The fog was finally starting to burn off as we rolled into Shwe Nyaung, scrunched up in a minibus without another foreigner in sight. Colourful woven blankets had kept the chill out for everyone else, but we’d just had to wear every item of clothing we owned instead.
All the way down from Kalaw, the cold mountain air barely got a chance to heat up before the door was thrown open to let someone else out, or pluck a small family from the side of the road. I got very familiar with the sight of my own breath.
At least a dozen backpackers had got out of our bus from Bagan a few days earlier, but none had joined us on the van ride to Inle Lake. A three day trek was the preferred method, but with Lauren still fighting bouts of mono, we’d opted for the motorised option instead.
A few dollars had got us to the intersection with the main road, some light-hearted negotiation and a few more notes got us the rest of the way to Nyuang Shwe in a taxi. We could have saved a bit by waiting for a shared pickup to fill up, but with just one night in town before we headed back to Yangon, time mattered in a way it hadn’t during the rest of our time in Myanmar. We needed to get moving — and the first item on the agenda was breakfast.
We set out looking for mohinga, the steaming soup ubiquitous everywhere else we’d been. Maybe we were too late, maybe it was because this was a tourist town, but we just couldn’t find it anywhere. Instead, we went for Shan noodles, served up in a nondescript little restaurant on tables that looked like the local kindergarten class usually used them for finger painting. Perhaps they did.
It wasn’t the best breakfast I’d had in Myanmar, but given the hilariously-awful “Western” versions served up in almost every guesthouse, it was far from the worst. With competition that included a banana toastie with a side of ketchup-covered cucumbers, that wasn’t a difficult award to win. Perhaps there’s somebody in the world that likes sweetcorn, carrot and pea omelettes to start the day, but it sure as hell isn’t me.
Nyuang Shwe isn’t particularly big, and it revolves around the lake that sits just to the south. Our hotel was right beside the canal that links the town to the lake, and dozens of longtail boats sat waiting to take tourists out on the water. Despite the many offers of ‘good’, ‘special’ and ‘great’ pricing if we were to head out immediately, I decided to do something a bit different for my afternoon.
Because, well, when you’re in Myanmar, why wouldn’t you want to walk in the sun for two hours to visit a vineyard renowned for serving up barely-palatable wines?
There were, of course, other options. Taxis lay in wait, hoping to lure me in with promises of air-conditioning and Burmese pop music. Rickety bicycles seemed to be most people’s choice, although given the rattles and grimaces that accompanied every one I saw, I’m not quite sure why. A middle-aged couple passed me on their way back into town, telling me how brave I was for walking.
Given the state of their bikes, I suspect it was their backsides that had earned a medal by the end of the day.
After gratefully accepting a staff member’s offer of a lift the last few hundred metres up the hill, I was greeted by a glorious view out over the vineyards. Having wine tastings in the middle of one of South East Asia’s poorest countries seemed more than a little strange, but it didn’t seem to be stopping anybody else from doing it.
Samples of four of Red Mountain Estate’s finest were bought out, and I did my best to carefully roll each one around my mouth and appreciate the subtle differences. Of which there were very few, because — even to my untrained palette — they were all pretty crap. Still, for the grand price of two dollars for the tasting and another two dollars for a full glass of the least-awful wine (the Sauvignon Blanc, if you’re interested), there were worse ways to spend an hour of your life.
Like, say, the walk back into town.
Angling to make the most out of our limited time in Nyuang Shwe, we decided to split our time on the lake in two. For fifteen dollars each, we booked a private boat for a sunset trip that evening and half-day trip around the lake the following day. You can probably do it a little cheaper if you really want to negotiate hard. I didn’t.
The sunset “cruise” was that delightful mixture of beautiful and slightly weird you so often find in Southeast Asia. After blasting down the canal and out into the lake, we sped past the dancing fishermen looking for tips, past the few other tourist boats still on the water and…just… stopped.
