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Inle Lake Part One – Buy the Ticket, Take the Ride – Inle Lake, Mynamar

Inle Lake Part One - “Buy the Ticket, Take the Ride”
Inle Lake, Myanmar

Before I left Bangkok, I made Herculean efforts to buy tickets on two domestic Myanmar flights. This task was vital because I knew I would be pressed for time during my short stint in Myanmar and as much as I wanted to bond with the locals and subject myself to the notoriously excruciating, unreliable, long haul overland trips within Myanmar, the option simply wasn’t realistic. What’s more, considering my advancing dotage and escalating desire for comfort, I didn’t particularly want to put myself through that kind of guaranteed anguish, no matter the cost savings (yes, I’m starting to go soft, if you don’t like it screw you). I tried to make reservations on both Air Mandalay’s and Yangon Airways’ web sites, which it turns out are ultimately the same damn airline, with the same sub-standard, non-functioning coding on their web site reservations forms. For some reason buying domestic air tickets outside of Myanmar is much cheaper than buying them within the country, so it was a budgetary imperative to complete these purchases before blasting off from Bangkok.

Waiting for the bus in Yangon
Waiting for the bus in Yangon
Well, like many bureaucratic arrangements in Myanmar, there were a few snags. First of all, I discovered with great dismay that you can’t actually make a reservation on these web sites, you can simply fill out a form showing interest in taking a particular flight. After the form is submitted, a representative from the airline is supposed to contact you via email to confirm your seat and arrange payment. Both web sites ended up giving me the same inconspicuous, almost undetectable, error message at the very bottom of the screen when I submitted the forms, saying something had gone screwy with the submission process and giving an error code. On both occasions I sent emails to the addresses that I was referred to, stating the issue, providing the error code and listing the flight I had been trying to, um, show interest in. On both occasions these emails were ignored and thus I arrived in Myanmar with no flights booked.

This is how I found myself at noon on my second full day in Myanmar being the only Pinkie sitting at a far-flung, half ruined bus station outside of Yangon, steeling myself for the 18 hour trip north to Inle Lake. The monetary price was certainly right (6,000 kyat or US$6.50), but I was going to pay dearly in physical discomfort, sleeplessness and an overall danger level that I have never previously submitted myself to voluntarily. I paid an extra 1,000 kyat to get on what was supposed to be an air conditioned bus, and it did indeed have air con, but the air flow was at such a pathetic trickle that you couldn’t actually feel cool air unless you put you hand directly on the vent above your head. More over, for some reason when the bus was moving the air flow all but ceased, as if the bus was outrunning the air oozing through the shafts before it could reach the vents. This fanciful, unlikely explanation was bizarrely reinforced each time I got on or off the bus and passed the vent directly next to the driver which was powering out sweet, cool air at gale force. Our noontime departure compounded with the ebbing air con, meant that we were in for a full on beating from the overwhelming mid-afternoon heat. Additionally, the bus was packed. Every seat was taken, including the fold-down, instant-fatality seats in the isles that virtually guaranteed death-by-trampling if any kind of problem arose, including an urgent bathroom episode.

I later saw a sight that sobered my gripes about my broiling hot, half-a-seat. Not long after leaving Yangon, we passed a bus that had been altered into a double-decker without adding any interior vertical space. It was just a standard bus, with a slap-dash infrastructure welded together, splitting it into two tiny, cramped levels. It was full to bursting and people were folded up and jammed in there like cookies with only enough space to sit in a permanent squat position. It was a torture chamber on wheels and if we hadn’t been passing it at 80 KPH, I would have taken a picture for evidence to send to human rights groups. Much later I wondered if this might in fact be a bus carrying some of the reputed forced laborers that the government utilizes for federal construction projects.

While I was the only non-Myanmar on the bus, thankfully I wasn’t the only oddity. A women sitting directly in front of me looked equally out of place on the otherwise peasant-filled bus. She was groomed to perfection, with beautiful, well-kept hair, adorned in western style makeup and jewelry, wearing pants and an expensive blouse. With Myanmar’s social hierarchy pretty cut a dried, it was probable that this woman was from a well-to-do military family, but how she came to be banished to the over-night, slow-roast, agony bus I couldn’t imagine. Perhaps her driver fell ill.

