If you haven’t read part one, you can do that here.
After five days in Bagan, it was time to move on, so on my last day I grabbed a night bus heading east and arrived in Kalaw at 2:45 in the morning. Stepping off the bus, I felt truly cold for the first time since leaving Omaha’s bitter winter. Kalaw is a small town nestled among hills and mountains. The air is clearer and crisper than Bagan’s. From the bus station, I hopped on the back of a motorbike to my lovely bungalow of a hotel that sat at the top of a hill among trees and flowers. In Kalaw I did nothing but roam the city’s market and arrange a two-day trek to Inle Lake with Kaylyn, who I met in Bagan, and the next morning we started walking. With us was Patricia and her 11-year-old son, Mitchell, from New York, Anja from Berlin, Sophie from Vienna (and England and Germany), and Nyo Nyo, our badass trekking guide.
We walked for about five hours in all that day, through wheat fields and recently harvested rice paddies. I talked to Nyo Nyo about her life – she’s 23, a twin, living with her grandmother, and hoping to become a tour guide throughout the country soon. She loved to make jokes and ask us about the boyfriends we did or didn’t have. She called Mitchell “little brother” and made sure we were always well fed and that we didn’t get attacked by cranky water buffalo. She was fantastic, and we all loved talking to her.
We ended our first day watching the sun dip below the mountains in the distance before heading to our village home stay. All seven of us slept on the second floor of a small bamboo home after eating one of the best meals I’ve had in Myanmar. In the morning, we woke with the sun and watched our cook play guitar for the grandmother and grandfather of the house around a fire, as they tried to keep warm. I’ve had these moments a lot here, where I experience things that I know I can never really capture with my camera. Sometimes I try, but I’m slowly learning to just let it happen and to “be here now,” something I learned during my first village, or “campo,” experience in the Dominican Republic as a 17-year-old. Being in the here and now is tough when you’re a photographer and your job is to capture all the moments, but I’m trying. That morning outside of our little village home was one great, beautiful moment that I’ll never be able to explain or capture, so I chose to just be.
As a group, we were tired on day two of our trek. But the morning scenery was rewarding as we climbed hills and went over streams and made our way, slowly, down another hill toward Inle Lake. By the time lunch was served at the end of our trek, I was ready to be on a boat for four days. My Tevas that I thought would be great hiking shoes for Asia had given me blisters and my legs were sore. After another spectacular meal, we made our last 20-minute walk through lakeside villages to our giant wooden boat.
My Lonely Planet guidebook describes Inle Lake as “ink-like,” and I couldn’t get that description out of my head because it’s so accurate. When the sun was high, all I could see were silhouettes of traditional fisherman and other tourist boats amidst a smoky backdrop that barely reveals some mountains. Burning season left a haze over the entire lake and a sting in my eyes, but there was so much to see there, and our first boat trip across the lake to our hostel revealed a piece of Myanmar that’s truly beautiful.
On our first day, Anja, Kaylyn, Sophie, and I took a day-long boat tour around the lake. We tried our best to communicate with our non-English-speaking boat driver through gestures – “we’d like lunch,” “please don’t take us to the tourist traps,” “no more photos of fake fishermen, please,” “seriously, please don’t take us to any more tourist shops.” The thing that’s tough about Inle Lake is that it is one great big tourist machine. The boats are filled with white people and Chinese tourists. Shops all around the lake are specifically aimed at overcharging tourists for souvenirs, even most of the traditional fishermen are only there for show – waiting for a boat full of camera-toting tourists to pull up before the pose. We liked finding the “real” fishermen who actually caught fish and wore regular clothes.
Still, we tried hard to communicate that we wanted to see rather than buy, and we ended up slowly gliding through beautiful lake villages, with houses on stilts and gardens on the water. And after a long, complicated discussion with a translator, we got our driver to take us to Indein Temple, one of the most fascinating temples I’ve seen. The grounds surrounding the temple were filled with pagodas, some crumbling and with trees growing through them, and some newly erected and painted gold. The temple itself was filled with gold pagodas (and some adorable temple puppies). We arrived at dusk, when nearly every other tourist had headed back toward the lake for sunset. This was another moment that just couldn’t be captured with my camera, walking through the temple grounds listening to tiny bells atop each pagoda quietly ringing in the wind. It was perfect.
Our next couple of days were spent eating good food (hummus, chicken, French bread! Things I hadn’t had in weeks!), going to a winery, a monastery, and a huge market, and spending a day riding nearly ten miles through the hillsides to a “natural springs” (I’m still not sure if it was actually natural, but it was lovely). Inle Lake is certainly the draw, but there’s so much to see around the lake that we kept ourselves busy for four days there.
Eventually, after Kaylyn and Sophie and other friends we’d made had left, Anja and I decided to continue on to the Shan State in the north. We booked a bus for Pyin Oo Lwin, a small colonial town where the British had taken their summer vacations years ago. We were ready for some off the beaten track exploring.