Moving on from Mandalay: Exploring Burma's Bagan and Lake Inle

Bagan at sunset

Boat, bus or fly? There are lots of ways to get to Burma's lost city of Bagan from Mandalay. We decided on a 10-hour boat trip along the Irrawaddy River with Malikha lines, using tickets I bought online for about $50 each. Departure time was 7 a.m., meaning it was still dark when the taxi dropped us off at the dock. Boys swarmed around us, offering to carry our bags, a good thing since boarding the boat meant walking from the road down a dirt hill in the dark - no steps or lights - then walking up and over another boat to reach ours. This was a middle-of-the-road cruise, not a luxury ship, but not a locals' boat either. A tour group filled only about half the seats, so most of us were able to sit in wicker chairs on the top deck instead of in the the air conditioned, airplane-type cabins below. 

Boat ride along the Irrawaddy River

Breakfast was hard-boiled eggs, bananas and jam sandwiches packed for us by our guesthouse. Our ticket  included a similar breakfast along with tea and coffee and a fried rice dish for lunch. I can't say the ride was all that scenic or interesting, but it beat taking the bus and gave us time to read, write, listen to podcasts and relax.


There are constant reminders that Myanmar still is a third-world country. It lacks the infrastructure found in more developed Southeast Asian countries such as Thailand or Vietnam. To reach land from where the boat docked in Bagan, everyone had to walk along this narrow gangplank to shore. 

Bagan Thande Hotel

We wanted to make the most of our stay in Bagan, so we splurged on an elegant, old hotel in Old Bagan, with the largest concentration pagodas, shrines and temples, built by kings starting in the 9th century. The Bagan Thande Hotel was the first hotel in Bagan, built in 1922 to welcome the Prince of Wales while Myanmar (Burma at the time) was controlled by the British. We stayed in a "superior bungalow" overlooking a Lilly pond and the swimming pool. With a buffet breakfast served on an outdoor terrace facing the river, our rate was $100, about double what we paid elsewhere on this trip.



There are more than 2,000 pagodas, monasteries, shrines and stupas in Bagan, many reconstructed in the 1990s by the military to repair earthquake damage. Art historians and preservationists have criticized the restoration work as inauthentic, and UNESCO denied the area World Heritage status in the mid-1990s (The Burmese are reapplying). Bagan is nothing like Angkor Wat in Cambodia, but it's still impressive. Bus tour crowds swarm some of the bigger pagodas which double as shopping malls for local souvenir sellers. We rented an electric scooter from our hotel ($10 a day) to tool around on our own, veering off the main road onto dusty side streets to find some of the smaller, unrestored pagodas.


Most fun was discovering what was inside. Most of the pagodas have four entrances, with different Buddha images placed in each niche. Burmese enforce the no shoes or socks rule in Bagan as they do for all other pagodas and monasteries in Myanmar. Everyone leaves their shoes at the entrance and walks through barefoot, often on uneven, stone walkways and steps. All shoes are safe. No one would even think about taking them.


Bagan is recognized internationally for its handmade lacquerware bowls, trays, boxes etc. made in small, family workshops. I've never been much of a fan of Asian lacquerware (it's also made in China, Vietnam and other countries), but Myanmar's products are different, and although the quality can vary greatly according to price, the colors are more vivid and the hand-etched designs more intricate than I've seen elsewhere. 


Craftsmen and women produce lacquerware products from bamboo or wood, then reinforce the object with either paper or horsehair and coat it with resin extracted from the local thitsi tree. We took our scooters to a village to look for a family workshop called Jasmine. Word got around that a couple of tourists with red helmets were asking directions. Within minutes Win, the owner, pulled up on his motorbike to lead he way (and avoid having to pay someone else a commission for showing us).

Win explains lacquerware process

It took about an hour explaining the process of coating each piece with 7-14 coats of resin in between sanding and drying. Cheaper pieces get fewer coats and take less time to produce, although all are hand-etched, then colored with natural colors, and finally polished with pieces of petrified wood.


Bowls are made from bamboo. Flat pieces such as trays and boxes are made from teak. We bought a $35 bowl from Win in traditional colors of red, black and green, then shopped at the souvenir stalls near the pagodas for several less expensive pieces.

