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Getting Away: Inle Lake revisited

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Editor's note: GoKunming first visited Myanmar's Inle Lake in March 2011. Much has changed in the intervening seventeen months. Aung San Suu Kyi was elected to parliament this May after fifteen years of house arrest, the country's long-running civil war escalated and relations with Chinese oil companies grew tense.

Please remember that travel to Myanmar requires careful planning and is beset with logistical issues as well as questions about the impact of tourism on human rights.

If you're interested in going there yourself, Lonely Planet's Myanmar travel guide provides quality travel advice as well as an interesting section about whether one should even travel there at all.

Day One

Spread across the land like a swath of crumpled blue silk, Inle Lake is a different world. Fisherman steer slim wooden boats with one leg wrapped around an oar, children in sarongs leap into the water to wash their hair and families live in wooden houses that sit high on stilts.

GoKunming had the pleasure of spending two days exploring the villages, open-air markets and clusters of white and gold stupas surrounding one of Myanmar's most popular tourist destinations.

We took the overnight bus from Yangon to the town of Nyaung Shwe. Even the best of Burmese buses are not luxurious and ours was piled with luggage in the back. The only seats were up front, facing a LCD TV that blared Burmese hip hop and movies for the first four hours of the trip.

We tumbled off the bus at what we were expecting to be our destination, exhausted and ill-tempered. The bus had dropped us off about seven kilometers from the lake at 4:00am. We caught a cab for 8,000 kyat (US$9) per person that took us to the Teakwood Guesthouse.

The charming little inn completely restored our spirits. Run by a local family, it was filled with traditional crafts and furniture. The rooms, a bit expensive at 26,000 kyat (US$30) per night, were bright and spacious.

After a short nap, we rented bikes for 1,500 kyat (US$1.70). Our first stop was Shwe Yan Pyay monastery, a tumbledown wooden building plunked down next to a golden stupa. The ramshackle appearance of the monastery belied a cozy interior where monks gathered around a large tea kettle and cats lazed in patches of sun shining through holes in the walls.

A fabulous golden Buddha on the monastery's center alter gazed benevolently at cats and monks alike. Next door, the interior walls of the golden stupa are lined with tiny niches that contain pocket-sized Buddhas. Mosaics run up and down the walls and added to the splendor of the place.

We emerged from the monastery and hit the road, tracing the outskirts of the lake. Biking was a joy. We were surrounded by lush paddy fields and zoomed passed villages where the houses are built of wood and straw. The landscape was so verdant and green it seemed to glow.

Day Two

We rose with the sun and clambered into long narrow wooden boats for a tour across Inle Lake. For an hour we drifted lazily while the sun rose, watching the birds and fishermen that dotted the surface of the lake.

We managed to catch the tail end of a morning market, where we purchased souvenirs and clambered up a hill to a temple ringed with stupas.

Our next stop was at a weaving factory located in one of the ubiquitous stilt houses that stand above the lake. Inside men and women ran hand and foot looms to produce silk scarves and some of the most intricately patterned sarongs found in the region.

We also visited a silver shop where men bent over tiny anvils and worked lumps of metal. After a quick lunch stop, we went on to Jumping Cat Monastery which is famous for training its cats to jump through hoops. The feline acrobats we saw were mostly asleep.

At first we were enchanted by our boat tour, but as the day wore on our enthusiasm faded into mild curiosity and finally lapsed into exhaustion.

The stops became more and more touristy and seemed to drag on forever. One particularly jarring stop was a souvenir shop that "displayed" a Kayan woman. The Kayan people are known for their tradition of stretching women's necks to uncanny lengths with silver rings.

Night began to fall and we were lucky enough to still be out on the lake when the sunset came. Rich colors dyed the sky pink and purple and reflected beautifully in the clam water. Whatever tension we had felt melted away as we sat still and silent, awed by the allure of Inle Lake.

Getting There

Overnight bus tickets form Yangon to Inle Lake can be bought for around 17,000 kyat (US$20) and will drop you, as it did us, approximately seven kilometers outside of Nyaung Shwe. Taxis are easy to find as locals are well aware of bus schedules.

Plane tickets form Yangon cost approximately 87,000 kyat (US$100) and can be arranged in advance on the internet. However, online information is not always up to date. Planes arrive at Heho airport which is thirty minutes away from Inle Lake by taxi.

China Eastern Airlines and Air China offer several flights a week from Kunming to Yangon or Mandalay. Visas can be obtained from the Consulate General of the Union of Myanmar and take three to five days to process.

There are very few ATMs in Myanmar, and they are mostly located in Rangoon. GoKunming recommends bringing US dollars and changing them to kyat when you arrive.

GoKunming thanks Shalene Gupta for her contribution. If you have a travel story or other contribution you would like to submit to GoKunming, please get in touch with us via our contact form.

