in International Travel

Felines, Ferries and Fritters

Our air conditioning in the hotel room had been fixed the night before, so we slept inside an ice box with no mosquitos. It was glorious. We had breakfast, showered, packed up our things and met Chris, Dan and Mr. Win in the lobby. Apparently there is an expressway to the airport, rather than just the dingy, narrow roads we took into town two days earlier. We thanked our guide and driver and made our way through security to the ticket agent to receive our boarding passes. Old school! The brightly-colored Yangon Airways ATR–70 prop plane was waiting for us out on the Tarmac, and we boarded from the rear, choosing seats near the front of the under-booked plane.

 

imageOn the 30-minute long flight to Heho, we were served our choice of 2 colas or water, as well as a type of fruit-based taffy. I’d estimate the flight was 98% tourists following a very similar (if not identical) tour package as ours. I assume the roads between Mandalay and Heho were in unfavorable condition or the tour companies want to help support the local airlines, because as soon as we were up, we were back down again. The plane turned around at the end of the single runway to head back towards the single-level terminal. We made our way out the back of the plane, as our bags were carted over and hand-carried in. It reminded me of the old Westchester County airport terminal.

imageThe tour guide met us shortly after we exited the tiny airport, and we were escorted to our Toyota Alphard van, where the driver was waiting for us with chilled water bottles. Our guide, Ley Ley, educated us on the Shan state’s culture and history as we were carted through the green hills to the Red Mountain Estates Vineyards and Winery for some tastings. I found the white fortified wines to be the most pleasing. The reds were not enjoyable, though it’s remarkable that they can make any wine there at all.

Refreshed, the van took us to the Princess Inle Hotel, where we checked in and relaxed before we boarded the tourist boats for a ride around the lake. The boats were handmade on the lake by locals and, though there were low-angle engines (presumably because of the many weeds) attached, the boat drivers liked to paddle using their legs in a unique manner for a little ways. We wound our way through the weed channels and entered the open water on the lake, cruising at 15mph for about an hour before reaching a town – on the water.

The buildings were supported by bamboo stilts and arranged in a block-like formation. We cruised along in awe until we arrived at the cooking school, dismounting the boats and shuffling into a demonstration room where our chef was waiting for us. He taught us how to cook several items on the lunch menu, just like the locals’ Grandmas used to make, asking occasionally for our participation. The dishes were outstanding, and we were getting hungrier with each dish. Thankfully we were treated to full-size portions of the menu items – fried spring onion, steamed spring onion in banana leaf, grilled eggplant salad, curry noodle soup with chicken,  – upon completion of the demonstration. It was while we were enjoying our meal that we noticed the island of cats.

Part of the school’s complex includes a Burmese cat shelter extending to a small island, where they are attempting to rebuild the breed’s population. After our late lunch, we snuck downstairs to visit with them, though most of the 39 inhabitants were asleep. I wondered how many fleas or diseases they each had, so I didn’t bother any of them. Many were sneezing, which I understand is not uncommon for the breed. Amused, we re-boarded the long boat and toured through the town again, this time heading down a channel  leading to the floating gardens.

Living on the lake, the farmers have no land to grow crops on, so they have to build it. They’ll use seaweed and other raw materials as a base and buy mud at the market to layer on top of that. The “islands” are many rows of long, thin strands within sections of water walled off with more seaweed piles. Most entrances were marked with a floating bamboo stick, presumably to help with wave control and to keep errant boats from floating too far away.

Tired from a long day of traveling, our driver brought us back to the hotel dock. We proceeded to unwind on the deck with cocktails and snacks while watching the sun tuck behind the lush, green mountains. All-in-all, a very good day… until the bugs arrived. Thankfully, we were prepared with bug spray and the hotel provided mosquito repellant in strategic places  throughout the grounds. According to the staff, November is the start of their cool season and that there’s no malaria to worry about. Fears eased, we retired to Dan and Chris’s chalet to enjoy wine acquired earlier from Red Mountain Estates. A few glasses later, we said goodnight and headed to our own chalet, opting to close all the screens and fire up the air conditioning. Temperatures at night were pleasant, though it was still warm and humid during the day, which lingered inside well after the sun had set. The landscape is borderline tropical and very green, despite its higher elevation.

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Adam and I again split a “room,” which was a free-standing chalet perched up on bamboo sticks and partially over the lake. It had a massive vaulted ceiling made of tightly woven leaves and was a pretty good-sized space. We had a lounge area and an outdoor deck overlooking (and over) the water, two twin beds, and a bathroom area. Though westernized with flushes and an entertaining kitchen sink-style spray gun, which can only be assumed for use as a bidet, the bathroom had no roof. Needless to say, privacy was limited.