Tim Foolery

Sights a s Sites of Inle Lake

Inle Lake is a large fresh water lake in the Shan Province of Myanmar. The lake is quite shallow, only 1.5 meters deep in the dry season and 3.5 meters in the rainy season. Even during the dry season there are a ton of boats on the lake.  Locals use the lake not only for transport and for fishing, but they build these floating farms and grow dozens of types of produce.  We also saw locals harvesting nutrient rich soil from the bottom of the lake to use in the floating farms or on land as well.

We hopped in the boat, piloted by a local and our guide who had been with us since Yangon.  The shallow boats work perfectly in Inle Lake.  These boats are powered by small two stroke outboard engine with the propeller on the far end of a very long pole.  These engine cough out silver/purple haze and a loud chugging sound.

I don’t swim – I can’t swim.  Whenever I get into a boat, I’m always a bit nervous.  We were only a few inches above the surface of the water and I was fearful some of our less graceful travel companions may capsize the boat. I didn’t realize the lake was so shallow at this point.  The boats are actually quite stable, so you should have no fear when you take one.

The view across the lake to the mountains was beautiful.

A house on stilts sitting above a floating farm.

Our first stop during our cruise around the lake was for lunch and next to the restaurant was a Burmese Cat Sanctuary.  #PoorMissLilly, my 15 year old cat is part Burmese, so of course, I had to stop in and see these kitties.  They were all so affectionate and well behaved.

The cats at the Cat Rescue enjoying their lunch.

We continued on over the two days we spent on the lake visiting various temples, some of which were being restored by both foreign and domestic benefactors.  We visited a small shop where one could watch weavers create beautiful scarves, table clothes or other textiles.

A Kayan woman with the golden neck rings. I mistakenly thought those rings elongated her neck, but it actually just pushes the shoulders down. The rings can be released without harm.

Our boat cruising under a footbridge.

We visited a temple where worshipers would buy gold leafing and add it to some of the Buddha statues at the alter. After years of this practice, there were no features of the Buddha visible, they just looked like rough golden blobs.

Worshipers applying gold leafing.

We visited a market that sold everything from freshly caught fish, to vegetables brought down from the high country, to tourist gifts.

Long boat parking at the market.

This Shan woman, wearing traditional clothing, sells spices and vegetables.

I bought a couple of decorative souvenirs for myself and this woman wasn’t too keen with taking a pic with me.

We eventually visited one of the floating farms and learned more about how they were built – basically using the dead, hallow reeds from plants, that float on water, which are covered in dirt and fertile mud, plants are grown, harvested and the cycle continues.

Exploring the floating farms.

We stopped to watch the sunset on the lake one evening.  A fisherman, who obviously performs for tourists regularly, put on a show for us.  He demonstrated the techniques he and his colleagues use to catch fish and he also showed us his excellent balance.  The beauty of the sunset was really a highlight of this day.  The fisherman are quite talented – and have a much better sense of balance than I do!

A fisherman in the sunset.

Like in Bagan, the area around Inle Lake was being burned – both for agricultural benefits and just burning trash.  The smell was both sickening and sweet.  The haze added a bit of beauty to the landscape, but knowing that some of the smoke was poison (burning plastic), I felt sad and disgusted.

Our trip in and around Inle Lake was a nice way to close out our time in Myanmar.  It was beautiful, relaxing and a must see.  Have you been to Inle Lake?  What was the highlight of your trip?  Did you check out the cats?

Pristine Lotus Lodge Inle Make Region, Myanamar

Our third and final stop in Myanmar was in the Inle Lake Region.  We flew from Bagan to Heho then drove 45 minutes through winding hilly roads and reach the hotel, which straddles the road and abuts the lake itself. Our rooms were across the road from the lake, near the reception area, the restaurant and the spa.  Getting to the lake took just a couple minutes – the road you must cross is no more than 4 meters wide.

As we pulled into the circular drive, the bell staff were ready and waiting to help with luggage.  We headed up to the reception area to collect our keys and we were given cold watermelon juice and cold towels to help us recover from the commute.  The weather was much warmer at Inle Lake than we had experienced throughout the rest of the trip, but it was still cooler than we had anticipated. It was in the mid to high 30s (95F) and the sun was intense.