Before getting on the bus, my curiosity compelled me to buy a weekly English language newspaper that a vendor was pushing on me at the bus station called “The Myanmar Times.” While we inched through traffic to get out of Yangon proper, I absorbed the entire thing, cover-to-cover while sweating extravagantly all over it to get a sense of what, if any, freedom of the press was being permitted these days. Surprisingly, while the brunt of the paper focused on innocuous stories about the country’s fuel consumption, efforts at a more robust Internet infrastructure and, strangely, what Angelina Jolie has been up to - western movies are officially banned, so how anyone would (legally) know who Angelina Jolie was, and why they would care about how she broke up Brad and Jennifer’s marriage was a mystery - there were also a few, quietly topical stories that made noncommittal mention of the political situation.

The strongest piece was about a recent visit that Myanmar’s Prime Minister made to the Philippines to shore up new trade agreements. During the visit the Philippine delegation respectfully commented on Myanmar’s current lowly standing on the world stage and the resulting sanctions due to its well-publicized human rights issues, saying that they didn’t feel that sanctions were the best way to deal with the problems. They then went on to politely declared that they intended to advise and help Myanmar with these issues in order to improve its global standing. For his part, the Myanmar Prime Minister admitted that there was room for improvement within his country and welcomed the offer for assistance from the Philippines. Though there’s a good chance that this banter was just political bullshit for the media’s consumption and that no one will follow through on any of it, I was impressed that there was at least an acknowledgment of the issues by a Myanmar government representative and, even better, that a domestic Myanmar newspaper was permitted to print this information. Then I went on to read the latest update on the Michael Jackson case. (Jesus butt-paddling Christ, you can’t fricking buy a Michael Jackson CD in Myanmar, but the tedious details of his abuse case get as many column inches as a story on Yangon pollution control.)

My seat was fairly far back in the bus, which made it possible for me to only see out the side and not being privy to what was happening up front, i.e. how many near-fatal accidents we were eluding. Like in much of SE Asia, driving in Myanmar is lawless, white-knuckle excitement, not for the faint of heart or even the mildly sober. Lanes are painted on the road, but this is just a theoretical suggestion as to where to place one’s vehicle rather than a specific guideline. Vehicles drift around the road at whim, passing on both the right and left hand sides, often when there is questionable space to accommodate such a maneuver.

None of that matters though, because even if everyone suddenly agreed to drive in an orderly fashion, Myanmar roads would still be a non-stop adrenalin rush due to the whims of Burma’s former military dictator, mass murderer, back stabbing, astrology dough-head Ne Win. Myanmar had been yet another colonial victim of the British driving conventions; steering wheels on the right hand side, driving on the left. This was all peaches until the late Comrade Win took the counsel of his seer to “move the country to the right” a little too literally and proclaimed that with immediate effect, everyone would be required to drive on the right hand side of the road. (Fun Fact: Another, thankfully temporary, nationwide mind-screw and economic catastrophe Win pulled off was when the numerology fixated kook had banknotes issued in 45 and 90 kyat denominations because both numbers were divisible by his lucky number, nine. Even by Myanmar standards, this guy was over the top and extremely dangerous both directly and passively, first to the people of the country and then later as a coup threat to the government after he resigned from office - the 45/90 banknote disaster wiped out many people’s savings, none of which, of course, was ever reimbursed. He spent his final days under house arrest for various treasonous accusations and his son-in-law and three grandsons barely dodged death sentences for the same and are instead jailed for life.) Anyone who has driven a vehicle in this conflicting arrangement knows that it’s ripe for disaster, particularly while passing. When I drove a British Land Rover through Morocco and Spain, passing on the left on a two lane road was a two man job. The person on the passenger side was responsible for keeping tabs on oncoming traffic and when a suitable gap appeared, they would alert the driver and help guide them through the passing maneuver. Our bus had three guys up front. One to drive, one to coordinate passing and one to roll and distribute betel chews to the other two.

