Something’s Fishy in Inle Lake

Myanmar opened its borders to general tourists in 2015 and it now has a chain of hostels in each of the main cities called Ostello Bello. We checked into our first Ostello Bello in Inle Lake after our trek and found out why the properties have nine point ratings on (another site that we recommend when booking a hostel). Practically our entire trekking group was staying at our hostel. After getting settled in, we promised to meet up on the rooftop for some celebratory drinks on the town after our 75 kilometer trek, we clearly deserved it! After posting a sign on our hostel door for “Team Meow Meow” to meet on the roof deck, we set off to find a spot that Ben had been told was great for traditional Burmese food.

If we hadn’t been so exhausted from the last four days, I think we would have thought the search to find food would have been a little funnier than what it became, slightly exhausting. We walked out of the main square, over bridges, police who eyed our beers, little shops selling nuts (that we will chat about later) and passed by several local’s homes where tipsy Burmese boys were playing pool. Why people had pool tables in their homes and why pool was such a popular sport, we might never know but the fact was that our group of eleven people, clearly all tourists, were not in the touristy section of Inle Lake town and we had been walking for a solid 30-40 minutes and some of our group members were getting hangry. We soon found out that the place we had been looking for had closed about three weeks prior. In an effort to rectify the hunger games that were about to take place, we headed to Inle Hut, a restaurant back in town famous for its owners, a 30 something guy who’s life and restaurant revolves solely revolved around Eminem, aka The Real Slim Shady, and his mom who runs the kitchen (again more on this later). We arrived and not that surprisingly (with our luck) the restaurant didn’t have space for eleven but he urged us to come back the next night. 

Across the street from the restaurant was one of these nut shops that we soon found out was a store selling “beetle nuts”. Throughout our trip and on our trek, we came to notice that most of the Burmese people had poor dental hygiene, coming from America where children are strapped into braces as soon as they loose their last tooth, we are sometimes hyper-critical of teeth. People in the airport, in the villages during our trek and here in Inle Lake had red blood colored stains on their teeth and gums. Also, all over Myanmar are blood colored stains on the streets and paths. Little did we know, all of these random observations were connected by the small nut called the beetle nut. We soon found out from Tim and Sharon that these little nuts wrapped in beetle leaves give you a high similar to tobacco or smoking pot, simply by chewing them and spitting out the red seeds on the floor. To salvage the savage mood settling in by too much walking and too much hunger, we bought ten of the magical nuts and headed to a food court we had seen earlier on the wild goose chase to find restaurant number one. 

Everyone seemed a bit happier to be in the vicinity of food, friends, booze and beetle nuts. After dinner, stories of traveling from our new friends from Tim and Sharon’s hostel (they were traveling for two years) we decided to try the nuts. Tim had already tried one a day previous and said the experience was intense so we buckled into our seats and waited for the ride to begin. Guided by Tim, the plan was to chew on the nuts for approximately three minutes and then spit out the bright red paste. We counted down and popped the leaf wrapped nuts in our mouth. The taste was hard to describe, a combination of nutty flavors, anise and licorice. Not a good taste but also not gut-wrenching. It was a long three minutes until some of our mouths became tingly we spit out the remaining pieces of nut into blood stained spatters on the floor and were left with just that, a bit of a numb mouth. Underwhelmed we chalked it up to ‘experiencing the local culture’. Back at our hostel, still sporting the same red stained teeth as the locals, we looked up the significance of the famous beetle nut. It turns out that it has the same effect as chewing tobacco and is usually used in Burmese weddings between the bride and groom and son-in-law and his father-in-law. One thing is clear, we will not be chewing the nut in our wedding. Red teeth and wedding photography don’t mix. 

The next morning we agreed to all meet again for a bike ride to explore the outskirts of the town and visit Myanmar’s only winery. Why we decided a 20 kilometer bike ride was a good idea for our mangled feet is beyond us. After wrangling enough bikes for our group we set out to our first stop, a small cave system about 10 kilometers from the main town. We cycled up and down hills until we arrived at the caves; the cooler temperatures were a relief from the sweltering conditions we experienced during the ride. The cave system itself was a labyrinth of tunnels and stairs leading to creepy snakes and hidden deities. 

The next stop on the itinerary after a quick stop for Shan noodles, were hot springs which was quickly abandoned after our sweat drenched bodies, turned into rain soaked bodies as a little drizzle turned into a torrential downpour. We cycled for cover with other fellow bikers under some large trees and waited for the brunt of the storm to pass. While we were waiting and most likely getting more saturated by the moment, Tim, Sharon and Romain (who left his backpack in his bike) decided to walk to see if they could find better shelter or perhaps a place to wait out the rain. After what seemed like a good 20 minutes with no sign of the rain letting up, we decided to abandon our tree shelter and head to the Forest Monastery, with Romain’s bag. Our friends were on the fence about it but what is rain but a little water, we were drenched anyway and it was certainly a nice change for us from California’s ongoing drought.