We were assigned room 2003, which was just a 2 minute walk from the he reception area. We were driven in a golf cart and our luggage was taken in a separate cart. Completely unnecessary, but a nice gesture.

Each room was in a separate lodge – ours was the one on the right.

The room was large with two twin beds-again, our request as someone snores… There was also a lofted area with another bed, we didn’t use this one of course.  Each bed had their own mosquito net and the room did have air conditioning, which worked quite well and cooled the room down quickly.

View from the loft of our two twin beds complete with mosquito netting.

The third bed, in the lofted area of our room.

There was a sunken living areas with a somewhat uncomfortable couch and chair. The TV didn’t work, but the channel guide showed about a dozen news channels, just like we saw at Bagan Lodge.  It would have been nice to watch the news as the Internet was excruciatingly slow and it would drop connection frequently.  I just wanted to keep up on the ACA news back, the London Attack and the Russian Election Interference Probe.  It is good to disconnect a bit though.  I do wish, if the Internet was that slow, they just wouldn’t offer Internet, it just causes me frustration when it is exceedingly slow.

The sunken living room with a pretty uncomfortable sofa.

The sunken seating area – looking out upon the first floor balcony.

The desk in the sunken living area was not used by us – 100% vacation mode here.

Off the living area there was a deck that looked towards the lake, but no lake view. On the deck there were two chairs which we used both days to do some writing and quiet reflection.

The four piece bathroom had a segregated WC, a single sink, a separate sunken tub and an open shower. The closet was also in the bathroom area.

The single sink basin and vanity sat opposite of the closet area.

The amenities were wrapped in hotel branded linen sacks.

The price list for the decorative items in the room. Not my cup of tea.

The closet was situated in the bathroom, but had enough room to store both of our suitcases.

The sunken bathtub – I figured I would step back and break my neck!

The open shower had consistently hot water – no frozen showers here!

The amenities were fine – mostly unneeded for us (toothbrush, hair dryer, sewing kit), but needed to check the boxes for the various hotel rating agencies.  The shampoo, body wash and lotion were in ceramic vessels. I didn’t like this. One, it was hard to get the right amount of shampoo out – I felt I was wasting so much of it. Two, I was afraid it would fall, shattering when it hits the floor and then subsequently slicing my feet. I prefer individual plastic bottles. That’s my personal preference.

I took breakfast in the hotel one day, which was included in our rate. They opted not to set the buffet, but allowed us to choose from the a la carte menu. I had French Toast, which was a little bland and a bit under cooked- very eggy.  The breads that were served were good and half the fruit was great. The watermelon was at the peak of ripeness, while the pineapple was mostly core and at least a week from being ripe.

We ate dinner at the restaurant once and it was awful.  Like most of the trip, we ate family style. The chicken curry was flavorless, which was head and shoulders better than the beef. The beef tasted like it had turned. I couldn’t put my finger on it exactly, but something was definitely wrong.  I started with the Tom Yum Soup, which had great flavor, but the vegetables were so large, you couldn’t eat them – each vegetable was at least an inch and a half long, which makes it difficult to spoon.  We left not hungry, but saddened.

We decided to visit the spa during our stay too. The hotel was running a special on a 60 minute Thai massage for 34USD. Yes, I know we could have schlepped into the neighboring town and got a cheaper massage, but about a fifty cents a minute, I’ll pay for the convenience.

I had a special massage (not like that!). I was escorted to the treatment room, which had a queen sized bed, no massage table, just a big bed.  I was given thin sweatpants and a t-shirt that was at least 3 sizes too small. The massuese was very small, but she was strong and used every portion of that bed.  She used physics to contort me into positions I hadn’t been in since I was in college!  At one point as she’s holding both my legs straight up in the air, I thought she was trying to get better TV reception – I was her antenna and she couldn’t get Judge Judy to come in clearly. After about five minutes of playing human windmill, she got back to the traditional Thai massage techniques.  She did a great job.

