Finding Tranquility, Humor, Hope and Strength in Inle Lake

Whoever built and painted that little stilt house deserves a pat on the back. A lesson for all of us in vibrant color combinations.

When I visited Myanmar last month, I did not go anywhere off the tourist trail. I started with Bagan, then made my way down to Inle Lake, and wrapped it up in Yangon. I did not do much research prior to the trip, but that itinerary turned out to be quite sensible as the first two places, with their bucolic beauty and simplicity of life, gave me a smooth introduction to the country that would stir up a lot of mixed emotions in me.

Of those three places, I stayed in Inle Lake the longest. From the beginning up to one day after I arrived, I felt quite unsure about my decision to spend that amount of time there because unlike Bagan, which is unanimously praised, Inle seems to be a polarizing destination. I met and talked to a fair share of travelers who even skipped it entirely. People from my own country who had visited said it is not as impressive as some of our natural lakes while people from other parts of the world flat-out dismissed it as “just a lake”.

On my first day, I took a cookie-cutter boat tour with two lovely French ladies I met at my hotel and a Brazilian guy. It felt really great to be on the lake, inhaling fresh air again after so much dust in Bagan and seeing local fishermen row their canoes with one leg. But I wish we had not been taken to so many tourist-geared souvenir shops. My companions were interesting, and we have great conversations about travels, relationships, and marriage (as I type this, I realize that from now on, I need to shut up. What do I even know about marriage?)

A not-so-good photo of us (photo credit: waiter). The food was mediocre, but the breeze, the view and the companions were definitely not. 

However, by the end of that day, Inle still did not quite capture my heart.

It was not until the following day when I stopped expecting to be wowed by everything and started immersing myself more in the normal Inle that I felt head over heels for its charms.

This is by no means a complete guide to Inle Lake. I did not eat well there, so I cannot tell you what and where you should eat. There are things I missed either because I did not know about them at that time or I simply did not have the financial wherewithal. Like, Kakku Pagodas and Inn Dein Pagoda, both of which, according to people who went, are “absolutely beautiful” or “out of this world”.

However, in sharing this, I hope that when you find yourself in Inle or really any place for that matter and do not “get” it at first, just remain patient. Take it slow. Give it time to grow on you.

Sometimes the beauty of a place lies in its majestic natural sceneries, right in front of you. Other times, it is a bit hidden, but still right around the corner if you look.

Without further ado, here are what I love most about Inle.

1. The village life simplicity

This kid and his sister (not pictured) were picking up trash.

Biking around different villages and observing local people go about their businesses made me feel like I was stepping back in time. I know you might hear that description of Myanmar before and find it trite, but it is true.

I would be lying if I said my heart did not sink a little at what I saw. I wonder how better their lives would be if they had more access to basic necessities such as electricity and clean water. They would have fans to fend off the heat on scorching hot days. They would not have to brush their teeth, bath, wash their clothes and cook using the same river water. The children would spend their afternoons hanging out at school instead of collecting trashes.

Why is their government so screwed up that it can let its people live in such poverty?

However, whenever those thoughts began to overwhelm me, I was reminded by those very villagers that life can be full of hardships, but there is no need to be feel miserable and resentful. Joy can still be found through teasing your bath-mates or playing chinlone with your friends.

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2. The chaotic but delightful morning market in Nyaungshwe

I wonder what her story is. 

Before Myanmar, I did not know that I still have the ability to love exploring morning markets.

Born and raised in Vietnam and currently living right next to an open-air market, I know what it is all about. Everyday at 5.30 in the morning, I am waken up by the strident sounds of roosters’ crowing, dogs’ barking, honking, and people’s shouting.

When I first moved back to Vietnam after a long time in the States, I hated going to morning markets with a burning passion. The noise, the smell, the vendors’ attitudes, the lack of personal space…every grocery errand felt like a battle. There are plenty of supermarkets of course, but in Vietnam wise shoppers rarely go there. Everything is marked up and usually not as fresh.

However, I loved visiting morning markets in Myanmar. The morning market in Inle had such a powerful effect on me; it pulled me back everyday.

