Inle Lake to Yangon
Our next destination in Myanmar nearly didn't happen because it's a bit out of the way an expensive to get to, but it’s worth it. Inle Lake is a large peaceful freshwater lake back in the Shan state, that has towns and villages built on stilts, fishermen with a unique rowing style and floating allotments and gardens growing produce for market. The nearest town to the lake that you can drive and stay in is called Nyaungshwe, it’s about 4km away from the main lake and whilst you can spend a fortune to be on the actual lake staying in the town means you have a choice of pubs, restaurants and tour operators. To save time we decided to fly from Bagan into the local region, we then hoped to share a taxi to Nyaungshwe as we’d read that the 1hr road journey can cost a fair bit (25k kyat). Having arrived and waited for our luggage we didn’t spot any other couples or solo travellers that we could share with, so decided to walk the 1km to the main road where the cheap buses pass. We hadn't gone more than 20 steps out of the carpark when a huge empty 6-seater taxi pulls over and says he'll take us for 20k, after a bit more negotiating we agreed on 15k kyat and we set off for the town.
Our hotel was quite a basic / cheap one called Manaw Thu Kha and it was about 10 mins walk out of the main town but it was clean and comfy and included breakfast. We checked in and after having a wander round the hotel we went out to explore the town and check prices for tours etc. One tourist office was offering the Inle standard tour for 25k which seems expensive, so we strolled on to the boat docks. A lad of about 15 had started chatting with us on the way down and he eagerly showed us his boat and said he could do the same tour for 18k, we wouldn't commit to anything just then but he said he was there every morning at 8, so just pop back. Gasping for a pint we saw a sign advertising beer for only 800k (about 43p) and hence discovered a cheap bar which was to become our main hangout in Inle. It was a relatively small little bar called Ever Light on the main road but served the best Indian food. It was run by a Nepali lad called Sandeep (his brother Raj ran the restaurant opposite), the walls are covered in pictures of previous customers and it had a friendly vibe about the place. We quickly got chatting to a lovely American couple, Josh and Celena, and beer, food and conversation flowed. They were on a 3-month break and had already been to Vietnam, Cambodia and Bali so we got loads of tips and ideas from them.
I can't recall if it was this night that we discovered Paul's Revolut card had been cloned and someone in Goa was attempting to get cash out of a machine! Fortunately, we have a security setting turned on that stops card transactions happening if they are not in the same location as the app on his phone. As they were totally different it had been declined but now we had to see if we could get a new card out to us.
The following day we decided we would do the boat tour so got up early for breakfast and rushed down to the boats, our young lad wasn’t there but as it was only 7:45 we thought we'd wait for him. At 5 mins to 8, nearly all the boats had gone and this one lady had started desperately trying to sell her boat tour instead of us waiting and I was just starting to think we might have to use her instead when our guy leisurely pulls up. The boats are narrow wooden things, only wide enough for one wooden chair so you all sit in a line but they are quite long and at the back there is a motor that the driver can move up or down depending on how deep the water is.
The boat trip is amazing and you can tell your boat driver if there is anything that you do or don't want to see, but to begin with we were happy to go with the flow and see everything. The lake itself is vast with crystal clear water, so you can see the weeds that grow prolifically just under the surface, it looks very inviting but I suspect freezing cold. First stop was a local market, Paul was still deeply engrossed in online chats with Revolut but we wandered around gazing at the beautiful things that we had no room to carry and hence couldn't buy. I did note with some joy that silver is a huge thing on Inle Lake, but I told Paul to keep a tight control of my wallet so I didn't go mad and buy everything. Next was the village of Indein, which had another market and 1000’s of ancient pagodas dotted around a hillside. They have started repairing and repainting some of the pagodas but we both found the old crumbly ones more beautiful.
After a couple of hours wandering about we returned to the boat and set off once more down the little side rivers leading from the lake. They have built a series of water steps or locks to control the water flow, they are only half a foot high or so but there is one narrow opening in the middle that water gushes though and it's this that you line the boat up with and go full throttle through. At some points it's more like a log flume than a river boat trip but great fun and yes sometimes you get wet.
Down one of these waterways you come across what they call the floating garden, which is allotments made on rafts of lake weed, so they bob and float on the lake. They grow tomatoes and all sorts of produce that they use and sell and the markets.
Next stop much to my pleasure and Paul's horror was a silversmith. Here we learnt and were shown how they extract the silver and then make bowls, jewellery, and ornaments, which of course they all had on sale next door. Oh dear, this was never going to end well but I managed to restrict myself to just one pair of silver studs. After this stop we requested that our lad driver didn't take us to anymore 'shops' or markets but sick to the pagodas and monasteries, which he was fine with.
For lunch we were taken to one of the restaurants on stilts and although we weren't that hungry we welcomed the chance to have a beer and some veg tempura. The afternoon was spent gliding around some more bright gold pagodas and monasteries and watching the general comings and going off the lake.
The most famous of the lake business’s is the fishermen, as they have learnt to row their boats by wrapping one leg around the oar and can then move their boats but keep their hands free for the nets or baskets. Sadly, some have learnt that if you pose in the traditional one-legged style for a boat load of tourists that they get money for photos. Our driver knew of this scam and wouldn't stop at these boats and told us which fishermen were genuine and hence would not pose but you can take pictures for free. We did briefly break our no shop rule as they hand roll cheroots on Inle Lake and we stopped for a quick lesson and got some mint flavoured ones to take away.
