Lake Inle, a tonic for the soul

With the local bus departing from Bagan eastward, scenes of the fiery red temples of the plains were no more. Like a new kid on the block eager to show off his toys, I was treated to a tasting platter of Myanmar’s geographical greatness- its friendly yet unfamiliar road side villages, its dusty terrains, its green rolling mountains, and eventually a scene of a vast carpet of grass soaking in the late afternoon sun, granting only the sneakiest peak of the pristine lakes hidden beyond. It was 10 hours later that I arrived at Nyaungshwe, gateway to the capital of Myanmar’s placid lake side living, Lake Inle. The contrast with Bagan was incredible.

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Lake Inle was not part of the original plan. As I would like to visit Luang Prabang in Laos, the easiest means of getting there is to catch a Monday flight from Chiang Mai, Thailand. With 3 days to spare after Bagan, my next destination was a tossup between Mandalay and Lake Inle. The latter just sounded so much more interesting, and I was not disappointed.

Arriving at Nyaungshwe, the largest town in the vicinity, it is hard to fathom the vastness of Lake Inle. Nyaungshwe itself has not much going for it, though it’s the most convenient base to explore the region, with good array of travellers’ amenities (by Myanmar’s standards). It was here which I witness one of Myanmar’s wonder- a ferris wheel ‘powered’ entirely by human strength. Sadly, it being off season during my travels, I didn’t actually get to see it work.

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The only way to explore Lake Inle is to hop on a hired motored boat, the choiced method of transportation for locals too- though the tourists’ version is probably less rickety, its boatman speaks a few word of English and the actual boat itself even comes with a wooden armchair and life jackets (which i wore during the entire trip with no shame, much to the amusement of the locals who zoomed me past).

The boat journey from Nyaungshwe was a slow meandering past the town’s canals into the main lake, followed by an exhilarating full speed burst toward the southern end of the lake. Formed around the lake are interesting floating markets, villages on stilts, gardens, water-bound temples and ancient ruins. Amidst the sun set, stunning views of local fishermen peddling their boats with their bare legs were as unforgettable as they were timeless. It was a fascinating sight of how peoples’ lives revolve around the lake, and how the latter came to life at the presence of its inhabitants.

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Whether it is the image of the fishermen taking a bath at the muddy water at the end of a hard day’s of work; or of their wives using the same canal to wash up their dishes after a sumptuous meal; or of their kids cheerfully cooling themselves in the scorching sun, life at Lake Inle is a demonstration of contentment at its simplest.

Lake Inle is almost non-descript, yet strangely intoxicating. It’s a tonic for the soul.

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A slingshot from Bagan

My thoughts were momentarily interrupted by the abrupt stop of the enchanting sound of the hired pony cart. The driver hopped down from his seat, seemingly having found something. He picked up a wooden carved slingshot left on the ground (a child’s toy, he said), not an easy spot in these sandy vast plains. With a few swipes to clean off the dirt and sand, he proceeded to show me how it’s used with a few rocks he picked up. You can scare off dogs, see? He suggested I keep it as a souvenir. Sure, but my mind was still with the awe-inspiring sunset views of Bagan just moments earlier.

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The trip from Yangon to Bagan was a lot more difficult than I had anticipated. As internet bookings for air tickets are not available in this country, I approached a local air line agent only to discover that the official ticketing offices are closed during the weekends. Despite knowing that mine is no longer a business of theirs, the office manager had his entire team researched for options of my itinerary, sat me down with a warm cup of tea and carefully ensured that I knew what to do. It was but one of the many genuine moments of kindness I experienced from the local people.

My only bet was therefore to arrive at the airport early before the 6.20am flight and purchase the ticket directly from the desk. I arrived 2 hours in advance, lurked around the unopened airport doors just so to make sure that I would be the first in queue (I wasn’t- the locals’ ability to arrive late, flag their cash and cut queues should not be underestimated). I felt like I was on the Amazing Race.

Despite the troubles in getting there, Bagan is worth every bit of the effort. It is as spectacular as I imagined it would be.

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Bagan is an archaeological site in central Myanmar, spanning some 40 square kilometres. The grand plains are dotted with closed to 4,000 temples, many of which suffered from neglect, erosion, looting or are simply destroyed during earthquakes. Of those that remain standing (according to my guide, there are still more than 2,000 left), many were restored in a dodgy and un-historical manner (it is not uncommon to see some temples whose paint colour look somewhat different from the rest); and for that reason, unlike its more famous cousin the Angkor Wat in Cambodia, Bagan has not been included by Unesco as a world heritage site.

