit of a Christmas treat for myself. I executed this plan in a bit of break-neck cycling to keep to schedule only to find that the winery had flexible hours, so when I left after a few glasses, customers were still steaming in, mostly tourists on their bikes like me.

So after my Inle trip (my special treat to myself on my birthday), and coming to the realization that I could not get a booking in Bagan online or by phone, I decided to spend my next day “off” in such a way that I would end up at the winery, not at 4:00 pm, but later, in time to enjoy sunset there over a nice meal and bottle of wine. So I got there at 5 pm, and my meal turned out to be steamed fish in banana leaf, and the wine was their late harvest semi-sweet white, similar to a German Mosel. That was really nice.

On my day off I settled on a plan. Because I was still working on getting a room in Bagan, I would not use my day bus ticket to Bagan that day but would instead go on an overnight trek into the Shan mountains. This would solve the accommodation problem night of the 28th. Then on the 29th I would take the night bus to Bagan and arrive in the morning. By serendipity I managed to get a room booking in Bagan for the 30th and New Year's eve, and as I write this I am in possession of a bus ticket for Yangon the night of the 1st, which should be me there by 5 or 6 in the morning, plenty of time to taxi from the Aung Mingular bus station to the nearby airport in plenty of time to catch my plane at 10:45 the morning of the 2nd.

The narrative resumes after the bus ride to bagan …

I'm sitting around a guest house lobby breathing smoke from chainsmoking Japanese tourists (tourists from other countries are stepping outside to smoke). I just arrived in Bagan having met my last accommodation challenge.  There were no rooms in Bagan bookable by normal means so I threw away a bus ticket I'd bought to arrive here Friday night and went on a trek instead so I could sleep that night in the Shan mountains.  Then I took the overnight bus to Bagan Saturday night (two nights down, and the trek was enjoyable, bus rides bearable, bordering on comfortable, by no means the worst I've ever had).

Meanwhile I'd met an Irish diver outside the bus station when I was buying my overnight bus ticket, the day before my trek.  He was heading for Bagan and I asked him if he'd booked accommodation already.  He told me he'd been given the phone number for a hotel in Bagan that no one would know about, and had arranged the room through a guy named Jojo, who spoke good English.  I'm sitting in the lobby of the guest house now using the wifi, waiting for a room to be ready. Actually I've just met the occupant of that room who came downstairs to catch the day bus to Inle. Funny thing is I'd met him in a restaurant in Yangoon my first day there.  He's in for a problem when he gets to Nyaungshwey, no reservations, arriving at night. I didn't tell him that, didn't want him to change his mind and decide to stay.

Anyway, I got the phone number for this hotel from the Irish guy and called it from my hotel in Nyaungshwey near Inle.  They were incredibly helpful, assigned me a person to look up numbers for me and make unlimited calls, to no avail until I met the diver.  But with the magic phone number known only to leprechauns I managed to reach the hotel, but couldn't really communicate with them, and they were non-committal on whether they would have any rooms.  So I asked to speak to Jojo.  Jojo was out, so they gave me his mobile number, which i called right away.

When Jojo answered, he said, where you get my number? I explained and he said ok, call him back same time next day.  Now next day I was going on the trek, so I asked the guide if he had a mobile, and of course everyone carries mobiles everywhere these days.  Only problem was in the mountain signal was iffy, but once I'd expressed my need the guide went on a mission to complete it and found a corner of a hut where we stopped for lunch where i could connect to Jojo. The signal was poor and I couldn't understand exactly the name of the hotel, so I agreed to call Jojo back next day.

Next day at that time we were in Maing Tauk, where I'd been ferried to the hot springs my first day at Inle at the end of our trek awaiting boat transport back to Nyaungshwey.  The guide remembered I needed to contact Jojo and handed me his phone and this time we had good contact, and Jojo agreed to provide me a room for two nights.

Jojo was chatty and there was another American there he put me on the phone with.  Meanwhile my boat was leaving and I had to ring off quickly.  I had got out my bus ticket to check the date and in my hurry to leave and ring off the phone must have left it on the bench where we were sitting over the lake.  I got back to my hotel in Nyaungshwey, they handed me a towel straight away and told me to shower in an upstairs bath, I had two really cold refreshing beers using wifi while waiting to get the bus, and when I got to the station (after 2 big beers :-) I couldn't find my bus ticket.  The guy there asked me if I remembered my seat number.  I did and he said no problem.  They put me on the bus without a ticket.  Really, I could have been anybody.  I lost a ticket in Egypt once and they made me buy another. Can you imagine getting on a bus without a ticket, just on your say-so that you had bought one, in any other part of the world. This bus wasn't full, so I was able to stretch out on a whole row of seats..

Incidentally, when I bought the ticket they laughed at me.  They always give me a seat near the front but I insisted on one in the back.  They said all foreigners like to sit in front.  Problem with that is the bus driver will keep himself awake with music all night. My strategy worked, I couldn't hear the music in the back.

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