On the morning of the 25th, I awoke early and visited the Good Luck Food Center again to see my favorite teashop boys. The shop was bustling at 7.30am, crowds of men hovered around steaming cups of tea and greasy samosas.
As I walked back towards my hotel, I stopped to observe a betel quid stand. There were 2 monks hanging out, and we started chatting about betel and how it was aya-dha-shi-deh (delicious). He asked me to visit his monastery as one of the elder monks was studying Japanese. We crossed the street, passing a Hindu temple and I entered the monastery. I was told to sit in front of a gilded large Buddha as the monk was summoned. Many people came to stare and smile warmly. They were very keen to be photographed and after chatting a bit in English and Japanese I explained that I would be traveling to Inle Lake soon and I had to go. They were so nice, telling me to travel safely and anytime I was in Yangon I was welcome to visit them.
At the hotel, the staff told me that there was a guy who was also going to the bus station and we could share a cab; thus, I met Pascal, a very curious Frenchman. At the station, we met Ricard. From the moment I met Ricard, I just had to laugh; not in any malicious way but he was just so funny. He was sitting on a bench, with bright orange athletic shorts, and looked exhausted and somehow out of place. He is from Cataluna, and very very proud of it, and very adamant in its independence from Spain. I chatted with the two boys a bit, but soon took out my Burmese phrasebook and had a crowd of locals around me ready to correct my pronunciation and practice their English.
Heaps of vendors came by, their makeshift boxes full of candy, gum, potato chips, books, drinks, tissues, batteries, watches, and a lot more stuff that made their displays look chaotic. I thumbed through the English learning books and found such phrases as “Quite charming,” “I loved you from the moment I saw you,” “You’re beautiful,” and many many more lines in this manner.
A man from Taunggyi who spoke good English befriended me and we started chatting before the bus started, and we sat together on the bus. The bus finally started, about half an hour after its scheduled departure and it was relatively uneventful. The road was surprisingly smooth and along its side were many piles of small rocks being worked on by elderly and children. The air-con was broken but the cool breeze made it not even a consideration. At 8pm, we stopped for a delicious meal of chicken curry, vegetable soup, and about a dozen vegetable dishes spread out in front of us. Then, it began to become cold. Really cold. My window didn’t close completely and it would open more every time we went over a bump. Coincidentally, at the time it started to be really cold, the road deteriorated into an uphill sand and gravel path, which consequently meant that every 3 minutes I would need to push my window shut again.
At 6am, descending from the beautiful pine-forest town of Kalaw, we had our final tea break, and arrived in Shweyaung, where we caught a pickup to Nyaungshwe. A very bumpy road in a vehicle crammed full of people, with two rows of people sitting on the roof led to the small town of Nyaungshwe, and Pascal, Ricard and I checked into Joy Hotel, situated next to a busy canal with boats coming and going from Inle Lake.
Inle Lake is one of the original things that drew me to Myanmar. Several years ago, I was in Japan with my sister and we saw a television show in which celebrities go to different countries in the world and stay with local families. This particular episode had a man stay in a village on Inle Lake and I was captivated by the serene beauty, the exquisite calm, the hospitality of the villagers, and the beautiful way the boats are steered, with skilled and balanced boatmen using their feet to control their single oar.
Though I was exhausted from the 20 hours of travel and the cold, relatively sleepless night, I once again had the urge to just go out and walk around and see the place I had wanted to visit for so long. Pascal had the same thing in mind, apparently, and we crossed paths about half an hour later. From Nyaungshwe there is a road that goes almost perfectly straightly towards the mountains. It is a beautiful shaded avenue with trees on both sides of the path, with wet rice fields and water buffalo providing an unbelievably scenic landscape. We walked on this path for a few kilometers, then turned left into a village. There were only a few villagers in sight, who smiled and said Mingalaba. As we passed a large field with about 10 men walking, one came running down and said he would take us back to town in his boat. We agreed, and after wandering around the village awhile longer, we climbed into his small canoe that seemed almost at the point of capsizing every time we shifted our weight ever so slightly.
If paradise exists, this is what it would look like. Floating gardens, water hyacinth with beautiful white blossoms and yellow interiors are so plentiful and fragrant that you feel you are in a giant floating garden. Houses built on stilts, with canoes resting underneath, ready to be steered in any direction at any moment, children peering out windows excitedly screaming hellos, and the reflection of everything on the surface of the water is nothing short of magical. The villager made me a necklace from water hyacinth and he skillfully navigated his way through the lake, arriving in Nyaungshwe over an hour later.