I ARRIVE AT NYAUNGSHWE at seven the next day. It’s an overnight trip that took almost 12 hours, and the distance shows in how the town appears. Blame the elevation perhaps., but it feels a world away from the bustle of Yangon. Nyaungshwe is a town in Myanmar’s Shan State, most of which is situated on a hilly plateau, and shortly after stepping off the bus, I shiver at the morning cold, which reminds me of the rustic vibe of hill towns, only more ethereal. There’s a mystifying quality to this place’s rural appearance, with roads surrounded by undulating fields stretching as far as the horizon where the sun is starting to rise. But though Nyaungshwe possesses a subtle allure that draws me in, I didn’t come here for the town itself.
Nyaungshwe is actually the gateway for most travelers who are venturing to Inle Lake, where I find myself in on a hired motorboat half an hour later. The impression I have of Nyaungshwe’s rustic otherworldliness is heightened upon seeing the lake – a vast, peaceful body of water beloved for its anticipated sites of Intha fishermen and floating villages. Yet this calm image belies tensions within the locals themselves. Shan State, the largest of Myanmar’s states, is home to a host of ethnic groups, many of which have armies that fight for autonomy. Parts of the state are off-limits to foreigners, as skirmishes between these military groups and the government are known to occur.
But the Inle Lake has largely been free from such troubles, and in recent years, as tourism in Myanmar picks up, the area has been more accessible. Buses now go directly to Nyaungshwe, whereas before, a trip here would require going further east to the state capital of Taunggyi, then catching a pick-up truck going to Nyaungshwe.
MEASURING 22 KILOMETERS LONG and 11 kilometers wide, the Inle Lake is not that large – at least compared to its hype. But nestled among hills, and defined by ageless traditions that rule over modern distractions, the area entices people with its graceful beauty and a more deliberate pace of life. Many timeworn customs remain, including floating markets and monasteries.
My boatman first takes me to the Hpaung Daw U, the most famous pagoda in the lake. The pagoda houses five small gilded images of Buddha, which have been covered in gold leaf to the point that their original forms cannot be seen. Today, the whole of the country is celebrating the Hpaung Daw U festival, which means the temple grounds is teeming with devotees paying their respects.
Our next destinations were a number of workshops showcasing traditional life around the lake. The Inn Paw Khon is a village near the southern end of the lake, where weavers use lotus silk to create multicolored fabrics. In another village, I meet a couple of women from the Kayan tribe. Known as Padaung in the Shan language, the Kayan women are notable for their brass neck coils, which give their neck an elongated appearance.
Just before returning to Nyaungshwe in the early afternoon, I drop by the Nga Hpe Kyaung, or more popularly known as the Jumping Cat Monastery. The nickname came from the monastery’s feline residents who were trained to jump through small hoops. The trainer passed away in 2014, though, so the cats are simply there waiting to be fed. Still, the temple is worth a visit to see the collection of Buddha images, and to see locals go about their daily life.
I’M BACK IN NYAUNGSHWE IN THE AFTERNOON. After eating lunch at one of a handful of restaurants open, I decide to have a local way of ending a short trip by taking a stroll around. The roads away from the main thoroughfare are virtually empty, though I’m not sure if this is a regular case or just because it’s a holiday and a Sunday. I head for the town museum a few blocks away, but it’s unfortunately closed. I backtrack to the main road then enter another narrow street going to the Yadana Aung Man Paya, the oldest and most important Buddhist temple in Nyaungshwe.
After an hour, I surrender to the heat and rest at another restaurant to wait for the bus going to Bagan. As I sit there, I watch as children set off firecrackers, laughing and generally just having a good time. In an old building not far away, locals are enjoying the approaching evening over bottles of beer. As I take in these scenes, the days of fast-paced activities seem so far away. And it’s ironic, since I scheduled just a one-day trip to Inle Lake to cram as much of Myanmar as I can given the limited time. Maybe I did underestimate Inle Lake’s ability to charm. But in the short time that I’m here, I have been inspired, and felt a little more rejuvenated.