A cloud of pale yellow butterflies drifted around my handlebars as we turned onto the narrow, tree-lined path. Little boys were splashing joyfully in the canal on this hot day. It was an unforgettable moment on my Inle Lake bike tour.
Generally speaking I hate travel tours. From being forced to visit a popcorn factory in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta to being robbed at gunpoint in Cape Town, South Africa, tours are not this independent traveller’s modus operandi.
But I have discovered that there are tours that efficiently but soullessly herd tourists through popular destinations, and then there are tours that help you get off the beaten track and offer a unique opportunity for enriching interaction with the culture of a destination through a local guide. The Grasshopper Adventures’ Inle Lake Bike, Boat and Kayak Tour falls comprehensively into the second category.
We set off in the fresh early morning and after the initial cycle through busy Nyaung Shwe we turned off the road and into rural Myanmar, where the variety of agriculture is as rich as the lakeshore soil. There were brilliant fields of sunflowers and mustard; tall stands of sugar can with pink feathery fronds.
The sky was blue and forested hills rose in the middle distance. Farmers tilling the fields and people walking between villages waved to us and responded to our “Mingalabar” greeting with a smile.
We visited a hillside pagoda with views across the green and blue landscape to Inle Lake. We stopped at cottage industries, where families were working hard together to make goods to sell at the local markets.
There was a snack stop that I was convinced was lunch it was so plentiful and so good. Sitting in a little tea shop in a tiny village, watching a lady grating papaya for salad, we tasted the fresh rice crepes we had just seen made from the dark red mountain rice (with a touch of sesame of course).
Then it was time for us and our bikes to be transported across Inle Lake. Time to sit back and enjoy the clouds floating reflected in the still water; watch the fishermen perform their antics as they balance boat, paddle and nets; and pass through green channels where farmers cultivate tomato plants taller than me and loaded with fruit – all grown on floating islands of organic matter dredged up from the lakebed.
Soon we plunged into a cool bamboo forest, cycling under the graceful arches, rustling softly in the faint breeze. There were dragon fruit and betel leaf plantations. This is incredibly labour-intensive agriculture without any machines to share the load.
Into the fields again, we cycled along narrow dykes between ride paddy fields. Golden bundles were drying in long rows and tall palms and fluffy clouds framed our view. No-one toppled over into a watery paddy and the landscapes kept changing as our wheels kept turning.
Eating Shan food at Inle Lake
Lunch was in one of the prettiest stilt house villages on Inle Lake – but we weren’t going to one of the touristy restaurants frequented by the people doing the typical Inle Lake boat tour. Oh no, we were invited into a huge old teak house, with floors worn smooth and high ceilings; wooden shutters thrown open to catch the breeze.
There we were served a real Shan feast. I ate a lot of wonderful food during my travels in Myanmar, especially eating out with my brother who lives in Yangon and on the foodie tour in Mandalay. But this was a meal to beat them all.
Delicate tempura vegetable snacks, sticky rice parcelled in palm leaves, and delicious Shan noodles. I could seriously have eaten these until I exploded they were so good.
We sat for some time at our meal, drinking many tiny cups of green tea and savouring the delicate flavours of tamarind and sesame.
I haven’t yet mentioned our guides but in many ways they were the highlight of the day. We had one guide from the majority Bamar people, one who was Shan (the province where Inle Lake lies), and one from the Intha people who live around the lake itself. We were able to talk together about life and culture in this ethnically-diverse country. It was wonderful to know that this is now possible in Myanmar.
A family-friendly Inle Lake bike tour
I have to admit that when my daughter and I set off on the Grasshopper Adventures Inle Lake Cycle Tour I was a little nervous about how she would cope with what sounded like a long day. We were joined by two young, male Californians and I was concerned we would slow the group down.
However, I needn’t have worried. This day tour is so well thought-out and well-paced that it was never a problem. Just when my daughter was starting to get a bit tired or hot there would be a break to visit something or a relaxing boat ride to the next part of the tour.
The bikes are of excellent quality and very well maintained. They have good helmets and provided cycle gloves, water bottles, and even a special seat cover to provide a bit of extra cushioning for my daughter. We could ring our bicycle bells if we wanted to stop for water or to take a photo.
Kayaking on Inle Lake
After lunch it was time to go kayaking on Inle Lake. This is optional and I gave my daughter the option but after cycling for five hours she was so proud of herself that she had little hesitation in agreeing to join me on the kayak.
Again, I needn’t have worried about holding the rest of the group back. My daughter and I made a great team cruising through the calm water channels. In fact we were much faster than the Californians (sorry guys)!
We paddled through three serene stilt villages and briefly out on the lake. Children were flocking home from school – on their boats of course – and it was yet another special moment, passing gently through village life away from the bustle of the touristy parts of the lake.
I loved being up close to the beautiful purple water hyacinth although we found out how thickly they grow on the lake when we got stuck and had to be towed out by our guides who were keeping a close eye on us from the boat.
The best way to see Inle Lake
In the late afternoon we boarded the boats again for a half-hour cruise across the lake back to Nyaung Shwe, arriving just as the sunset turned the clouds pink. We unloaded and cycled the two minutes back to the Grasshopper Adventures shop.
We were tired but well satisfied with our day and our Inle Lake bike tour. We had gazed upon beautiful scenes, eaten delicious food, and most importantly of all, enjoyed the company of our wonderful Myanmar guides.
By Natasha von Geldern
Thanks to Grasshopper Adventures for hosting my daughter and I on the amazing Inle Lake Bike, Boat and Kayak Tour. I cannot say enough about the professionalism of this outfit and would recommend this day tour to all visitors to Inle Lake. The tour costs $65, including food and bikes.
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