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The Bagan region is massive, and it will take weeks, maybe even months to explore every single one of the temples. Geographically, Bagan can be divided into 3 main areas: Nyaung U, Old Bagan and New Bagan. Most of the important temples are found at the region surrounding Old Bagan, while the other 2 areas offer better lodging and amenities.

The most famous temples include: Ananda Pahto– the most imposing and awe inspiring; Sulamani Pahto– said to be the prettiest; Thatbyinnyu Pahto– the tallest; and Dhammayangyi Pahto– the largest temple, a red colossus. At sunset, the pagodas of Pyathada and Shwesandaw will offer some unforgettable views, destined to be etched in its viewers’ memories.  Get contend with the presence of many other tourists and the sound of vendors selling 15 postcards at 3,000 Kyats at these prime spots, though.

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What makes Bagan such an incredibly romantic site is that apart from these famous temples, there are thousands other to explore, many abandoned and forgotten, but each seems to have its own secret story to tell. Hop on to a bike, rent a car, or hire a horse cart, and explore a piece of Bagan that seems worlds apart from the rest of civilisation. Get up close with the local people who have learnt the art of living among the ruins throughout the centuries, or observe the unassuming farmers guide his herds into the beautiful sunset. It will be moments like these which make Bagan most fulfilling.

I left after 3 days at this magical site, feeling that I could easily spend another few more. As for the slingshot, it sits firmly in my haversack. As a piece of Bagan I am bringing home, it’s indeed not too bad a souvenir at all.

The mystical land of Myanmar

In contrast to how the country seems to have stuck in a time warp, my urge to visit Myanmar was always akin to that of a ticking clock. Please don’t change Myanmar, a land so mysterious it still goes by 2 names, please don’t change. Whilst my trip has enjoyed the modern amenities of having ATMs at prime tourist spots, or official banks which would accept my USDs (my copy of Lonely Planet, which mustn’t have been terribly outdated, has suggested changing currencies only at the black market, for it is the only way to obtain the official exchange rate, paradoxically), or even sporadic internet which is observed to work best at 6-7am (don’t bother at night); nothing quite prepared me for this endlessly fascinating country which is fast changing. My initial plan to spend 4 nights in Myanmar was extended to five, before willfully resigning myself to eight. Other places can wait.

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All international travellers will arrive at Yangon, capital city in soul and spirit (the official capital city was moved to Naypyidaw a few years ago). Travelling within and out of the country is tricky, as land borders are largely closed to neighbouring countries. As I would be visiting Laos this trip, my only feasible option was to transit from Chiang Mai, Thailand, which isn’t the easiest of tasks either as there are only 2 flights each week from Yangon (one of which found to be sold out, leading to a last minute scrambling of itinerary), and oh, no internet booking. I have my flights reserved through phone with very careful annunciation of my name in English, alphabet-by-alphabet, but was told that tickets can be collected only at the airport, and with cash only. At the time of writing, I have no idea if the attendant messed up my request and if I will be making the flight.

It is restrictions like these which have made Myanmar so incredibly endearing. The local people are some of the friendliest I’ve ever met on my travels (and I have done many), many seemed almost humbled by your visits. It is here that you learn to cope, tolerate, appreciate the little things in life and take absolutely nothing for granted.

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Inland, there are still parts of the country not opened to tourists, the allowed regions forming the rough shape of a triangle encompassing places such as Yangon, Bagan, Mandalay and Lake Inle. Yangon, the main city is a bustling hub with all the flavours of a South East Asian city with an addicting laid back vibe minus the tourist hordes. It is what I imagine places such as Bangkok to be like before foreign visitors dominate the cityscape.  The city has several beautiful pagodas worth visiting, with the crown jewel undoubtedly being the Shwedagon Paya. I visited it during a Sunday night with a slight drizzle few hours before it closed. Walking along the marbled floor barefoot (shoes are not allowed) with few other visitors amidst the enchanting golden glitter of the pagodas was quite a surreal experience.

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Rather by chance, I hopped on to a ‘circle line’ train which services local people from Yangon to its suburbs, but has since in itself becomes a tourist attraction (it even has a tripadvisor page). It was a fascinating 3 hours ride costing next to nothing at 400 MMK ($0.40 USD) offering a glimpse into the lives of the Myanmar people, many of whom live in impoverished conditions along the railroads. I came across a local newspaper reporting that the government is currently accepting tenders to ring fence the circle line with brick works for security reasons, so such sights may soon become history. I wonder what will happen to the local people.

The rest of my time in Yangon was spent exploring its downtown absorbing its sight, scent and sound; where streets laid perpendicularly, and where everyone seemed to be selling something, from bolts and nuts to lacquerware to street food that looks dangerously delicious.

Like a lost sheep in front of a skilled herder, I am hopelessly drawn into the mystique of Myanmar. I can’t wait to see what lies ahead.