Life around Inle Lake
After the boat ride over Inle Lake we arrived in Nyaung Shwe, I hopped off the boat and headed towards Princess Hotel. Ever Smile trekking brought the groups excess luggage there so I picked up my ukulele and things I didn’t want to carry on the hike. I made my way to Sounds of Music hostel. It was a great spot with clean showers, strong air conditioning and a nice rooftop. I was due for a rest and good shower after the hike. When I arrived there was a sign at the hostel for a winery tour in a few hours.
Nyaung Shwe is in a gorgeous spot sitting alongside Inle Lake. Almost everyone visits at some point when traveling through Myanmar. Local and western foods are readily available, many of which taste great. Some local foods can be found at a reasonable price but most food is priced much higher than the average in Myanmar. It is a city that attracts many foreigners and tourists so it is common to see foreigners walking in the streets of town.
I spent the afternoon taking a bike ride out to the winery with some people from the hostel. It wasn’t really a tour of the winery, more of a wine taste testing. I ran into some of my friends from the Bagan Biker Gang (who I saw in Kalaw and explored some temples with previously in Bagan). We sat, laughed and chatted while watching the sunset over Nyaung Shwe, the valley and Inle Lake. It was a beautiful night.
The group of us met up for dinner afterwards and then brought the party down to Chillax, a local bar just a minute up the road. There was a local band playing some great music. After a few drinks I ended up playing a few songs on the guitar and ukulele. It was a great night with live music at the bar (& staying open until 0100 am which is very late for Myanmar standards), and finished the night with a smooth bicycle ride back to the hostel.
I sent a message to my English friend Jack [who I met on the train from Yangon to Bagan] and we met up at French Touch Cafe. Very nice but expensive. I explained to him my plans to go to Myitkyina, the most northerly part of Myanmar that can be visited without a permit. He was all in for the plans to see another part of Myanmar and leave the tourist towns behind. We both has plenty of time with our visas so that shouldn’t be an issue.
I have loved my time in Myanmar so far. Yangon was great, the temples in Bagan were breathtaking, the hike from Kalaw to Inle lake was phenomenal and the people have been great. I came to this country seeking my own adventure off the tourist trail, so I am going out to find it.
We picked up tickets for the overnight bus to Mandalay that night. Uncertain of when the train would leave Mandalay for Myitkyina it was best to arrive early. After a quick lunch and packing up my things I sat on the rooftop enjoying the evening breeze. I could start feeling a buzz of anticipation with the thought of heading into some areas of Myanmar that are much less traveled .
Jack met at Song of Travel hostel and a bus picked us up at 0630 pm. It was a VIP bus that cost 15,000 kyat, we arrived in Mandalay around 0400 am. I had finally fallen asleep on the bus and I then I was awoken. “Mandalay, MANDALAY! Anyone else need to get off in Mandalay?! Next stop Pyin Oo Lwin!” I woke up drowsy hearing this man yelling that it was my stop to get off. Being partially startled and half asleep I rushed to quickly gather my luggage and my bag from the compartment under the bus.
Jack and I took a taxi directly to the train station unsure of the train schedule as it is often not up to date online. There was a train scheduled Mandalay to Myitkina at 0515 am, the timing was great but there are no sleeper beds on the 0515 am train. There was no benefit to waiting around half the day for the 0130 pm sleeper so we booked tickets on the 24 hour long train for 12,500 kyat in first class seats. The seats reclined and had cushion that were generously padded for Myanmar standards.
Shit! I exclaimed out loud only now realizing that I left my ukulele on the upper storage compartment of the bus. It was well on its way to Hsipaw and I was about to get on a train heading more than 700 kilometers north of Mandalay. Not much I could do about it so there was no need to worry about it. Jack and I went to an ATM and had a coffee before heading back to the train station for the long ride ahead.
The train ride was similar to the ride from Yangon to Bagan. Bumping and buzzing, swinging back and forth, just seeming to avoid derailment. The seats were padded but after a certain number of hours riding and banging around in the seat it was exhausting.
