Inle Lake was one of those places we couldn't make up our minds on. Should we go or should we not go? We'd heard various testimonies from fellow travelers. Some who hated it, some who loved it. Isn't it so hard when that happens? The fact of the matter was this: it's incredibly touristy. In our minds, that alone was reason enough not to go. We always enjoyed places more if we could get a taste of the local life and from what we heard, Inle Lake was definitely not that. The funny thing is, we ended up with some of of our favorite memories there... despite all the tourists.
There was our time in the market where I selected my longyi (similar to a sarong but sewn together at the ends to form a sort of tube) and got it sewn right then and there before the shop owner came over and showed me how to put it on. Wearing a longyi as a tourist in Burma was one of my favorite experiences because of the immense smiles I got from locals. I already thought of the Burmese as the friendliest people we'd met but putting on a longyi increased that tenfold. Smiles, waves, handshakes and friendly talks (though I did get some confused or surprised glares every once and a while) were guaranteed whenever I slipped into that piece of cloth.
There was the morning we booked a ride on the lake to visit a market 2 hours away and it started raining within the first half hour. When we arrived to the market, the storm was so bad, almost everyone had already left. Disappointed, we returned to our hostel, changed clothes and went for a bike ride where we visited some local villages in the area. We stopped for lunch in Kaung Taing to try their famous tofu. After sitting down in a restaurant and asking the owner if she had any of this delicious tofu we'd heard about, she let us know we'd come on the wrong day, “no fresh tofu today”. Of course! We must have both displayed intense looks of disappointment because all of a sudden, one of her employees left on his motorbike and came back with fried tofu salads. A few minutes later, they magically appeared in front of our noses. It doesn't sound like much but it was such touching gesture. When we left, her and her granddaughter waved goodbye to us as they sent us on our way.
There was the cooking class we took with Bamboo Delight. Sue usually teaches the class but she was busy that day so her husband, Lesly, was our teacher. He met us at the local market where we shopped for the produce we needed to make the courses we chose. Lesly told us he liked to buy groceries from people with fewer means and always made sure to rotate between sellers so he wasn't always buying from the same ones. The class was only meant to last a few hours but we ended up spending the entire afternoon with him. We talked about the cooking class, the farm him and his wife owned, the supplies they donated to school kids who couldn't afford them, his family, our trip, his favorite movies. We played with his children and dogs and laughed a lot. We couldn't have felt more welcome but just in case we didn't, he made sure to let us know we were always welcome in his home whenever we returned to Myanmar. It was an afternoon I won't forget anytime soon.
P.S. If you're looking for the best BBQ in town, make sure to check out Sein Yadanar (recommended to us by Lesly). Only locals so you know it's delicious!
Finally, there was our last day when we decided to go back on the lake. It was a sunny afternoon and after our first attempt failed, I was eager to see the beauty of Inle Lake without the rain pounding on us. After some negotiation, we boarded our boat and set out. As we made our way around a small part of the lake, I was completely mesmerized by the beauty of the place. The houses sat on the water so delicately yet stood firmly in the ground and the gardens surrounding them were so lush and green. People waved to us from all directions – two little kids kept yelling “Hey! Hey! Hey!” from their house, eventually coming up in a boat behind us. Before we left the dock, I'd convinced our boat driver to bring us somewhere that most tourists don't get to see. He ended up taking us to a small house in his village where 4 women were sitting making cheroot cigars. Now, I know this is not absolutely original and plenty of tourists have done this before but it definitely felt authentic. As soon as we sat down, we were both handed a couple cigars to try. Children followed us in and stayed with us the whole time. We mostly watched TV though I think I was staring more at the women making the cigars – they moved at lightning speed! They must have made 100 cigars each while we sat there. Although we couldn't speak with each other, that didn't keep us from enjoying our time together. Not much was said but a lot of smiles were shared.
This stop reminded me just how important it is to keep an open mind and make the most out of everyplace you visit. You never know what memories you'll end up making when you travel to somewhere new and Inle Lake was no exception. Sometimes it's the places you least expect that will amaze you the most.