We cycled a bit further to the bottom of a giant hill where we could could barely see the top of the Monastery peaking out from the top of the mountain. Thankfully by this time the rain had subsided but our creaky bikes were soon protesting the steep hill. After a bit of willpower we managed to push our bikes the rest of the way up the hill and at the top the clouds cleared to reveal clear skies and a bright gold stupa (with a very realistic looking Dahi Lama sculpture inside of it). While exploring the Monastery, we stumbled upon a group of 40+ children monks. We stopped and chatted with their teacher before heading back down the mountain. We knew the bikes were in substandard condition to US bikes but we had no ideas how crappy they were until we embarked on the journey down the hill. With every brake, Natalie’s bike let out an ear piercing screeching sound (heard from at least a mile radius). With no signs of stopping or slowing down the best option was to yell sorry and I have no breaks over the sound of the squeaking rubber. Thanks to luck and the promise of wine at the end of the journey, the hill leveled out and we made it safely to the main road. At the intersection, we saw Romain, Sharon and Tim making their way up the mountain. Romain was elated to finally be reunited with his pack (which had both of his passports in it and his phone in it). He joined Tim on the grueling mountain journey and Sharon decided on the path of least resistance to join us for wine. 

Myanmar is an overall pretty dry country and not known on the world scale for its wine. With tired legs, we peddled into Red Mountain Estate Winery and didn’t set our sites too high for the wine we were about to taste but we definitely knew that we deserved it after the biking day that we had endured. The winery itself was impressive and had over 400,000 plants on the property and manufactured five varietals on site. After a heavy pour tasting and the first cheese plate we had eaten since being in Asia, we all unanimously decided that the winery excelled in its Late Harvest sweet wine. As the sun set over the mountain and the sweet wine flowed freely, we felt very lucky to be where we were with the friends we had made. After the buzz of the wine began to fade, reality set in. We would all have to make it down the mountain, slightly tipsier than we had began our journey and in the dark. We all decided that the best way to start this journey was to form a train of bikes with the most competent rides in front with head lamps and the only people with red lights bringing up the back of the pelota. Surprisingly, we made it unharmed back to town. 

Remember that restaurant run by Eminem’s biggest fan? We decided that tonight was the night to check it out. The restaurant was adorned with photos and paintings of the white rapper and the soundtrack for the evening was, you guessed it, Eminem, on repeat. If we could put into words how great the owner of this restaurant was, we would. He embodied rap culture, talked with his hands and worshiped the ground that Eminem walked on. We nicknamed him Stan. The food also lived up to its reputation. If you ever find yourself in Inle Lake, Inle Hut is the place to be and Stan is the man to meet. 

The next morning we woke up at the butt-crack of dawn to see the famous fisherman of Inle Lake. The traditional way that people fish in Inle Lake is with all of their limbs. The fisherman stand on the top of their boats and paddle the crafts with their legs holding the oars. When they spot a fish, they throw a large net into the shallow water to catch their prize. We reasonably thought that we were getting up at 4am so that we could see the fisherman doing their thing early in the morning when the lake was the calmest. Lisa, Ben, Stephenie and us piled into a little speedy long boat and set out to see the locals. As we approached the middle of the lake we started to notice that each boat of tourists (there were many of us making the journey to the middle of the lake in the wee hours of the morning) was also accompanied by one “local fisherman”. Instead of quietly watching the men fish, they were putting on a show for the boats. Before we knew it, a fisherman paddled up to our boat and began doing his tricks with the perfect Instagramable backdrop of the sunrise behind him. He would get into a pose and then wait for us to take a photo of him. After he exhausted all of his tricks, including our favorite, where he pulled a dead fish out of his boat as his prize, he rowed over to our boat and said an English word he was very familiar with, “money”. Feeling a bit cheated and definitely like we had fallen for a pretty big tourist trap, we reminded ourselves that the fisherman probably make more money doing this than the actual fish they catch in the lake. 

Before our bus ride to Bagan with Stephenie, we spent the rest of the day napping, exploring the town and making it outside as soon as it began to rain to an NGO cafe that donated its profits to children and woman in need in Myanmar. Side note: at some point in time during this day in our tired stupor we heard, “Americans, my friends” loud and clear from across the street. We turned around to see none other than our favorite Burmese local, Huggie (from Kalaw) with open arms. Not wanting to engage we quickly said hi and noted how the world gets smaller the more you travel. Later that night we boarded another night bus for Bagan. 

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