Our first flight experience in Myanmar and getting to know the culture
Myanmar, although it has opened the borders to tourists recently, is still a country with economical and social instability. In several areas , recently in the Northern part close to China, are political riots. Furthermore, some minorities have been and still are chased and persecuted by the government and the guerilla groups don't contribute to creating a stable country. This in combination with flooding and very bad roads can make traveling via land uncomfortable or even impossible. Foreigners are not allowed to drive cars or motorbikes and the international as well as the German license is not accepted. For some areas, guides are needed and a special authorization needs to be given by the Government.
We planned on traveling via land from the border of Thailand to Inle lake, but we found out that this was not an option as many roads from the border to the lake are closed for foreigners. We ended up booking a flight to Heho, the closest airport to Inle lake. Myanmar has terrible safety records, especially along the coast, but our experience was pleasant. We arrived at our check in and while in Germany there are computers waiting for you to feed them with data and to spit out the ticket, in Myanmar everything is still done manually. When you enter the check in hall you feel more like you are on a fair with little pop up stalls. Some of the slogans ('You fly safe with us' ) are not contributing towards higher credibility. The scale looks like the ordinary scale on a farmers market back in the 70s and the check in is done manually, one can just simply look for their handwritten name, point on it....and the check in is completed;). After that, everybody gets a sticker similar to members of a guided tour and once the plane arrives, a guy comes in to announce that the plane is ready for boarding (don't expect any English, this was done in local language!) Everybody who has flown with Ryanair before will find the boarding procedure similar, as one has to walk towards the cabin, while you can see your luggage being dragged along in the dirt and hopefully put into your airplane. The flight itself was beautiful and the pastry that we got tasted very similar to pastry from back home in Germany- The best we have had on this trip so far. Most of the flights run in a circle , operating at different airports one after the other. After landing, we waited for people to depart the plane but nobody got off, so we also remained seated but found out eventually that it was our stop and managed to leave the aircraft before the plane commenced his flight to another destination.
We met a guy from Chile, shared a cab with him and ended up staying at the same affordable hostel as he did, even without reservation. In Myanmar, many hotels are run by the government, meaning that locals hardly benefit from the tourists if it weren't for restaurants and souvenirs. In addition, at Inle as well as at Bagan, tourists have to pay a certain entrance fee which is supposed to help preserve the area but most of it ends up in government's pockets anyway. This is why it is indicated to eat out at several places, ideally ones which are family run and to sleep in private guest houses rather than hotels owned by the state, as this helps to spread the money among different people.
Despite several warnings that Myanmar would be 'very touristy' and especially packed in December, we did not book in advance and were lucky enough to find affordable accommodation pretty much everywhere we went. While we heard before that food would also be expensive, we have to say that we disagree. It was easy to get a decent dish in the range of 0,70$-3$ which is totally alright.
When we arrived at Inle, the country just continued to amaze us. People are beautiful inside and out and many cultural habits were easy to be explored due Myanmar's authenticity. Longyis, a typical attire for men and women which look like a long skirt are worn everywhere instead of jeans or modern style dresses and help to keep the legs cool during the hot summer heat as well as to keep the mosquitoes away. The fabric is usually produced within the country and it is either cotton or silk, not a cheap, unhealthy polyester mix. Men wear shirts on top and women beautiful blouses which match perfectly. Many women have beautifully long hair even below their waist and butts, are very slender and good looking. Maybe their secret lies in the bark tree paste they put on their faces named Thanaka. It is used as a sun blocker and very good against oily skin. In addition, it keeps mosquitoes away and acts like a facial mask which you wear all day (like an all day Spa-amazing). We don't do marketing for Thanaka and no we are not being paid for it, but there are no doubts that this is a part of their secret. On top of that, food portions are ridiculously small so one has not to worry about the perfect beach body;) To top it all off, people in Myanmar are incredibly friendly and helpful and this is what makes them beautiful inside and out (except the taxi drivers which are as evil as everywhere else).
Pristine Sunrise over Inle Lake
We rented a boat for sunrise until sunset with three other people and while the driver hardly understood any English, we had a blast. We watched the Intha fishermen balance their way along the river in their little boats with their unique fishing and one-legged rowing technique, went to a small floating village, saw floating gardens and were dropped of at silver smith, a weaving factory and an umbrella production, all of it done manually which added a little aftertaste of promotional trips in Germany called 'Kaffeefahrten'.
Of course the people would have loved you to buy something but were never pushy. I think all of us would have preferred a little more independent tour but this is where the boats bring you to. While the promotional tours can be annoying to some, it is partly understandable. Unfortunately, a lot of the money (flights, archeological entry tickets, accommodation and booking via a tour operator) the tourists leave behind goes directly to the Government so the local people rely on souvenirs, handcrafts, local services and restaurants. Now, one can decide for themselves if 30$ for a handwoven and sewn dress is too much or not. Taking into consideration that they work for a month on certain pieces, I highly doubt that. But as long as they are not pushy, we can cope with it.
The problem with many backpackers is sometimes the ambiguous mindset. While they 'care' about the environment and the people, and while they 'feel bad' that the workers do not earn a lot of money and have difficulties to bring home food for the family every day (the average income in Myanmar is said to be about 100$ a month, but of course it differs depending on the region and the job), some of them still negotiate like crazy and some don't think about giving tips for a service provided, even if they would do so in their home country without hesitation. Some others are happy about having saved 500kyat which is about 0,30$, but 30 cents mean nothing for us but half a meal for the people here in Myanmar. The tourists are shaping the behavior of the locals and the other way around, so finding a middle way (negotiating just a little but not getting ripped off neither, watching your budget but preferably staying at privately owned places even if they might be slightly more expensive) is the key.
Tour de Inle
Another good way of exploring the lake is by bike. We passed Khaung Daing. a village known for its tofu production. and the hot springs, which tend to be overcrowded and packed with Chinese or Myanmar tourists groups arriving in tourist buses. Back on the east side of the river, you can pass sugar cane plantations and vineyards as well as some monasteries. One of our highlights was a small cave near a monastery with several Buddhas inside called Htet Eain Gu cave. We were literally the only people there other than the monk escorting us and showing us the way with his flashlight. Being in the cave was a nice escape from the heat outside, but walking (shoe less) into a cave with Buddha statues and shrines everywhere but pitch darkness once you have entered the chambers further inside the cave is an unusual experience. The monks come here for peaceful meditation and say their prayers in the dark. Johannes suggestion to turn our flashlight off and to remain in the cave for 10 min without any source of light was democratically rejected by the other members of the group (thank God!).
Another great experience was the sunset from the forest monastery which gives you a great view over the area. However, the bikes in Inle Lake (at least the ones we saw) did not have lights so we ended up riding our bike back in the pitch dark and in a hurry to make sure that we would reach our accommodation before the arrival of our overnight bus to Bagan. So we do not recommend you to do a 60km bike ride with a sunset view on the day of your departure, unless you love the adrenaline rush and the thought of having to drive in the dark and having to wave bye bye to your bus towards your next destination.
Lucky for us, we really wanted to get our bus so we drove 'Tour de France like' and even swallowed some flies occasionally, we made it back just in time for a shower and some watermelon and off we went on our first overnight bus in Myanmar!