Thursday was my last day in Kalaw. I expected to be sore from the hike, but I felt pretty good. I ran into Samira in the restaurant at breakfast and commented on the green goo-coloured jelly that they served us with the always-the-same “white toast and fried egg” breakfast that the Burmese assume is the average foreigner’s breakfast. I complemented this by a stop at a Burmese tea house where I was served tea and samosas for less than a dollar.

After checking out the local market, I started climbing the 200 or so steps to yet another buddhist temple when I was distracted by a sign promising a “restaurant with view”. There I was invited to share the table of a couple from Luxembourg. We had a good chat and even though the “view” wasn’t grandiose it felt great outside in the shade at noon time.

Kalaw is really chilly in the evening and early morning (easily below 10C) but by mid-day the temperature is perfect. Bright sun every day. I took advantage of it by sitting on my balcony (with view over the town) and reading my novel in the late afternoon.

The day was wrapped up by dinner with Shamira at Sam’s Family Restaurant and some more time on the frustratingly slow internet back at the hotel.

Leaving Kalaw

On Friday morning I left the hotel on foot at 7:30 am to catch the 8:00 bus to Shwe Nyaung. It was FREEZING. I could see my breath, and the boy who was leading me to the bus was shivering. I had layered a tank top, a long sleeve shirt and my fleece and was still cold. I didn’t pack for this kind of weather!

The bus was a sardine can parked by the side of the dusty street. For some reason, despite knowing three days ahead of time that I needed a seat on this bus, I hadn’t been able to get precise information on how to get a ticket, and by the time the hotel staff got me my ticket on that same morning, I ended up in the second to last row, sitting on a wheel well, with my two smallest bags!

As anticipated, the ride was bumpy, but thankfully only one hour and a half long. Thanks to the cold and the bumps, I really needed to pee. The three Israeli from the hike on Wednesday were also on the bus, and we negotiated a tuk-tuk for $1 each to take us the 12 kilometres to Nyaungshwe, our final destination. We made the driver stop after we were outside the town and all went to pee by the side of the road. This is one of those times when I really wish I was a man!

About Nyaungshwe

Nyaugshwe is the main town near Inle lake, which is the real tourist attraction. They ask for a $10 “admission” when you enter the area. Burma is following Thailand In its two-tier pricing system: one price for foreigners, and a much lower price (or free) for locals. This applies to attractions, transportation, and even some restaurants (the ones where the buses stop for example). Nyaungshwe is the most touristy place I’ve seen in Burma so far.

My hotel, the Lady Princess, has all the conveniences, except WiFi. When the travel agent in Yangon was booking it for me, I was so concerned about having hot water that I forgot to mention WiFi. The only reliable connection I’ve found so far is at a French cafe with designer-decor, and prices to match. Unfortunately their cappuccinos are horrible, and it’s a good 15 minutes walk from the hotel (much faster with a rented bicycle).

After a week without a decent coffee, I have finally found good cappuccinos here at a restaurant called Road to Inle, close to my hotel. The first time I showed up there with much anticipation, they couldn’t make me a cappuccino because the electricity was out! Power outages are a fact of life in Burma, even though most hotels have generators.

There aren’t many cars circulating on the narrow streets here. Most people get around on bicycles, motorcycles, noisy tractor-like contraptions, or horse cart. However everybody moves rather slowly, so riding a bike is not scary.

Food

On the plus side, Nyaungshwe offers a wide variety of cuisines, probably because of the tourist presence. So far I’ve had Japanese, Italian, Chinese (dim sum), and of course Burmese.

A typical Burmese meal normally consists of a clear soup with ginger, garlic, coriander and mustard greens, and then a main course (curry with rice or noodle dish), followed by fruit. Here in Nyaungshwe they also serve you Shan tea and tofu crackers.

Inle Lake boat tour

On my first day, I was approached by a boat driver near the canal, who offered me a day trip on the lake for $20. This was only $2 cheaper than what my hotel offered, but the sights were the same. He made an argument for the fact that I should spend my money around and not give it all to the hotel, since this was his only business, and he didn’t have a hotel. I decided his English was good enough and hired him on the spot!

So on Saturday morning, he picked me up from my hotel on his motorcycle at 8:30 to take me to his boat. All the boats ferrying the tourists around the lake look the same: long and narrow, with a loud engine, up to 5 seats one behind the other down the middle, and optional umbrellas to protect from the sun (no roof). I was the only person on this boat. The first hour and a half on the lake was cold and I wore a T-shirt, long-sleeve shirt, fleece, and blanket on top.

The tour of Inle Lake made for quite an interesting day. The canal opens up into the lake proper where leg-rower fishermen are hard at work. They wrap their leg around an oar and paddle that way, while their hands are free to do other things. It’s unique to this region and quite an acrobatic feat.

Further down, the lake splits into canals lined with mangroves. Some are as narrow as residential streets, others as four-lane highways. Villages stand on stilts, or on whatever solid land they can find. It’s all very scenic, and it would be peaceful if it wasn’t for the noise of dozens of tourists boats all heading out at the same time.

In those villages you make many stops to workshops (they call them factories) where different goods such as textiles, silver jewelry, cigars, and paper umbrellas are fashioned by hand. Lotus fiber is used to make fabric which is seven times as expensive as silk. It takes 4 tons of the plant (I think I heard that right) just to make one scarf.

My boatman looked disappointed that I wasn’t shopping, which means that he probably gets commissions. I didn’t feel too guilty though, since I had hoped that he would act as guide as well, but he didn’t.

We also stopped at the market in Inthein, a busy dusty affair, behind which stands a rather unexpected archeological sights: over a thousand stupas (most from the 17th and 18th century according to Lonely Planet) in various states of disrepair and re-construction.

Wine making in Burma?

Sunday I rented a bicycle from the hotel for only $1.50 (for the whole day). I checked out the town’s market which was in full swing. Markets go to different towns on a 5-day rotation. It was pretty much what I expected: narrow perpendicular alleys crammed with produce, clothes, every-day products, and meal stalls. Most of it was covered by tarps suspended high enough to clear the head of a 5-feet tall person. So I kept ducking. It’s easy to feel like a really huge creature wandering around most of Southeast Asia and its petite people.

After a pretty authentic lunch of dim sum, I headed to the Red Mountain Winery, my goal for the day. That’s right, Nyaungshwe produces wine! My hotel owner told me that it is owned by French people. It was only a 20-minute bike ride from town, but I’m still trying to expel the dust from my nose. I have the sniffles as if I have allergies. The narrow road has dirt or sand shoulders and passing vehicles raise up clouds of dust (and exhaust) as they pass.

The winery is up a hill, guaranteeing beautiful views over the vineyards and beyond, all the way to the lake. For $2 you can sample four wines: a sauvignon blanc, a rose, a tempranillo-shiraz, and a a muscat (late harvest). They don’t have tours per-say, but you can wander around. A bit later I sat on the terrace outside, had a glass of the muscat, and chatted with a couple of Spaniards. The sauvignon blanc was pretty good too.

Moving on

I bought a bus ticket for Nyaung U (gateway to the Bagan temples) for Tuesday morning. The bus leaves at 7:00 am and It should be a 7-hour ride.

After 10 days in Burma, I’ve had as many frustrations as great moments, so I keep ploughing forward.

 

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