burma sea

Discover Burma’s sea of tranquillity

On Inle Lake at dawn, our noisy longtail zips towards Nampan Market, gently rocking the bow of a slender wooden boat where a fisherman poises to cast his net. Paddling in the traditional Intha style, one leg wrapped snugly around his wooden blade, he is the epitome of calm, his attention focused intently on the simple act of catching a fish.

We pass on by with necks craned, through the watery streets of stilted timber villages and past floating gardens where a beaming flower seller throws us bright pink chrysanthemum buds. High trestles of succulent tomatoes and beans tower above us, growing in unlikely Garden beds and tended by farmers in canoes, not tractors.

Stretching for 22km, Inle Lake is one of Burma’s most fascinating landscapes, a sea of contrast where the rituals of daily life are played out against an ancient backdrop of crumbling temples. Its waterfront villages, bustling markets and welcoming monasteries bristle with authenticity, providing ample opportunity to meet locals and gain insight into this traditional, ethnically diverse Southeast Asian culture.

Markets & the mystical

Taking a break from our boat travels we stop at Nampan Market and sip strong, silty coffee at a table shared with a trio of colourfully swathed villagers who have crossed the hills on foot for their weekly shop. A crowd surges through the stalls where sacks overflow with dried chillies and shallots, fresh vegetables and zesty tangerines, aromatic teas and sweet, sticky rice puddings.

There are bamboo poles for sale, just-caught freshwater fish and enough touristy trinkets — wooden carvings, gemstone jewellery and dazzling tribal fabrics — to fill my backpack several times over. The sellers are persuasive but gracious and the smiles don’t diminish when I gently rebuff the offer of beautiful but impractical handicrafts. I don’t end the day empty handed, though.

Across the lake at Indein, after a punchy upriver boat ride, I buy bright swathes of pink cotton from a merry band of scarf sellers for a dollar a piece. Their scarves come in handy to bond tiny babies to their hips and they marvel at the oversized, unwieldy carrier I’m using to transport mine.

We leave the scarf sellers in a crumbling sea of stupas, or zedis, to explore Nyaung Ohak’s wild tangle of monuments, some of which date back to the 12th century. Sprouting shrubby mop-tops yet standing stoic despite the tumbledown effects of the past 900-odd years, these red-brick ruins that grace Indein’s foothills transfix us. We lose our way along foot trails that clamber over tree roots and disappear through doorways where weathered stone elephants stand guard.

Stepping out of the midday glare into a secreted inner sanctum, we rest our eyes on a giant altar of golden Buddhas whose glorious features are slowly revealed as our eyes adjust to the dark. Solitude and darkness disorient us, casting us adrift down an ancient timeline when, suddenly, a wizened, saffron-robed monk materialises.

High trestles of succulent tomatoes and beans tower above us, growing in unlikely garden beds and tended by farmers in canoes, not tractors.

He sizes us up for a moment; we nod and smile. Then, noticing my partner David’s tattoo, he presents his forearm and shows us his. In the absence of a shared language, we let the tattoos tell their stories and once our brief connection has been made he bows and disappears. It is yet another surprising “Myanmar moment” that magnifies our growing affection for this country’s genuine, generous people.

Out in the sunshine, a glittering hilltop scene lures us up through a promenade of souvenir stalls, past slopes studded with 1054 whitewashed and gilded zedis. Getting to the top is half the fun. As we climb a seemingly endless staircase, shopping and stopping for cold drinks along the way, our golden-haired three-year-old gathers presents from adoring stallholders (confirming our theory that everyone in Burma has a soft spot for littlies).

Keeping pace en route to Maing Thauk

When the last stair is conquered, we slip off our shoes to enter Shwe Inn Thein, a modern paya for Buddhist pilgrims surrounded by zedis of every shape and size. Outside there are vast, panoramic views and, down by the river, a string of modest Burmese cafes that lure us back down the hill to devour steaming bowls of noodle soup laced with fresh coriander and chopped chilli. Over mugs of milky, sweet coffee, we rate Indein more than worthy of the 10 hours we’ve just spent getting to Inle Lake by bus. But we are barely half a day into our adventure — and yet to meet U Kon Da La.

After visiting Nga Phe Kyaung’s jumping cat monastery where, since the head monk died a few years ago, the felines stay very much grounded, we hear about a beautiful old teak monastery near our waterfront room in the town of Nyaung Shwe. After visits to some of Burma’s more famous Buddhist temples — giant, crowded, gilded monuments — Ywa Thit Monastery provides a humbling contrast.

Sitting cross-legged on a foot-worn wooden floor, big windows framing rural scenes of rice paddies and a local soccer match in play, we meet the effervescent Abbot U Kon Da La, who impresses us with his grasp of languages and his world views. He offers us bananas and we eat and chat, revelling in stories of the 75-year-old’s life and the solitude he enjoys as the monastery’s sole occupant (bar a roof full of pigeons).

At his invitation we take a look around, admiring row upon row of centuries-old Buddha statues and artefacts, but find nothing more radiant than U Kon Da La himself. As we cycle away, the sight of U Kon Da La waving us goodbye from a high monastery window is one that brings a smile to my face every time I think of it.

