If you decide to visit Myanmar (which you should) and opt for a package tour (which you should not), you will be most likely dragged along the triangle Yangon – Inle – Bagan. You will have seen the pictures. The hot air balloons soaring over hundreds of pagodas in the rising sun (a $300 experience, provided you get decent skies and there may even be a bit of adrenalin, depending of how much the british pilots had partied on the previous night, but go for it). This post is about two main tourist attractions of the country, and as far as I’m aware, the only two subjected to “tourist tax”. As you approach the sites, it does not matter if on the road or on a trekking path, you will come to a checkpoint that will issue you with a multiple day permit to stay in the area. It’s $13 for Lake Inle and $20 for Bagan. I personally would not have a problem with paying the permits if the money actually went into conservation (as claimed) and not straight to the military (which is what most likely happens), but as there is no way around it, my personal issues are irrelevant.
November 18 – 19
Lake Inle. We are staying in Nyaungshwe, which is the centre of the area, with all the restaurants, bars and hotels, unless you go for one of the posh lakefront resorts. It’s hot and the lake is inviting, but. The locals drink the water, they cook from it, swim in it, they wash themselves and everything else in it, and guess where the waste goes. Furthermore there are massive floating tomato plantations and who know what chemicals the plants are treated with, but although all these things may mutually even out, I still would not recommend a dip in the lake, unless you are keen on broadening your knowledge od south asian bacteria. So, it’s hot and sticky and there is this massive body of fresh water that’s off-limits, what do you do? There is a little swimming pool hidden in the jungle, fed by a fast flowing stream, it’s fresh, cool, deep enough for swimming and looks reasonably clean. (I am still alive while writing this a few months later). The spot is perfect for relaxing after the trek, but the mosquitos here are vicious. There is malaria and dengue fever in the area, but I am not sure what exactly am I supposed to do to prevent them, because the bloody beasts keep feasting on my blood even WHILE I spray myself with a high percentage DEET spray. Maybe I should try if the batshit from Hpa An works as repellent (for insects, I am certain it does the job to repel other humans). Still, it is a nice cycling trip into the jungle, so rent a bike and go explore. While practically everywhere in Asia westerners can rent scooters and motorcycles and no one even checks if you have a driving licence for it, here tourists can only cycle. I guess that tourists on motorbikes were most likely trying to follow some kind of road code (like using indicators, brakes, or sticking to their side of the road), which must have been confusing the locals and causing many accidents. But, cycling is a better means of transport to (and more importantly, from) the second biggest local attraction: the vineyards.
I am not sure whose idea was it to plant vine here. This is not a good climate after all. To me il looks like an overexpensive ego trip of some retired general, or something on that note. “I own a vineyard!” Don’t get me wrong, the place is beautiful. You can watch an impressive sunset over the lines of sauvignon blanc and the lake in the distance, while nursing a glass of wine just don’t expect much from it. The whites and the rose are just about ok (especially in south-east Asia, where the supply of decent wine for acceptable price is limited, to put it mildly), but the reds are innocuous at best. The winery is super modern, brand new italian technology, and overpaid winemaker from France, but I just cannot see it paying off. Especially if none of the bars in the village has none of the local production on their wine list (they all sell australian or even european wines).
On the last day before we leave the area, Olga and Robin, who in the meanwhile recovered from their stomach bug, want to go on a boar trip around the lake. I personally would not have done another boat ride after the one at the end of the trek, but I joined them anyway. It’s just a tourist trap. They take you around the lake to see the floating market, the traditional handicraft workshops (weaving mills, silverware, tobacco, etc, basically overpriced souvenir shops) and the traditional fishermen, who developed arguably the most uncomfortable way of fishing, (in tight competition with pole fishermen of India), balancing on one leg at the back of the narrow boat, while rowing with the other one. I am not sure they still actually use this technique for fishing, or if they just pose for tourists. The highlight of the day is sailing through the floating villages, where some of the structures defy, if not deny, the laws of physics.
We leave Nyaungshwe on a Bagan-bound bus. 9 hours of hardcore techno music in the hands of the driver and the steward, both armed with pilot-style mirror rayban. Goes without saying they treat the bus as if they were actually flying a fighting jet. I know it’s probably almost a sacrilege to say I wasn’t all that fussed about Bagan. We rented little electric bikes and spent tone day riding around the temples, which are of course amazing, but quite frankly, after the third pagoda you feel like you’ve seen them all. But if you want to see them all, there is probably enough to do for a week. If you manage to distinguish between the pagodas.
We leave in the evening for Mandalay (the bus stewards spends literally 5 hours hanging on the side door, making sure it remains closed, letting go of it only when he prays. Oh well.). On the following day, flight to Bangkok, and good – bye Myanmar!
Oh, and the pictures from Bagan, which is probably the reason you are reading this article.: