After much debating the night before, I decided to bite the bullet and book a one-way boat to Samkar lake, returning as far as a road bridge and former checkpoint, ending the day with a ride to the mountain-top town of Pinlaung. Whilst ferry transportation is available with locals from South to North (boats can be boarded at any point from Pekon up to Nampan), foreigners are not permitted to share boats with locals from North to South (Nyaungshwe to Nampan – Feb 2018). The cost for an all-day trip (8am to 3pm) was 40,000 Kyat (c.$30USD) plus tip, including a custom itinerary of sights and stops en-route. If in any doubt as to whether it is worth it vs. more budget-friendly options, don’t hesitate – just do it! The $30 will soon fade to insignificance, but the memories will last a lifetime!
Approaching the breakfast table at 7am, a Chinese voice yelled from below. ‘How you want your eggs’. ‘Poached ok?’ I replied. My crisp fried eggs took just two minutes to arrive. After a hurried breakfast, part low appeal, part sheer excitement, I left bound for the boat.
Moments later another confused conversation. This time the lovely if slightly scary boat operator from last night. English limited, he spoke in a manner that at first seemed clear, learned through years of ferrying tourists around the sublime Inle lake. However, each time I explained my itinerary, he would reply with something entirely different. Starting over, we progressed a little closer each time. Success was finally reached by detailing the order and timings on a local map, later handed to the ferryman.
Terms and destinations finally agreed, we set off, bike aboard. Leaving Nyaungshwe was a relief, the town itself holding few charms, other than a cheap night’s accomodation and simple access. Should you find yourself at Inle Lake preferring a more authentic base, there are plenty of options outside Nyaungshwe, with access via boat and road.
From Nyaungshwe, it takes around 10 minutes down a busy canal to reach the Inle lake, one of 3 connected lakes, with few tourists passing the Southern most point of Inle (the boat owner takes just one boat there per week).
Once on the lake, everything changes. A peaceful oasis, cradled by mountains. The famed ‘one footed fishermen’ pose for photos, as boats farm the lake’s extensive floating gardens. Here water hyacinths act as a base for cultivating tomatoes, squash and egg plant, sold all over Myanmar. Sadly though, a natural crisis is looming. As the floating gardens contiunue to expand, fertilizer is depleting fish stocks, with education a key barrier to maintaining the health of this precious ecosystem.
My guide kept an eagle eye on points at which I took particular interest and paused before I had a chance to ask. We visited temples, gardens and tradtional craftsmen, the most fascinating being a producer of woven silks and cottons, using looms that seemed as old as time itself.
Nearing the bottom of Inle Lake, we stopped at Nampan, visiting the rotating market; much larger in size than In Dein market the day before. Topping up with Sugar Cane and nuts for the road ahead, I jumped back aboard. Some of the very best scenery lay waiting, as we passed In Dein in view of its many Stupas. Here, the flow of passing tourist-laden boats stopped and true peace and trantrquity began.
Navigating under the bridge we’d later return to was quite a challenge, with a thick bed of river plants cutting the engine. We both dangled from the side of the boat, shifting offending matter with hands and feet, before trying to start the engines once again. Third time lucky. After a brief stutter, we were off, headed for the village of Samkar, its neighbouring stupas and a local producer of rice wine.
As we approached a jetty opposite Samkar village, the boat struck a large rock, swinging violently. Holding on and steadying the ship, I looked toward my guide. Part shock, part delight, glad to still be the owner of a road-worthy bicycle.
Incredibly, the Stupas here were even more captivating than In Dein. I ambled around them, talking in broken language with the guide, before a 1km walk to witness the making of rice wine. Having never imagined 60% alcohol wine could taste so smooth, I set off a little tipsier than planned, grabbing fresh pancakes from a stall across the water, where temples and trees intertwined. Whilst I was joined in this remote and peaceful place by a handful of tourists, the numbers were low and unintrusive.
Nearing 3pm, it was time to hop off the boat and back on the bike. Heading 40 minutes back to the bridge, I exchanged sincere thanks for a wonderful day, filled bottles with water and glanced quickly at the map. Then, out of nowhere appeared 2 American cyclists, the first I’d seen this trip. They’d had a similar experience in Nyaungshwe, though had been quoted 50,000 Kyat each, deciding to cycle to the bridge and flag down a passing boat. They succeeded just 5 minutes later as I began 30km of steep climbs and descents to Pinlaung.
Whilst a tough ride to end the day, the scenery and roads were amongst the best to date. I stayed that night at the WineWine Motel, with a small brightly coloured room and shared bathroom costing just 12,000 Kyat. Whilst the food at the Chinese restaurant opposite was poor, the company was great. A Mandalay student studying English was keen to talk and it was great to hear more about the Burmese culture, struggles and hopes for the future.