From Bagan, we flew over the mountains to spend three days relaxing on Inle Lake in eastern Myanmar. Green mountains ring the 13-mile long lake. It was almost as if we were in Switzerland instead of Myanmar!
As soon as we embarked on our first boat ride, it became clear we weren’t on a Swiss lake (or a Minnesotan one, for that matter). Our boat glided through the dense floating gardens lining the shore, where an immense variety of crops are grown via ingenious methods and are tended via canoe.
From the gardens, we entered the vast expanse of the central lake where the wooden boats of local fishermen were scattered across the water. The fishermen at Inle are renowned for their unique and unusual way of paddling – with their legs. We were fascinated by the various fishing methods on display. Some utilized unusual cone-shaped nets and others snared fish in ingenious traps. All fishermen, however, wrapped one leg around their oar and skillfully steered their canoe in every direction. This method freed their hands for manipulating the nets and traps. As the fishermen simultaneously paddle and maneuver their nets, they look like ballerinas balancing precariously on their canoes.
Some villagers work alone setting to make and set their own traps, while others take a more cooperative approach.
In the afternoon, we spotted several fishermen congregated in one area. In a horizontal line, they all moved in the same direction while repeatedly slapping the water with their paddles. Our guide explained they were scaring the fish into the nets hidden in the reeds, which they had strategically placed earlier in the day. Who knew that fishing would ever be so fascinating?
We motored across the clear blue water to the western edge of the lake and entered a series of canals cutting through the reeds. Houses and shops perched on stilts lined the canals and were connected by various wooden bridges. It was as if we had entered a rural Venice.
The canals eventually led to Indein, where our guide docked the boat. We followed him along the dirt paths until we began to climb a hillside strewn with crumbling brick stupas. As we made our way up the hill, renovated glittering golden structures began to replace their ruined counterparts. We entered the main pagoda and realized we had arrived in the middle of the morning prayers, as a monk chanted into a microphone and worshipers repeated his words in unison. A random middle-aged white woman meditated amongst the other worshipers. Gio surmised that she was in the “pray” portion of her Eat Pray Love sabbatical.
After winding through a new series of canals, we docked at Phaung Daw Oo Paya in the middle of the water, home to several Buddha statues that are the focus of an annual boat parade on the lake. The parallel with Venice did not end at the canals; as locals and merchants went about their day inside and outside the pagoda, we felt we had stepped into a Burmese version of St. Mark’s Square. The pagoda houses five small Buddha statues in a shrine at the center. Stephanie had to admire the shrine from afar as ladies are not allowed to get too close to the precious statues. Locals regularly purchase gold leaves to add to the statue – and contrary to the Buddha we had encountered in Mandalay, there is no restriction on rubbing gold on their faces, so the statues look more like large gold eggs than a Buddha.
The day’s final destination was Nga Hpe Kyaung, more commonly known as the “jumping cat monastery.”
Apparently, the monks there have taught the resident cats to jump through hoops and perform other tricks. Stephanie was pretty excited to visit this tourist trap – maybe the monks would give her tips on teaching Ephraim to follow instructions! Sadly, although we found several resident kittens and cats lounging around, none were jumping through hoops. Either the cats had their own agenda or the monks were busier with more important things. Also, instead of jumping through hoops, we thought a better use of the monks' time would be to toilet train their cats as they used the floor as one giant litter box.
As we puttered back to the hotel in the fading afternoon light, we agreed that there are few things better than spending a day out on the water, be it Inle Lake or Lake Minnetonka!
Back along the shore, we luxuriated in our very own bungalow perched over the water. At the last minute, we discovered that a brand new five star hotel had opened on the lake and still had introductory rates. We quickly traded in our prior backpacker accommodation for a lakeside bungalow. For our three days in Inle, we had the hotel practically to ourselves and we marveled at the views from the fantastic infinity pool as well as the bar suspended over the water. We had arrived back in the first world! (Sidenote – our hotel was just one of many brand new construction projects. You should visit Inle Lake now!)
With bikes borrowed from the hotel, we set out to explore the lakeshore, biking to the nearby Red Mountain Winery to determine which country has worse wine – Myanmar or Madagascar. For the record, the soil of Madagascar is our least favorite terroir. To our surprise, Burmese wine was not terrible. We did not, however, purchase any bottles to replace the Bordeaux at Christmas dinner and continue to think that South Africa is a superior wine tasting destination. Regardless, we always enjoy a glass of wine overlooking beautiful vineyards!
From Inle, we flew southwest to Ngapali Beach, a gorgeous stretch of white sand on the Bay of Bengal. Of course, further airport adventures ensued as mists had enshrouded the airport and all the flights in and out were delayed. Once the fog had lifted, a dozen airplanes landed in quick succession. To make sure all the passengers boarded the correct aircraft, airport staff marched through the departures lounge with bullhorns and handwritten signs – the signs were significantly more effective than the shouted instructions. Lucky for us, we followed the correct sign and boarded a southbound flight without anyone ever having scrutinized (or even haphazardly checked) our passports or boarding passes.
Soon after we touched down on a runway overlooking the sparkling blue ocean, we were ensconced under an umbrella on the main stretch of beach. The outlying islands and jungle-clad coast provided the perfect backdrop to the crystal clear warm water.
We hired a boat to take us out to the offshore coral reefs and spent one morning happily snorkeling amidst schools of brightly colored fish. Our boat driver joined us in the water to spear a few of the fish for himself, proudly showing us his catch, which mysteriously included two puffer fish. What was he going to do with two poisonous fish? We have no idea, but he promised none of the local restaurants would serve them for dinner.
This area is still amazingly undeveloped, making Ngapali an incredibly laidback destination. The only vendors on the beach wanted to sell fresh fruit and the group of children that offered daily horse rides in the sand really just wanted to spend their time galloping back and forth themselves. We found various restaurants along the sand selling the catch of the day and we could see the fishing boats heading out to open water day and night. Towards the end of the day, there was nothing else to do but watch how the setting sun changed the colors in the sky.
Several new hotels, however, are also under construction. Ngapali can’t remain a small fishing village for long and seems likely to turn into the next Phuket. Just like everywhere else in Myanmar, we recommend you go now!