Thursday, 24 July 2014

A circular ride around Inle Lake

The flat and quiet terrain around Inle Lake provide some excellent opportunities to get out on a bike. Here I'll describe a half-day circular route from Nyaungshwe that takes in some lovely scenery, a quick jaunt across the lake, and several opportunities to relax off the bike as well!

Fisherman on Inle Lake, Burma
Millpond smooth: Inle Lake

Start from the main market, and head east along Yone Gyi Road over the canal. Keep going straight as the road begins to get quieter. You'll pass a police station on the right, and then a high school on the left. Keep going until you reach a wide intersection. It's starting to feel like you're leaving the town at this point. You'll see a couple of signs pointing off the the right, including one for the local vineyard. Turn right at this intersection, and follow the road in the direction of the vineyard.

You'll first pass through an area with houses on the right, and farmland leading off to misty mountains on your left. Gradually the houses will thin out. Soon the tarmac will end as well, and the road will become a dirt track. Just keep following the road.

Farmland around Nyaungshwe
Scenery en route to Maing Thauk

Keep an eye on your left for the vineyard (Lonely Planet says nice things about their restaurant and wine tastings) and on your right for a couple of monasteries. After a bit further bumping along the dirt road, you'll pass the stilt bungalows of an upmarket resort.

Soon after the resort, you'll enter a small town. On your right, just after a row of shopfronts / small restaurants, you'll see another dirt track leading to off to the small stilt village of Maing Thauk. If you choose to head left and up into the hills instead, you'll reach the Forest Monastery (which I can't tell you anything about because I didn't actually stop there).

Stilt houses in Maing Thauk, Burma
Stilt houses in Maing Thauk floating village

Maing Thauk is a cluster of stilt houses connected to the land (and the land-based portion of the town) by a long wooden bridge. You can't really wander around the stilt village (once you get to the far end of the bridge, all the buildings are only reachable by boat or by very narrow private bridges), but the main wooden bridge is an atmospheric place for a wander, looking out over the rows of vegetable and water hyacinth. There are also a couple of small pavilions (offering a roof and some benches) part way across the bridge, if you feel like just chilling for a bit. Bicycles aren't allowed on the bridge itself.

Main bridge connecting Maing Thauk to the shore
The main bridge leading to Maing Thauk floating village

When you're ready to continue the loop, you'll need a boat. But don't worry, the boatmen hang out by the bridge as well as at the restaurants by the turning to the bridge, and they'll probably already have found you. You'll need to haggle hard - when I was there they were asking $10 for the 20-30 minute run across the lake. It should probably be more like $4, but I'm a crappy negotiator, so I paid $7. They'll happily load your bicycles into their boats at the start of the bridge, and pick you up at the far end ready to cross to the west side of the lake.

The route across is lovely - the surface can be as flat as a mill pond, dotted with water hyacinth and hovering dragonflies. You'll see birds aplenty, and fishermen tossing their nets and beating the water with long poles (to drive fish into the nets).

Traditional fishing on Inle Lake

Your boatman will drop you and your bike off at Kaung Daing. A short walk away from the water's edge (I say walk because the foot path is very narrow and uneven, and I didn't feel up to managing it on my bicycle) takes you to a paved road, where you'll also find a few restaurants and shops, in case you need refreshing. According to the Lonely Planet, this village is famous for it's tofu.

Turn right. After a short while, passing through more beautiful countryside and farmland, you'll see the hot springs. They're probably lovely, but they were closed for renovation when I passed by, so we'll keep on going. On the opposite side of the road from the springs is a small hill stupa, which probably gives nice views if you're not too knackered to attempt to climb it (I was - it was in the mid-30s when I visited).

Keep following the paved road, through the glorious countryside. This road will be a bit busier than the track on the eastern side of the lake was, so keep a watch out for tractors and the occasional 4x4. But mostly you'll have the route to yourself.

You'll pass over a small wooden bridge over a ditch (be careful, the planks are rather uneven and it's easy to come off here. At least for clumsy people like me). A little way later, you'll spot a narrow road loading off to the right, with a rain shelter on the corner. Turn right here.

This final stretch back into Nyaungshwe is one of the nicest bits of the ride so far. The raised road cuts for some distance across the marshes, beautiful views on both sides. You'll pass several small shops/cafes, if you need any last minute water.

The road curves sharply as you come back into town, and deposits you at the western edge of the Teik Nan bridge (the wooden bridge that crosses the main canal, next to where the tour boats leave from). From this bridge, it's a straight run back up Yone Gyi Road to return to the main market.
Teik Nan bridge in Nyaungshwe, Burma
Teik Nan Bridge, coming back into Nyaungshwe

Duration: 3-4 hours, plus any extra time to visit the hot springs or stop for lunch

Tips: take lots of water, sunscreen, and a sunhat (some of the roads have little shade).
Keep a close eye on the road surface, to avoid running into potholes or other dangers (I fell off into a nice, muddy ditch, and have the scars to prove it).
Have fun!

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