Myanmar was like nowhere else I have ever been. Exploring this country felt like stepping back in time.
The locals strolled the streets in traditional longyi and chewed betel nut, their teeth stained bright red. People still made their way around in horse and cart and picked up their daily haul of fruits and vegetables at the open air marketplace. Monks in deep crimson robes sat in the shade of glittering gold pagodas – the decorative tiled floors so hot in the midday sun that they blister the soles of your feet.
This country has a wonderfully laid back pace – no one seems to be in a rush. Internet access, mobile phones and ATMs do exist, but they are relatively new developments and not necessarily reliable. When the electricity went out at our hotel in Pyin Oo Lwin for several hours at a time, no one seemed to care. As a freelancing digital nomad it was hard not to get consumed with anxiety when the lack of electricity or fast internet meant that I couldn’t read an important email from a client – but eventually I learned to take a deep breath and go with the flow.
One of the most relaxing spots on our Myanmar trip was Inle Lake. We stayed in a hotel in Nyaungshwe on the northern edge of the lake, along a dirt road frequented by stray dogs and wandering chickens.
The lake feels like it goes on forever – it covers an area of nearly 120 square kilometres. There is the main lake, as well as many smaller rivers and tributaries meandering off from it. Along the numerous side canals you will find houses on stilts, painted with bright decorations and strung with lines of laundry. Small canoes are parked outside of each stilt house, the main mode of transport.
Our Inle Lake Boat tour was a full package deal – 25,000 kyat (19 USD) for the full day. Our guide would stop at all of the main sites but we could go at our own pace and move on whenever we were ready.
We stumbled into the long and slender boat in the early morning and settled into the lawn chairs. We were slightly apprehensive at first, sitting in a rickety lawn chair in the middle of a wooden boat that seemed to sway too much from side to side. But, I assumed that our guide knew what he was doing and I tried to relax.
Our first stop was a small open air marketplace. It was early enough that it was still being set up and we watched the local vendors unloading their jewellery, clothing and fruit. After a brief walk around, we kept paddling until our guide stopped the boat near some floating gardens in the middle of the lake. Tomatoes were growing there, bobbing up and down in the water. I asked the guide and he said that the water beneath us was 15 metres deep.
The most iconic image of Inle Lake is the fishermen, who stand in their boats while carefully balancing on one leg like flamingos. They paddle with their feet, gracefully moving through the water as they cast their nets. It was hypnotizing to watch the way they moved.
We stopped in a village that is known for its cotton, lotus and silk weavers. We stepped from the boat to the rickety wooden platform and climbed into a large stilt house that was buzzing with the hum of machinery. The local women were weaving on enormous looms, each groaning and clanking in rhythm like a room full of giant typewriters.
Lee said it reminded him of a school trip to the cotton mills in Lancashire and although the equipment was the same, the lotus fabric was certainly different. I didn’t even know you could make fabric from a lotus plant, but when the fibres of the plant are stretched into strands they become so incredibly soft.
Our next stop was a local cigar rolling workshop, where we saw how they made natural banana flavoured cigars. I normally don’t smoke, but I thought “when in Rome…” and took the opportunity to try one of these banana cigars. It tasted strangely sweet and aromatic, the smoke almost making me dizzy.
We visited a silversmith, who showed us how he melted down silver with a foot-operated bellows and crafted intricately detailed rings. Each ring took a full day to complete.
We took a moment to escape from the heat inside a Buddhist temple, where a monk who couldn’t have been older than eight offered us big juicy slices of watermelon. We stuffed a few kyat in the donation box as we left and he gave us a big smile.
We wandered through a market and I bought a bracelet while Lee got a knife in a bamboo sheath. After we handed over the money for the purchase, the vendor held it in her fist and walked around her stall, tapping the money on all of her other products. “Lucky money” she explained.
We stopped for lunch at a restaurant in a wooden building on stilts above the lake. The lunch was simple yet fresh and tasty – chicken, veg, noodles, steamed rice and fish. We finished up lunch and waited for our guide. After a while I went to find him – he was tucked away in a room playing a card game with the staff of the restaurant. I imagine that’s what the guides do on the tours -they take the time to visit with people at every stop while the tourists explore.
Our next stop was an odd one – a monastery known for its abundance of cats. In this quiet building, amongst the Buddha sculptures and gleaming decorations there were dozens of cats stretched out sleeping or padding across the tiled floor on silent paws.
Tired from the early morning start and the day of exploring on the heat, I sat down on the cool floor and spent a few moments scratching a slightly ragged grey cat behind the ears. Then, I heard Lee calling me outside.
Out on the balcony of the monastery he had discovered a litter of kittens, hiding in a gap within the wooden floor boards and the wall.
They were at the stage where they were just starting to explore their surroundings, stumbling around on their tiny, shaky legs and sniffing the air. I didn’t want to leave – why couldn’t we spend the rest of the day cuddling them while we admired the view of the tranquil water?
However, this was the end of our tour and our guide was ready to take us back to town. It was only 3pm by this point, which felt strange as we had seen and done so much. We decided to end the day with a visit to Red Mountain Winery, a vineyard that had been recommended to us by a French guy we had met in Bagan.
It was 10,000 kyat (7.60 USD) for the tuk tuk to take us there, rumbling down the bumpy dirty road. For that price the driver waited for us while we drank wine and then took us back to our hotel.
Now, if you are a wine connoisseur the wines at Red Mountain aren’t anything to write home about. They certainly didn’t have the flavour complexity of the wines we sampled in Mendoza, Argentina or Australia’s Yarra Valley. However, after a full day of exploring they were just the thing to make us very happy. The tasting menu included four wines for 3,000 kyat (2.30 USD), so we enjoyed a couple of whites and a red. I treated myself to a chocolate cake that was heavenly – fluffy on the outside and warm and gooey in the middle.
What Red Mountain really has going for it is the setting – an elegant landscaped terrace overlooking vineyards and rolling green hills that will make you feel like you are in France or Spain (until you spot the odd colourful tuk tuk chugging down the road).
We sipped our wines and watched the sun slowly sinking behind the hills, during the sky hues of lavender and peach. Slightly buzzing from the wine, I smiled at Lee and we toasted each other.