When I met my blonde haired, blue eyed best friend and she told me she was part Burmese, I was skeptical. I remained unconvinced until I met her great-Grandma, by which time I had to concede. When I was planning my trip to South East Asia, the beautiful landscapes of Myanmar further convinced me to visit my friend’s homeland and make the most of my time there. “Since it’s Brooke’s heritage” I told myself. In Inle Lake, this justified all manner of new and unexpected things.
The bus there is a notable mention. However treacherous ten hours on a Myanmar bus may sound, you are given free food, blankets, water and movies. Famous express lives up to its name and drops you right in Nyaung Shwe.
Nyaung Shwe is the universal drop off point for tourists, where we eat, stay and mingle. There are a number of restaurants and drinking holes, as well as places to buy tickets and tours. It’s also the place where you pay the $10 entrance fee to the lake. The town doesn’t say a lot for itself – the attraction is the lake, but on the first night we ate some fairly decent food at the underrated Asiatico.
It’s French owned and fautlessly decorated, with an 80s soundtrack and pretty annoying tourist patrons. My favourites were the Italians who sat down, perused the menu and asked the nationality of the chef. He’s French. We heard them then say to each other “Una pizza, assolutamente no.” and leave. Although I have no qualms with eating Western, and do it frequently, I find it arrogant to believe the only people who can cook enjoyable food, or dare I say enjoyable pizza, are your own kind. But it’s their loss, the pizza was great – verified by my own Italian pizza-lover, who was also shocked by this behaviour.
By daylight we were ready to explore and the best way to explore independently is by bike.
Remember the saying “you never forget how to ride a bike”?
I’m not too sure. I certainly never forget my first experience without stabilisers. My Mum held the back of my seat as I rode, then I turned around to realise she had let go and I was riding alone. I began screaming. I am even less co-ordinated now than I was then. I have also never ridden on roads – especially not roads where I am contending with trucks, lazy dogs, ox carts and a highway code which consists only of horn honking.
The five kilometers to Maing Thauk were horrific. I climbed off the bike and pushed it in a strop, and was appeased only by a walk through the village scenery.
We took our cycles and rode back north, stopping at the Red Mountain Vineyard. Here, for 5000 kyats you can sample two whites and two reds. The wines are accompanied by bread and real cheese!
For various reasons I don’t drink, but since I was in Myanmar, I tried the two white wines. The second white wine was the favourite – but I was most happy to eat thick slices of real cheese!
After the wine tasting, we took a lunch at the vineyard restaurant. The food is European-Asian fusion, and very good.
We stopped in the town and saw a fellow Black girl in the bar. Her experiences in Myanmar had been similar to mine – constant attention, staring and giggling and we both agreed it could become exhausting. She had spent the whole last evening crying. Although no one was unkind, it was tiresome to go out to eat and be watched the whole time, or constantly talked about, pointed to and photograph. Fame hurts, ya know?
After our chat, we found a local boatman who could take us out on the lake the next day. I tried to specify that we didn’t want to see tourist sites, we wanted to see villages and he said yes, but I’m not sure he understood completely.
All the same, we took a 6:30am breakfast at the hotel in advance of our 7:30am start on the boat. The walk to the pier is cold, but not as cold as when the boat starts moving. The old tatty blankets don’t even begin to help.
We then drove down to a village market and the stupas. It was interesting to see and walk around the fruit markets where they’re selling to locals, but we avoided the tourist geared souvenirs section.
From here he took us to a silk factory. I was surprised to find this interesting despite how tourist focused it was. You see the processes of the silk, lotus and cotton making. You are pressed to buy garments in their shop, but we just tipped the guide instead.
“You smoke?” The lady asked.
“I do.” Alessio replied.
She handed him a lit cigar, then promptly handed another lit cigar to me.
Alessio wanted to buy one cigar for the express purpose of annoying people in Pub Asiatico, but the woman refused to sell anything but the 12,000+ box and stopped engaging with us when it was clear she wasn’t going to make a big sale.
We left, feeling a bit like we had missed out with our lake experience. The tours seemed tailored to making commissions off tourist purchases, with all stops being packed with tourists. I think the way to get the best experience out of the lakes is to really try and tailor-make where you stop, avoiding the tourist traps.
In the evening, after a weary and irritable bickering session, we returned to Pub Asiatico.
We had tried Golden Kite the day before, which has far better reviews, but lacked the atmosphere and food quality of Asiatico. My esteem for the place was solidified by the amazing gratin I had. Assolutamente no, un cazzo – the French chef, his amazing taste for decor and the brilliant food made Pub Asiatico my Inle Lake highlight.
Our time in Inle Lake came to an end at that point and in honesty, I did feel a bit empty afterwards. Much like Luang Prabang, it felt like the tourism focus had drained the city of most of its charm. It still had charm aplenty – the vineyard and Maing Thauk were lovely. If you can have a tailor made tour, research where you want to see. Don’t bother with the tourist traps – they’re interesting but will leave you feeling like your Inle experience is lacking. Our first day redeemed the second – so the trick is definitely to get on your own agenda! And don’t miss the vineyard!