The art of calm

After our inspired afternoon on wheels, we hire them again, this time tackling a thin dirt track towards a peaceful forest monastery high above Maing Thauk. This picturesque riverside village that straddles both sea and land is bridged by a 400m-long elevated walkway and lies within easy cycling distance from the popular tourist centre at Nyaung Shwe.

If the monastery is indeed worth the long uphill climb, I can’t say. We end up spending the better part of the morning in the open-air workshop of the local motorbike mechanic, getting a puncture repaired and learning a lesson in the art of calm. I’m embarrassed to recall the amount of panic that an inconsequential holed tyre triggered but, at the time, we seemed well and truly stranded.

To our surprise, locals come effortlessly to our aid, accompanying us back down the road and waking a sleepy bike mechanic who patiently resolves our crisis singlehandedly (literally, he had one arm in a sling!). For this, he might have earned a good day’s pay but when we finally persuade him to accept some money his asking price is a meagre 50 cents. Another Myanmar moment? You bet.

We lose our way along foot trails that clamber over tree roots and disappear through doorways where weathered stone elephants stand guard.

Our rides restored, we finally reach Maing Thauk and stroll the rickety timber bridge that provides passage to the other side of town. Boarding a canoe taxi, we pass stilted homes and some of Inle Lake’s most upmarket waterfront hotels where, during the high season, luxurious surrounds, exceptional views and utter seclusion come with an AU$250-a-night price tag.

We opt for cold beers and flash-fried noodles instead, lounging in the middle of Inle’s shimmering sea, watching the world buzz on by and pondering a long list of possible activities to fill the rest of our lakeside stay. A local guide has been tempting us with photographs of sheer-drop waterfalls and secluded swimming holes tucked deep in the forest and accessible only on foot. We can get there in a day and the asking price is modest, but we have bigger trekking aspirations, too.

HIgh and dry, stilted homes on Inle Lake

Across mountains and through forests, overnighting in villages dotted between Inle Lake’s Nyaung Shwe and Kalaw in the northeast, a popular guided trekking adventure tempts travellers keen to revel in a more real side of Burma and stay off the bus. Equally appealing is the route to Kakku where a “stupa garden” of 2478 monuments dates back to the 3rd century BCE. But, before we strap on our hiking boots, there are more leisurely jaunts closer to town.

From a riverfront room in Nyaung Shwe, where bed and breakfast is ours for a tiny AU$25 a night, the entire lakeside region is within easy reach via boat and bicycle. Khaung Daing’s natural hot springs make a great biking destination across an incredibly scenic landscape dotted with whitewashed and gilded stupas, including the Phwar Ya Thay Paya, known as “Lady Monk” for the lone woman who resides there.

Sunset with a glass in hand from the elevated decks of Red Mountain Estate Vineyard is a popular traveller’s choice — as much for the views as the four sampler wines sold for a tiny AU$2.50 a head. In the heart of Nyaung Shwe, we join the throng of shoppers at Mingalar Market, sourcing a picnic of ripe avocados, bananas, papaya and crackers, which we carry to the river and devour from swinging hammocks.

In all, a week slips by at Inle Lake before the urgency of seeing the rest of the country takes hold. When we do board the overnight bus to Mandalay, we resolve to shake out our tightly packed itinerary of must-see sights and allow much more time to get lost on the back streets and see, smell and discover the real Burma.

Know before you go

  • Getting there
    Air Asia flights from Gold Coast, Sydney, Melbourne and Perth can get you to Kuala Lumpur and onto Yangon or Mandalay. Visit yangonair.com for connecting flights to Heho (an hour’s taxi ride from Inle Lake) or bed down on an overnight bus ride to Nyaung Shwe for a fraction of the price.
  • Staying there
    The travellers’ hub at Nyaung Shwe on the lake’s northern end offers a huge choice of budget hotels, restaurants and booking agents. For upmarket room choices, stay lakeside (rooms at the popular Inle Princess Resort start from AU$250/night). The Royal Inlay Hotel in Nyaung Shwe runs a day spa and offers affordable rooms a cut above the town’s traveller digs.
  • Getting around
    Day-long boat tours of Inle Lake are arranged with ease, starting from about AU$22. Rent bikes for AU$2 a day.
  • Getting organised
    Apply for a 28-day Myanmar visa instantly online here, (US$50 per person). ATMs are located at major tourist destinations and banks everywhere can exchange major currencies (as the country’s alternative currency, US dollars are recommended). For Travel information, head here..
  • Don’t miss
    While in Nyaung Shwe, check out the Aung Puppet Show, a grassroots performance of traditional Myanmar puppetry (AU$4 a ticket).

Catherine Lawson

Catherine Lawson

Journalist, editor, author and adventurer Catherine Lawson travels full-time with photographer-partner David Bristow and their 5-year-old daughter Maya. Captivated by wild places and passionate about their preservation, these storytellers advocate a simple life and document their outdoor adventures to inspire all travellers, but especially families, into the world’s best wild places.

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