We were wondering just what the bus ride to Inle Lake was going to be like, given that it costs less than $15 per person for a 10-hour ride. When we purchased the tickets it did seem odd that the taxi fare to the bus station was equivalent to more than half the price of the ticket, but when we discovered that it was also an hour and a half away and realized it was farther out of town than the airport, it made more sense.
Once at the station, we were thankful of the driver’s knowledge and assistance, as it is the size of a small city with tens of companies going to all known destinations and all labeled in a script we cannot read. We were guided through the maze of the buses, waiting areas and roadside stalls with ease by our taxi driver and deposited immediately outside the waiting room for the company with whom we had booked. Not only that but we were instantly met by an attendant who found us seats in the waiting area and continually returned to check we were OK, reconfirmed that we were in the right location and tagged and deposited 2 of our 3 bags in the bus luggage compartment when it was time to board. I had been repeating to myself the names of the 3 significant places for this journey, namely the final stop, the junction, at which we needed to alight and the town on the northern tip of the lake trying to reassure myself that we would not end up at some unknown destination, but I needed have worried. Our luggage attendant greeted us mumbling “Inle Lake, Inle Lake.” He also flatly refused the $1 tip we offered and before the bus departed, another official got on the bus to reassure us that they were well aware that we that we needed to get off at Shwenyuang junction not the final destination.
The bus was comfortable, clean, air-conditioned and luxurious and there were even some empty seats. Much to our surprise we even managed to get some sleep. The one drawback was that my phone was stolen from my backpack in the stored luggage compartment somewhere along the way. I should have known better than to have left it in the bag, so I can really only blame myself.
In the dim early morning light at the junction, before we had even retrieved our bags from the bus, we had been approached by a driver hoping to secure the fare to the nearby lakeside town of Nyuang Shwe (not to be confused with the junction – Shwenyuang where the bus deposited us). Not 5 minutes down the road the magical sight of the local monks’ morning alms walk greeted us. It seemed the perfect way to begin the day and an auspicious beginning. The narrow road into town was lined with paddy fields and we were surprised to note that the crop was ready to harvest and newly planted in alternating rows in some paddies. The weather makes 3 crops a year possible we are told.
Whilst not being exactly picturesque, Nyuang Shwe has a bustling old market, a plethora of pagodas, a monastery, a museum, several banks, a police station, which we unfortunately had to visit, several schools and a lot of back streets to explore, in addition to ever growing numbers of restaurants, guesthouses and souvenir/ craft shops. It is dusty and noisy but charming, in that it makes no pretense to be anything other than what it is. That is a prosperous and well supplied regional centre with weaving, cane products, umbrella making, cigar manufacture and silver adding to the abundant supply of fruit and vegetables mostly grown on the floating gardens in the lake. It is also the hub for all of the traveller services and accommodation and is embracing the task of providing all that we needy travellers want with an entrepreneurial spirit, whilst remaining essentially a village where the locals just get about their daily business and hope to snag some of the tourist trade.
Time has not forgotten it but progress is slow, as is evidenced by the horse carts still plying a viable trade from the market and town. Motorcycles have arrived and even school children can be seen riding them. All known forms of transport compete for the available road space. Bicycles, tricycle taxis, pickup trucks with bench seats down either side, truck sized tuk tuks similarly configured, cars, vans, semi-trailers and even ox carts all survive on the people and product moving trade. Out cycling on rental bikes today, we shared the road and verges with all those types of vehicles. I delighted in noticing that the pillion passenger on a motorcycle seems to be the self- appointed sound system and we heard many of them singing at the top of their lungs as they sailed along.
The main attraction of the town is undoubtedly the lake. Of the many sights the most publicized and charming are the traditional fishers. They use nets and bamboo woven traps and steer their flat-bottomed boats with one leg maneuvering the oar. All manner of other poled, paddled and motorized boats also abound and offer a glimpse into the many varied livings that can be made in this water zone, edged with lush vegetation. Birdlife also appears to be flourishing and we spotted a kingfisher, egrets, herons, gulls and others we were unable to identify. Floating gardens, stilted villages and crumbling pagodas abound. I am still pondering why these structures are labeled pagoda here but I am aware they are known as zedi, dagoba, stupa, chorten or chedi in various other parts of the Buddhist world. These are distinctive in that they are always in groups rather than a single entity and seem to always have a collection of tinkling bells attached to the very top of the spires.
I am not thrilled at the prospect of being deposited at craft workshops with attached shops and greeted by hoards of staff eager to sell and this is certainly an unavoidable aspect of a boat trip on the lake, but the sales folk were far from insistent and even in this low season willing to let us simply look. The weaving of the area was for me the most interesting and we saw the stems of lotus plants being handspun into fiber and woven into cloth. At $80 for a narrow scarf it was never likely to be a purchase but the process was fascinating. It was also reassuring to see that many of the “longyis” worn locally are produced here and are not Indian imports as we saw in Yangon. I particularly like those that are ikat design and thought that they might be suitable to be worn as a kira but when I tried to tie them in the Bhutanese style I discovered that they are considerably shorter lengths.
The four of us on our tour were able to tailor the trip to our own taste and were given several choices about where we wanted go and what we wished to avoid. For us that involved a longer stop at a local minority market and completely avoiding the cigar manufacturing and monastery where monks have trained cats to leap through hoops. Although our boatman and his accomplice spoke very little English they were keeenly aware of what would interest us and took the trouble to slow for us to take photos whenever our cameras appeared as well as confirming whether or not we wanted to make certain stops.