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Heading to Myanmar in the next few weeks and didn't know what to expect. This is a nice little teaser and introduction to the beautiful and quaint Myanmar people go to visit.

A bit (actually a lot) more about currency, from my friend who was just there:

1. Bring brand new, pristine US dollars from after the year 2000. The bills may NOT have any folds, tears, or marks. Even the tiniest spot or bend will land you a lower exchange rate, and older or visibly used bills will be flat-out rejected. We cut out pieces of cardboard to put our money between, and I advise keeping those in waterproof envelopes in case of rain. We were told not to bring bills starting with the serial code "CB." We also heard rumors not to bring 2006 bills, which proved impossible because that was all we could find in both NYC and Beijing, but it ended up being a myth. You may also bring Euro to use/exchange, but I advise against it (some tourist fee rates were quoted as "5 USD OR Euro," so you would lose money paying in Euro!).

2. Myanmar currency is the kyat (pronounced "jat"), and the highest rate we got as of July 2012 was 878 kyat to 1 USD. The rate is closer to 850 for lower denominations (50, 20, 10 or 5 USD bills), and those too must be pristine. You can get a decent rate (~850) at the airport in Yangon, or you can pay for a taxi from the airport in USD ($5-$6 for the whole taxi, bargain your way down!) and have them take you to Summit Parkview Hotel in the center. There we found a high rate of 870 kyat per 1 USD, but more importantly it is a reliable exchange venue with absolutely no shenanigans. The best rate we found in country however was at the government bank at Inle Lake in Nyaung Shwe (878 kyat per 1 USD), so if you need to exchange more kyat you always can do so later on in your trip.

3. There are no ATMs available in country that will allow you to withdraw from a foreign bankcard and only a few big hotels in Yangon take credit card at an extremely high surcharge, so you must bring everything you need for your trip with you in cash. This is obviously not ideal as a traveler, but it is some reassurance that petty theft is uncommon in Burma because of the locals' strict adherence to Buddhism. Still, anything is possible and it is highly advised to split up and hide your bills, and/or use a money belt.

4. DO NOT use street/black market money changers. Always go to an official bank, or a big international hotel in Yangon such as the one recommended above. Street changers may offer you too-good-to-be-true rates of 900+ kyat on the dollar, only to use "hand magic" while counting out your bills. We met one traveler who discovered too late that he'd actually been given 500 kyat on his dollar at a shady street exchange. We met another traveler who was swindled with a 10-15% exchange fee from her hotel in Yangon. Beware, and re-count all your bills in front of them before you leave!

5. You will want mostly 100 dollar bills, as they will bring you the best rate. However, contrary to what I often read, you will ALSO want to bring pristine bills in lower denominations, particularly 10s, 5s and 1s. This comes in very handy for negotiating a taxi from the airport, and for all tourist entrance tickets, which generally cost $10 or $5 and can only be paid in USD, not kyat. If you can't find pristine lower bills or come with only 100s as we did, you can have the Yangon airport exchange your pristine 100 for pristine bills of lower denominations (at no charge).

6. Contrary to popular belief, over the course of your trip, you may pay for lodging in either USD or kyat, and the best rates are generally in kyat. You should bargain even for hostel rates! Flights MUST be paid for in USD. Everything else (transportation, food, tours or guides, souvenirs) are best negotiated and paid for in kyat, though everyone will also take USD. I will cover information on costs in the next section.

7. At the end of your trip, be aware of the rules in exchanging leftover kyat. If you exchanged currency at a hotel or anywhere other than an official bank on your trip, you will NOT be able to change your kyat back to dollars at the Yangon airport. They require an official receipt of the original exchange (USD to kyat) that you can only obtain either at the airport itself or a government bank. We saw travelers who were vexed at this situation and ended up stuck with leftover kyat. However if you either obtain an official bank receipt to show the airport exchange, or leave time to go back to the hotel to exchange before you head out to the airport, you will be fine.

Wow. Thanks Geogramatt. Good info.

Additional info about the currency issue, I've just come back from Myanmar as well. Only new bills from 2006 (!) or later are accepted..except bills with serial numbers starting with CB!

Thank you for the info, Geogramatt and Pongtong.

I will go to Myanmar in October. I heard (from a German travel agency) there might be serious trouble with finding accommodation in both Mandalay and Bagan. Can you confirm that or is this only true for Hotels you can book in advance only?

Would you recommend to find a (local) travel agency in e. g. Yangon and have something arranged?

grateful for any insider info,

Does anybody know if the banks here will exchange RMB for USD? I assume the actual money exchanges at the airport or near Shuncheng shopping center will, but I'm guessing the banks give a bit better exchange rate.

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