The bus journey down to the Inle Lake area was as windy as a road can get so no sleep was had and added to this the girl sat behind me was being continuously sick for about 2 hours. I started getting paranoid she'd miss her plastic bag and it would under my seat, luckily that didn't happen. But at 4.30am we arrived in the small town of Nyaung Shwe and instantly bundled into the back of a tuk tuk and asked to pay the $10 entry fee for the Inle Lake zone, all a bit confusing at that time of the morning and with no sleep. Anyway we turned up at our hotel, Royal Luxury Hotel, which was brand new and seemed really nice and with a bit of luck we could check straight into our room and into bed.
When we eventually resurfaced we decided to just go for a leisurely walk around the area. Instantly I loved the place and, if you can believe it, at 35 degrees and only 60% humidity it felt a lot cooler and the first time I had not sweated! The whole Nyaung Shwe / Inle Lake area is stunning, with rolling green mountains, floating gardens, stilted houses and rivers it was very relaxing and needed after the last two cities. It's a cross between parts of northern Vietnam and the English Lake District (at least that's what I think). Again, the people were so friendly and say hello as they pass you. We stopped at a little monastery called Ywa Thit and I had a nosy inside the big teak building. As soon as I walked in a monk ushered me to sit down and have a banana before asking someone to take a photo of us on my camera. Surreal. We carried on down the road and stopped at a little shop where we grabbed a coffee and watched the woman rolling the local cigars, which took all of about 10 seconds per cigar! So we tried one, which she kindly gave us for free. The husband who'd been lounging at the back of the hut came rushing over to see the photos we had just taken of us trying the cigar, which he seemed to find hilarious. So we continued down the road and passed a small village, Kab Hla Ywa, which had a sign outside it proudly declaring it had 620 inhabitants of which 320 were women and the rest men...I'm not sure if or how often they update that. Later on we climbed up to a small temple which overlooked the town and the lake before stopping for another drink. It was great to find an ant and 2 massive fly legs in my lime juice, oh well bottoms up. That evening whilst having tea, Laura and I sampled a glass each of the local Myanmar wine and actually it was pretty good...good job can visit the vineyard! Then after the night bus it was an early night planned.
The following day we went and hired some good old fashioned, rickety bikes but at 90p for the day they did the job (just about)! And we headed out of Nyaung Shwe going along the east side of Lake Inle but because of all the floating gardens and long elephant grass you barely get close to the lake or see it but still it was great just bimbling along and admiring all the views and waving back to everyone. We stopped at a small lake side village, Maing Thauk, and walked down the board walk to see all the stilted houses in the lake which just looked like an idilic lifestyle. Even the guys trying to get us to hire a boat where so friendly and want to know where you're from and tell you a bit about the area. We carried on down the road a bit longer before turning back when we reached a lorry road block unloading a load of rocks and pulled in at a roadside cafe for a quick brew. The two guys (Mingkan and I've no idea how to attempt to spell the other guys name) there instantly started making conversation and joined us. We chatted to then for about half an hour or so before deciding it was time to go and find this vineyard. On the way we swung by a little village where we were invited to join some of the locals just chilling out but the language barrier was a difficulty. At one point Christine's brake snapped off and the other one already don't work, I know it's a bit cruel but I found it hilarious.
It was a steep hill to the vineyard and my legs or bike couldn't hack it so I had to push it up and we plonked ourselves down on a bench overlooking the lake, it was beautiful (even if we could see the rain clouds fast approaching). We ordered a tasting sampler each which was 2 white wines, 1 rosé and 1 red and they were all really tasty. But being forced inside by the rain we ordered a bottle of white to share and cheddar cheese and toast...which if I'm being totally honest would have left a mouse feeling hungry! Talk about stingy! But the wine more than made up for it. Feeling rather merry and with the rain set in, for now, we set off back to town. Christine had to try and get slowly down the hill without any brakes, whilst Laura and I whizzed off. And after a few glasses of wine, it was brilliant and couldn't stop laughing. We made it back to town and dropped off our bikes and once freshened up we decided to eat and top up the merriness over a beer and a few cocktails. At the restaurant, the lad serving us had these amazing tattoos on his arms and when I asked about them, he told us they were unique to the Inlay men and were done with bamboo, he then proceeded to show us the ones on his chest, back and legs. They were pretty impressive.