The hotel has a pool, which is across the street from the rest of the hotel amenities. We used the pool for a few minutes, but there weren’t enough umbrellas nor was there a bar, so it got hot and sober pretty quickly. We did spent a bit of time in the hot tub, which is filled daily from local hot springs. The first day they failed to fill it. The second day we spent about 45 minutes relaxing in the hot tub, with a cocktail. The hot tub is near a stagnant lagoon (at least when we were there), so it was very buggy.

The pool needed more umbrellas and a bar – or at least bar service from across the street.

The dock allowing guests access to Inle Lake via motorized long boat.

The bar had a standard drink menu, with a focus on local fruit drinks as well as classic cocktails (Negroni, Old Fashioned, etc.) and we’re priced at standard Myanmar Hotel Bar prices – between 4-5USD each.

While we didn’t choose this hotel ourselves, it was selected by our tour operator, I would definitely stay here again. The rooms are nicely appointed and comfortable, the amenities are higher end and the service was a bit slow, but genuine. Just don’t eat at the restaurant for dinner.

Have you been to Inle Lake? Where did you stay? What do you look for in a hotel on a Trekking vacation, like this? What amenities and a must have?

Balloons Over Bagan

When one thinks of Bagan, they often think of the sunrise over the pagodas and temples, with a slight smokiness in the air – observed from a silent hot air balloon.  We decided to experience this very touristy aspect of Bagan – and we loved it.  Our guides suggested we use Balloons Over Bagan (BOB) as our balloon operator.  They came highly recommended for their equipment, safety, native English speaking tour guides and quality tour product in general.  BOB was not inexpensive – it cost us $300 per person. I don’t know if others were less expensive, but in this case, I’m not sure I’d like to go with a local operator to save some money where you could get stuck with a less safe experience.

Our trip started at 04h50 when BOB’s bus pulled up to our hotel.  Other guests at the hotel were waiting for other operators, but we were the first picked up.  We take the old rickety bus to a couple other hotels and then finally to the launching point.  We arrive at around 05h30 and were greeted with some tea and biscuits to accompany our safety briefing.

Our chariot arrived before 05h00. It was as comfortable as it looks.

Our safety briefing was held in the round with tea, coffee and cookies.

The guides with BOB were highly trained balloonists who work year round flying these balloons all over the world.  Our guide was from the UK and he was knowledgeable and personable.  We were assigned a balloon and waited for the canopy to expand.

Our balloon was the first to lift off that morning.  We were also the last one to arrive at the launch point, so our team was by far the most efficient.  We were airborne 15 minutes before some of the other balloons too.  The view of us slowly floating away from the launch site was beautiful.

We were the first to take off – we quietly lifted away from our fellow Balloons Over Bagan guests.

We were airborne for about 90 minutes and flew up to about 1,200 feet which allowed us to most breathtaking views of the temple areas.  When you think of Bagan and the view from the balloons, you probably think of the fog surrounding the trees and the temples.  That’s not actual fog, it’s smoke from the various fires the locals are burning. Some of it is from fires in the fields – burning the field to improve the health of their fields.  Other fires, and according to our guide, many of these fires, are actually the locals burning their trash.  These trash fires caused a bitter smell in the air.  It did make for a pretty view though.

Three balloon operators were flying our morning. Despite the sheer number of balloons it was still whisper quiet.

Our hotel – the Bagan Lodge, from the air.

Towards the end of our flight, the balloon leaves a heart shaped shadow on the ground.

We hadn’t decided to take the balloon ride until the day before we arrived in Bagan and we were fortunate enough to get space on a balloon.  If you plan on going to Bagan, you must take a hot air balloon ride, don’t stop to think about it for a second, just do it.  Book your reservation early to ensure you don’t miss out.  Our guide was Stephen Kinsey – if you can get with him, do it.

Have you taken a hot air balloon ride before?  Where did you visit?  Were you freaked out a little bit before you took off?  Would you take one of these trips again?