Once every few hours the bus would stop for a bathroom break or a meal at some backwater café. It was hard not to notice that the air temperature was arguably just a hair better outside the bus than inside, though this could have just been a result of getting a little fresh air circulating around one’s body. Ultimately, I sweated profusely for all but the last two hours of the journey. Even if I could have gotten some sleep in those conditions, I was being regularly jostled by the young boy sitting next to me. Like all Myanmars, this boy could sleep like a dead dog in the most dreadfully uncomfortable circumstances. Like everyone else on the bus except me, he was unconscious for nearly the entire journey and despite being only half my sized and in a deep coma, this boy managed to take up the equivalent space of two grown men. His preferred sleeping position was to be sprawled out, half on his father who was in the aisle death seat and half on me. There was rarely a moment when this punk’s arm, knee, elbow, foot or head wasn’t invading my space and gouging at my ribs. Moreover he was filthy and I was not thrilled about him transferring his grime onto my freshly washed clothes, though with the sweat-wash I gave myself during that trip, I suppose it didn’t really matter in the end. Every once in a while I’d shift position, while subtly shrugging the boy off me and back onto his side of the seat, but within moments he’d perform a deep-sleep, full-body flail and end up half on top of me again. I can’t be certain, but I think I slept for a cumulative 13 minutes over the course of 18 hours.

Thankfully, the Myanmar countryside turned out to be the all-consuming, foreign distraction that I hoped it would be. Since it was too hot to sleep or read without raining sweat down and ruining the book, I spent much of the afternoon and early evening just watching new things go by. Rural Myanmar is little more than a dust bowl this time of year, but it has tons of character. Little settlements lined much of the road we were on and nearly every home had a shop of some sort in front, seemingly living off the traffic going by. The houses along the road were mostly constructed of woven bamboo with thatched roofs, though there were also several concrete structures that were under construction. The giant ditch between the road and the dwelling required each door to have a little bridge leading up to it, some comprised of a mere single plank of wood. During the few instances when the landscape wasn’t being obscured by these roadside settlements there was little more to look at than miles of open, dry plains that looked incapable of supporting life, but I’m told things get significantly greener outside of the hot season. When we hit the mountains the sealed, relatively smooth road (remember, I said “relatively”) ended and the precipitous, climbing and descending, narrow, dirt, unprotected, winding, glorified, donkey cart trail began. Passing oncoming vehicles was delicate at the best of times and I was more grateful than ever to be far enough back in the bus that I couldn’t see how we were about to die until after we had narrowly avoided it.

When I wasn’t engrossed in the new and engaging scenery I was doing my best to tune out the music on the bus sound system being played at arena concert volume. Though some of the songs were native Myanmar music, the vast majority were covers of western songs, sung in Myanmar, with backing music courtesy of a 1982 Casio keyboard. I tried to out-blast this assault on the ears by cranking up my MP3 player, but it was no use. When the sun went down, one of the guys up front popped in a DVD. The “movie,” for lack of a better term, seemed to be made up of a long series of short, disjointed sketch comedy scenes, like Saturday Night Live. The scenes lasted from 30 seconds to two minutes and nearly always starred the same hapless married couple that seemed modeled directly from Ed and Peggy Bundy from “Married With Children.” The woman would inevitably smack, kick or beat her husband sometime during these scenes and this action was widely regarded by the people on the bus as being the funniest thing in the history of the universe. After what seemed like dozens of these scenes, the content switched without notice to what I presumed to be a romance story, though this one dragged on for an interval of a full-length feature film. As it was all in Myanmar, I couldn’t understand a thing, but it appeared to be about a budding relationship with lots of issues. The sound track only had one song, the Myanmar translation to “Kiss of the Rose” by Seal. The song was played as backing music whenever one of the lovers was having a pensive moment which was every two or three minutes. And of course, this too was played loud enough for Buddha himself to follow along from heaven, or wherever, forcing me to be an unwilling viewer for the entire “film.”

To my great surprise once the one song, romance flick drew to a close, the guys popped in another movie which turned out to be a possibly just released (and pirated) Denzel Washington movie (being as far out of touch as I am with popular culture, I can’t be sure), though I noted immediately that they set this one at a near inaudible volume. The film was about an alcoholic guy (Washington) who takes a job as a bodyguard for a little American girl in Mexico who is then kidnapped. Denzel gets capped five times during the kidnapping and just as he was coming out of his coma and the Mexican authorities (who were in on the kidnapping, mum’s the word) were framing him for everything one of the guys at the front of the bus unceremoniously ejected the movie. I thought that perhaps we were about to pull into a rest stop and they would resume the movie when we were moving again, but there was no rest stop. He just decided that he’d seen enough of the film. Asshole. I spent the rest of the night trying to sleep while intermittently bucking the little kid off me.

