Asia, Extreme Sports, Myanmar, Travel

Kayaking on Inle Lake

For many, Inle Lake is the light at the end of an exhausting exhilarating tunnel. After a two or three day hike from Kalaw reaching a haven of luxury in comparison, where beer and massages are a plenty. For others, Inle Lake is a picturesque town in which they can observe local life from afar and in lavish and plush hotels settled on the lake.

For me; it was a tourist hotspot, where backpackers, flash packers and holiday makers all merge to celebrate the beauty of Inle lake, whilst being jostled for attention from boatmen, restaurant owners and taxi drivers.

Being dropped off by the night bus at the neighbouring town of Shwen Yaung (confusingly called as the town near to Inle Lake is called Nyaung Shwe) I stepped off the 15 hour night bus dazed and confused, whilst the bus driver began to already plot with awaiting taxi drivers for a commission filled ride for me, as if a vulture tantalising other predators with a piece of fresh meat. Dismissing the becks and cries for a taxi and exclamations of it being “very far!” I asked local passers-by where exactly I was on the helpful offline app, mapsme.

Unfortunately for me, the map wasn’t as helpful as I thought as my GPS location wasn’t installed in my settings and after being told by a polite local I was “on the right road”, I calmly walked on, unaware of the far-flung distance I was, and the treacherous trek to arrive there. Sweat began to form at the top of my sticky forehead, my back and backpack merged together in a sweet marriage of sweat, and as the midday sun continued to beat down on my tired aching body and my 15 kg luggage, I soon quickly realised just how far I had to travel. I laughed at my stubbornness at refusing a taxi driver and began to wearily plod along the path ahead debating whether to hitchhike once again in Myanmar or not.

Luckily, good fortune was bestowed upon me and an angel appeared from the heavens, (a local donned in army uniform balancing a bouncing baby on a passing scooter). He took pity on me and pulled over, asking if I would like a lift. A bit wary, I looked at my overflowing luggage and his curious child on the front of his motorbike, but he reassured me that it was fine. Taking me to the tourist checkpoint, (all tourists have to pay 12,500 kyat when entering Inle Lake), I soon found out that he worked for the ministry, his baby was two years old, and that heading into Inle Lake was an 11km journey from where I had started. After dropping me off to pay at the checkpoint, I began to walk reluctantly again, rapidly finding myself on the back of another motorbike heading into town by another local. Turning him down to be my personal bodyguard “in case of troubles”, I told him I was strong enough and headed to my hostel. Thanking my blessings, I arrived relieved that I’d managed to hitchhike from helpful locals and slightly windswept.

The town is larger to Hpa An, luxurious hotels and numerous restaurants embedded into a sprawl of local life and businesses, where tourism is beginning to make its mark, infecting the simplicity of local life that lives here. The similar looking tour companies and neighbouring massage parlours line the streets, turning the town as if into a hall of mirrors with commercialism as its terror. Of course, a boat trip around Inle lake is why tourists flock to this town, wanting to be whisked away on water, embracing the natural scenes of fisherman casting their nets in hope for a enormous haul to feed their family.

Wait and head down to the river before bartering with a boat man, to ensure you get a fair price- as the main business are boat trips, so there are a number of boatmen who will approach you whilst walking down the street. When arranging a boat trip confirm where you want to go on the boat trip; popular places are the floating market, lotus making and the long necked tribal women, as well as stating that if you do or don’t want to visit any shops.

I had previously booked an all-day cycle, kayak and boat trip with Grasshopper Adventures. The cycle was a 25 kilometre route around Inle lake, whizzing through local villages on dusty tracks alongside beaming school children playing absent mildly outside, watching wondrous women at work, plucking tea leaves in the solicitude and silence of still rice fields, passing towering crop plantations and lonely dogs, only stopping for a snack of freshly made local salads or an explanation of a certain crop. As cycling really isn’t my forte, I struggled at times, balancing along a narrow edge alongside paddy fields or up dry paths cracked and withered in the sun.

After lunching at a guesthouse in a local village on the river, where my guide bombarded me with information about Inle Lake and the cook fattened me up with course after course, we came to the highlight of the tour- the kayaking on Inle Lake. Paddling through a local village, we raced pristine schoolchildren in their boats, paddling courageously on their own and floated past houses on stilts where children happily splashed in the river for an afternoon swim, and mothers washed their laundry in the murky waters.