Sights and Sites of Bagan

Bagan was our second stop in Myanmar.  The real draw for Bagan is thousands of temples in the surrounding countryside.  For those of you who don’t know (and before this trip, I was one), Bagan is an ancient City in the Mandalay Region of Myanmar.  From the 9th-13th centuries it was the unifying capital of the old Pagan Kingdom.  Between 1000-1300AD thousands of temples, pagodas, monasteries and other religious buildings were constructed – more than 4,400 of them still remain in and around Bagan to this day.

Bagan is in a very active earthquake zone – one of which hit just seven months before our visit and we saw some temples were substantially damaged.  Restoration work is currently underway, but we found many temples with bamboo scaffolding affixed to their capitals or crowns.  These Buddhist temples and pagodas are breathtaking and were a highlight of our trip to Myanmar.

In addition to the amazing temples, Bagan is known for its lacquerware. These highly stylized functional and ornamental pieces are made with various base materials, but all are covered with sap of local trees.  We visited a lacquer shop where was saw all aspects of this process, starting with the weaving of the bowl, plate or other vessel with thin pieces of bamboo.  Once the base is completed, it moves on to another member of the team who coats the bamboo with the liquid sap.  Once fully coated it dries for 2-7 days, then another layer is applied.  In total about seven layers are added, leaving the finished product a smooth and shiny top coat.  Master artisans (only men) then carve detailed drawings – either coming from nature, like trees or animals, or just ornamental designs. Once he is satisfied with the carvings (scratching is probably a better way to describe it), he passes it on to his colleague (a woman) who layers on a color, which embeds itself in the scratchings.  This process can be repeated multiple times so you get the exact design and color distinctions you are looking for.

These women were adding another layer of lacquer to the bowls.

This gentlemen was etching the bowl with the intricate design that would pop with color once completed. The woman next to him was weaving a bowl from bamboo.

After the etching, this woman would add gold leafing then wash off the excess. Only leaving the small amount of gold in the previously etched designs.

This process was still very patriarchal and done in an old world fashion.  Everyone was doing this work by hand, without gloves, masks or anything else that could protect them from a long term illness.  It just seemed strange to a westerner (especially in my line of work) not seeing people using gloves here.  The work is painstakingly detailed – and quite honestly, looks very tedious, but it is an honest days work for these craftsmen and women.

Bagan is truly one of those beautiful old cities.  The city itself isn’t much to write home about, but the temples and pagodas are not only beautiful, but the sheer number of them is staggering.  You could rent electric motor bikes and guide yourself through the area, but the heat and lack of clear road signs could make that difficult.  We saw many people out and about who didn’t check the battery level on their bikes and wound up pushing their motorbikes through the dusty dirty path in the blazing heat.  I recommend getting a guide.

Have you been to Bagan?  Did you raid the lacquerware stores too (this will likely be our host gifts fro a long time)?  What are your highlights from Bagan?

Bagan Lodge

Our tour guide had booked us for two nights at the Bagan Lodge without any real guidance from us.  We were excited about this property when we first received the initial itinerary as the photos and reviews were stellar.

I love open air hotel experiences. Being in an area where the weather allows for a reception and dining area open to the elements just amazes me. I’ve never lived in and place like this, so I still get excited whenever I can experience it.

As we pull into the driveway, we are greeted by several hotel staff members welcoming us. Some grab our bags, others hand us cold towels to help refresh us after our travels, another brings out a tray of watermelon juice and the rest stand off to the side with enormous smiles.

This interesting art piece was a showcase in the lobby/reception area. Watch out for those sharp teeth.

The reception area had a pool table, a bar and ample seating, which we saw no one use during our stay.

We don’t check in. Our guide tells us that our rooms are ready but we need to wait a moment for the hotels driver to pick us up in the golf cart. I wasn’t too keen on staying at such a sprawling property where a golf cart is really the best option to get around. We loaded ourselves into the cart (sans luggage) and got a bit of a tour of the grounds. We drove past the spa that was adjacent to the reception area. We saw two pools, one of which is next to the restaurant, bar and reception area, while the second was area little farther afield. Both were beautiful and were definitely calling my name. As we continued our tour the driver tells us not to worry that our rooms are are nearby…we arrive at our rooms (57 & 58), which were less than a minute walk from the reception desk. We were given a tour of the property while our luggage was delivered to our rooms, which was a nice surprise.

