Waking up in the Aureum Palace on Inle Lake made me feel like a queen. Like a British Colonial Queen, to be specific. My accommodations as I backpack solo around the world are decidedly more…rustic. The seemingly mile-long breakfast buffet + eggs cooked to order continued the royal treatment. It was at the Aureum Palace that I took up the habit of Shan noodle soup for breakfast. Inle Lake is in Myanmar’s Shan State and the spicy, sweet, citrus rice noodle soup is not to be missed.
As our tour coach made its way around the perimeter of the lake, toward the Indein stupas, daily life in the countryside unfolded before our eyes. The bus ride was about an hour and I loved every minute of it. It wasn’t a guided tour, so my iPod was set to The Flaming Lips and my camera was set at the ready.
Once we arrived at the riverside village of Indein, we were just a few uphill steps from the ရွှေအင်းတိန်စေတီ (Shwe Indein Pagodas). The complex is a mind-boggling cluster of 1,400+ stupas, all built between the 14th – 18th Centuries. The word stupa comes from tupa, which means tomb. Most stupas are not functioning tombs in the way we’d think of a graveyard in the west. They are instead meant to house relics (or replicas of relics) of the Buddha. It is most common for stupas to claim to house hairs from the Buddha’s head. For this reason, Buddhists make pilgrimages to particular stupas that house particularly meaningful relics.
Our Program Director Nanda told us that one of the Indiana Jones films was set to shoot here and ran into issues with permits. Instead they sent studio reps to photograph the complex and recreate it on set. Was it Temple of Doom? You may know better than I would. He also told us that Viking partnered with local organizations in Myanmar to restore and maintain a number of stupas at this important historical site.
I’m grateful and still completely in awe that I was able to experience even one, let alone 1,400+ of these breathtaking structures. That sensation was ever-present on the trip, the sensation of stepping behind the curtain in Oz, of sneaking into a secret land that has yet to be overrun with tourists or anything at all western. All of the Viking passengers talked about that regularly, we hit it at the right moment. There is an international airport planned for Yangon, completed sometime in the next 5-ish years. If you have any desire to visit Myanmar, visit now.
After Indein we took a boat ride around Inle Lake, toward our lunch at The Golden Kite Restaurant. Many guests said this adventure was a highlight of the trip. I have to agree.
After lunch we visited a silk weaving workshop. The Inle region is particularly famous for it’s weaving of fibers from lotus stems. The Dali Lama’s signature burnt orange scarf? From Inle Lake’s lotus stems and these same silk weaving workshops. I purchased a scarf that, according to the shop owner, required 2,400 lotus stems to complete. Can you imagine? Like a frequent flyer balancing out the carbon-neutral ethics of her miles by planting trees, I feel the need to reforest a lotus patch. Or something. Regardless, the scarf is gorgeous!
After the silk weaving workshop, we headed back to our hotel…by way of boat across the lake, naturally. We actually pulled right up to a dock under the Aureum Palance swimming pool However, on our way back, we explored a village built on stilts in the middle of the lake. It was surreal, something like Venice meets the Florida Everglades meets Katrina’s New Orleans. Fascinating. Kids were swimming in the water under their home, playing games in the laundry that was hanging above the lake’s surface. Women were washing clothes on their porch, and men were paddling boats to and fro. It was an educational glimpse into a peaceful, difficult, simple way of life.
There was one last treat in an already packed day. Between the floating village and the hotel, our boat driver took us on a scavenger hung for the infamous Inle Lake fisherman. They stand on the bow of their boats and paddle a giant wooden oar with their foot/leg, leaving both hands free to manipulate their heavy fishing nets. Any reader of National Geographic, who’s told she/he will visit Inle Lake, is waiting for a glimpse of these fishermen. A glimpse we got!
When I go back to Myanmar on my own, backpack and sense of adventure in tow, I will spend a considerable amount of time at Inle Lake. Since Myanmar is in may ways pre-trouist, there are not many lodging options outside the large cities. Inle had guest houses that seemed backpacker friendly. I also felt completely safe and know I could manage comfortably as a solo female traveler. This is one of the reasons I love cruising: You get a broad view in general terms and then you can come back and dig deep into what interested you. Inle was a brilliant surprise nestled in a country that is full of nothing but brilliant surprises.
Until tomorrow, cheers to adventure!
Our Voyage Report from Viking River Cruises’ Myanmar Explorer continues in the next article as we spend a full day exploring the iconic Mandalay, Myanmar! Be sure to come back and keep reading. You’re also invited to follow along with adventurer Gail Jessen on Twitter or Instagram.