I felt that I had gained a glimpse into the private life of locals, far away from the tourist eye. But I also felt like I was intruding, invading this calm sphere of life, with my garish life jacket and bright kayak. I felt awkward. The active day was an exhausting one but the rigorous routine of the bicycle was broken up by a local boatman taking me and my guide to various other areas of the lake to continue cycling in different villages and environments around the lake. My highlight of the day was speeding over the smooth serene waters, where mountains towered in the distance and local fisherman fished in such a way it seemed as if they were a dancing an intimate river dance, embracing the waters and hoping to be rewarded with by a fruitful bounty.

Although incredibly expensive for a backpacker (80 dollars for the full day), if you are not on a budget and are travelling in a group or pair and want to catch a glimpse of what local life is like around Inle Lake whilst getting fit, this is the tour for you.

Another popular thing to do in Inle Lake is to hire a slightly rusty (and ever so creaky) bicycle from many of the tour operators in town and head around the lake, cycling one half and getting a boat across and cycling the rest of the way around the lake, a total of 6 hours. After quite a sore bum from a 7 hour cycling trip already, my friend and I decided to cycle half of the lake and then head back, heading as far as we could before having to cross the lake.

Passing corn swaying in the wind and noisy motorbikes that gracefully overtook us, we whizzed past noodle stops and local convenience stores (open spaces with hanging goods for sale). Whilst en route to some Pagoda Ruins, the Red Mountain Wine Estate is a wonderful place to admire the view over Inle lake (after a steep cycle up a hill). If you can afford to, give yourself a treat and rest your weary feet with a glass of wine, and even a plate of cheese.

Saving our kyat for local beer, we left the winery behind us and headed to the Forest Monastery, another tough and steep hill to ascend. Visiting the pagoda at the top was not as astonishing as other temples you will visit, but the monastery hiding under the loft boughs of the nearby forest, really is a gem. Trying not to disturb the chanting monks, we observed what their days were filled with: meditation and concentration.

Heading to the Natural Hot Springs was next on our agenda but with no obvious signposting and clambering through forgotten trials in the forest, we had no such luck of finding it.

Delicious restaurants are in abundance in Inle lake, but of course the price differs quite drastically from Hpa An. Nepalese food with warm masala chai satisfied my two yearlong craving at Everest 2 (second one to Kalaw).

Everlight is a tantalising Indian restaurant (where they take your picture and add it to the wall- so cute!) and Sin Yaw restaurant has an incredible selection of Shan food- get the Shan special and you’ll receive a mixture of Shan dishes in return, mostly vegetable dishes all cooked in varying styles and flavour, a real delight.

Watering hole’s glammed up for tourists can be found here too, but I mainly drank at my hostel (happy hour cocktails were two thousand kyat) or beer from local eateries for 800 kyat (quite the difference than the 1,500 kyat beers in the hostel).

My hostel was Ostello Bello– the hostel chain that is also present in Bagan and Mandalay. A dorm bed in an 8 bed mixed dorm with AC and a bathroom is 10 dollars, which is a little steep in comparison to other dorm beds in South East Asia. There are cheaper guest houses that have private rooms with fans and shared bathrooms for as little as 5 dollars like Joy Inn or Gypsy Inn but Ostello Bello is a very sociable hostel. Although a flash packer price; it’s free breakfast, tea and coffee, pasta tasting 3 times a day, happy hour, WIFI and fun activities attracts a vast majority of backpackers. Ostello Bello has everything you need in a hostel-it’s just definitely not an authentic guesthouse, that’s for sure.

Asia, Myanmar, Travel

Hpa An: A Destination for the Committed Traveller

Nestled down in the depths of the South East of the vast country of Myanmar, Hpa An is a destination that only the committed travellers venture down to. Its arduous journey and distance from the capital, as well as the main backpacker route, means when talking about this destination, you receive many blank expressions.

Needless to say, because of this, the town’s tourism industry is quite basic, with locals still amused and entertained by westerners and many lacking basic English (although still trying to be helpful-despite the language barrier!) making the town still authentic, as tourism has not made a significant impact on the place- yet.

There is not much to see in the town itself; a local mosque proudly chanting melodically to all those who will listen next to a bustling local market, dozens of local shops selling various hardware and other bric brac to suit daily needs, as well as cheap noodle cafes home to steaming broths and sticky tables. It’s easy to get lost within the town centre, where sights look similar and monks eagerly enquire, “Where you from?” on every street corner. Well at least I managed to, a number of times. Hitching a ride with a rusty truck that creaked past me, I leapt onto the back and shared the woven mat with napping Grandma’s and I was taken in the right direction I needed to go.  Rejecting my haste of giving some money to the family and pinching my love handles bemusedly, (I really must get rid of those) they let me off the truck, waving me goodbye as I headed into the town centre.