The rooms are separated into a couple dozen buildings, each building housing two rooms. As we toured the property by cart, I thought the rooms had tent like canvas roofs, which can be quaint, but it can also be an utter pain.  The tent roofs are not the main roof for the rooms, a proper ceiling and roof is under the white tent. Sometimes with tent roofs you can run into heating/cooling issues and more bugs that you’d expect. Neither of those were issues here.

The rooms do have a connecting door, which is a pet peeve of mine, but we heard no noise from our friends who were in the room next door.

We opted for two twin beds this time (Mike can snore and I am and light sleeper, so a little space can allow me to get some better rest).  Our room was really well appointed. I likes the dark wood finishes – although the floor was polished to the extreme and was very slippery in sock feet.

Like Fred and Ethel, we had our comfortable twin beds waiting for us. It worked out, since my was sick that night.

The room was spacious, but those floors are as slippery as they look.

There was a small TV in the corner that had about a dozen news channels (France24, DW, BBC, CNN, MiTV and a couple others). The small seating area wasn’t all that comfortable, but it was nice to have a spot to sit and chat that wasn’t the bed. The desk was under the TV and while on the small side, would allow you to get a bit of work done. Speaking of work, the hotel’s WiFi was very fast – surprisingly fast, especially considering what we had heard before we left and what we were expecting.

The not-so-comfortable seating area in our lodge.

The bathroom had two vanities, separated by a large bathtub, which we didn’t use. On one end of the room you’d find the WC and the other was the shower.

In general I don’t like these sinks — it’s too hard to shave without using a ton of water, but aesthetically it’s beautiful.

The lodge branded bath products were perfectly fine – but a little too much packaging for my taste.

The shower had an outdoor, rustic feel, but it was great. Hot water and great pressure whenever we needed it.

Why do so many hotels have to leave the toilet seat up after they clean?

We ate dinner at the restaurant the first night and the food was perfectly fine. The Myanmar selection tasted like the other Myanmar food we had eaten. Not spicy, not a wide range of flavors, nothing outstanding, but perfectly acceptable food, which met our needs. The restaurant closed at 22h00 and we popped over at 21h15 for dinner to find that most of the tables had been reset for breakfast and the staff was a little put off that we wanted to have dinner at that hour. They got over their initial shock and frustration pretty quickly and provided good service throughout that dining process.

We used the pool bar a couple of times. The service reminded me of EVA Airlines. You didn’t really see the servers, but once you asked for help they leapt into service. I ended up spending a few hours in the pool our last night as Mike was a bit sick and I had been looking forward to the pool since I first laid eyes on it.  Our first day, we tested out the water and it was warm and utterly luxurious. The next day, the water was quite frigid – it was a big shock getting into the pool.

A trumpeting elephant flanked the beautiful pool.

A view from reception to the pool, the bar and the restaurant.

The pool lounge area and the bar in the background.

The restaurant was pool adjacent.

We decided to visit the spa one day and of all things at the Bagan Lodge, this is the one that needs some work.  We were able to get on-demand massages (no need to book ahead) at all the places we stayed in Myanmar.  This property was a little strange – there was no spa music, so you’d hear the staff members chatting, you’d hear other guests getting their massages and sounds from the nearby bar.  It wasn’t all that relaxing of an experience.  We were required to put on the disposable spa underwear, which burst into thousands of small underwear pieces as I brought it up to my knees.  Evidently my 6′ 185lbs frame is too much for the disposable underoos.  My friend had the exact same experience – except he was given just a couple of seconds to change before the masseuse came back into the room – catching him in all his glory as he loudly proclaims ‘I’m not ready…not ready…NOT READY.”  I heard this interaction loud and clear, since there was no music in the facility – and I nearly died laughing.

The Bagan Lodge was a great base for all of our exploring in and around Bagan. The hotel staff provided better than expected service.  The property was stunning and I wouldn’t hesitate to return again.

Where did you stay in Bagan?  Did you go higher end like our guides picked out for us, or did you choose to stay in a more modest traveler hotel?