Convenience Store
Convenience Store
It wasn’t until our 3:00 a.m. pee break that I took note that the same guy who had guided the bus out of the station in Yangon 13 hours earlier was still at the wheel. Either they don’t have or they don’t enforce mandatory driver breaks in Myanmar.

I was dropped off at Shwenyaung junction, about 11 kilometers outside of the city of Nyaungshwe, the staging point for Inle Lake. It was only 6:00 a.m., but there was an industrious tourist targeting go-getter waiting for me. He offered to give me a ride into Inle for 5,00 kyat (US$5.40). Now in any western country this fare would be a steal for an 11 kilometer ride over rough, suspension busting road, but in Myanmar it’s two and a half days wages for the average schmuck. Though I was half-delirious from dehydration and sleeplessness, I recalled that Lonely Planet had mentioned something about pickup trucks taking people into town, but I couldn’t remember the going price and I was too lazy to fish the book out of my bag, plus I was dying for a bed, so I just agreed to the price and hopped in the car. My delirium lifted slightly during the ride and I made the comment about how the price for the 30 minute ride into Inle was nearly the same price as the 18 hour ride from Yangon. My driver, a one Mr. China, or so he said, explained that private “taxis” had to charge more for their service because they didn’t get the government fuel discount. I was pretty sure that my bus company didn’t have any ties with the government, but I was too tired to press the issue.

Though I instructed Mr. China to take me to a roundly revered hostel called Remember Inn, he drove me directly to the Gold Star Hotel “just to look at the rooms.” This is a common weasel maneuver among touts, take the tourist to the more expensive hotel to get the bigger commission, but I was told that the rooms were only US$9 and they did in fact turn out to be very nice. They even had TVs, which I was surprised to see had BBC news. Longing for some pillow time, I relented and checked in. As I collapsed into my bed, I pushed my hand into my pocket to fish out my watch to set the alarm, only to come out with the key to my room at Motherland Inn back in Yangon. I was crestfallen. Those people had been wonderful to me and here I had taken their room key on a tour of northern Myanmar. I resolved to call them, explain the situation, profusely apologize and swear to return in a week with their key (putting it through the mail probably would have taken months). After a lavish four hour nap I was up and touring the town.

Nondescript and mundane, Nyaungshwe is merely the access point and one of several supply stations for the real attraction, the stilt villages, wet farms and Intha people of Inle Lake. Take Venice, rebuild it in wood and bamboo, remove most of the dry footpaths, the double-wide butted tourists and the unpalatable, expensive food, then add waist-deep wet farms, mostly unspoiled villages and young girls that go bug-eyed and giggly at the site of my shiny, bald head and that’s Inle Lake. There are 17 villages scattered over the 22 kilometer long lake as well as all the components of a regular city; supply stores, markets, restaurants (though nearly all of these are tourist targeted), craftsmen and a steadily growing tourism infrastructure. Aside from a few villages located on dry land and the occasional earthen “field” barrier that doubles as a serviceable walking path, everything here is done on water. Trips to the market, ferrying goods and people, tending the fields, getting a cup of sugar from the neighbors and, sadly, lazily disposing of trash and human waste, though with the complete lack of advanced plumbing in most places, I suppose the latter is unavoidable. With Inle being a veritable Myanmar-caliber ground zero of tourism, people with the inclination and cash can stay at a few posh stilt resorts located directly on the lake, but the rest of us have to while away their off-lake time in perfectly nice, but amusement starved Nyaungshwe.

