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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?

Sights and Sites of Yangon

Our trip to Myanmar started in Yangon with a couple days of touring, eating and meeting people. We were picked up at the Sule Shangri-La Hotel and headed immediately to the Yangon Heritage Trust (YHT). The YHT is an independent organization that advocates and promotes understanding and appreciation of Yangon’s historic architecture with a focus on integrating these buildings into the 21st century vision of Yangon.  While the YHT has  no policy making authority, they do put forth recommendations, educational sessions, tours and even help in the restoration of historic buildings.

The YHT wasn’t technically open during our visit, but they were kind enough to provide a special tour for our small group.  The tour started at the YHT offices and then headed out into the street to see the buildings and explore the work done throughout the area by YHT.  We even saw some new buildings that were being built recently and much to the chagrin of both YHT and us, some of these buildings are just awful, devoid of any real architectural character.

Colonial Architecture we discovered with the Yangon Heritage Trust.

Colonial Architecture we discovered with the Yangon Heritage Trust.

Colonial Architecture we discovered with the Yangon Heritage Trust.

Colonial Architecture we discovered with the Yangon Heritage Trust.

Colonial Architecture we discovered with the Yangon Heritage Trust.

I look at these balconies and wonder about the people who cooled themselves in warm summer days. Who were they? What did they do in Yangon? Who lives there now?

New Construction in Yangon. Devoid of any real character. Without consistent plans and teeth to regulations the beautiful city can be razed and this put in its place.

Our final stop with the YHT was at the Ministers’ Building – formerly known as the Secretariat.  This building was the former Administrative Building of the Colonial British Government.  We weren’t able to enter the gates nor could we get a tour.  This property opens to the public just once a year — or if you provide substantial donations to the renovation process, you can get private tours too — we weren’t here during the public opening nor did we write a big check to get in.  Both the buildings and grounds need some repair work, but luckily this building is actually getting renovated and is not slated to be torn down.  It is a beautiful building and if you happen to get the opportunity to walk the grounds or get a tour inside the building, please let me know – I’d love to hear the details and see you photos!

The Secretariat was the former administrative seat of British Burma.

The Secretariat is closed to the public and undergoing a slow restoration process.

As the YHT has a plan for the future of Yangon – blending ancient temples and pagodas, the colonial building and modern structures, they put together a vision of the future.  Take a look at this vision of a blending Yangon — does anything look familiar?  For those of you not from the Windy City — the skyline in the background is actually Chicago. You can see the Willis (f/k/a Sears) Tower, the Aon Center and the red CNA Tower.

The mock up what Yangon could be — notice anything familiar?

We visited the Reclining Buddha in Yangon, which is the largest in Yangon and one of the largest in the world.  There weren’t many tourists when we visited, but we did see many monks and what I presume to be locals at the Buddha praying.

The Reclining Buddha – Yangon.

The Reclining Buddha – Yangon

Me and Mike at the Reclining Buddha – Yangon.

Buddhist praying at the base of the Reclining Buddha.

We visited a Buddhist convent shortly after their lunch.  At the convent these nuns eat just two meals a day. Breakfast is served before sunrise and lunch is served between 10h30-11h30 each day.  We arrived around 11h00 and found the nuns and the novices cleaning up from their lunch.  This cute young novice had just finished doing the lunch dishes during our tour.

A young nun (about 8 years old) finishing the dishes after their early lunch.

We took a break from touring in Yangon and visited the historic hotel, The Strand.  This beautifully renovated hotel was a wonderful place to relax, cool off and enjoy a cocktail.

The bar at the Strand Hotel – Yangon

The beautiful lobby at the Strand Hotel – Yangon.

My first ever Pegu Club – Loved it!

After a cocktail break, we continued on exploring the two main temples in Yangon.  We were pleased we opted to hire a guide for our trek not only through Yangon but Myanmar in general.  While we were stuck in traffic, the vehicle we were in was comfortable and we didn’t have to worry about trying to provide proper directions or ensuring that our driver really knew were we were trying to go.

Traffic in the afternoon as we walk to the Sule Pagoda.

The Sule Pagoda was just a couple hundred meters from the Sule Shangri-La Hotel, our home base while in Yangon.  The Sule Pagoda is the center of the city with the roads radiating from the Pagoda itself.  We didn’t enter the Pagoda, as we were told the interior had just a bunch of low quality tourist shops.

Sule Pagoda – just meters from our hotel, beautifully lit at night.

Our final major site in Yangon was the Shwedagon Pagoda.  We decided to visit this site at dusk and spent about an hour walking around the Pagoda, watching Buddhists praying, dodging children running wild and even jumping out of the way of a small rat scurrying across our path

Shwedagon Pagoda – Yangon.

Shwedagon Pagoda – Yangon.

We decided to splurge on dinner and visited a French restaurant which was about a 30 minute drive from our hotel.  Le Planteur has a beautiful outdoor dining area right on a small lake and near the US Embassy.  It was too dark to take any real photos of our food, but we enjoyed our selections.  The beef was a little gamey and despite the fact that there were a few ducks walking around our feet, the duck was removed from the menu.  The meal was quite expensive for Yangon — actually it was pretty expensive period.  The space itself was stunning and I spent more time than I should just imagining the old parties held at that property during British Colonial Rule.

The Terrace at Le Planteur – Yangon.

Le Planteur – Yangon.

The lawn dining space near the lake at Le Planteur – Yangon.

What were your favorite parts of Yangon?  Did you find a small, off the beaten path, place that just made your trip?  What must see places did you visit, but realize weren’t must see?