Making our way through the muddy banks, we hopped into a motor boat that would carry us along the length of the lake to the northern most tip, a town called Nyaungshwe. It was quite the introduction to what the actual lake would be, as we strolled through the surrounding farming villages full of vegetation growing along the banks of the narrow canal. There was so much earthy life that our boat got caught within the roots and leaves, causing our captain to get out of the boat to untangle us.
As we emerged out onto the surprisingly large lake surrounded by mountains, we caught our first glimpse of the unique rowing skills of the Inle fisherman. Using their hands to throw the net, they stood on one leg at the edge of the boat while the other leg was wrapped around the oar to row. Now that takes skill. Once stabilized, they'd splash the top of the water with the oar at the opposite end of the boat to scare the fish into their net. Clever, no?
The lake was large enough to provide plenty of time to take in the green beauty surrounding us and wave to the locals, packed in passing boats. Thu Thu shared that there are tourist stops along the lake to floating markets and ethnic villages, one of which was a Karen village that she and Lonely Planet described as "Human zoo's". The Karen people elongate their necks with metal rings and have historically been oppressed and used poorly as tourist trade. We chose to avoid all of this and once docked, Thu Thu walked us to the Aquarius Inn where we met Marjie and Tanya who had booked us a room. We said a sad good-bye to our new friend Thu Thu and made plans to meet up with Nicky for a traditional puppet show later that night.
We quickly learned about the gem of a watering hole Marj and Tanya had made their personal stomping ground. It was Happy Hour 2 for 1 cocktails - now I'm not one for cocktails but give me a Bloody Mary any day of the week, and then keep them coming 2 at a time and things get a little tipsy. The place was so packed we began to order 2 at a time :) Realizing the puppet show was not happening, Paul set out to meet Nicky to tell him about the change of plans. Paul must've had one too many before his walk because 30 minutes later he returned, sans Nicky. He informed us he had gotten lost and ended up walking circles - sadly we never saw Nicky after that. We did, however, meet a few others whom we ended up spending the next few days with: Lottie, Greg and Kate from England.
The next day at a very hungover breakfast, and Tanya and Marjie's last day, we all agreed to rent bikes and ride around the lake. For days Tanya had been enthusiastically talking about the special tofu and hot springs that we had to check out. Slow to start, as things seemed to go at Inle, we were off.
Along a very bumpy and broken up road, we pedaled. Mid-way, Paul got a flat tire and had to turn back for a new bike. After an unexpected fairly challenging bike ride, we arrived to the place that offers this special yellow tofu and serene hot springs. We immediately saw a sign stating the hot springs were closed. Unfortunate as it was, let's be honest, I was there for the yellow tofu. We sat down hungry and thirsty and as we ordered beers and tofu all around, we were told they were all out of tofu! So warm beers and shan noodles it was. Paul caught up to us quite quickly, in time for the not-so-refreshing beer :)
After lunch, we haggled for a boat to take us across the lake to the wineries we had been looking forward to. It was here that we said good bye to Tanya and my travel partner of the last 3 months, Marjie. Tanya was heading to Sydney while Marj was making her way back to America after 2.5 years away. Marj, at 66 years old, backpacked rugged SE Asia like a bad-ass. Backpack, $3 hostel accommodations, crazy and sometimes dangerous bus rides, using our legs to take us everywhere in the infamous heat - she did it all and damn, we had a good time. I'll forever be grateful for the time I had to truly get to know a very special woman, the adventure and the memories we now share together. Thank you, my Marjie, for more than I could have ever hoped for.
Riding along the easy-going path taking in the beautiful scenery, we arrived to the wineries 15 minutes before closing - just in time for a tasting, a gorgeous sunset and the meeting of a few Awesome (yes, that's awesome with a capital "A") german fellows, Marcus, Alex and Stefan. We rode back in the dark and in the downpour, thankful for Marcus's sense of direction that lead us back to Aquarius. We met later for a memorable dinner that consisted of stories of "the most disgusting thing seen on the Internet". I am naive to much of what happens on the Internet, so it was an entertaining education for me. To make things more interesting, Greg, who I learned that night is extremely funny, provided a few visuals :)
The following day was quite lazy with a Burmese massage, which was similar to work. The massage consisted of much poking and prodding followed by a lady walking on top of you. The latter was enjoyable, but the poking and prodding made my body tense, resulting in a less than relaxing massage. Paul had a rather large masseuse and was in so much discomfort he had to ask her to get off! We later treated ourselves to noodles with the yellow tofu (we finally got that tofu!) which was extremely delish. At this restaurant, we met Jade, a cool Aussie chick who joined us for too many cocktails at 2 for 1 Happy Hour. Five Bloody Mary's later, fully in the bag, we made our way to a place for karaoke power ballads. I hope that gives you enough for a visual of an Awesome (yes, with a capital "A") night!
