Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Nyaung Shwe

We arrived mid-morning and were surprised that our room was available; we stayed at the Hotel Amazing, and splurged on the Amazing Suite. It’s the only such room in the small hotel, and it perches on the top corner of the hotel overlooking the town. The room is like the prow of a ship, large windows all around. There’s a little room off to the side surrounded by windows, and the bathroom has a giant tub, also surrounded by windows. Looking out one set of windows, we overlook the little bridge/terrace where we ate our breakfast every morning:

the front of the sweet little hotel

there's where we ate breakfast, over the canal

and this was the heart of the Myanmar breakfast; noodles, softboiled eggs, and a sauce. SO GOOD.

fried rice and tempura-ed squash, noodles, soup, rolls, and coffee

The first afternoon and evening we wandered around, settled in, and rested. We ate lunch at MinMin’s, a great little family-run restaurant, and it may have been the best meal we had here. We had dinner at the Viewpoint, which is a very fancy nouveau-foodie type place – very good, we got the Shan tasting menu and it was just fine but not as good as the little bowls of curry we’d eaten at MinMin’s.

MinMin's eggplant curry, and fresh lime juice. SOO GOOD.

Nyaung Shwe (pronounce it something like Nyong Schway) is a lovely little town situated at the top of Inle Lake. When we were organizing our visit to the lake, we had to decide between staying at a hotel on the lake or in town. We decided that we’d rather stay in town so we could walk around in the evenings and it was such a smart decision. This is such a great little town, just the right size, with plenty to see, lots of eating options, dozens of stupas and pagodas and temples, and the friendliest people.

main street

this canal runs through town, kind of perpendicular to the lake

that's the city gate on the right, in the distance, and a street sign in the foreground

a back road -- nuns walking and working, people walking and biking, and motorcycles. typical.

horsecarts for hire -- very typical

we found this color throughout Myanmar, from Yangon to small towns. So lovely.

veggie seller in the market, a beautiful young girl

fishwives in the market; smallish fish from inle lake
it was a big, lovely market

and rice, everywhere

a very typical house, in that there are stupas in the back yard. stupas everywhere!

very typical Nyaung Shwe home

we ate at this stall in the market -- tofu salad, WONDERFUL!! and isn't she adorable.

Our plan the next morning was to get out on the lake at 7:30am, but when we woke up at 6 it was raining. We ate our breakfast hoping the rain would stop (the Myanmar breakfast is fantastic, a big bowl of noodles with soft boiled eggs, chopped onions and red pepper and chopped cilantro, and a squeeze of lime, along with a big serving of sticky rice and tempura-fried something, plus melon….a LOT of food, and all delicious). We waited around and it kept raining, then it rained some more, and we postponed the trip a bit but it kept raining so we finally just rescheduled it, hoping for better weather the next day. The rain slowed down so we spent the rest of that day wandering around town, seeing the sites. For dinner, we thought we were eating at the top-rated place in Nyaung Shwe but it turned out we had the wrong location. Instead, it was a tiny little joint favored by the locals – never a tourist in sight – and it was a great experience. I never got his name and was too shy to take his pictured, but the young man who seated us and served us spoke reasonably good English, and sat and talked to us while we ate.  He was orphaned when he was 5 – his parents were both killed fighting in the war, he said. He was taken in by the monastery, and the monks fed him and taught him; he has no other education. He smiled a lot, but it was a serious smile, and he had a wonderful sense of humor. He asked where we are from (we’ve learned the most easily understood answer is “America” but sometimes we say “America, New York”). So when we said America, he said “That’s why you speak such good English.” He said he’d been to New York, and when we expressed surprise he said, “in the movies.” 

He and the people who own the restaurant are anti-war activists. They pointed to a sign on the wall that said “stop civil war,” and he said that at night, they all tie cloths around their heads and go around town posting anti-war materials. He said the civil war in the country is terrible, especially in the north. We commented about the war in the west, in Rakhine state, but he was more focused on the north, in Shan state. We’d noticed, and he confirmed, that people here adore Aung San Suu Kyi’s father, who was the father of modern Burma, when the gained their independence from Britain. You see photos of him everywhere, at least as many as you see of Suu. 

He said that when he started trying to get work, he was dismissed by everyone because he was poor, and dirty. No one wanted to hire him, and they treated him with contempt because he was an orphan. He finally got work in a hotel, where he learned English from tourists; he said everyone wants to speak to tourists so they can learn English. (We saw a sign on Inle Lake that said “Warmly welcome and take care of tourists.”) Now, though, he works in the restaurant and he’s beginning to get jobs leading trekkers between Kalaw and Inle Lake; his face lit up and he said with great enthusiasm, “All my dreams are coming true now!” It makes me ache thinking about that. He asked how old we are and he expressed surprise, that we looked so much younger. He said in Myanmar, men look very old because they smoke too much and drink too much liquor. He said it’s a big problem.

Just before we left, he asked me to check the English translation of their menu, which I was so crazy happy to do. He and the restaurant owners (and their young son) all crowded around me as I did it. They knew the names of the English letters as I wrote them. People here can also say the names of numbers in English, to communicate the cost of things, even if they don’t speak much English otherwise.