Golden Empress in Nyaung Shwe

After leaving Bagan, we took a nine-hour mini-bus ride through the mountains to spend our last few days at the Golden Empress Hotel in the town of Nyaung Shwe at the base of Lake Inle, a fresh-water lake housing about 70,000 members of Intha ethnic minority group who live and work in floating villages reachable only by boat. 
Nyaung Shwe is a friendly town filled with hotels, guest houses and family-run restaurants surrounded by rural villages and farms. We've tried as much as possible on this trip to support local businesses as opposed to big government-owned hotels etc. Golden Empress owner Kyaw Khaing bought this hotel five years ago, and remodeled it with wood-paneled rooms, private bathrooms and little balconies furnished with massage chairs. He's added nice touches such as a fridge filled with cold bottle water in the lobby. With breakfast, we paid about $50 a night. 


The lake isn't known so much for its scenery as it is for the unique lifestyle of its villagers. Khaing arranged for us to spend a full day with a boatman ($15 for the day) starting at 8:30 a.m. He did a good job of steering us close to the fishermen so we could see their unusual technique of balancing on one leg, while wrapping their oar around the other, leaving their hands free to cash their nets. 


The Intha people first came to Lake Inle in the 18th century from Southeast Myanmar, fleeing Thai invaders. The chief refused to grant them land rights, so they built stilt houses on the fluctuating water line of the lake, adapting to life on the water by cultivating floating gardens anchored to the lake bed (about 7 feet deep in dry season) by bamboo polls.



Many of the homes house little cottage industries. Weavers spin fabric from lotus fibers. Villagers also make thin, green cigars called cheroots by wrapping a combination of tobacco, star anise, banana and honey in leaves.

Padaung women from the mountains of Burma’s Kayah State, close to the Thai border, have settled in Inle and have established village workshops among the local people where they weave and sell their wares to tourists. Sometimes called "long-neck" women because of the brass rings worn to lengthen their necks, they are not "tourist attractions'' as they are in some parts of Thailand where businessmen charge visitors to take photographs. No one here charges for photos, and there's no pressure to buy. Their style of weaving, however, is unique. I bought a beautiful black and white cotton scarf for about $15. The women start wearing the rings on their necks at 9 and finish at age 25 with 25 rings.

Two days here would have probably been enough, but we had a third due to our air connections back to Seattle from Yangon. It gave us time to leisurely explore Nyaung Shwe. We spent one day taking a 15-mile bike ride ($1 to rent seven-speed Chinese bikes for the day, with locks and baskets) into the countryside. The destination was a winery called Red Mountain. The wine was terrible, but the ride gave us a chance to see more of village life. Housing styles vary with people's income. Many homes are like one the one below, made of wood, thatched palm and thatched or metal roofs.


Others use concrete blocks, painted wooden shutters and ceramic materials. Stores tend to be open-air, street-front bungalows with dirt or concrete floors. Main roads are paved, but side roads are dirt, and trucks and motorbikes kick up a lot of dust. 


We've come to love Burmese food, heavy on the vegetables, salads and fish or chicken. One of our favorites is pennywort salad, made with grassy pennywort leaves, sesame, peanuts, lime juice, fish sauce and garlic. We also love the avacado salads with black sesame seeds, and meals such as the one we had at a little family restaurant called Htoo Htoo Aung. With nine tables on a cozy patio decorated with twinkling Christmas lights, the owners offered a  $6 set menu that included pumpkin soup made from their home-grown pumpkins; an appetizer of rice crackers served with an herbed tomato dip; sautéed greens; rice; and a whole fish steamed in a banana leaf. 


Our favorite part about staying in Nyaung Shwe was becoming regulars at the tea house down the street. The town has plenty of tourist places where you can get a good cappuccino, but we became addicted to Burmese tea, sold only in the local tea shops.  It's a work of art as well as a tasty 25-cent treat. Notice the thin layer of sweetened condensed milk at the bottom of the glass. You drink it seated at low tables on child-sized plastic stools, Snacks usually appear along with the tea. You pay for what you eat, or wave them away if you're not hungry. Decorating our local tea house was a shrine, two TVs playing "Rocky" and a picture of a golden Buddha image sitting on a pile of money. Hmm...I think I need another cup.

That's all for now from Myanmar. Click here to see more photos in our photo gallery.