We had heard and read criticisms of Inle Lake for being too touristy and lacking authenticity (eg, busing in long-neck women to weave colorful shoulder bags for tourists to buy) and we were a little hesitant to spend some of our precious little time at a lackluster tourist trap. We decided to visit primarily so R could get some of the photos he had seen of the aforementioned long neck women and famous foot-paddling fishermen who plied the lake. I was kind of prepared not to have a good time, but a good attitude changes everything.
In this case, the good attitude was contributed by Toby, a friendly young Kiwi who was sightseeing in Myanmar for about a week while his buddies were debaucher-ing it up in Thailand. He’d rejoin them for the rest of their Southeast Asia trip, but he was traveling in Myanmar alone and thus was looking for people to share the cost of a boat tour on Inle Lake. Together with Toby and a pair of Israelis (more on them later) we chartered a boat for about $4 per person and proceeded to have a delightful day on the lake. We hit it off with Toby right away and his enthusiasm for seeing temples, meeting local people, and determination to have a good time was infectious. Sure, we were taken to all kinds of shops, craft ‘factories’ prominently featuring gift shops, and even a monastery who trained cats to jump through hoops for the benefit of tourists (although that might have been for their own amusement as well), but it was kind of fun. Afterall, we were being puttered around a lake seeing all kinds of beautiful birds, pretty temples, interesting fishing villages and traditional fishing boats, all for less than $5 for the whole day. Some people might have thought it was inauthentic or overly touristy, but I thought we saw an interesting slice of daily life on the lake (like seaweed harvesting, spear-fishing, and cargo-ferrying motorized canoes that sat only inches about the waterline) as well as more of the kitschy stuff. There were plenty of other tourists making the rounds in their own little boats, but they were mostly pleasant and it never felt overrun since the lake is enormous.
R and Toby keeping it real
Fishermen in this area are famous for their leg-rowing technique, which allows then to see the fish through the reeds that fill the lake. Ladies row like ladies should: sitting down.
We only spent one day at Inle Lake, deciding not to do the Kalaw-Inle hike that many tourists do in favor of freeing up more time to visit more far-flung places off the usual tourist circuit. The classic tourist route takes in the ‘Big Four’: Yangon, Inle Lake, Mandalay, and Bagan, which is doable in about 2 weeks. We had 3 weeks and were willing to condense our visit to allot more time to visit places that tourists typically don’t go, but this proved tricky since ‘off the beaten path’ often means completely ‘off limits’ by the government and even towns that are not strictly out-of-bounds may not have government licensed guest houses or hotels which are the only places that foreigners can legally stay.
Ruins along the lake
We scheduled an overnight bus the next day for Mandalay and met more Kiwis along the way. Dave and Laura were a few years younger than us but already married for a few years, making us feel like teenagers. We shared a cab to a hotel in Mandalay that a friend of theirs had scouted out the day prior and then arranged to tour around the ancient cities around Mandalay after realizing that we had basically the same itinerary for our stay.
We have been guilty of keeping to ourselves on this trip with the exceptions of our time in Xela, Guatemala and our repeated (although sometimes unplanned) travels with Shawn in Central America. It was hard to meet other travelers when we were on the bikes and after a while on the road, we kind of developed a closed-circuit unit even when traveling the backpacker route. We have joked about it: we are just crotchety and old-at-heart and we can be snappish in judgment of younger travelers or when meeting travelers for certain countries (specifically, Israelis), but our barriers have lowered a little and it turns out that meeting like-minded travelers is a ton of fun; we have especially enjoyed meeting other Americans, Canadians, and Kiwis.
Padaung girl making scarves
Burmese language ‘street’ sign, sponsored by Myanmar brand beer
The people that we have had the most problematic interactions with on this trip have been Israelis. Maybe it is unfair to make generalizations about a whole nationality, but it has proven true time and again. I’d like to make a disclaimer and say that we have met some truly lovely Israelis, especially Moran and Kfir in Rio Dulce, Guatemala, and a group of four wonderful Israelis in Monteverde, Costa Rica. But R has some strong feelings about some of the less positive meetings we’ve had with Israelis which have been reignited by the pair of Israelis we shared our boat trip with in Inle Lake and the complaints we have about Israelis in general can certainly be applied to jerks of all nationalities.