As we glided through the still waters of Inle Lake, sitting local style, side by side on the bottom of the boat, I let the last three days of trekking through the mountains of northern Myanmar sink in.
My body was weary but my heart was full. What we had just completed was extraordinary but exhausting. Now, what we all needed more than anything was a couple of days to relax, and the beauty of the vast lake as we headed towards the town of Nyaung Shwe was already making me feel at peace.
Inle Lake. If you have heard of Myanmar you would probably have heard of Inle Lake. As far as tourist trails go in Myanmar, Inle Lake is firmly on it. Not that that is saying much really. The tourist trail in Myanmar is not exactly well-worn.
Inle Lake is approximately 22km long and 11km wide at its most expansive, and is the second largest lake in Myanmar. The people of Inle Lake are the Intha and there are 70,000 of them living in the towns and villages around and on the lake, along with a mix of other ethnicities.
Nyaung Shwe is the largest town on the lake and is where most people visiting Inle Lake base themselves. It isn’t much to look at with it’s ramshackle buildings and dust choked roads but I enjoyed wandering the bustling streets and watching locals go about their days during my time there.
Dad and I stayed in the Inle Star Motel and the best thing about it was the roof terrace where breakfast was served. The view over the water, the town and the mountains in the hazy distance was beautiful, and a few levels up from the main street it was so much quieter.
But you don’t go to Nyaung Shwe to check out the town, this is where you hire boats to get out on Inle Lake. And over a couple of half days, that is what we did.
There is a reason why Inle Lake is one of the main stops on any good Myanmar Itinerary: it is an incredibly interesting and peaceful place.
Our boat silently cruised through reed enclosed waterways, past simple shacks on stilts and colourful patches of waterlilies. Ingenious floating gardens made of seagrass islands secured into the mud by long bamboo poles grow tomatoes and other vegetables.
They thrive in their watery home, creating another food source for the local villagers.
Slowly the waterway widens before opening up into a broad expanse of water that felt like entering an inland sea. As we made our way into the middle of the lake the water slowly became clearer until you could see every wavy branch of the brilliant green lake weed forest under the surface.
I considered swimming until the sun disappeared behind a sea of clouds and the wind whipped up a chill in the air.
Fishermen wearing triangle hats and wide legged pants posed for photos on the lake, lifting their nets wide while paddling the boat by wrapping their leg around the paddle and swirling it in the water.
Other fishermen were slapping the water as hard as they could with their paddles to scare the fish into the nets they had set. It was like watching a carefully choreographed ballet with the fishermen so nimble and agile going about their work.
On the edge of the lake and along the snake-like waterways there are numerous villages with many small enterprises that you are able to visit as part of the boat tour.
Cheroot makers rolled tobacco and various spices in large cheroot leaves as we watched. Although I quit smoking years ago, I tried a star anise cheroot which was spicy but mild.
A boat builder hammered away on his latest creation as we watched. Skilled lotus weavers weaved the super fine threads from local lotus plants into clothing in front of us, along with weaving of cotton and silk. Large vats with dye were heated and used for dyeing the threads.
At the Jumping Cat Monastery, the cats lazily lay around in the sun, not willing to show off the hoop jumping skills that the monks had taught them. There were no monks in sight.
A stop to watch Karen Long-neck women weaving felt exploitative and uncomfortable, knowing they had been bought to the village from their home villages in the mountains to be a tourist attraction.
A couple of our group had wanted to see them which is why we stopped there but the rest of us didn’t feel it was right.
The various stops as we explored the lake and its surrounds were informative and interesting, a lot more than I thought they would be, but my favourite part of the experience was being out on the lake itself. It gave me the time to unwind and relax while marvelling in its beauty.
There were other ways to explore Inle Lake than just by boat and one afternoon my trekking friends and I rented bikes to travel to the small Khaung Daing hot springs complex. It was about an hours bike ride around the lake from Nyaung Shwe.
The road we followed was flat and shaded by trees, making it an easy ride with only one gradual hill to surmount. The countryside was golden hued and the trees swayed in a gentle breeze as we rode beneath them.
Just before we reached the hot springs we stopped at a small pagoda complex surrounded by frangipani trees, up on a hill. Once reaching the top we had views over the lake and marshlands below. A dry landscape of pale greens stretched to the horizon.
The hot springs were made up of three pools of varying heat, with one being so hot that no one could get in. There were padded deck chairs lined up in front of the pools to lie in the sun. It was only a small complex and quite expensive but I was glad to be there.
Soaking in the pools was just what we needed after a strenuous three days of trekking.
One kilometre further on from the hot springs, we ate lunch at a simple restaurant in the small village of Khaung Daing. A hungry group of cats and dogs surrounded our table begging for scraps. With one of the bikes having developed a hole in the tire, we decided to catch a boat to take us and our bikes back to Nyaung Shwe.
Our boat took us the back way to town, through peaceful canals. The long reeds lining the water shone in the striking evening light.
We were dropped down from the main docking area just before the sun went down, then biked along a dirt path next to a small canal. Friendly locals with magnificent smiles waved in greeting as we passed. It was a far cry from the hectic pace of the centre of town.
Then, before I knew it, my short time at Inle Lake had come to an end.
Looking back now, the time I spent at Inle Lake had a lazy quality about it. My memories are bathed in a golden light and play over in my head in slow motion.
Inle Lake feels like it is stuck in time. The days spent there gave me the peace and quiet I so desperately needed.