Escaping Inle Lake

The main tourist hub for Inle Lake is the town of Nyaung Shwe, connected to the lake by a river channel a few kilometres long. That's where we stayed, joining the hundreds of other visitors that were already packed into the little town. We settled into the Gypsy Inn, a friendly and budget guesthouse right next to the main boat pier after visiting several places whose rates did not match the quality of their rooms

It was hard for us to get into the Inle Lake experience. Most of the lake's attractions cannot be visited independently and require transportation by boat. Boat rental is inexpensive but tours consist mainly of visits to souvenir shops disguised as tourist attractions. With no obvious alternatives we hired a boat for a day tour. We did our best to enjoy the sights that really were incredible, and disregard those that weren't so. Most of the sights were a weird artificial recreation of traditional industries but a few seemingly more genuine aspects of lake life were the highlights of our tour. We've listed them below:

Early Morning on the Lake
Riding along on the open lake at sunrise is probably the only thing that we would suggest not to miss at Inle Lake.

Nampan Village Market
Requesting that our tour start an hour earlier than suggested, we arrived at the bustling market before the tourist masses. We've seen lots of markets, but this one was particularly good, especially all the tasty snacks!
  Adorable fish seller at the Nampan market

Tour of a Blacksmith Shop
This would have been a standard tourist trap, but the blacksmith lit up when Yann asked to see the machinery used to make boat parts. He brought us to a messy, metal scrap covered workshop, away from the souvenir shop. One single machine tool incredibly serves the entire lake. The blacksmith rather cheerfully complained of its age and inefficiency.
  A forging demonstration for tourists

Tea at our Boatdriver's Home
Meeting our boat driver's father and son and seeing their family home in a traditional floating village was an unexpected treat. When his son spotted us arriving, he sped over in his teak canoe, showing off his skills at the unbelievable one-leg paddling.   Our Inle Lake boatdriver
 Our boatdriver's son and father seeing us off

The Fishermen of Inle Lake
The tour started with a photo session by two enterprising locals dressed in matching orange wide-leg fisherman's pants using traditional basket nets. Tourist boats lined up for their turn to photograph them in their coordinated routine. That was not a highlight. But watching the real fishermen in the distance, balancing on one leg as they cast their nylon nets, was pretty awesome.
In contrast to Inle Lake, our next few days of riding across the Shan Plateau were the least-touristy of our trip through the country. We rode first to Pindaya, famous for its huge cave temples, filled with thousands of golden Buddhas. The town itself is centred on a pretty lake and didn't seem to have as many visitors as we felt it deserved.   Inside the Pindaya cave temples

From Pindaya, we made our way towards the small town of Ywangan and met no more tourists until Mandalay. The road didn't even appear on our GPS. We were alone, riding across the fertile plateau, through a colourful patchworks of various crops. It was cabbage harvest season and we passed dozens of oxcarts, piled with perfectly balanced rows of cabbages. Villagers waved from the fields as we rode by. It was so lovely that we could easily overlook the brutal road conditions that kept our average speed hovering around 10km/hr.   The fertile Shan Plateau between Pindaya and Ywangan

  From the fields, to the oxcarts, to the trucks

We had delicious meals at small roadside eateries, usually stopping for a snack anytime we spotted the golden pieces of deep-fried Shan tofu. Made with yellow split peas the local tofu is light, flaky and delicious and very much unlike soy-based tofu.   A tray of Shan tofu setting in a village home/restaurant

We tackled the epic descent down from the Shan Hills to the plains of Central Myanmar with mixed emotions. Happy for a 1100m descent but sad to be leaving the cool climate and peaceful riding of the Shan Plateau. We didn't have to peddle but the road was so steep and in such terrible condition that we barely averaged 15km/hr. Not quite the reward that we were hoping for after the work it took us to get up!
  Making our way down from the Shan Hills

We could feel the temperature increasing with every metre dropped and we were so grateful that we were not riding in the opposite direction! We finished the last 20km of the day on the blissfully smooth pavement of the Yangon-Mandalay highway and continued the next day along the same road to Mandalay. As it was the best road surface in the country we made sure to enjoy it.

Stats for Nyaung Shwe (Inle Lake) to Mandalay:

Days of cycling: 4
Days of rest: 2
Kilometres cycled: 283
Metres climbed: 2763
Cycle-tourists crossed on the road: 1 organized tour

Partially sponsored by Mountain Equipment Coop Expedition Support

Up to the Shan Highlands

From Bagan, our first destination was Mount Popa, a sacred volcano jutting out from a range of low-lying mountains nearby. Most tourists visit as a day-trip from Bagan, so accommodation is scarce. Sweaty cyclists pulling in to Popa in the late afternoon are easy prey for high room prices. Thirty dollars got us the cheapest room in town, with cold water showers and a rotting piece of foam on a bedframe with most of its slats missing or broken.

Even though we were tired, we dragged ourselves to the top of the mountain, an additional 5km and 777-step climb away from our hotel. A stairway lined with shrines and temples dedicated to both Buddhist and nat (spirit) worship leads to a monastery at the summit. The stairs are covered with a rickety tin roof that echoed with the sound of the hundreds of bouncing resident monkeys as we made our way up. The tiled stairs are completely covered with monkey excrement and as with all sacred sites in the country, pilgrims must go barefoot. Neither of us were particularly enthusiastic about trudging through monkey urine, but we made our way to the top, facing dozens of mean monkeys who blocked the narrowest parts of the path. The highlight of the visit was Yann getting hissed at when he tried to shoo them away with a squirt from his water bottle. It was an experience, albeit not a very pleasant one.   A Mount Popa temple monkey, ready to pounce at the first sign of food

The next part of our route to Inle Lake wasn't broken up as optimally as we would have liked. Because foreigners are only permitted to stay in government-sanctioned establishments and camping is prohibited, we had few options for overnight stays. We spent our next night in the town of Thazi, 137km from Mount Popa. It was the closest we could get to the base of the Shan Hills and it was a long day of riding to get there. Our next stop was a daunting 1200 metres up and 95km away.

