Bagan, Myanmar – Part One

Bagan is one of those unique places, a place unlike anywhere else I have visited, although it is often likened to Angkor Wak in Cambodia. The Bagan archaeological zone, which an 100 square kilometre area and home to more than 2000 temples and pagodas, comprises of Nyang-U, New Bagan and Old Bagan. Each town is very different, Nyang-U being the tourist hub, New Bagan being the ‘new’ town which locals now live after being forced out of Old Bagan in the 1990s when the military government hoped to make the area into a international tourist destination (which also resulted in some bad restoration works), and Old Bagan where most of the largest and most exquisite temples can be found.

We spent our first afternoon meandering around the temples near Old Bagan, being amazed at the size and complexity of them. We were pleasantly surprised not to find too many tourists around, especially since it was the ‘peak’ season for tourism in Myanmar. However, there were many Myanmar people from places other than Bagan, who had camped there, along with their cattle, to celebrate the annual three week Ananda Pagoda Festival.

We finished our first day in Bagan with a sunset view over the Ayeyarwady River from Bu Phaya temple.
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Getting There:
We chose to fly to Bagan rather than taking a bus. We flew from Heho airport to Nyaung-U, from where we took a taxi to Old Bagan. The taxi should cost about 8000 kyat. We flew with Air KBZ and found their service quite good. Although we were quite relieved to complete each flight unscathed, as all the aircraft, ATR 72-500s, appeared to be quite old and being Myanmar, we were not sure how well or how regularly they were serviced.

We stayed at the Hotel @ Tharabar Gate and thoroughly enjoyed it. Located just outside the gates to the archeological site of Old Bagan, it is conveniently located close to many of the major temples. The entire Bagan area is rather compact, so it’s not difficult to ride a bike to New Bagan or Nyaung-U either. This was our little accommodation splurg during our trip and it was well worth while – beautiful bed linen, a large sleek room and stunning bathroom, lush gardens, a stunning pool area and not forgetting the delicious breakfasts – I couldn’t get enough of the bircher museli, nor the waffles and pancakes. Everyone needs a bit of pampering once in a while, right? Deluxe rooms are US$240 per night, and suites are US$400 (we obviously got a deluxe room).

The only pitfall of staying in Old Bagan is that there aren’t many dining options near by, unlike in New Bagan and Nyaung-U. However, we did enjoy the meals we had at our hotel (although a bit pricey by Myanmar standards – a pasta dish was about 6,000 kyat and woodfired pizzas 12,000 kyat), as well as a couple of meals we had at The Moon Vegetarian Restaurant. The Moon does an excellent guacamole served with papadums (2500 kyat) and great fresh fruit lassis (1500 kyat). They also have an array of interesting salads.

Inle Lake, Myanmar – Part Two

We spent our second day at Inle Lake cycling around the northern part of the lake (hence we don’t have many photos from day 2 – it’s a bit difficult to cycle and take photos at the same time). We hired bicycles in Nyaungshwe for $2 and went towards the western side of the lake, towards the village of Khaung Daing, and stopping at the hot springs along the way. From Khaung Daing we took a boat to the other side of the lake, to Maing Thauk village. Here we visited the hilltop monastery, before heading back north. Along the way we stopped at Red Mountain Estate Vineyard for some lunch and wine tasting, before making our way back to hustle and bustle of Nyaungshwe.

Our final day on Inle Lake was spent exploring Samkar, which is located at the southern end of Inle Lake, and a lot less touristed than the main lake. The few people who  visit Samkar make the trip to see the old Buddhist ruins located in and around the village, as well as to experience the local village life of the Shan, Intha and Pa-O people, which has been left virtually undisturbed by tourism. Getting to and from Samkar is part of the experience – even through it is a long trip, about 2.5 to 3 hours in each direction, along the way you get to see many beautiful lakeside villages, as well as the stunning landscapes which hug the narrow straight leading from the main part of Inle Lake to Samkar.

You no longer need to pay an entrance fee to visit Samkar, nor are you required to hire a Pa-O guide (another aspect of the opening up of Myanmar to tourism).
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Food in the Shan State (where Inle Lake is located), because of its proximity to China, is greatly influenced by Chinese cuisine. Staying on the lake, we were unfortunately limited to our hotel restaurant for dinner options. However, one dining suggestion for Inle Lake would be to visit Red Mountain Estate Vineyards and Winery. We stopped there for a late lunch one day. Here you can sample the local wines as well as enjoying a simple meal with a great view over the winery and the lake below. They have some well presented European options on the menu, including burgers and pastas, for those who are getting a little weary of the local cuisine. To get there, hire a push-bike in Nyaungshwe and cycle around the eastern side of the lake, towards Mine Thauk Village. There is a sign at the turn-off to the estate.

Inle Lake, Myanmar – Part One

We arrived at Inle Lake in the late afternoon, just in time to watch the sunset from our lake side bungalow. If there is anytime of day which Inle Lake looks utterly amazing, it is this!

We had a jam-packed itinerary the following day, being sped around the lake from place to place. First stop was the tribal market, which is part of the five-day market circuit around the lake. Here many of the Pa-O women from surrounding villages, distinguishable by their black clothing and coloured head scarves, come to sell their produce. Myamnar is a multi-national country, full different tribal and ethnic groups. The Pa-O people, which live in the areas surrounding Inle Lake, are just one of these tribal groups.

Next stop was to visit the weaving workshops of the Kayan women, known for their brass neck rings. These women are indigenous to the southern part of the Shan State (south of Inle Lake). Scarves created from lotus steam fibres, an extremely time consuming process to create threads from these fibres, can be purchased at various workshops on the lake. Because of the shear work involved in creating scarves from lotus threads, they are not cheap.

We took a bit of a detour on our ‘tour’ of the lake and headed to Inn Thein, a large historic temple complex on the western side of the lake. Here you can find crumbling stupas, overgrown with vegetation. If you follow the long covered corridor which leads uphill, you will find another complex of stupas, many of which are well maintained and shine bright white and gold in the Myanmar sun.

Our final stop for the day was a visit to the floating gardens of Inle Lake. This was by far the highlight of our day. The late afternoon light brought out the deepness of the blue lake and the rich greens of the vegetation. It was incredible to see local people working on these floating gardens from their boats – tending their crops and collecting vegetables.

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Getting There:
Inle Lake is most easily accessed by air (unless you’re keen for a long and bumpy bus trip). Flights from major cities and tourist hubs arrive in Heho, the nearest airport to Inle Lake. From the airport a taxi takes about 45 minutes to an hour (depending on the driver) and costs about 20,000 kyat (or US$20). Taxis drop you off in Nyaungshwe. There are many accommodation options in this bustling canal-side town. If you are staying at one of the bungalow-style hotels on the lake, head to the canal where you will find a boat to take you to your hotel. It should take about 30-60 minutes, depending on where your hotel is located, and cost between 10,000-15,000 kyat.

We stayed on the lake, at Paradise Inle Resort. Although the resort is looking a bit tired and in need of a little TLC, being on the lake was fantastic and our room was comfortable. After experiencing the ‘chaos’ of Nyaungshwe, we were happy to be paying that bit extra to spend our nights on the lake. Generally speaking, more budget accommodation options can be found in Nyaungshwe, but if you can spend that bit extra, I would recommend staying on the lake. But the downside is that you are stuck at your hotel after sunset, as the boats don’t ferry people back and forth after dark. At about US$100 per night for a double room, Paradise Inle Resort is one of the cheaper hotels on the lake.