Despite being a tourist town, Nyaungshwe is still the main trading hub for the local villages, as well as the departure point for craft and produce that from the lake get delivered to the rest of the country. Motorized long boats take visitors to tribal villages made of stilt houses, farms and floating gardens, pagodas and floating silk and craft workshops. Most of the buildings on the lake shores are built with stilts on water, and activities are carried out in small rowing boats or long boats that skitter along the canals, carrying people and goods.
The wish to live these situations from near motivates us to rent bicycles from the guesthouse. We ride them with the ardor of kids who have been given a new gift, heading south in search of situations. As soon as we leave the village and cross the bridge over the canal, the chaos of the riverfront disappears, giving way to the peaceful countryside: rice fields, huge ponds populated by lush lotus plants in bloom, buffaloes taking a bath heedless of human presence, farmers who work the land and smile at our slow passage. Not far away, the mountains begin to be lit by a weak morning sun that is becoming more and more intense.
Tractors and motorbikes that transit on the dirt road carelessly raise huge clouds of dust. After about an hour ride we reach Hu Pin Hot Springs in the Intha village of Kaung Daing, known for the production of tofu from yellow beans instead of green. There, we allow ourselves a series of hot and relaxing baths. The hot water comes from a natural source upstream that is diverted into three different tanks downstream, where it is mixed with cold water. The water in the first tank is 70 degrees centigrade – unbearable -, it then becomes quite hot, 50 degrees, in the second tank, only to get to an acceptable 40 degrees in the third tank. It is early and we are the first to enter the hot springs compound; we enjoy the morning stillness and restore bones and muscles tired from cycling. We eat a satisfying meal of lake fish at the hot springs’ restaurant on stilts, and we then start looking for a boat pier on the west side of the lake, direction south.
After a number of negotiations, some characterized by heated discussions on price and destination first with a couple of farmers, then with a group of young people who are loading the boat with huge burlap sacks full of oranges, and finally, a boatman who was leaving empty grant us a ride to the Phaung Dew Oo Paya temple. Between us and the bikes, in a flash we fill the boat. The boatman tells us that it is late and that his is a one-way trip. We do not worry that much and we enjoy the scenic boat journey.
The ride is interesting to say the least; we pass and overcome boats packed with families and large groups of people from the surrounding villages heading to the temple for the annual festival. Today is a special day for Phaung Dew Oo Paya, which is the most important sacred place in the state of South Shan. Inside its multi-roofed pagoda, this colorful temple houses four ancient Buddha images, to which the faithful apply thin gold leaves that over the years have turned these images into amorphous golden masses. Once a year these images, which are normally kept on display in a pavilion inside the pagoda, are taken by a decorated barge on an around-the-lake ceremony.
Upon arrival, under many curious eyes we unload the bikes, lock them to an electricity post in the temple square and begin to enjoy the moment. We missed the main ceremony, but we can still experience part of the festival. There are several local families, some come from nearby villages, others from the surrounding hills. They feature flamboyant clothes and costumes, stones necklaces, amulets, and they bring offerings of food, beverages and golden leaves for the Buddhas. Groups of cheerful youngsters wear traditional peasants clothes and dance and sing, promoting recycling, environmental protection and the importance of education to young people. Improvised stalls sell local food like fried rice, roti, curry and various sweets, as well as balloons and kites for children, and various miniature replicas of relics and of the main pagoda for visitors who wish to take home a souvenir.
We visit the surrounding area and the pagoda interior, where the gilded blobs have been returned after the boat ride around the lake. A walk leads us to the next village where local merchants sell souvenirs of all kinds. On the way back to the pagoda, it is getting dark fast; the sellers withdraw their goods, the pagoda is locked and there is a confusion of people who take boats to go back home. It is immediately evident that it will be hard to find a ride: our bicycles are bulky and they cannot be loaded on boats crammed with people. Moreover, most of those we talk to, articulating as well as we can the name of our destination, Nyaungshwe, try to tell us that they are directed towards other areas. Apparently, the locals do not like to navigate in the dark, and Nyaungshwe is an hour by boat from here. We split to have more chances and in the end, when we are about to give up the search and find a place to sleep in the area, we manage to snatch a yes from a boatman who would take us across the lake, to a village on the east side called Thale -U. I look at my map: there are at least 10 kilometers from Thale -U to Nyaungshwe, something doable if it were not for the pitch darkness and for the fact that we do not know what kind of road we will find. No one in the area speaks English so we rely on fate; we accept the risk and embrace the adventure.
The trip on the lake is mesmerizing: we sail in a silence broken only by the engine of our boat, while the sky is now a huge dark expanse that blends in with the water’s edge of the lake, also black . A few dim lights warn us of villages along the water on the east coast. The boatman drives his primitive vessel and watches us with suspicion. We arrive at a dilapidated bamboo and wood dock on stilts, surrounded and almost entirely invaded by aquatic plants and grasses; we struggle to unload the bicycles on the boardwalk, then pay the ride and thank the boatman, who reverses the boat and leaves us in a movie-like situation. A few stars in the sky, a dog barking in the distance and nothing else. The trail is in front of us, but we do not see it. We proceed cautiously for a few meters, trying to avoid frequent potholes and ruts in the road; how long will we be able to hold at this pace? Perhaps it was not a brilliant idea, it would have been better to spend the night back at the village.
We refuse to get discouraged and after about ten minutes at a steady but slow pace, we come across a house that also functions as a groceries and necessities shop. I make my way in under the shocked look of the owners, a family of farmers very surprised to see a stranger in a bicycle at that time on that path. I purchase a torch, one of those used by speleologists with a rubber band to wear it around the head, along with a blister of batteries. It turns out to be our salvation! We pedal what seems to be a long time in the pitch dark, the only dim light of the made-in-China torch to illuminate our way. The path is uneven, at times made of ups and downs heavy for our legs that have to push old-fashioned bikes with flawed gears.
Along the way, we meet some sporadic scooters and some people who walk in the vicinity of hamlets that comprise a few houses made of wood, bamboo and straw; they all look at us appalled. Not a car, not a bike. The path occasionally becomes a paved road that widens until it ends and returns to be a path, in a succession that seems endless. After more than an hour we pass a couple of luxury hotels built on the banks of the river. We take the opportunity to ask passers-by if the road is the right one, an awkward question as there cannot be other roads. It is more to feel good, to sense that we are moving on in this venture: at first we thought it hard to accomplish, but we are now certain to succeed.
An unexpected enemy comes in the form of a cold air that becomes more and more unbearable. We do not wear suitable clothes, and even though we warm up by cycling, fatigue often causes us to slow down the ride. We reach a shack that serves as a bar-restaurant and we allow for a break, a hot tea and a traditional cigarillo cheroots while we rest legs and bones. Alas we do not know that we still have an hour of pedaling before we reach the destination. We finally arrive late in the evening, exhausted but happy to have lived this adventure. We treat ourselves to dinner at a Nepalese restaurant, where we arrive 10 minutes before closing time, and we comfort ourselves with good memories of the day and with a hot and spicy Masala Tea. It’s cool on the streets of Nyaungshwe, we will sleep well tonight…
Check out info on http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hpaung_Daw_U_Pagoda
Read Part 1: http://asianitinerary.asia/inle-lake-trip-part-1/ – and Part 3: http://asianitinerary.asia/inle-lake-hitchhiking-part-3/