Into the Wild in Inle Lake
Monday, November 23, 2015
If this were North America, I’d be in a panic.
It’s 9:47 a.m. Our flight to Heho, Myanmar departs at 11 a.m. And we’re hopelessly stuck in Yangon’s diabolical traffic.
There is a beat-up red pickup truck next to us, the back of which is filled with dozens of brightly coloured plastic gas canisters. Between the heat and their unsecured nature, it’s a miracle the entire thing doesn’t go up like a Jerry Bruckheimer-esque ball of fire.
Vendors wade out into the street, large plastic satchels slung across their bodies like messenger bags. Inside, they’ve got bottles of water kept cold with a mixture of melted ice and water that’s pooled at the bottom of the bag. They walk up and down to each vehicle snarled in this automotive mess, hoping that some sweltering passenger will buy one. No one does.
Our coach creeps ahead a few metres at a time. Finally, the cause of the delay comes into focus: construction equipment, which narrows four lanes of traffic down to two. Compounding the problem is the fact that five lanes of traffic have crammed themselves into these four lanes, and now three rows are trying to inexplicably squeeze into two.
One driver trying to maneuver his beat-up Fuso truck into the melee leans out his window and ejects a surprisingly long stream of brown liquid from his mouth – the byproduct of chewing the narcotic Betel Nut that is common in this part of the world. A carcinogen, it leaves blood-red stains on the road and will eventually give its owner black, rotting teeth and throat cancer.
Welcome to Monday morning in Myanmar.
And so begins Day 5 of our Myanmar adventure with VIking River Cruises, as our spectacular 15-day Myanmar Explorer river cruise tour itinerary continues. This morning, we left the Sule Shangri-La Hotel in downtown Yangon behind, making our way to Yangon International Airport for our flight to Heho.
There is a lot of flying on this trip, so it makes sense to keep an organized carry-on bag packed. Definitely don’t bring more than you can carry in your own two hands on this trip; you’ll be going through plenty of check-in and security screenings.
10:07 a.m.: still sweating it out in the traffic. Ten minutes later, Yangon International comes into sight. We bypass the nice, crisp looking International terminal and head to the much-shabbier looking Domestic Terminal next door. Time to departure: less than 45 minutes.
But, we’re in Myanmar! What would be problematic in other countries is absolutely no problem here.
Today, we’re flying aboard an ATR-72 600 series turboprop aircraft operated by Mann Yadanarpon Airlines. It’s a mouthful of a name, and our boarding passes didn’t do anything to inspire confidence. An askew sticker informed me I was in Seat 9A, and today’s date was stamped in blue ink. My name doesn’t appear anywhere on the pass; if you’ve got the “Golden Ticket,” you’re going flying!
Viking Program Director Andy handed us our boarding passes, so no check-in formalities here in Yangon. In contrast to the International Terminal, Yangon’s Domestic Terminal can best be thought of as controlled chaos in an airport where it’s still 1955. People buzz all around, and the distinct lack of signage in any language makes knowing where to go a formidable prospect. Fortunately, Andy was there to shepherd us through the entire process.
If you’re tired of taking your shoes off and laptops out at security, Myanmar is the place for you. My bag was placed on the scanner, and I kept my shoes, belt and watch on. Bottled water had to be discarded, but this was the fastest, most uncomplicated airport security check I’ve had in probably 20 years.
It is worth noting that the security personnel at Yangon’s domestic terminal took their jobs very seriously, and spoke perfect English and were friendly and kind. When was the last time you said those words an American airport?
Once through security, we clustered around Gate One and it wasn’t long before it was time to begin boarding. Forget the rigid boarding zones and pre-boarding announcements that you’re used to; in Myanmar, a gentleman walks around with a clapper board with your flight number on it and shouts it out in both Burmese and English. This will serve as your general boarding call.
We boarded a bus that took us across the tarmac to our waiting ATR-72. Smartly uniformed crew members stood near the rear staircase and held up bright umbrellas to shade us from the sun, greeting us in impeccable English as we stepped aboard.
Inside, a new, modern airplane cabin greeted us. These ATR-72 aircraft were acquired in 2014, and represent a nice surprise from the kind of aircraft I think we were probably all expecting in our minds.
You could call this flight “Tourist Air.” Aside from my fellow Viking guests, most of the other travellers on today’s flight were from a large German tour group. There were maybe four Burmese citizens on a plane that can hold 70 passengers.