I noted immediately that stepping out into the mid-day sun wasn’t nearly the same instant butt-sweat, spirit wilting, torment as it was in Yangon. I hadn’t realized that Inle/Nyaungshwe were located at a higher, cooler altitude, but I was gratified to not be instantly soaked in my own sweat for the first time in months. Having slept half the day away I was advised to save my boat tour of the lake for the following day. This was fine with me because I needed the extra time to find a companion to share the boat and take the sting out of the rental fee. Unfortunately, it became immediately clear that this wasn’t going to happen, at least not at the Gold Star, because other than a Myanmar traveling businessman, I was the only person staying there. One of the selling points of the Gold Star had been that it was just a block from the river and boat jetties, whereas Remember Inn was on the other side of town (a difference of only 500 meters of walking, but still…). But now I was going to have to walk all the way across town to the Remember Inn anyway in order to find some boat mates. So much for that perk. Thanks a bunch Mr. China.

By Myanmar standards, Inle Lake is a very well beaten tourist stop and if you didn’t know this from reading your Lonely Planet, you would figure it out on your own after just a few minutes of exploring Nyaungshwe. Tourist targeted hotels and restaurants are plentiful, even dominating at times, with every sign conveniently written in sometimes hilarious, but passable English. On my way to the Remember Inn, I stopped for lunch at an LP recommended Italian restaurant called Golden Kite, a place that boasted homemade pasta. I got the fettuccini with pesto and it was delicious and I realized while I sprinkled delightfully fresh cheese on my food that I had not eaten cheese in months. This gave me pause as I realized that other than the occasional egg, my dairy intake had all but ceased in SE Asia and I was probably well on my way to acute osteoporosis. As I ate I stared longingly at the wine racks. I hadn’t had decent wine since leaving New Zealand and the temptation to order a bottle was incapacitating, but it was only noon and I had lots of travel arrangements to square dance through, so I resisted the urge to get wild on an overdue wine bender. The restaurant was doing very well which was evident by the shocking number of knock off Italian restaurants that had sprung up around town. In an effort to cover all the bases even places that claimed to be “traditional Myanmar” restaurants had signs dubiously boasting lasagna, pasta and wood-fire pizza next to curries, fish and soup.

At the Remember Inn I found that while the rooms weren’t quite as swank as at the Gold Star, they were nearly half the price. My retrospect annoyance with Mr. China ballooned. Being mid-day, the place was deserted of travelers. Everyone staying there had long since departed for their lake tours and new arrivals weren’t expected to roll in until later that evening. I was going to have to make a return visit if I wanted any chance of finding companions. Sigh.

To salvage the trip across town, I cut through the Nyaungshwe’s reserved market on the way back. After being a near-rock star in Yangon, I was disappointed to be met with almost complete indifference by the people in Nyaungshwe’s market. Since no one had any intention of fawning over me like I so richly deserved, I only lingered long enough to take a few pictures before moving on. During my stroll to the river, I impulsively stopped at an independent tour office that had an Air Mandalay sign prominently displayed out front. I was still shell shocked from my bus trip from Yangon and I had no intention of making a similarly arduous journey when it came time to head south again. I was going to spring for a plane ticket, no matter the cost. Despite the low-tech, pen and paper organization of this office - which, like most businesses in Myanmar, turned out to be run out of the front room of someone’s home - in just a few minutes, with a single phone call, I had a one-way ticket from Bagan to Yangon, that was only a tiny bit more expensive than the Internet price I was trying to get, meaning I could have probably sprung for a flight from Yangon to Inle and not put myself through 18 hours of butt-pounding cruelty, but that would have cut about 2,500 words of literary excellence from this travelogue and Buddha knows that we couldn’t have that. After all, I know most of you are reading this from work and I’d hate to have you being more productive than absolutely necessary.

After sealing that deal, just for kicks, I decided to check my email at the tour office’s single internet terminal. Though I had been assured that all web-based email was blocked by Myanmar’s firewalls, miraculously, I was able to access my obscure email host and even managed to send off a few messages with the snail paced connection speed. Later I noticed a sign outside the office boasting that Yahoo and Hotmail were also accessible. I never learned if this was due to the government lifting its web-based email restriction or if this place had somehow managed a clever workaround.