The monsoon seems to be in full effect in the north, massive flooding is noticed everywhere I look out the train window. Rice fields looking like big lakes, massive bodies of water moving through fields, houses underwater and roads flooded; I could barely believe my eyes. Unfortunately because of the flooding of the train tracks we were delayed 4.5 additional hours. A kind policeman came around and gave us an update after waiting for 2 hours.
The train finally started moving again so Jack went to another carriage to find a couple open seats to sleep on. Within ten minutes we stopped at another station. A local woman came on the train selling food so I bought some leches and deep fried tofu to try. I thought I’d be nice and offer Jack some but he was completely asleep by the time I found where he was sitting. He did mention that he loves trains and took the trans-Siberian-Mongolian train; looks like he had done the impossible and became conditioned to riding the train in Myanmar. I only managed a few minutes of sleep at a time throughout the ride, smashing my head on the window or arm rest anytime I seemed to find a good spot.
The train had no air conditioner and the windows were all open. Many bugs, Mosquitos and insects were flying inside of the carriage. Throughout the ride I couldn’t believe my eyes seeing all of the flooding in the north. The people, community, environment and economy must be gravely impacted from the flooding brought on by the monsoon.
This was one of the longest journeys I have taken to date. The train was scheduled to arrive at 0515 am a full 24 hours after leaving Mandalay. Arriving in Myitkyina around 0945 am because of the delay we were in transit for nearly 40 hours since leaving Nyaung Shwe two days prior.
The accommodation options were scarce inb Myitkyina. We stayed at the YMCA as it was one of the only places that was allowed to provide accommodation for foreigners. It cost $10 USD/ night for a pretty run-down building.
After dropping off our things we went for a wander on the town. I was surprised we weren’t the only ones having a beer at the Riverside Bar at 1000 am, there were quite a few locals having a morning pint. The restaurant is set on the Irrawaddy River, it flows all the way from the north to the south of Myanmar. It is the biggest river within the country, used for many commercial purposes, bathing, washing, laundry, drinking; just about everything you can imagine.
The afternoon continued to drizzle rain so we decided to get massages; the lady working the reception at the YMCA recommended a ‘blind massage’ parlour. It took a while to find the place in the rain but was worth it. We each got a massage by a blind person for 6000 kyat. The place was full of customers, blind massage therapists and the other people working to keep the business flowing. The massage was well done, more of a muscular massage than traditional Burmese massage. It was really nice to see the business doing well and providing opportunies for the blind to work.
The people in Myitkina were kind and friendly with us. While Jack and I walked down the street the local people kept about doing their daily business. Many waved and some girls would giggle as my long haired English friend Jack and me with my burly beard walked by. We didn’t find much in Myitkina but the smiles we received when walking around the market and local areas were priceless.
As the rain continued throughout the day Jack and I decided we would move on the following day as it rains less frequently a bit more south. We picked up some tickets from the train station. Despite a long time in transit; the trip north has been beyond my expectations and rewarding. It is challenging to describe the people, the cues and the cultural differences but they were certainly apparent compared the people in the south.
Eating dinner at the restaurant next door to the YMCA we met an interesting English guy named Henry. He had spent the past year in Turkey for school and has hitchhiked around many parts of Europe and Asia. Currently hitching around Myanmar he had many stories about troubles and unique experiences along his way from sleeping in the temples in Bagan to drinking whiskey with the police on the train. He was also staying at the YMCA and decided to head to Hopin on the train in the morning with Jack and I.
We stopped in at the bakery for the second time in two days on the way to the train station. I had some Indian pizza and cookies. Definitely the best baked goods I have had since the Kalaw bakery.
Arriving at the train station at 0810 am for our 0820 am train we ran into Henry. Heavy rains, flooding and other problems have caused a delay. In no rush with no idea when the train was coming I took out my chinloo ball and we kicked it around playing keep-up for a while. The locals seemed amused as a larger crowd gathered around us curious to see whether we could keep the ball in the air. Eventually someone came over to us and signaled that the train was coming shortly, we finally left the station at 0945 am.
We found our way to our seats and spent about 4.5 hours on the train arriving in Hopin around 0230 pm. Riding first class we had a thick cushion for our ass. Henry was in ordinary class with wooden seats and no cushion. He joined us for most of the ride and no one was bothered.