If you have some time whilst you are in Hpa An, it’s worth a stroll along Kan Than Yar lake, where hopeful fisherman sit and wait patiently, and couples sit nearby, whispering sweet nothings in each other’s ears. With the reflection of the voluptuous mountains behind onto the smooth shimmering surface, the lake is a calm and peaceful spot away from the noise and commotion of the town, where shops seem to pile on top of each other, jostling for space. Shwe Yin Myaw Pagoda (the only pagoda in town) is worth a wander around too. A view of a river stretches out into the distance reaching Mawlamyine, where temples and pagodas are in abundance. It’s a wonderful spot to catch sunset too.

What really draws travellers to Hpa An are the numerous amount of caves that are dottted around the outskirts of town, some miles apart from each other. It’s quite difficult to locate the caves with little signs and treacherous roads, so renting a motorbike and visiting them yourself can become a challenging task. Luckily, the hostel I stayed at, Soe Brothers, organises an all-day cave tour which visit six caves around the area. It is a long and sticky day, but it’s an incredible experience. You visit religious sites and sacred monuments that are hidden within the depths of enchanting cascading caves, which continuously drip water as you wander around, tinkering in the background, playing their own tune.

The Kyauk Ka Lat Pagoda, is a pagoda embedded into a suspended rock in the air, balancing on a precarious piece of rock, as if a natural piece of Jenga. A mystical and breath-taking sight.

Another favourite of mine was Sadan Cave. Walking in to the open space filled with glistening Buddha’s and ancient holy images crumbling off the walls, the cave is as if any other cave you have visited throughout the day. However, descending further and further into the darkness; past stagnant rock pools and over rickety bridges, you reach the other side of the cave. Where a bright clear opening invites you in, where thousands of bats hang upside down, sleeping serenely, and where at precisely 6pm, hundreds of bats flutter out into the sunset. A bewitching sight to see, I can only imagine.

Taking a two thousand kyat boat trip to the start of a nearby cave, you float under a dangerously low level wall of solid rock, narrowly missing your head as you quickly duck for cover. Be careful to not shine a torch up into the black darkness that looms above you, the sight of hundreds of bats nestled in gaping holes, lurking within rock faces, just might terrify you. The tour can be organised through either Soe Brothers or Soe Brothers 2 Guesthouse and varies in price depending on how many people sign up to the tour and share a tuk tuk with you.

Another wonderful thing to do in Hpa An is hike up the monstrous Mt.Zwegabin. “Only” 740 metres above sea level, it doesn’t sound too steep, but the numerous sharp steps that jaggedly line the path in front of you, are a little soul destroying after a while. I guess the hike can be described as if waxing your legs, extremely painful, but rewarding as you admire your efforts, nonetheless. Climbing over two thousand steps, (I say steps in a very loose manner) you reach a humble monastery peering out at the peak of the mountain. The views are stunning;, picturesque pagodas merge with peaceful paddy fields and lakes line the horizon. The magnificent mountains stand next to Mt Zwegabin, shoulder to shoulder, showing off their curves and smooth ridges.

There is a restaurant hidden amongst the monastery- although expensive, after a gruelling trek up its face, a chilled coca cola and fried rice at 7 thousand kyat is heavenly. A shared taxi with others can be as little as two thousand kyat each, a return journey from town to the mountain. There is no entry free on Mt Zwegabin and the easiest way to ascend this beast is through Lumbini Gardens, where thousands of Buddha statues line orderly to attention.

I stayed in Soe Brother’s 2 Guesthouse, a little out of town but the guesthouse is modern and clean. Double beds with AC and a private bathroom cost 20 dollars a night, including breakfast which was quite a luxury. Coming directly from London to Soe Brothers 2 in Hpa An, after two flights and a day bus, I craved comfortability and thus, I decided to splash out on my first destination in Myanmar.

The guesthouse is a little out of town which can be a hindrance at times, but it is walking distance to the night market and has a delicious “Thai food and coffee” restaurant nearby- it’s the restaurant that has pictures of dishes all over its walls and MTV blaring out. The staff are super friendly and each time I went, each dish was equally as delicious! If travelling on more of a budget, check into Soe Brothers 1 in town, where single rooms with fans and shared bathrooms are 5 dollars. A little more rough around the edges, it still has a friendly backpacker vibe.