Almost certainly Myanmar’s most touristy area, Inle Lake won three nights of our time with my parents, and for good reason. It’s a beautiful place with – at least in August – delicious tomatoes and surprisingly good local wine. Plus temples, stupas, markets, floating gardens, multiple ethnic groups happy to sell you their wares, fishermen still willing to pose for photos, traditional artisans demonstrating their craft for all who stop by, and according to Jen and my parents, tasty fish.
Inle Lake is sort of in the middle of Myanmar and easy to reach by airplane to Heho, by bus or train from any number of places, or trekking from Kalaw. We flew as a family from Kyaingtong and were met at the airport by our guide for the next few days. A member of the Pa-O tribe, our guide was a lovely woman who showed great pride in the part of Myanmar she calls home. While our time with a guide was helpful, this is an area one could easily explore independently, even in low season. Jen and I stayed at a family-run guesthouse in Nyaungshwe while my parents stayed in a lovely resort on the lake. At least at our guesthouse, arranging bicycles, day trips, and boat rides would have been easy with our hosts and loads of other travelers to provide advice and share experiences. Enough with the details, on to the good stuff!
The fishermen of Inle Lake learn to row with one leg as boys and perfect the skill as they grow up. The technique allows them to use both hands for fishing and is more powerful than traditional rowing as the whole body contributes to each thrust. Boats approaching the hotel where my parents stayed were required to cut their motors for the final passage so we got to see the technique up close. It’s impressive – and truly does involve the entire body.
The Five Day Market
Instead of setting up each day in the same place, the Inle Lake-area market rotates and returns to each spot every five days. Some locations are bigger than others and, from what I understand, some are more “local” and less touristy than others. We saw the market twice, at Phaungdawoo (sometimes written Phaung Daw Oo) and Indein (also spelled Inthein). Both had their “local” areas where MSG and other staples are available but, especially at Indein, an overwhelming presence of all-kinds-crap for sale to tourists. It was unclear to us how many of those vendors were part of the five day market and how many set up daily in an area my father referred to as “the shopping mall” lining the corridor to Indein pagoda complex. Both markets had me pining for the low-key Kyaingtong market we so enjoyed.
Pagodas and Stupas
It seems that every country in SE Asia has a different definition for temples, pagodas, and stupas. As best I can gather, in Myanmar, a stupa has a Buddha statue inside but it’s too small for people to enter while a pagoda has a Buddha statue inside and is large enough for people to go in, pay respects, pray, etc. Temples seems to be the word used to encompass both but if anyone reading this can correct/clarify/explain these terms, I’d really appreciate hearing from you in the comments. We wandered around the 1,054 stupas at Indein which really is beautiful, if overwhelming.
We also stopped at Phaungdawoo Pagoda, home to five small Buddha statutes that have been so covered in gold leaf they look more like lumps than anything else. Legend has it that the five statutes used to be paraded around the lake by royal barge once a year so the villagers could see them but one year, a storm caused the boat to capsize and while four of the statues were found quickly, the fifth washed up on the steps of the pagoda weeks later. “Ladies prohibited” from approaching the statues so if it were up to me, I might have boycotted this particular temple.
Shwe Yan Paya also merited a stop. This monastery is an active school for novices and the boys didn’t seem the least bit bothered by our presence in their home/classroom/place of worship. Some believe that to truly be Buddhist, one must live as a monk for at least one week but the boys who live at Shwe Yan Paya are not at monk camp, they are training for a lifetime wearing the maroon robe of a Myanmar monk.
Apparently set up for tourists, artisan workshops line the shores of Inle Lake. We stopped at no fewer than five: blacksmith, silversmith, lotus and silk weaving, cheroot making, and paper making. Of these, the lotus weaving was the most interesting. A woman demonstrated – and let each of us try – pulling the fiber from the lotus stem and showed us how the thread is processed for weaving. The end result is beautifully soft and I wish we had the budget to pick up some pure lotus fiber items (or even some silk-lotus blends). Alas, the products are more expensive than silk and we left with only the lotus thread bracelets tied around our wrists. Sadly, these have since fallen off.
Cheroots come in varying sizes, shapes, and flavors. These traditional cigars are completely natural: tobacco, wood chips, and sometimes a flavor, rolled into a dried leaf with a filter made from sugar cane fiber or dried corn husk. The tobacco content is often quite low and I saw people all over the country smoking locally rolled cheroots. We tried mint and honey cheroots and found them to be mild in every way but between us, we still couldn’t smoke a whole one.
Red Mountain Winery: a Pleasant Surprise
Having tried Cambodian and Vietnamese wine, my expectations for Burmese wine were low. But Red Mountain Winery produces the best Sauvignon Blanc I’ve had in months. Yes, I know that isn’t saying much but it truly is a nice wine that pairs well with the local food. We also enjoyed the Shiraz and the red tawny – the latter being particularly nice with a bit of chocolate. The winery is actually the second in the area: Aythaya was the first in nearby Taunggyi and in my limited experience, produces what I expected of Myanmar wine. Red Mountain uses only grapes grown on their 75 hectares of land, Hungarian oak barrels, Swiss steel tanks, Chinese bottles, an Italian bottling machine, and a French winemaker: truly an internationally influenced wine. The growing season is somewhat similar to the Southern hemisphere with harvest occurring in February and March – perhaps one of the earliest in the year? Red Mountain is available throughout Myanmar but sales are, not surprisingly, highest around Inle Lake. A visit of the facilities is quick given the small size but it’s easy to linger over tastings and lunch at the winery’s restaurant.
Inle Lake is beautiful, there’s no denying it. The water is calm, the people are friendly, the food was some of the best we had in Myanmar with fresh chickpea tofu, fish, and local tomato salad taking the prize for our favorites, and the wine goes well with all of it. But the area is overrun with tourists and locals dump rubbish in the lake at an alarming rate so I won’t pretend this place is heaven. Like so much of Myanmar, it’s experiencing growing pains as tourists arrive in ever-increasing numbers. I can only hope that at least some of the tourist dollars pouring in are truly benefiting the community and will help, not hinder, this region.