Take that visual to the following days hangover. With only Paul, Greg, Lottie and I still around, we considered going outside of Inle Lake for the day to venture through caves. The thought of planning anything was unappealing so we decided to stay in town - it was too easy to relax at Inle! It worked out wonderfully, however, as it was a day full of cultural opportunity. All week we observed novice monks at the local temple preparing for a significant exam and this day was the culminating ceremonial event for the monks who passed. We arrived early, yet already packed with Burmese preparing for the ceremony. A path of colorful flower petals had been laid out, to which one could buy and add on, for the 5,400 monks to walk along. Each monk, in purple robes, held a plastic bag for people to place money and other presents in. Those at the front had full bags by the time they approached us, while we hoped people saved a few bucks for those at the end. It was a long line and we left before all 5,400 passed. Quite an interesting afternoon.
This being the last night that Paul and I were together, we went out for a treat: Italian food. The pesto was surprisingly delightful and later that night, met up with 2 of my favorite English people ever, Lottie and Greg....yet another sad good-bye. The next day was a somber one as much of the day was spent passing time before Paul and I would get on separate buses heading in different directions. He would carry on through Burma, while I was off to Yangon to catch a plane to Istanbul. Traveling is a great opportunity to meet wonderful people and Paul was no exception. After spending the previous 2 months traveling with him, it was a sad and difficult good-bye.
To maximize my time in Inle, I gambled with my trust in the Burmese timeliness by taking an overnight bus to Yangon that would arrive the morning of my flight to Istanbul. Of course, the bus picked me up 2.5 hours late. I decided to sleep so that I wouldn't have time to get nervous, only to wake up at 3am to the bus employees nursing our bus, pulled over to the side of the road. An hour later, we carried on only to stop and help another bus. It was here I began to get nervous about the potential of missing my flight. For 2 weeks I couldn't get one good story out of the bus system and they do this to me now?! The one day I yearn for efficiency! Somehow, we arrived into Yangon on time, down to the minute. I don't know how they do it. I even made it to the airport early!
It had been an emotional few days with many sad good-byes, but largely because this marked the end of my Southeast Asian travels. I had spent 2.5 years in the region, most of it in Thailand, and had fallen in love with it. Prior to Peace Corps sending me to Thailand, I never thought twice about this part of the world and now, was suddenly scared to leave. Being afforded the opportunity to learn about so much history, culture and people that I was never exposed to before, turned out to be more than I bargained for. The Khmer Rouge in Cambodia aligned with the warmth of the people, the beauty of the Philippino landscape and energy of the people, rough history and sassiness of Vietnam, the simple, undeveloped life in Laos, the current state of changing Burma and so much of Thailand - I could write a book.
My dad has always said that I've spent my adulthood seeking out the people he spent his life working hard so that his children could avoid the hardships those, too many, endure. I tell him it's because I'm too much like him, someone who always considered Peace Corps, Yes, I've seen the difficulties that life in America presents, yet here I've seen so much more. Beauty in culture, people and environment paralleled with ugly history and corruption. The paradox of the bewildering human capacity to do evil, subsequently followed by the mind-blowing human capacity to do good.
Leaving, I knew in my heart I was not done. I was off to Istanbul to celebrate the marriage of two wonderful friends followed by the re-meeting with my amazing family after being away for 2.5 years, but I knew I'd be back. Somehow, someway. The time away had impacted me more than I could have ever imagined and my life had been changed in more ways than I could yet comprehend. I am grateful for those I've met along the way: my Thai people, the many locals, the foreigners backpacking and my fellow PCV's. I have been blessed, as I always have been. I will continue to seek and search, as I always have.