There was nothing particularly special about the spot, but presumably the driver didn’t want to use up any more fuel than he had to, so we just drifted quietly in the water for the next half hour until the sun went down. With the driver, Lauren and myself sitting in single file, even a conversation was challenging. Cue awkward craning of necks, nervous laughter and becoming more familiar with different kinds of lake weed than I ever thought possible.
Still, the sunset was seriously pretty… which I guess was the point.
Back on the water after breakfast the next morning (no ketchup-encrusted cucumbers in sight, more’s the pity), we discussed the types of things we’d like to see and set off. All of the boats follow a pretty similar route — with the promise of kickbacks on purchases from the various workshops, you can pretty much expect to end up visiting all of them regardless of what you’ve agreed on.
The good thing about not sharing our boat with anybody else, though, was that we could spend as much or little time as we liked in any given spot — which is exactly what we did.
The view got more interesting the further south we went, with few other boats except the occasional fisherman in the distance. The water was perfectly flat, and the vibrations from the motor and quickly-warming sun nearly lulled me to sleep more than once. Eventually leaving the main lake behind, we found ourselves in a series of canals bordered by stilted houses, shops and even a couple of schools. The buildings seemed to sit high in the air, but with the lake level fluctuating up to two metres each year, that’s a smart move.
The temples we visited were a mixed bag, from the lack of cats at the Jumping Cat monastery to the abundance of Chinese tourists at Phaung Daw Oo pagoda. The factories, too, were wildly inconsistent — the crashing of the looms and dirt-flavoured tea at a cloth-weaving workshop, the mind-numbing dullness of the silver-working factory, the boat builders that seemed to be doing almost anything except building a boat when we pulled up, only to leap into action as we stepped ashore.
The most interesting by far, though, was the cheroot-making workshop. Several women of various ages sat at low tables, rolling the infamous Burmese cigarettes with a nonchalance borne from years of practice. After a brief explanation of the various ingredients, Lauren and I were offered several different types to try.
I dabbled a bit with cigarette smoking as a teenager, and the “man” cheroot tasted much like a sweeter version of the cheap unfiltered Pall Malls I’d buy illegally from the corner store and smoke in the park over the road. They weren’t bad, sure, but nothing to really write home about.
Lauren, though, had a different view. I’m not sure exactly what gaining a Masters in Physics entails, but judging by the nervous anticipation as I lit the “woman” cheroot and handed it to her, sneaky smoking sessions didn’t form part of her formative years. She held it to her lips, inexpertly sucked in a mouthful of rose-flavoured smoke, coughed slightly … and then her face lit up with a beaming smile.
“I LOVE IT!!!”
And just like that, a new smoker was born. She’s not exactly unknown for quickly forming new addictions, and I almost had to stamp the burning cheroot from her fingers to get her to leave it behind. She grudgingly agreed not to buy twenty dozen packs from the factory, and spent her last morning in Yangon unsuccessfully trying to track some down.
Even now, three months and several timezones away in Spain, she’ll still regularly mention them, and scour eBay for someone who might have decided to import a few.
So that, other than a leisurely return trip up the lake and a late lunch of delicious Indian food, was pretty much it for our time in Inle Lake. Our overnight bus to Yangon departed that evening, and our time in Myanmar was almost up.
Was a single night in Nyuang Shwe enough? If you arrive early and leave late, like we did, I think it probably is. Sure, there’s more to do — local markets on a rotating five-day schedule, exploring lesser-known trails further down the lake by bicycle and foot, and whatever else grabs your fancy. If you’re short on time, though, I’d suggest cutting days out of Inle Lake rather than elsewhere in the country, and pack as much as you can into your thirty-odd hours in town.
Including, of course, trying a big fat cheroot.
It also won the easily-obtained honour of providing our best guesthouse breakfast in the country, by virtue of offering Shan noodle soup rather than some combination of white bread, sweetcorn and ketchup. The staff were friendly, albeit with limited English, and were happy to ring around to find seats on an overnight bus for us for the following day.
Our walk-in price was $40, which felt excessive even for the start of high season. You’ll get a cheaper rate booking online.