That dinner was perhaps the highlight of our meals. My food wasn’t that great but Marc’s was, but it was the conversation that lifted the experience. I’ll remember his serious smile for a very long time.

Finally, yesterday we got out on the lake. We arranged a driver with our hotel, and he picked us up at 7:15 for the 15-minute walk to the jetty. The boats are very long, with a small motor in the back. We had chairs with cushions, and umbrellas at our sides in case it rained. WELL. This was such a magnificent experience. We enjoyed it as much as the Mekong trip, even though we were only out for several hours instead of a few days. Many of the stops we made were at artisan shops – weaving, silversmithing, paper- and parasol-making, cigar rolling – and of course the pressure was on to buy something. I did buy a beautiful turquoise silk scarf, and a necklace, but resisted the rest. We went through a village, and I think that was the highlight for us both. The driver cut the engine and just used it in tiny spurts, to keep us moving. It was so very quiet, and the water was as still as glass, so the sky and the beautiful stilted houses reflected perfectly. The homes are large and open, and the people park their boats underneath. As long as I had internet access, I could totally live there. :) As Marc said, the spaces between the house are water sidewalks, wide enough for a boat to pass through. It was stunningly beautiful, and a wonderful reminder that there are so very many ways to live a life on this planet.

blissed out, man

marc too, in his much quieter way

that's our boat, shot from the window of the weaving studio. we sat on little chairs with cushions

but this was our typical view -- sky and mountains and lake. in MYANMAR.

turns out, this guy just poses for photos. we never saw real fishermen using this net

a gated community

couldn't you live here? I COULD.

absolutely beautiful

a tight community -- they had a library, too

i miss this place already

people in the village

a really beautiful home
We ate lunch at a restaurant out in the middle of the lake – no idea how it was selected – and it was delicious. The guy who served us wore three earrings in each ear, and eye make-up, and he’d drawn his eyebrows quite beautifully. He seemed especially delighted that we enjoyed his food.

We also stopped at a very busy market, which was a little difficult to navigate because of all the mud, but so worth it. Marc bought something like a donut – fried dough is good wherever you are! – and the people who had trinkets to sell all said the same thing:  “Just looking.” And then they’d start trying to push things on us, constantly dropping the price. That’s what everyone says, which is hilarious. They always start with “just looking.” I guess they learned that bit of English from tourists, though they seem to fundamentally misunderstand the meaning of the phrase.

schlepping through mud to the market

the longneck women -- complicated to photograph because they're now mostly a tourist attraction

a giant pagoda out in the lake

here's the inside of it -- all crimson and gold

men applying gold leaf to the Buddhas in the middle -- Ladies Are Prohibited -- and a chanter in the lower right
school girls -- selling something!
see the giant chicken boat? it's used to drive Buddha statues around the lake during a big festival. i wish we could've seen that!

those round blobby things are apparently Buddhas, now misshapen from years of gold leaf being applied

they grow fabulous tomatoes on the lake -- we ate them in a salad in Bagan. YUMMY.

we stopped at a weaving studio -- Marc took the photos here. I love these string heddles.

those are lotus stems, with the lotus fibers being pulled apart. they spin it and use it in beautiful cloth

loved this loom and the weavers

a beautiful piece of silk and lotus being woven

and here we are at the Shwe Inn Dain area of Inle Lake -- this collection of plant-covered stupas was stunning

just hidden away and being overtaken by plants

stunning stonework

and always, gold

one of the giant Buddhas -- and as always, Ladies Are Prohibited. I tried not to take it personally.

One final note about Nyaung Shwe, and it’s a clunker – the only clunker experience we’ve had here yet. Last night we wanted to eat at the top-rated restaurant, the one we’d thought we were going to the night before. It was a terrible experience; the place was kind of creepy, physically, but the woman who took our order was rude, and barked at us like a sergeant. She brought our food a couple of minutes after taking our order, and it was nearly inedible. The bite of chicken in my mouth got bigger and bigger as I chewed, and I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to swallow it. We choked down as much as we could and paid and left, deciding to eat sandwiches in our room. 

I’m going to miss Nyaung Shwe, and will remember this place with so much fondness. The people (woman last night aside) have all been so warm and friendly, and the food was good, and our hotel was beautiful and comfortable and sweetly staffed by young women. I log off now to pack up, and then we’ll rent bikes and ride around town for a few hours before the taxi takes us to Kalaw. 


  1. It sounds so wonderful it has me wanting to hop on a plane and fly there! The experience you had with the young man in the restaurant, and the trip on the river - those are the things that "make" a trip.

  2. Lori, my name is Nat Brunt. I'm a canadian doing a photostory about the Shan in a couple weeks. Just came across your very interesting blog post. I was wondering if you could tell me where the "anti-war" restaurant you ate is? I'm going to be Nyaung Shwe in a month.

    You can email me at nathaniel.brunt@gmail.com

    It would be huge help thanks!