At the river, I was immediately accosted by a modest, friendly woman for a lake tour. Having already gotten a brief taste of the aggressive hassling by the other boat operators during my first sweep through town, I found her approach to be sweet and beguiling, not to mention 2,000 kyat cheaper than what that little, wild-haired twerp Mr. China was offering to arrange for me (cue mushrooming of Mr. China loathing). I took her up on the offer and arranged to meet at 7:30 the next morning, hopefully with a friend or two in tow. While we talked she led me to one of the tool shed-sized convenience shops on a side road made of the ubiquitous woven bamboo and thatch, which was being run by her niece and nephew, who were equally charming. I ended up sitting and chatting with them as best as I could in broken English and my newly acquired Myanmar phrases, while I enjoyed a coconut juice beverage.

By this point I was more than ready to wash my hands of Mr. China. The railroading to the high-priced hotel, the expensive “taxi” ride, the attempt to soak me with an over-priced lake tour and, I eventually discovered, a bus ticket padded by 800 kyat that he enthusiastically arranged for me had exceeded my tolerance for the usual low-level, constant tourist grifting that is a regular part of travel in this region. While this is expected at some level, I was irked that the same guy was repeatedly hacking me, nickel and diming for every little thing, whereas most Myanmars were perfectly happy to get one commission or tip and then drop the act. The problem with cutting him off was that, as previously mentioned, I had charged him with the task of obtaining and delivering my bus ticket to Mandalay the next afternoon, at which point he was to give me a ride back to Shwenyaung Junction to catch said bus. I had to somehow get the ticket out of him, let my disapproval of his behavior be known (full-on displays of anger or conflict are decidedly uncool and avoided at all costs in most of Asia) and then either convince him to drive me to the junction for a drastic discount or ditch him altogether and take a pickup (a mere 500 kyat, versus the 5,000 kyat he was charging). It would be a touchy situation, but I was determined to stop the flurry of cash contusions I was taking from this guy.

Fishing on the lake
Fishing on the lake
When I returned to the hotel, I asked the clerk to contact Mr. China and tell him to bring my bus ticket at 4:00 p.m. the next afternoon, instead of 5:00 p.m., so I would have time to catch the last pickup to Shwenyaung Junction. This request seemed to put the clerk on edge. He nervously informed me that Mr. China was expecting to drive me there himself. I wryly replied that Mr. China was a shit-eating shyster and that I was about as likely to give him head as I was going to give him 5,000 kyat for a return ride to the Junction. Well, I didn’t say it in those words exactly…Take out the “shit-eating shyster” and giving head parts and you pretty much have it. The clerk changed tactics, gravely informing me that the pickup was a bad idea as it would be very slow and make many stops. I told him I had nearly three hours to make the 11 kilometer trip and that I wasn’t worried. Sensing that I had managed to crack the real price of things, the clerk, barely hiding his panic suggested that Mr. China might give me a discount. I showed manifest pessimism at this possibility, but agreed to see what the discount might be.

I swung through the Remember Inn later that evening only to learn that the lone new arrival of the day was a Canadian guy who was deathly ill and had no intention of getting out of bed for a lake tour on a rollicking boat until he could at least keep down bread and water. The staff suggested that I try again after 10:00 p.m. when more people were likely to arrive, but I was too tired to make the journey yet again through the pitch black streets of Nyaungshwe. I was going to have to shell out the full 7,000 kyat for a boat on my own.

I had dinner at Hu Pin, a Chinese restaurant also recommended by LP, which reported that it was the cleanest place in Nyaungshwe, not an easy achievement in a town primarily composed of dirt and betel chew loogies. Sure enough it was spotless. The waiter invited himself to join me for dinner, asking me countless personal questions (“No! For the love of crap! I’m not married!! And I don’t intend to be for the rest of my existence unless it’s to Salma Hayak and an obscene amount of money is involved!!!”) and spending much of the time transfixed with the angry notes about Mr. China that I was furiously tapping into my Palm Pilot.

Back in my room, as I monitored the Pope’s impending death on the BBC, I fired up the calendar on my Palm and planned the rest of my journey through Myanmar down to the hour. It wasn’t going to be pretty. What I thought would be plenty of time to see all of my destinations - by my crazed, rush-rush standards anyway - had somehow considerably dwindled, mostly owing to the full day I lost with that damn 18 hour bus ride. I was going to have to race through Mandalay in two days and absolutely scream through Bagan in about a day and a half in order to catch my plane back to Yangon for a one night layover, then fly out to Bangkok. I went to bed early to hoard sleep.

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