I think I often place too much emphasis on the journey and not on the destination when describing our travels but from our point of view the journey has to be as important as the destination or I would have got tired of this travelling malarky 6 months ago. The journey from Yangon (Rangoon) to Nyaung Shwe was a perfect case in point where had we not been so engaged with the scenery flashing past our window (I use the word flashing loosely as the trains barely travel above running pace) and general goings on around the carriage that the 30 hour journey would have broken us. That being said it wasn’t all fun and games when attempting to sleep on a carriage where the primary direction of motion is up and down rather than forwards, and sometimes backwards. Stolen purses (not ours) screaming babies and other assorted dramas aside we arrived feeble, smelly and odious albeit grateful for the blessedly cool mountain air after the searing Yangon heat. It was our longest single train journey so far overtaking the time we spent travelling from Kolkata to Mumbai, giving you an idea of just how leisurely the trains really are here.
We found a lovely little place to stay called Inle Inn which we both immediately took to. To be honest anywhere with running water would have done us but this place was particularly nice and the staff were extremely friendly. The price of accommodation in Myanmar is double the price of any other country we have stayed so far, owing to the stringent government controls for foreign tourists. The added bonus is that usually breakfast is included, yet we still manage to sneak under our daily budgets thanks to the low cost of food – 35 pence a meal, transport and presents – which tend to be our biggest non-essential expenses. After the colossal journey the day before we agreed to not lift a finger the following day and completely recharge. Only moving out of bed at the very latest so we wouldn’t miss our complimentary breakfast and lounging around until eventually deciding to watch one of the films from my very limited list of titles I have managed to snaffle off other travellers along the way (Guardians of the Galaxy, that we both enjoyed aside from the cheese compulsory in any Hollywood superhero film.)
One day, I’m sure, there will come a day where Sarah discovers the delights of cycling, the fresh air, the quietness, the gentle exercise. I myself am not massively into it but I can appreciate a good cycle when the situation requires it, Sarah on the other hand has a deep rooted and passionate loathing for bicycles which somehow she transfers onto me on days where we are left with no alternative transport. Some of you may think our liberal employment of motorcycles (which are harder to come by for foreigners here) is to do with my love of driving them, no, it’s that if we travel on two wheels minus the engine Sarah becomes a complete tyrant, periodically stopping to declare she will not be cycling any further. Usually eliciting the response from me that we should eat and that is normally enough to get her back on the saddle. We were cycling to Inle Lake, a huge mass of water about 5 Kms south of us that we had been told to visit as long ago as Nepal by fellow visitors to Myanmar.
After an hours work we decided to call in at a small winery up on a hill looking out over the lake. I treated myself to a lovely rose and we both enjoyed the view although Sarah was already starting to become frustrated with our selection of transportation. The day could have quite easily turned into sipping one glass after another so we left before things got too comfortable. After cycling for what felt like a lifetime we decided to pull into a stilted resort for a beer and a rest (theme?) The raised walkway to the lakeside resort had been completely taken over by hundreds of water birds of varying species. It was amazing to see such a vast number in the trees all around us, and nice to spot a few chicks being fed amongst the masses. The barman informed us we had cycled far past the village we were aiming for where boats departed from to cross the lake, I got a stern look from Sarah but thankfully the alcohol had diluted her rage.
We decided against the boat journey across the lake and in between getting drenched thanks to the first showers of monsoon season setting in, found a lovely little local place that served up fiery papaya and tangy citrus salads that we loved. We got chatting to a local guy who offered to take us on a boat trip the following day for a reasonable price which we agreed to as we were both itching to get out onto the water having been frustratingly close all day, it turned out to be a great decision.
Our friend picked us up the following morning and introduced us to his dad who would be captaining us on his long tail. I didn’t know it but I’d missed being on a long tail boat, so close to the water, zipping past the water plants and birds. After 15 minutes of driving down a narrow canal the water opened up into Inle Lake proper, with huge expanses of water either side of us we were barely able to make out the stilted one room dwellings built over the lake near the shore. We cruised past the famous lake fishermen who ingeniously paddle with their legs while constantly casting and pulling away at their nets. Groups of men chest deep in the water harvesting sludge from the bottom of the lake onto dangerously overloaded barges which we would later learn was being used to creat new land masses further into the middle of the lake. Every now and then a dragonfly would cruise along with us, effortlessly gliding in and out of our paths before choosing something more interesting to survey.
Our first notable stop was at a cheroot rolling factory, a type of cigarette very popular in Myanmar. Watching the women effortlessly roll one cheroot after another was therapeutic for us and clearly muscle memory for them. We strolled around the stilted village built on an ever receding island formed by the sludge we had seen harvested earlier on. Thanks to all the water the villages are a flood of green and quite beautiful to walk around, the houses are well kept and every house seems to be its own little workshop. At one point, after browsing round an umbrella workshop I was invited in by an old man working away at a piece of silver on his bench. I was happy just to sit and watch as he chiseled away at the metal before our captain stuck his read round the door, he clearly had been worried about where we had wondered off to.
After a gargantuan lunch which would feed us later on for tea, we headed to a peaceful little monastery that is famed for its cats that have been trained by the monks to jump through hoops (bizarre I know) True, there was a shed load of cats but none seemed intent on jumping through any hoops, we had clearly caught them on an off day. It was a relaxing place to be none the less and was our final stop before heading back through the lake towards town. The water really is the blood of the community here and the harbour in town was buzzing with activity as loads of fruit, wood, Earth, tools, you name it was ferried up and down. For me it was yet another brilliant day to add to the long list of brilliant days we’ve had over the past 8 months.
Our final day in Nyaung Shwe was another of those, chill and do nothing until the bus comes, sort of day. I decided to make Sarah a new pair of shorts from some trousers she no longer wanted from India. We sat and sipped tea in the tea shop while munching on delicious coconut pies, the tea here is the nearest thing to Chai we have found so far but it’s still not quite the real thing. We found a nice little art gallery to browse while sheltering from another outbreak of rain, the lovely man gave us free water and postcards for our trouble. Finally evening arrived and we were delighted to discover our bus was brand new and decked out with full recliners and blankets. The journey to Mandalay would be a comfortable one!
We would like to offer our deepest sympathies to the beautiful people of Nepal who offered us such amazing hospitality and who are so wholly undeserving of such disaster that it’s painful. It’s a tragedy that many of the historic ancient towns in the Kathmandu valley that enchanted us are now piles of rubble but most of all we mourn for the amazing people that make and will continue to make Nepal the amazing place it is