We pull our bikes up to a building offering longtail ferry transport across the lake. A genial old man with a huge smile welcomes us into the yard and offers us a seat on a bench while the boat is readied.
Old Man: "Would you like some tea?"
Claudia: "Sure, thank you."
Old Man: "Where from?"
Claudia: "The United States"
Old Man: "Oh, this tea is very good for cancer; there's a lot of cancer in the US."
Claudia: "Yes, it's horrible"
Old Man: "Here, have this cheroot" (a mild cigar made with tobacco and other aromatic herbs)
Claudia: "Oh, no thank you! We like these, but we already have a lot in our hotel room."
Old Man: "Please take it." He forces the cigar into my hand. "You like? Here, take more." He gives us about six more.
Claudia: "Now you're trying to give us cancer!"
Old Man: "...Drink more tea!"
This is the type of goodhearted and incredibly generous welcome we received time and again in Myanmar. And the fact that we still had interactions like this at Inle Lake, one of Myanmar's most-visited tourist attractions, speaks to just how warm and outgoing a people the Burmese are.
Inle Lake feels like a different world, and it claims a spot on almost every traveler's itinerary for a reason. It's a large, sprawling lake whose water level can change by several feet between the wet and dry seasons, which necessitates that all the houses be built on stilts, and that everything the locals need be accessible by boat.
We spent a day taking the requisite boat tour of some of the lake's important sights: a lakeside market, a variety of different craft workshops located in stilt houses where the skills are handed down through the generations (silversmithing, parasol making, weaving with thread made from the lotus flower, cigar rolling...), a hill covered in buddhist shrines, and even a floating monastery where the monks have trained cats to jump through hoops!
More interesting than most of these sites, which were all pretty touristy, was the ability to see the lake-dwellers go about their everyday business. As I said, everything necessary for their everyday lives must be accessed by boats, so we saw restaurants, bars, and bodegas floating above the lake's traffic; we saw schools and temples, farms and markets. Toward the end of the day we passed through a huge area of floating gardens; more like an entire communal farm that must have spanned many hundreds of acres, all in neat floating rows of crops. We were awed to watch the farmers peacefully manuever their canoes down the rows to tend to the huge garden.
Of course, for a community that lives on a body of water, much of their livelihood is produced from the lake. In all parts of the lake we saw scores of fishermen setting or retrieving nets, or harvesting seaweed from the lake's floor to use to fertilize their crops. Probably the most famous thing about Inle Lake is the unique style of paddling that has been developed. The fishermen stand in the front of the boat, and wrap their leg around a single oar's long paddle, anchoring it in their armpit, leaving their hands free to work with the nets or other equipment.
Other than zipping around the lake, the whole area provides for some nice, flat bike rides through rice paddies and small towns, so we biked around part of the lake one day, stopping at a winery along the way. Wine in Myanmar? Yup (it was started by a French guy)! To top it all off, we stayed in an amazing hotel in our own very comfortable bungalow, with a lovely pool and some of the nicest owners and staff we've encountered on our travels. We had to tear ourselves away!
- If you find yourself visiting Inle Lake, stay at the Princess Garden in Nyaungshwe. Huge, spotless, and comfortable en-suite bungalows, a lovely pool, a huge breakfast, and incredible service for $35 for a double. It was the best value hotel we stayed at in Southeast Asia so far. You will not want to leave!
- A standard boat trip from Nyaungshwe costs 15,000 kyat (and can go up a few thousand if you want to go to the southern villages) for a boat that holds up to 4 or 5 people. The prices are set and every boat driver will take you to the same places for that price-- there is no need to haggle with them. Go directly to the boat launch to book a trip; there is no need to go through a travel agent who may overcharge you.