Thazi is tiny but has two guesthouses due to its strategic location at the intersection of the Yangon-Mandalay highway and the rail line to Inle Lake. Especially in contrast to our Popa hotel, our guesthouse in Thazi, aptly named "Wonderful Guesthouse" was welcoming and great value. The owner proudly showed us her collection of stickers and cards from other cycle-tourists to which we added our own. She even had pre-prepared hand-drawn maps with the distances between the villages and sources of food and water for the next day's climb. We got the impression that mostly cyclists stay in Thazi.

Following the advice of our guesthouse owner, we left Thazi at sunrise, hoping that we would make it to Kalaw, our destination, before sunset. We did, but just barely, using up all eleven hours of winter daylight.   Sunrise breakfast in the town of Thazi

  Leaving Thazi at day break in order to make it to Kalaw before dark

It was a very tough day. We didn't start the big climb until 65km into the ride, at the hottest time of day. Psychologically it was difficult because we could see how fast we were going (not fast) and we could see that if we didn't keep up a steady pace we would be riding into the night. We rode mostly in silence, with few breaks. Although there were some great views of the Shan Hills along the ride, we were so focused on the climb that we rarely stopped to take them in. We were hungry, sore and really really happy when we pulled into town. The relief that you feel after finishing a day like this one almost makes the pain worthwhile.

We stayed in Kalaw, a former British hill station, for an extra day to rest our legs and take advantage of the cool weather. It was a nice place to relax, scenic with a few decent food options. It was also small and there were few things to do, so we didn't feel guilty about doing nothing.   Downtown Kalaw by day

  Downtown Kalaw by night, note the absence of street lights

By chance, our last morning in Kalaw coincided with the rotating-market day. The town centre was completely transformed, streets bursting with vendors from neighbouring villages. We happily wandered around for an hour or so, before starting our downhill ride to Inle Lake, leaving as the market was getting busy enough that we were getting in the way (and right when the tour buses rolled in).
  Peeling garlic, market day, Kalaw

  Market day, Kalaw

Stats for Nyaung U (Bagan) to Nyaung Shwe (Inle Lake):

Days of cycling: 4
Days of rest: 1
Kilometres cycled: 357
Metres climbed: 3424
Cycle-tourists crossed on the road: 1 independent + 1 organized tour

Partially sponsored by Mountain Equipment Coop Expedition Support

Exploring the Temples of Bagan

  5:00am arrival in Mandalay, getting ready to start riding

We began our cycling in Myanmar with two days of riding across the country's central plains. After a small section of highway leaving the Mandalay bus station (where we'd just arrived after an overnight bus ride from Yangon), we were soon following rural roads where the little traffic was mostly made up of motorcycles.   Traffic jam between Mandalay and Myingyan

The paved roads were in deceptively bad condition, extremely uneven and despite largely flat terrain and no wind, we struggled to maintain a decent pace. With the rainy season passed, we were grateful for the little villages where banyan trees lined the road and provided respite from the otherwise shadeless, hot, and dusty setting.   Riding across one of several sections of road covered in sand

The food options were pretty limited on this stretch of road, but the roadside meals that we tracked down were cheap and delicious, our favourite being the coconut donuts fresh out of the fryer.

Truthfully, the most pleasant part of the riding, by far, was interacting with locals. We were constantly met with smiles and mengalabars (hellos), children would run to the road where they would line up to greet us. We broke up the ride with an overnight in Myingyan, a non-descript town where only cyclists would have any reason to stay. We were definitely the only foreign tourists in town.   Breakfast at a Myingyan teashop

In contrast, when we arrived in Bagan we found it to be completely crawling with tourists. Thankfully there are thousands of temples dotting the Bagan Plains so there is plenty of opportunity for quiet exploration. We spent several afternoons on the narrow sandy trails, far more suited to oxcart travel than anything else (including bicycles).   Cycling past Thambula Paya, South Plain

  Peanut harvesting, South Plain

Any of the temples accessible by tour bus were overrun, with both tourists and souvenir hawkers (and tour buses did not hesitate to ride on the tiniest of roads). The sunset viewing spots were particularly terrible and after various attempts at finding a “spectacular view” we realised that it was much more pleasant to avoid any of the places recommended in the guidebooks.   Tourists waiting for the sunset at the famous Shwesandan Temple

  We watched the sunset standing in a field instead

It was so hot during the day that we did our touring in the early mornings and the late afternoons with a nice long break in between. We were enjoying our daily routine until our third night when Yann was up all night with a nice case of food poisoning (punishment for eating Chinese food at an Italian restaurant in Myanmar).   Lesson learned: stick to local delicacies

We extended our stay in Bagan by a day as Yann was unfit for temple viewing, let alone cycling. While Yann slept for two days I set out by myself, still hoping but failing to visit everything on my list. Yann's list was significantly shorter, so other than feeling like shit, he wasn't too disappointed.

Stats for Mandalay to Bagan:

Days of cycling: 2 (+ 3 days of temple riding)
Days of rest: 2 (sick days for Yann)
Kilometres cycled: 252
Metres climbed: 1011

Partially sponsored by Mountain Equipment Coop Expedition Support