The Monk and the Infamous Inle Lake: Nyaungshwe, Myanmar (Part I)

20°30’47.4″N 96°50’59.8″E

Nyaungshwe, a town just north of the infamous Inle Lake, in Myanmar. A quaint little town, and one of the most touristy spots in all of Myanmar (besides maybe Bagan as a close second). This is by far the most common place to start off your trip to Inle Lake, but also a wonderful place to relax and soak up some of the few touristic amenities while traveling through Myanmar.

Entrance fee that you pay as you enter Inle 'region'.
Entrance fee that you pay as you enter the Inle ‘zone’.

We had arrived in town around 5:00am, coming in from the north of the country (Hsipaw to be exact) and were exhausted from a trek two days prior. Due to this, and our current state of affairs, we opted not to do the famous trek to or from a nearby town called Kalaw, (although we had heard it was a great trek) and opted for some R&R instead. Upon our arrival, we had to pay the US$10 entrance fee to the Inle Lake region. We heard that some tourists did manage to bypass this, and since it’s not strictly enforced, you may be able to get around it as well.

Remember Inn Hotel, decent place to stay in a quiet part of town.
Remember Inn Hotel. A decent place to stay in a nice, quiet part of town.

Inle Lake and Nyaungshwe were on our way south, coming back from the Northern Shan States, heading towards Golden Rock and Mawlamyine in the southeast. We had planned to stay here for at least 3 nights, which we were glad we did since it was a nice and relaxing experience to be had. Our hotel was called the Remember Inn, with which it had a wonderful breakfast, and a decent room with private bathroom for US$25 a night for two.

The hotel was located on the nice quiet side of town. Since Nyaungshwe was pedestrian and bicycle friendly, this was not a problem for us. The hotel also can arrange hiking tours and bus tickets to several other towns and cities. We eventually booked our bus through them to leave at the end of our stay (they were actually cheaper than other bus companies) to head to the Kyaiktiyo Pagoda, commonly known as Golden Rock, in southeastern Myanmar.

Our view from the rooftop restaurant at the Remember Inn Hotel.
Our view from the rooftop restaurant at the Remember Inn Hotel.

The morning after we had arrived in Nyaungshwe, we had decided to head over to the boat docks on the west side of town and catch a ride onto Inle Lake. After having a nice breakfast at the Remember Inn, we managed to make it to the docks by 7:40am. A driver approached us and proposed a price of about 11,000 kyat each. We accepted and were told that we would be taken on a tour around the lake. This included markets, and shops, as well as the Cat Jumping Monastery located on the northwestern side of the lake.

We had asked specifically if we could skip the ‘tourist traps’ that included the markets and shops. The boat owner told us that it was part of the ‘package’ and that it was included in the price. We figured that maybe we could at least see how things operated on the lake and decided not to fight it and just go along for the ride.

We hopped in and were whisked (speed boat style) down the canal to the main lake entrance, passing tourist and merchant filled boats along the way.

The docks on the south side of town. Catch your boat here for trips on Inle Lake.
The docks on the south side of town. Catch your boat here for trips onto Inle Lake.
One of the few signs on the canal reminding you to look out for the birds that live on the lake.
One of the few signs on the canal reminding you that ‘You can watch bird.’

Once we were out on the open parts of the lake, we began to see many of the iconic fisherman scattered about, gathering their daily catch. I wanted to get a good photograph of the fisherman, but I never seemed to get the right kind of light or angle that I wanted. I had envisioned a warm morning light instead, but due to the time of day that we had gone out on the lake, this wasn’t going to happen.

While on the boat, I had decided to go ahead and ask the driver to meet me the following morning for early sunrise. In the meantime, I worked with whatever light was available to me and hoped for the best. Eventually we made it to the outer edge of the lake and over to some of the markets and stilt villages located on the northeastern shore. The driver then took us over to an open air market, got dropped off, and told to come back to the boat within about 30 minutes. Watch the video of the boat ride through the stilt village here.

It was what you would call a ‘tourist trap’ of sorts, as we had a feeling we would have to endure throughout most of the journey. All in all, it wasn’t a horrible part of the journey, but one that we could have gone without.

A local fisherman out on the open lake.
A local fisherman out on the open lake.
Near the first market we visited on the lake.
Near the first market we visited on the lake.

We then headed back to our boat and were taken to a series of markets, including places where they made umbrellas out of paper, crafted silver jewelry, weaved textiles, and rolled sweet flavored cigars. We had been told that we would also be taken to the Cat Jumping Monastery (Nga Hpe Chaung is the official name) which had supposedly been where a monk had taught cats to jump through hoops for food.

We asked when we would arrive at the monastery but were also told that they don’t do the cat jumping anymore. What?! No jumping cats!? We were sorely disappointed, and asked why this was. Apparently, the monk that had taught the cats to do this had been deceased for several years (not according to our Lonely Planet guidebook) and this was not being practiced anymore.

