Wine and Hot Springs: cycling Lake Inle
Little did I know when we set off from Bagan that we would be spending the following day soaking our travel-worn bodies in a natural thermal pool followed by some wine tasting on the other side of the lake: neither were anything I’d imagined doing in Burma!
We took the bus to the lake, a nine-hour journey over the mountains from Bagan. The shiny air-conditioned bus had picked us up outside our guest house, where we had sat waiting for it on a bench outside, after a rushed breakfast, watching the Nyaung U day unfold.
A never-ending line of young monks had passed by on their morning alms round brightening the morning with their red robes.
Every seat on the bus was taken with backpackers and independent travellers, there were many familiar faces as we boarded, and took the last two free seats at the very front.
The road took us east, across country, on narrow tarmac-ed roads. The driver and ticket guy supplemented their wages by picking up local passengers along the route; the two large stacks of plastic stools wedged into our footwell dwindled fast as they were lined up the aisle. We ended up with loads of leg room!
After around three hours a message was passed down the bus that someone needed to visit a toilet, the driver pulled over next to a stubbly field: apparently this was it.
The bus emptied, the men along the road, the women squatting in a neat row along the hedge inside the field– much to the embarrassment of a few of them.
By the time we reached the designated lunch stop many of the passengers in the aisle had been sick; we were very lucky to be up the front as the smell further down the bus was very unpleasant indeed.
After lunch the journey became more interesting, we passed into a beautiful mountainous region. The bus climbed up and up, round many perilous hairpin bends. The drops were vertiginous and the road narrow. The horn came into use, frequently, to warn of our presence.
We were on these winding roads for a few hours, I really felt for those poor travel-sick locals further down the bus.
The driver chewed betel most of the way, spitting it out into a makeshift spittoon. When the old plastic water bottle became full he poured it out of the window, presumably leaving a red streak down the side of the bus. I found the act, and the smell, a little nauseating but at least I was away from the vomiting down the back.
The bus stopped at Kalaw, an old British hill station, up in the mountains. Most of the backpackers got off here, to be met off the bus by turbaned Sikh taxi drivers. Indians have been in Kalaw since the railway was built, brought in by the British to construct the rails and the roads.
The cluster of travellers stood leafing through their blue Lonely Planet guidebooks, each working out their next move, it was an amusing sight.
Now almost empty, the bus continued on for a couple more hours, the road slowly dropping down and running parallel to the railway.
We arrived into Nyaungshwe in the late afternoon under a blazing hot sun. An official came on board and we foreigners on the bus had to pay our ‘Inle Zone’ tourist tax entrance fee ($10).
We had a lovely, spacious room at the Remember Inn Hotel for $25 per night; they had a gorgeous black cat that was often curled up on the front desk patiently waiting for fuss.
Karen and Robert (our cabin-mates on the overnight train from Yangon to Bagan) were also in Nyaungshwe so we cycled (on hired bikes) to meet them early the next morning.
Our route to their hotel took us through the market; the street was lined with stalls and packed with shoppers, cars and bikes. The produce, mostly vegetables, was encroaching on so much of the road that it became jammed with traffic and shoppers; it became so difficult to negotiate on my bicycle that I got off and pushed.
The four of us set off from their hotel to spend the day cycling around the countryside on the promise of hot springs and wine.
We rode across the canal and we were soon riding along a dirt road with rice paddies on either side. Halfway along the road we encountered road works: the road was being resurfaced; by hand. It was interesting to watch. Women were breaking up rocks which the men were laying flat on the road; further up, these were being covered by tar. This all made the road difficult to traverse, the traffic kept jamming up; yet, we eventually hit the new, smooth tarmac. Our joy was short-lived though as we then found ourselves puffing and panting up a steep hill.
The hot springs were a little further along the road. As we were just pulling in two coaches of domestic tourists were emptying in a raucous rabble into reception. Our hopes for a peaceful soak dwindled away.
One of the receptionists showed us the facilities, we were taken through to a pleasant covered area of three pools lined with sun loungers. Not a tourist, domestic or otherwise, to be seen.
The receptionist explained that the domestic tourists preferred the segregated, male and female, pools while the mixed pools were for the foreign tourists, at the inflated price of $8 each. The price was a little more than we were expecting; but the pools looked inviting. We changed into our cozies and soaked our tired muscles in the hot water, we deserved it after that arduous hill. The three pools were hot, hotter and hotter than the sun. We soaked in the middle pool, which was the coolest of the three, it was all wonderfully relaxing.
