by Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com
My perfect day in Inle Lake, Myanmar, on Leg 3 of the Global Scavenger Hunt, began the night before, on the JJ Express bus that left Bagan at 10 pm and arrived at the bus stop (literally in the middle of the street in a small village) at 4:30 am, where those of us bound for Inle Lake were picked up in a jitney. The jitney dropped me at the Sanctum Hotel Resort at 5:30 am, where the kindly hotel clerk called in housekeeping early so we could get into rooms by 6 am.
I am on my own – my partner on this 23-day “Blind Date With the World” mystery tour – went on to Mandalay with another team who decided not to compete for points. One of the nine competing teams is also here in Inle Lake (I got the idea to come from them and learned of the JJ Express Bus, but this also involves unraveling my previous plan to go to Mandalay and get back my flight from Inle Lake to Yangon while bouncing in the bus and texting my son to call the airline), but has to be scrupulous about following rules (no using computer or cell phone to make bookings or get information; the trip is designed to “trust strangers” and engage with local people) so have arrived in Inle with no hotel, not even a decent map to start planning how they will attack the scavenges (challenges) and accrue the most points.
But the kindness of the hotel manager is immensely appreciated. For me, it means I am able to take advantage of an 8 am boat tour (that means a traditional wooden boat with the modern convenience of a power motor) because most of Inle Lake’s special attractions are literally on the lake – whole villages, in fact, are built on stilts on the lake; there are floating gardens, floating markets, and the fishermen fish I a distinctive fashion, paddling the oar with their leg and casting nets.
The Sanctum Hotel is on the list that was provided by the GSH “ringmaster” and Chief Experience Officer, Bill Chalmers, and because I am not competing, have booked on hotels.com. I am delighted to find it is a five-star luxury resort, and just being here fills me with a contented peace (Maing Thauk Villge, Inle Lake, Nyaung Shwe Township Shan State, Myanmar, info@sanctum-Inle-Resort.com, www.sanctum-inle-resort.com). But that is only the beginning.
The resort is situated on the bank of the lake, and to begin the tour I have booked (because I’m not competing, I can book a hotel tour, while the competing team cannot), I am walked down to the hotel’s own dock where the boat and the boatman is waiting. It turns out I am the only one, so this is essentially a private tour. The boatman speaks only limited English – enough to tell me where I am going – but it is sufficient (I just don’t expect to get any commentary).
It is an amazing experience – gliding across the lake. During the course of it, we encounter a young fellow fishing, go through an entire village built on stilts, where there are also numerous craftsmen and workshops we visit (I see how, unique to Inle, and one weaver whose techniques were devised by a woman now more than a century old, producing thread from the lotus flower, and get to see looms that are common across cultures for centuries; silversmith; the maker of the traditional wooden boats); important pagodas and temples on the lake. It is incomparable.
I skip stopping for lunch so am able to condense the tour somewhat, which brings me back to the hotel at 2:30 pm.
I indulge in Sanctum’s utterly stunning pool – I would rank one of the best resort pools in the world – an infinity pool that is magnificently set with a view down to the lake, richly landscaped, a great size for actually swimming as well as playing around. It is made of stunning black and silver tiles that shimmer as you swim. It is also one of the most magnificent places just to lounge.
I am back up by 5 pm, to walk about a mile up the road from the hotel into the nearby village of Maing Thauk, where I come upon a high school holding a sports competition that has drawn tremendous audience. Even though hardly anyone speaks English, we manage to chat (icebreaker: What is going on? Where is the bridge). It’s a good thing I asked the fellow if I was going the right way to get to the Friendship Bridge I am looking for, where I have been told is ideal for watching the sunset (and so much more), because he directs me to turn left (I would have gone straight).
The Bridge turns out to be more of a pier over the water, from which people can get onto the scores of wooden boats that gather here, as well as link some restaurants. The views and the evening activity are just magnificent. It’s like watching the entire community walk by.
What I’ve noticed during this incredibly brief visit is exactly what Bill Chalmers had hoped when he dealt with a question of whether we should be in a place that has earned worldwide condemnation for human rights abuses. Travel is about seeing for yourself, but also gaining an understanding of one another, disabusing stereotypes or caricatures, and most significantly, not seeing others as “other”, which works both ways. In very real ways (and especially now), travelers are ambassadors, no less than diplomats. That’s not how change happens – that only hardens points of view, and makes people susceptible to fear-mongering and all the bad things that have happened throughout human history as a result. “See for yourself,” Chalmers tells us.
What I see in the people I’ve encountered is a kindness, a sweetness among the people here. I see it in how parents hold their children, how the boatman, Wei Moi, shows such etiquette among the other boatmen, how helpful people are.
Here are just a few highlights from my visit in Inle Lake, Myanmar:
This leg has been a Par 5 in difficulty (Par 6 being the most difficult during this, the 15th Global Scavenger Hunt) – which has entailed us going out of Yangon to Bagan (an ancient city with 3000 temples), Mandalay and/or Inle Lake (many more rules on top of that, including no more than 2 flights), taking overnight bus or hiring a taxi or train, and so forth. But Chalmers devious design has worked – in just these four days, we really do immerse ourselves in Myanmar.
The final challenge of this leg is to get back to Yangon by 6 pm, and for those competing to hand in their scorecards and proof of completing the scavenges. That’s when we will learn where in the world we will go next.