Soon boarding was completed, and we were accelerating down the runway for takeoff. The flight was smooth and quiet. Service was exceptionally good, and a full meal was served. Unfortunately, I couldn’t enjoy it as every bit of it had nuts in it. Note to self: Buy potato chips next time. Still, after just 70 short minutes in the air, we touched down at Heho Airport.
With one runway and a terminal that has seen better days, Heho Airport primarily exists for tourists like us who want to go see the beauty and splendour of Inle Lake. We de-planed on the tarmac and boarded our waiting coach; Viking took care of our luggage, transporting it separately straight from the airport to the hotel.
The climate here suits my Canadian body much better. With little humidity and temperatures hovering around 28°C, for once on this trip I’m no longer sweating through every piece of clothing I have on!
No sooner had we left the airport than we ran into a huge blockade; a religious pilgrimage with a name that escapes me. Being unable to pass this Mardi Gras-like procession, we got off the coach and took pictures instead. Schoolgirls dressed in their finest and brightest-coloured dresses, and vehicles bearing offerings of all shapes and sizes turned onto the main road and began their journey. One flatbed truck held what I can only assume is the Burmese reincarnation of Gonzo journalist and general crap-disturber Hunter S. Thompson. With noisemakers, instruments and firecrackers going off, it was quite the experience.
After a brief stop at a parasol shop along the way, we arrived at our home for the next two nights: the Areum Palace Inle Resort and Spa.
Nestled at the edge of Inle Lake, the Areum Palace is a resort in every sense of the word. Anchored by an open-air reception lobby, bar and restaurant, accommodations are made up of individual lodges that are clustered on the lake, on the shore, and inset further into the woods.
My home for the next two nights is one of the latter: cottage 308, just a short distance from the main reception lobby. Done in colonial style with high vaulted ceilings and four-poster beds complete with mosquito netting curtains, my room – as with every room here – is absolutely massive. In fact, it’s almost oppressively large.
Off the entryway is an enormous bathroom that spans the entire length of the cottage and includes a toilet room, a massive wooden bathtub, and a rainforest shower complete with stone and pebble flooring. There’s a vanity area, and a luggage area as well. Unfortunately, a hard-to-see step down makes this a bit of a tripping hazard. I have to remember to watch out for that if I get up in the middle of the night!
The bedroom and living room features two four-poster beds, book-ended by the largest desk I’ve ever seen in any hotel room. A large Sony flat-panel television gets a handful of English-language channels, including CNN, and there’s enough space and seating in here for a dozen or so people.
At the front of the room: bright bay windows and a balcony overlooking Inle Lake. A spectacular view if there ever was one.
If I’m being completely honest, I like this room – I really do – but it’s too big. Plus, as I write this, the sounds of the bugs outside are giving me the heebie-jeebies. I hate bugs, so hearing insects of all kinds chirping outside – even though all windows and doors are shut – is making my skin crawl a little. That, and the power keeps cutting out with startling effect; I see why there’s a huge red flashlight next to my bed!
Another odd occurrence literally just made me jump halfway out of my chair: the sound of some large animal digging against the floorboards beneath the building. It sounds like a badger on LSD, trying desperately to claw its way in. I feel like Wayne Knight’s character in Jurassic Park, just as he’s scrambling up to try to get into that Jeep …
Don’t get me wrong – this is a great property. But I think it might be a divisive property. We’ll see how everyone sleeps! For the meantime, I’m going to turn in, do the curtains around the bed up tight, and put on some music. And hope that badger can’t get in here.
Viking Mandalay - Myanmar Explorer
|Day 1||Bangkok, Thailand|
|Day 2||Bangkok, Thailand|
|Day 3||Yangon, Myanmar|
|Day 4||Yangon, Myanmar and Shwedagon Pagoda|
|Day 5||Inle Lake, Myanmar|
|Day 6||Inle Lake, Myanmar|
|Day 7||Mandalay, Myanmar; Embark Viking Mandalay|
|Day 8||Mandalay, Myanmar & the U Bein Bridge|
|Day 9||Ohn Ne Choung, Myanmar|
|Day 10||Bagan, Myanmar|
|Day 11||Salay, Myanmar|
|Day 12||Yandabo, Myanmar|
|Day 13||Myint Mu, Myanmar|
Our Live Voyage Report from Viking River Cruises’ Myanmar Explorer continues tomorrow from the Areum Palace Hotel and Resort and Inle Lake! Be sure to follow along with our adventures on Twitter @deckchairblog.