The only drawback was that when the heat of the water became too much we’d sit on the pool side and become fresh meat for the voracious horseflies. We talked and soaked, hopefully reaping the benefits of the spa water, then lay on the sun loungers sipping canned drinks. There was a small menu so we ordered fried rice for lunch. Thoroughly relaxed, we set off on our bikes toward Kaung Daing so that we could cross Lake Inle by boat. Some way along the road we were ushered off the road by a man, “to the boat jetty”, and quoted over the odds for a boat. We protested but he wouldn’t reduce the quote.
We carried on and saw a sign for the jetty, following that we met an elderly man who quoted us the price we had been expecting. He took us to meet his son who would take us across the lake. His son wanted to charge more but father put him right and happily chatted to us about football while his son loaded our bikes onto the narrow boat. We climbed in and made ourselves as comfortable as possible on a mat at the back of the boat. The boat cruised past stilt houses rising up from the lake edge, then along a green canal cut into the reeds until we were out into the open expanse of Lake Inle.
It was beautiful, we could see the iconic Inle fishermen in the distance, tiny figures on the vast watery mirror. The boat noisily cut through the water to Maing Thauk, another stilt village, on the other side of the lake. A fellow boatman helped us to haul our bikes onto the high wooden pier, we paid our boatman then this new guy offered his services for a day trip the next day. We had experienced the pushy boatmen in Nyaungshwe and, to be honest, we weren’t looking forward to haggling for our day sightseeing on the lake. This guy seemed very amiable and we were able to negotiate a good deal that would involve more sightseeing and less shopping.
We refused visits to the gold, silver and gem workshops – none of us were interested in, or had the budget for, buying jewellery.
Pleased with the deal, we cycled through Maing Thauk and out onto the Eastern Lake Road.
The sun was sinking low in the sky when we finally found the right hand turn up to the Red Mountain Estate Winery. We had passed many sugar cane plantations processing the cane, the smell was wonderful– like lightly scalded sugar, so sweet.
It is a steep drive up to the winery, I gave up very quickly and pushed my bike most of the way up, Robert and Karen did the same. Only Chris managed to heroically pedal all the way to the top!
It was 5.15pm, we took a table in the upper covered terrace and did the taster menu for $2 per person. This menu gave us four different Myanmar wines, a taster rather than a glass, and for most of those the taster was a little too much!
The first three wines were not that good, which was a shame– we really wanted to like them. The last wine we were served was Late Harvest, a semi-sweet white wine, this was delicious! It reminded me of an Autumn oak leaf wine we buy in Scotland, which we are rather partial to.
We all decided to chip in and buy a bottle to sip on the boat the next day, to toast the sunset! As we were about to leave the sun was balanced on the mountain range across the lake, a perfect moment to sum up a perfect day.
Arriving in Yangon seven days previously, I never imagined that I would be sipping Burmese wine at any point during our trip, let alone in a vineyard overlooking Lake Inle. The hot pool experience was also a surprise, I’d assumed that would be reserved for the expensive resorts, not the everyday folk.
We rode back to Nyaungshwe along darkening roads to the Nepali restaurant– a recommendation–for a nutritious feast. On deciding what to order we got into a conversation with a young Canadian girl, who had flown to Myanmar from Nepal, she recommended the Dhal Bhat.
Kayla had only just arrived into Nyaungshwe and we ended up inviting her along on our boat trip the following day, the more the merrier! It would be an early start, the lake, and its treasures, awaited us.
Lake Inle Boat Trip. An Extraordinary Day In Burma! Ok, it’s touristy, but it is incredible and it’s magical!
On The Rails To Mandalay. The Mail Train To Thazi. Another wobbly train through Myanmar, this time through the beautiful hills.
The Golden Land: Travels Through Burma a video ‘trailer’ for these posts about Myanmar.
Golden Yangon Arriving into Myanmar and being utterly astounded by the glittering Shwedagon Pagoda!
Colonial Yangon, the Rangoon of my Imagination a morning stroll that sent shivers down my spine.
The Myanmar Rail Experience. Exactly what it’s like to take the overnight sleeper to Bagan: an adventure!
Bagan, You’ve Never Seen So Many Temples Oh my goodness wow! WOW!
The Iconic Bagan Sunrise to the Unforgettable Sunset. Hot air balloons, well worth getting up before dawn!
By Rachel A Davis