Windows fully open, travelling slow, it was easy to take in and enjoy the landscapes of rice fields and communities. The train is bumpy but it provides an amazing local perspective of the people. The three of us guys were the only foreigners on the train. I’ve loved the train travel and wouldn’t trade any of my rides for busses ride or flights.
The train pulled into the train station at Hopin and as we walked off a few local people came to us and asked where we were heading. After stating that we were going to Lonton on Indwagyi Lake we were quoted 5,000 kyat for the ride to town. We were able to bargain the price down to 4,000 kyat but the truck taxi wouldn’t go down any further. Henry decided that he would save the money and hitchhike to town, it was mid-afternoon and the journey was about 45 minutes driving so it was a curious decision because a walk to town wouldn’t be do-able by dark and the sky was filled with dark clouds.
We sat on the top of the back of the truck and drove off. Thinking that we were headed straight to Lonton we took a left hand turn into a subdivision and the two men from the truck signaled us to stay in the back. We sat and waited for 30 minutes unsure of what the guys were doing, they eventually returned. They went back to the house and brought out loads of things filling up the back of the truck. Finally we were on the move again and turned down another street, and then took a left hand turn into the police station. We were getting a bit anxious riding in the top of the truck. The guys spoke with the police, they wanted to see our passports and asked a few questions. It didn’t take long and then we were back on our way.
The road was winding left and right, up and down. It started to rain, and then it started to pour, getting soaked riding on the roof there was nothing to do but laugh and enjoy the ride. We stopped before heading up a portion of the road that went up a massive hill, the guy driving and his assistant poured water on the engine trying to cool it down. Getting closer to Lonton we made two additional stops in different towns making deliveries that the guys had loaded up.
The rain had eased up, Jack and I were enjoying the adventure the ride was bringing. All of a sudden…
Tsssss, psssssh, crack, thud!! “Uh oh, that didn’t sound good”, I said as I looked over to Jack. An older man had tried to pass the truck with his motorbike on the road and got taken out by the truck we were driving. To give some context; the whole width of the road is about the same as one lane by Canadian standards. People don’t usually pass unless they honk their horn a few times. People in Myanmar drive on the right side of the road and the drivers seat in on the right hand side of the vehicle so everyone has a big blind spot.
It wasn’t a good scene, though we couldn’t see much, our driver and the driver of the motorbike were yelling. Things were heating up quickly between the two of them, soon they were yelling. I was bending in an awkward position trying to see the scene unfold but couldn’t see much and didn’t see a purpose in getting out of the truck. It turned into a full-on fist fight between the two men. The driver of the motorbike ended up with a bloody nose and a broken up motorbike. For Jack and I the worst part of the incident may have been all of the local people driving past the truck waving excitedly seeing two white men travelling on the roof of a truck in an area they don’t usually see, then us waving back… and then driving past the vehicle and seeing that there was a collision on the other side.
It was all sorted out, well sort of anyways and we again started to drive. The man driving turned around and signaled to us that the guy driving the motorbike was crazy. Jack and I both agreed with the driver that it must have been the crazy guy on the motorbike’s fault. We kept driving along and must have seen three or four different people fixing their motorbikes on the side of the road. In this part of Myanmar we were getting the ‘double look’ from many people. Riding on the roof we would be passing a guy working on his motorbike he would look up casually to see who is passing by, turn back to keep fixing his bike, and then again turn back and stare at the two of us sitting atop the truck.
When we arrived in Lonton there was a policeman signaling the truck to pull over to the side of the road. Uh oh, the man from the motorbike accident must had called and reported the issue to the police. The police officer had taken the two men from the front of the truck to the station and I mentioned to him that I need to go to the washroom. His answer wasn’t clear on what I should do about it but they went up to the station. Jack and I quickly hopped out of the back of the truck and headed by foot into town, we couldn’t see the incident and the accident had nothing to do with us anyway. Lonton is a very small rural village so it was only a couple minutes walk.
As we walked in town we saw someone walking towards us. No way, yes way, it was Henry. He managed to beat us into town getting a few rides and hitchhiking right into Lonton shortly after he started walking from Hopin. We spoke with him for a few minutes and we saw the policeman drive his motorbike into town and then back out passing us two times.