After a wonderful full day on the lake we headed to the hotel for showers and change of clothes and made plans to meet Celena and Josh again for drinks and food later that evening. We met them back at the Ever Light bar and as the food was so good that's where we stayed. Sandeep even came over and took our picture so he could put it up on the wall the next day - It was a great evening.
The next day we decided that as breakfast at our hotel had been so bad the previous morning that we wouldn't bother getting up for it and would have a later brunch at a restaurant, we found a great little Chinese place called Lucky Star that did all-day breakfast options and we stuffed ourselves with homemade bread, proper unsalted butter, eggs and soup.
Sadly, our day went a little awry after that as we thought we'd be organised and go buy our train tickets for the following day. The train station was about 13km away, so we negotiated a tuk tuk (really a pickup truck with benches in the back) to take us there and back for 8k kyat, which was actually a good price but it turned out to be a waste.
On arriving at the train station we noticed it was deserted, eventually after a few shouts into an empty office what looks like another customer asks us what we want. We explain we need tickets to Thazi tomorrow and after a phone call he explains you can't buy them today but only tomorrow morning! We'd heard vague stories of trains being full and people being stuck here but as there was no way we were getting a ticket now there wasn't much we could do, so we got back in our truck and headed back to the hotel. By this time it's mega hot outside and both of us are slightly grumpy, irritated and worried about leaving tomorrow so we hid from the 36-degree heat in a nearby bar and sorted through photos and paperwork.
In the evening we thought we'd treat ourselves to a highly recommended restaurant on one of the back streets, it wasn't hard to find and we were shown upstairs to a pretty wooden veranda with tables and chairs, unfortunately through a series of unfortunate events and lack of communication by the staff our dinner was a disaster. First, they had a long power cut which obviously effected timing in the kitchen, there didn't seem to be any candles so people had to start using their mobile phones to see, then there was a lot of confusion over my drinks (all I wanted was a glass of wine), when the food arrived it was cold and although I’d ordered medium spice it wasn’t spicy at all and in Paul's case the meal was totally wrong. At this point all staff disappeared so we couldn't tell anyone about the problems and we just wanted to leave. I ate my dinner which was ok but very bland and Paul waited patiently to send his back. Eventually one girl came back and we explained the problems and that we just wanted the bill. It seemed she didn't understand as no bill came and we had to walk downstairs to see the manager, she was very apologetic but we'd had enough so paid for what we'd eaten and left. I’m sure they were just having a bad day and things don’t normally go that wrong but it didn’t leave a very good impression on us.
We ended up back at Ever light where although we did have to wait for ages for food it was in good company as Celena and Josh were there, with decent beer and when the food came it was awesome. They had even printed our picture and after much discussion decided to put it on a very prominent post in the middle of the bar! Finally, we did the walk back to our hotel along the freshly tarmac road, that they had literally installed before our eyes over the last 3 days and packed our bags for the early train we hoped to catch.
Pre-dawn we are packed and at the reception hoping that the taxi man we spoke to the previous evening would remember our hotel and pick us up in time for our train. He did arrive and getting to watch the sun rise over the nearby mountains on our way to the station was one of my Inle Lake highlights. The train station was a lot busier now and we got tickets in upper class easier, so the worry was over. This train journey from Shwenyaung to Thazi comes highly recommended as another beautiful journey through Myanmar’s mountain towns and scenery, so we were both really looking forward to it. I can’t gush enough about how beautiful it was and the pictures do not do it justice so I urge anyone reading this to come and see it yourself. Personally, I found it better than the Hsipaw train journey that we did when we first arrived.
It was made extra special as we had our own little guardian by the way of a female monk / nun that was sitting across the aisle from us. She fed us fruit and pastries and sweets for the entire 11 hr journey but refused anything I could offer her (which wasn’t much) and told us in broken English when we had time to get off the train to look around. She even offered me her only bag of coffee (coffee to go comes in a plastic bag with a straw, so you can drink it on trains). She was amazing.
10 hrs seemed to fly by and the sunset as we came into Thazi was stunning.
I must admit that Thazi after such a perfect day was a bit of a disappointment, I’d heard that there was nothing here to see or do but I wasn’t prepared for it being basically a highway with a few shops. I was quite tired and hungry and this point though so maybe I was being unkind. We took a horse and cart taxi to the only dingy looking guesthouse in town and hoped they had room, which of course they did and the £12 a night price tag was an acceptable cost. We decided to stay and eat at the guesthouse as the other prospects looked grim and to our surprise it was really good Chinese style cooking, things were looking up and I went to bed with a much more positive outlook than when I’d arrived.
Morning came and now that we knew it was only 10 min walk to the station we decided to walk as we were going to be sat on another train for 12 hrs today. Our hosts quickly appeared when we got downstairs and a full breakfast of rice pancakes, toast and jam, fruit and coffee appeared before us, apparently all included in our room rate! It was a perfect start to the day and we set off to the station. We arrived a bit early and so had to wait with a lot of other local people to buy our tickets, but people watching in Myanmar had become a favourite pastime of mine.
This train journey was not as pleasant as the train carriage we were in didn’t have windows that you could open and see out of and the ventilation was poor, so a hot and sticky 12 hrs commenced until we arrived about 9pm. A quick taxi ride to our hotel and we had made it to our home for the next 5 nights, in the bright city lights of Yangon.
Link to Inle Lake to Yangon Photos