If I thought yesterday was a good day, there this one could well have topped it. We hired a boat for the day to take us out and around Inle Lake. The lake was great, the water was so clear that you virtually always see the bottom and despite the number of tourist boats, you didn't see them often except (obviously) at the designated traditional handicraft houses. There were plenty of traditional fishing boats and men and even floating gardens existed where it looked like they could easily grow vegetables. On the lake we busted a couple of the tourist stops such as the lotus weaving, where the women use lotus fibres to create threads and then garments. The silver smith and admittedly the jewellery was lovely and cheap (but not cheap enough for this backpacker). The boat makers yard and a couple of monasteries and markets. But the most interesting was the women with the long necks. This is where over some years the women start adding and wearing solid brass rings around there neck until they achieve 25 rings weighing in at 8kgs!!! We saw one older woman who had achieved this and it's so bizarre to look at. There were also two young girls who both had about 5 rings and were over time adding to this. I felt the weight of the total 25 rings and I'm not sure I could carry that around with me on my neck all my life!!!
Afterwards we headed back to land and to the town and had heard at the annual fire balloon festival was on! I thought we had missed it as it's normally in oct or early nov, but we found out that due to bad weather it had been postponed until now. An absolute result for us! So we booked a bus to take us to it and back. In the bus, it was mad as two English guys got on and were from Didsbury, right next to where I'm from.
Well, how do I describe the fire balloon festival??? It's like a family fun fair with rides (which looking and hearing them you wouldn't risk your life going on them, but actually probably safer than watching the balloons!) and food stalls. There's a small restricted area where the balloons are released from and the rest is for the crowd to watch the events unfold. So we watched our first balloon go up, which was just great. They had lined the balloon with candles and once the balloon was starting to rise they attached a massive candle lit message and off it when, all lit up into the evening sky....how misled we were to think it was this tame!
So the second balloon starts to inflate and we are stood near the railing watching it unfold. And then it starts to get airborne. It reaches the top of the railings before all these fireworks start exploding from the bottom of the basket. Everyone starts running for cover in the food stalls as the fireworks are exploding and firing in to the crowd and all around. Laura had already legged it and I had grabbed on to Christine (but clearly after I took one last photo of the fireworks starting) and we didn't know which direction to run in as fireworks landed in front and behind us. So I think, from memory as the adrenaline is pumping, we hid behind some monks...this seemed like a natural idea. The balloon was fairly high in the sky now but the fireworks continued and even once the balloon itself wasn't visible, the fireworks continued. There must have been enough explosives to kill and roast a herd of elephants! It was amazing! I loved every second of it. Dangerous crazy fun and this is a family event!!! We went for a second beer to calm the nerves!
Needless to say we watched the third balloon go up and the exact same thing happened, although this time the balloon cleared the railings before the fireworks started going off but they had no problems reaching down into the crowds and scattering us. Each time a balloon was successfully air borne the balloons team celebrated in style! With dancing, cheering, banging of drums, it's had not to get caught up in the atmosphere. I didn't want the nigh to end. The success of the balloons getting airborne symbolises their sins being carried away.
The next balloon...well that got as far as being inflated before turning into a massive black cloud and no celebrating. We managed to squeeze in watching a fourth balloon before it was time to head back to the hotel and even got caught up in a teams dancing celebration. It was an epic night. The Didsbury lads managed to get a video of the mayhem and when we watched it we realised just how crazy it all was. That's probably the reason it wasn't advertised to tourists as we only found out by accident and we certainly didn't see many tourist there. But it's an experience that has to be seen to be believed! (I'm not sure my description goes far enough to describe it properly).
The last day in Nyaung Shwe was a chilled lazy one with us checking out at 2pm and then sat playing s***head at the cafe with a coffee and then a beer. Then a nice cheap local meal before waiting for the night bus to collect us for another trip this time over to Bagan.