So, after we visited the NON-cat jumping monastery, we were then taken to a lakeside restaurant for lunch and to give our boat driver a rest.

Some of the locals going out to market as we sped past.
Some of the locals going out to market as we sped past.
Inside the Jumping Cat Monastery, minus the monks and the cats.
Inside the Jumping Cat Monastery, minus the monks and the cats.

Having spent about 5-6 hours out on the lake, the driver began to start taking us back to town. We were slightly disappointed in the end (mostly due to no jumping cats and forced tourist traps) and were ready to go back to town. After reaching the docks, I had confirmed with the boat owner that I would meet him on the dock in the morning for some sunrise pictures. He said that it would cost 8,000 kyat per person, in which I agreed to the price.

After we docked, we headed back to our hotel room and came across a Thai style massage parlor called the King Rabbit. We decided to reserve a spot for ourselves for 4:00pm, and then promptly headed back to our hotel for a much needed shower and afternoon nap. After reluctantly waking up, and realizing we were going to be late to our massage, we got dressed and ran to the King Rabbit.

Upon arrival, we were told that we would be skipped due to our tardiness, and ended up waiting an additional hour.  We paid for 1.5 hours of massage for 5,000 kyat per hour, so about 8,000 kyat each plus 2,000 kyat for tip. That’s an hour and a half massage for US$5 each. Not too shabby if you ask me, despite the added wait time.

After we were kneaded like bread dough, we embarked upon a Nepalese restaurant and decided to give it a shot. The food was spectacular, and the cost was very reasonable considering the portions we were served.

Everest II Restaurant.
Everest II Restaurant.
A Nepalese Thali. Yum.
A Nepalese Thali about to be devoured. Yum.

After we had our fill of delicious Nepalese food, we decided to head over to a little theatre located near our hotel called the Aung Puppet theatre. We had seen signs posted about it near our hotel and found that it would be interesting to see a traditional marionette show. At some point in Burmese history, marionette shows were very popular, and as we had seen a wonderful water-puppet show in Vietnam on a previous trip, we were intrigued to see this one as well.

The place was empty when we arrived for the 7:00pm show, and we were offered endless amounts of green tea upon arrival. The owner of the theatre waited for any additional tourists to show. Sadly, no one else bothered to drop in, which prompted the owner to then tell us that his show had become less and less popular over the years. He had followed in his father’s footsteps and had been doing marionette shows his whole life. Watch an excerpt of the marionette show here.

We were happy to be there to support him, and promised to tell anyone to go there if they were ever in Nyaungshwe. Once we had our fill of puppetry, we headed back to our hotel to get some more shut-eye. I had agreed to meet up with the boat driver as early as 6:00am to catch the early morning sunrise.

Some Marionette puppets for sale at the theater.
Some Marionette puppets for sale at the theater.

Upon awaking at 5:15am, alone I headed over to the dock to meet up with my boat driver. I ended up arriving a little early and milled around until 6:15am and saw him approaching from down the road. It was a cold-brisk ride (thank goodness for the blankets that the most drivers provide), and gorgeous to say the least. Very few other boats were out on the water and I was shocked to see no fisherman! I asked where the fisherman were, and the driver replied that there apparently was a new school built in town and all of them were there to watch the opening.

My driver obviously neglected to tell me this the day earlier. So, luckily for me, there happened to be one lone fisherman out on the water ‘posing’ for any tourists that may be out on the lake that morning. I basically had the whole lake to myself with this lone fisherman and a gorgeous sunrise to work with. Watch the video of the boat ride towards the lake here.

After I had felt that I got the shots I wanted, I tipped the fisherman for his troubles and sat on the boat chatting with the boat driver. Apparently, he said he never ever gets to leave Inle Lake and had always dreamt of going to see the Golden Rock in the south (where we were headed next), but wasn’t able to afford the bus ticket. Being buddhist, he felt that he needed to see it as a pilgrimage of his beliefs.

I felt bad knowing that I had the ability to travel at will, all over this beautiful country, and the local countrymen couldn’t even afford to leave their hometown! It really put things in perspective and humbled me greatly as a traveller.

Inle Lake, minus the fisherman...
Sunrise over Inle Lake, minus the fisherman…

 

Fisherman, Inle Lake, Myanmar
The lone fisherman,shot with my Rolleiflex TLR.

After speaking with my boat driver while we were out on the lake, we decided to start to head back to shore. I ended up paying him for his troubles, as well as the price we had agreed upon the day before. I then walked slowly back to the hotel, and eventually back to my girlfriend who was still soundly sleeping in our hotel room. I woke her, and we managed to catch breakfast just in time before our complimentary cut-off time of 9:00am.

I started to feel a bit of a head cold coming on, so I decided to head back to the room after we ate for a nice nap. After a few hours, I awoke and we decided that we wanted to check on renting some bicycles and to ride though town.

*This post is a part of a series. Click on the link to read more of the story. – The Monk and the Infamous Inle Lake: Nyaungshwe, Myanmar (Part II)