It was not the jarring yet fascinating cacophony of sights, smell, and sounds there that made me go eyes wide open because I think it is a given at any morning or night market around the world. It was not the products there, either because I did not buy anything.

What made me come back again and again were the hospitality and curiosity of the vendors. At no point did they show me and my camera the hostility that I had previously encountered in some countries (my own included) when trying to photograph things.

When this cabbage lady got a heads-up from the vendors sitting close to her that I was probably taking her photos, she waved and gave me the widest grin and even tried to pose. I love this shot most as I feel that she was really in her work mode. 

_DSC0011This woven bag lady looks a bit lost and scared. But like the cabbage lady, she was smiley and patient with me the entire time. 

I cannot tell you what these are for because I have absolutely no idea. These young girls put these up and stood like that for about 3 minutes before they took them all down and never put them back on again. It was truly serendipitous that I managed to be there and captured the scene. This is the only shot I have; the moment was so fleeting that I did not have a second chance.

At first, she and her fellows (not pictured) laughed at me. Then, when I smiled and pointed at my camera, she nodded and paused for a minute to let me finish photographing. It was a beautiful moment!

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10 Photos of the Legendary Bagan Sunrise and Sunset

In a league of its own. 

Stepping off the overnight JJ Express bus after close to almost 24 hours of traipsing airports and bus stations, I was greeted by a mob of boisterous men. It was around 4.30AM, and in the early morning darkness their faces were hardly recognizable. I could see, however, that they all had some kind of jacket on up top and traditional Burmese longyis below. It was chilly. I did not know how long they had been waiting there and whether they had slept at all during the night, but their persistence and vigor with which they asked us passengers if we wanted a ride to our hotels made it clear that they were very physically and mentally ready to work.

Groggy and confused, I barely registered the surroundings and different offers thrown my way before I found myself sharing a taxi with a Swiss guy for 5,000 kyats per person (Burmese currency, roughly US$5). It was surely cheaper than if I had gone on my own, but it could have been even much less if I had activated my bargaining mode sooner. Just like their counterparts in neighboring countries, Burmese drivers will attempt to overcharge you. But unlike their aggressive and overworked counterparts in places like Thailand or Vietnam, Burmese drivers are more amicable and willing to compromise, and oftentimes they will eventually agree to your price as long as it is not outrageously low.

That, for me, is one of the loveliest things about traveling in Burma. Even when two parties cannot agree on a final figure, one will not try to make the other feel like he has just acted like an a-hole. 

As the car rolled onward, I smelled a pervasive and pungent smell of what I assumed to be burning leaves. It might have been that of burnt trashes. I never got around finding out what it really was, even though I was in the depth of it every morning and evening when I biked back and forth between my hotel and the temples. The only thing I know for sure is that it truly turned Bagan into a multi-sensory experience.

When the taxi driver dropped me off at my hotel, he suggested that I should go see the sunrise, one of Bagan’s most famous “specialities”. I shrugged off his suggestion, saying I was too tired while in fact, I was just skeptical of the hype. I checked in my room and surfed the net (get yourself ready for the super slowwwww internet in Burma!) before drifting off to sleep.

The next morning, I learned what skepticism had cost me:

_DSC0920Hands down the most spectacular sunrise I have seen to date. 

For the rest of my stay, I would wake up at the ungodly hour of 4.30AM and pedaled my lungs out in darkness to Shwesandaw Temple, which, though always packed with people, offers unsurpassed views of the 2,000 and counting temples dotted across a sprawling dusty plain. Normally, I would always steer clear of overcrowded places, not because I consider myself superior to other tourists but because I cannot focus on my photography if I do not have some personal space.

Yet for the first time, I did not feel in the slightest degree inconvenienced by the crowd. There is something so magical and unifying about the sunrise and sunset in Bagan that makes you want to share them with as many people as possible. I am not sure if this always happens, but in my case the sun would receive a standing ovation from us watchers after it finished its job.

_DSC0889 _DSC0884 _DSC0880_DSC0948Similarly, I would drop everything I was doing and climb to the top of any temple that allowed me to come sunset time.

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