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A boat trip is the most popular way to explore Inle Lake but this beautiful area deserves more than just a day and a bike ride is another interesting way to explore. We spent a day cycling past rice paddy fields, canals, and villages of stilted houses; visiting hot springs, colourful tribal markets, and an incongruous winery; and making new friends along the way.
In the hot season in Burma you need to get an early start to avoid the wilting midday heat so in the warm glowing post dawn light we set off on our bicycles along a dusty bone-shaking dirt track out of town. The Intha village Kaung Daing would be our first stop, known for its tofu making and hot springs.
A bike trip at Inle Lake isn’t about the destination though as cycling in any direction out of Nyaungshwe is a fascinating insight into rural life. We rode past small villages of stilted bamboo huts with thatched roofs, their images reflected in the canals they overlooked; women doing laundry in the canal; young boys riding their buffalo to the fields – one sang cheerfully as he led four more buffalo behind him; teenage girls with thanaka smeared faces and straw hats on their way to work carrying colourful textile shoulder bags and swinging their lunch pails; pickup trucks crammed full of people excitedly pointing at us, smiling and waving; and a guy driving a monk on the back of his motorbike calling out good morning to us.
Mostly though the road was quiet, especially as we got nearer the mountains, misty in the distance in the morning light. We passed a few motorbikes and bicycles, one or two pickup trucks, but cars were rare. The agricultural landscape was dry at this time of year with the sky hazy from farmers burning their fields, and the browns and oranges contrasting with the startlingly green rice paddy fields.
The road stretched on, long and straight, following a canal but Inle Lake wasn’t in sight. When we had almost reached the mountains we turned left onto a blessedly tarmacked road – a relief after the pot holes, and continued on to the hot springs.
The hot springs complex was surprisingly classy, with prices to match, and felt a little out of place in the dusty surroundings. The mixed baths were 6500 kyat ($8) each, a lot for Burma, but after some indecision we instigated our risk policy and went for it. We had the three small pools to ourselves, overlooking the fields with mountains behind us. As we eased into the steaming hot water we were glad we’d made it early enough to appreciate in the cool morning air.
We left the hot springs at the same time as a large group of locals were preparing to leave in their truck. A young girl stared at us curiously and when I snapped a photo it broke the ice and the group came over to us, laughing and smiling. They lined up and obviously wanted me to take their photo. This had happened a few times in Burma and I happily obliged.
Then things got funny. One of the girls had a camera too and I was pleased to discover that they were just as curious about us as we were about them, and keen to take our photo too – and they wanted to be in it. The thing is, once a couple of the men had their photo taken with Simon they all wanted in on it, and we had to pose for a dozen photos with each of them. It was very amusing and although we couldn’t communicate more than a few words we found smiles go a long way.
We set off again towards Kaung Daing’s market – one of the five rotating markets attended by hill tribes from across the area. It was less touristy than the one we’d visited at Ywama on our boat trip and even more vibrant and bustling. Women sat on the floor with huge piles of produce in front of them – onions, lentils, dried chillis, dried fish, stacks of Shan poppadoms, household goods, cheroots (Burmese cigars), and much that we couldn’t identify.
Behind the market is a jetty, busy with longtail boats and canoes. It’s the main form of transportation at Inle Lake and locals left the market with their narrow boats piled high with produce.
Rather than going back to Nyaungshwe the way we had come we wanted to do a loop so planned to hire a boat to take us across the lake to the village of Mine Thauk. We didn’t quite know how to go about that so employed our winning technique of standing around looking lost. After a while a young guy approached us and said he could arrange it. We negotiated his price down to 7000 kyat ($8.75) which was more than the 5000 we’d been told to pay, but after all our reading about the problems Burma has suffered, we didn’t have the inclination to negotiate too hard.
Our friendly guide Hojoku was a Botany student earning some extra cash, and he arranged our boat driver, piled our bikes in to the longtail and we set off through the shallow, narrow, reed-filled channels that lead to the lake. Along the way Hojoku quizzed us about our life and why we didn’t have any children – in Burma apparently we’d have five by now.
When we reached Inle Lake’s huge expanse we had another opportunity to witness the impressive one-legged fishermen at work.
On the other side of the lake we reached Mine Thauk, a village that is based both on the water and land. Stilted houses stand in the water – some are ramshackle huts of bamboo, others are solid wood structures, some even with satellite dishes. A long wooden footbridge connects the two sections.
It was getting hot so we didn’t hang around but took the road back towards Nyaungshwe. We cycled through the quiet rural scenery of bamboo and banana plants to get to our next destination – Red Mountain Estate Vineyards and Winery.
A vineyard in Southeast Asia is strange enough but to come across one in a remote part of Burma was just too bizarre not to go and take a look. In their open sided restaurant with great views over the vineyard and mountains, we ordered some lunch and signed up for the wine tasting at 2000 kyat ($2.50) for four wines. A full glass costs 2500 kyat ($3).
We didn’t have high hopes for the wine – after all we’re in Burma, but we were pleasantly surprised. Now, we know nothing about wine, and a wine expert might disagree, but we enjoyed it and really that’s all that matters. Our favourite was the Late Harvest 2009, a semi-sweet white.
Unfortunately there were no tours while we were there but you are free to wander around behind the scenes at the winery.
It was the perfect end to a rewarding day of contrasts that had taken us from riding past paddy fields, to lazing in hot springs, to browsing a tribal market, and finally tasting Burmese wine.
We stayed at Princess Garden Hotel in Nyaungshwe which we highly recommend, and they provide guests with free bikes. See details in our Planning a Trip to Burma post. Otherwise you can rent them from many hotels and travel agencies in town.
To follow our route head over the bridge by the jetty in Nyaungshwe and follow the road straight on towards the mountains until you reach a left turn which will take you to the hot springs. It took us about 1 – 1.5 hours to reach the hot springs. The market and jetty is about 10 minutes past that, where you can hire a boat to Mine Thauk.
Turn left when you arrive in Mine Thauk and follow the road for about 30 minutes until you see the sign for Red Mountain Estate on the right. Leave your bike at the gate and walk up the very steep hill. Red Mountain is open from 9am to 4pm every day.
It’s about 20 minutes from Red Mountain to Nyaungshwe. Continue along the road you were on before and turn left when you reach the crossroads onto the main road. Our trip took us about six hours in total.