Indawgyi lake is the biggest lake in Myanmar and one of the biggest in Southeast Asia. No one talks much about it, I read a lonely planet guide from a few years prior and it didn’t even mention the lake. Lonton is the only town that foreigners are allowed to stay in on Indawgyi Lake. Within this town the only place to stay was Indaw Mahar Guesthouse. As we walked in we met the owner who was a friendly man but didn’t speak much english. The first thing he did was walk us to the back of the guesthouse and open the balcony doors, he had a big smile on his face, we looked out and so did we. It was beautiful, sitting right on the lake with a 180 degree view, it could not have been any better. It was Jack and I, and only four other people staying in the guesthouse (the few of us were the only ones staying in Lonton and on the lake). This environment provided a very local and peaceful atmosphere.
I loved this place, it is stunning visually and culturally. It is a good place to hang out, and do some activities. Renting bicycles are available to ride through the local villages around the lake. I spent a couple days hanging out, swimming in the lake. I brought my chinloo ball out and played on the road for a few hours a couple different days. A couple local guys came out and joined in with us, we were able to keep the caneball up more than 50 times. It was a ton of fun.
There are only a few restaurant options in Lonton, four of which seemed to be the places to eat. It was very well priced simple local food that tasted great. There isn’t much of a party culture in Myanmar, non-existent in this town. Despite this the whiskey is readily available for a very cheap price. On a rainy day, Jack and I went to the restuarant and had some lunch along with a bottle of whiskey, we sat and relaxed having a fun afternoon getting tipsy with another English friend we had met. With the 26 ounce bottle of whisky available for $2.50 Canadian it barely had an impact on my budget. We went back to the guesthouse and met up with a few other friends and spent the afternoon on the patio overlooking the lake. Watching the fisherman and local people passing by in boats, having a few more drinks. We all made our way down to the restaurant and bought a few more bottles of whisky. The night was a ton of fun, we played some games and somehow ended up in the lake just off the balcony. After travelling together for so long Jack and I were due for a good drinking night.
On an overcast day we rented some kayaks and went over to Shwe Myitzu Pagoda, it is a floating pagoda sitting atop of the water. Because the walking path to the pagoda was flooded people coming from the mainland required a boat. The kayaking took us longer than expected, the lake is massive but it was great to see the pagoda. We decided that we would head to Hepu, a small town on the other side of the lake. It was indicated to have a ‘Bakery and Treats’ in the town so we spent a while paddling over. Unsure of where the town was exactly located we headed towards the area that looked the closest to the map. We seemed to paddling forever and not getting any closer to the land. Hunger was starting to catch up with us, our hopes for the bakery in the village grew as we neared. A man was fishing from his boat and signaled to us where the trail was to get into the town.
We parked our kayaks and walked through the muddy waters finding our way to the main street of town. As we walked down the dirt road it was an amazing experience, the kids from the houses ran towards the road waving and yelling ‘mingalaba’ and laughing as we walked through the town. The older people in the town also waved as we walked by, it was obvious that very few foreigners make it into this town.
We were having trouble finding the bakery, with no english in the town, nothing noting of a bakery or baked good or even a tea shop. Eventually an old man stopped us and we were able to communicate to him that we were looking for tea and something to eat. He signaled us to follow him across the street and then stopped halfway across. He seemed to have changed his mind and again signaled us to follow him towards his shop/house. We walked through the front shop and through into the back. His whole family appeared to be sitting there chatting. The woman was making dozens and dozens of coconut dumplings. We had a seat, my friend was able to communicate a few simple sentences with the family but most of the communication was non-verbal. Smiling and laughing we had a really nice time with them hanging out. They offered us some tea and fresh coconut dumplings, then offered us more, and again some more dumplings. It was going to be dark soon so we had to leave to kayak back to the other side of the lake. The man and family would not take any money from us for the treats, we shook their hands and said goodbye. Thankfully we were able to make it back with the kayaks just as the sun had set.
After extending our stay twice in Lonton we were due to move on so we organized a truck taxi to drive us the following morning. We had a tasty breakfast, packed our things and got into the back of the truck bound for Hopin.