Kyaw will ensure that we do not leave Bagan without having seen 3 of the most emblematic temples: the Dhammayangyi in front of which Arty will pose; the Thatbyinnyu, the highest on the site at 65m and its walls with outdated white paint. And finally the Ananda, magnificent with its immaculate facades and its golden stupa.
A new big leg awaits us, with more than 300km to Mandalay. This time, Kyaw climbs with us, leaving Irina, Greta and their air-conditioned Hyundai free to move on the road without having to wait for us (a delay which had created some tension the day before). The road is excellent, and we drive at a good pace through the sandy plain, where the rice fields have given way to peanut and palm plantations.
Despite almost non-stop driving, and snacking as a lunch break, this time we will arrive too late at the teak U-Bein bridge located on Lake Taugthaman, much to the disappointment of Kyaw who had planned to let us admire it, before sunset. We will therefore have to make do with the less impressive ones, during twilight.
Our hotel for the night will once again be in the city, where, as Kyaw had warned us, we will not be able to miss the many signs and hotel complexes translated into Mandarin. This is also where we will see Muslims for the first time, which, even if we do not have all the ins and outs, will put a little into perspective the vision that we had of the conflicts that agitate the west of the country and the complex situation with the Rohingya.
Text in mandarin also in our hotel, where we will take a break before going in search of a small cheap restaurant. The fresh interior air obviously contrasts with the warmth and dampness of the already empty and calm streets. We will still find a busy street, where street food vendors rub shoulders with stalls full of shoes, clothes, accessories, hardware and other gadgets, all Made in China.
After the essential breakfast and one (more) less tooth for Maëlia who now displays a beautiful highway, we will again take a tour of the U-Bein bridge, on the « tourist side » this time, much less charming than the day before in the light of day and under the greyness.
Come on, let’s not linger at the temple where tourists scramble to watch the monks, off we go! The road is beautiful, and the rice fields at the beginning give way to the low mountains and the hills. Since the start of the crossing, we see the peaceful villages and small towns too quickly and with envy, their smiling inhabitants, the young people on bikes returning from school or college in the national uniform, green and white…
Then it’s the descent to the valley that surrounds Inle Lake. Yes, the one whose images we have seen and seen again with fishermen and their baskets, and whose photos also illustrate Edrian’s geography textbook: here we are! Again, missing the sunset, which must have been magnificent and which Irina, whom we meet at the hotel, had the time to see. But no regrets this time, since we are there for two nights and a full day!
Little fright the next day: the rain that started to fall the day before continues to soak the pavement until after breakfast… We wait in the hall where there are beautiful teak furniture, which grows in abundance in the region.
Phew, it stops and the sky gradually clears. We can reach the pier at 500m, and embark on our small cruise, including Greta! Here we are, discovering part of one of the most famous lake villages in the world, under an overcast sky; a pity for the photos, but it is not all bad, because the rays of the sun which sometimes pass through hit hard!
Huge expanse of water on which you feel tiny, boats gliding on the surface, surrounding hills all around: magnificent. A basket fisherman, wearing a large hat, gives us a demonstration with skill and grace, an image that we dreamed of seeing. We believe for a time that we are extremely lucky, before understanding that it is just a small show for tourists. This traditional fishing method is on the brink of disappearing, in favor of motor boats and plastic nets.
Then, appear the first schools of aquatic plants, and through which our “boat driver” skillfully weaves his way. Kyaw explains that the algae collected and loaded on board other boats is used as fertilizer for the famous floating vegetable gardens fixed by long wooden stakes, and that we are starting to travel along. If it is mainly tomato plants that are grown there in that unique way, we also notice some eggplants and squash flowers.
The first wooden houses on stilts appear almost naturally, with their inhabitants, the Intha, so proud of their traditions, going about their business. We would prefer to have a more discreet means of transport so that the charm is even more effective, but the visit would take more than a day, and anyway, all the boats seem to have a motor here!
The first stop of our tourist circuit will be in a small, artisanal and family workshop of silver jewelry. Greta, emerging and barking from under Irina’s legs, will not fail, as always, to make some surprised bystanders fall in the water!
We take the time to admire the silversmith’s work and the windows, before resuming our lakeside journey, under an increasingly clear sky. At the next stop, we will have some discussions with two « long-necked women » from the minority ethnic group, the Padaung (more present in Thailand), who will inevitably intrigue the children a lot. Coming from the mountains, they descend regularly to Inle where their activity of manual weaving of scarves and shawls in finesse and colours, provides an additional income.
Right next to it is a workshop making papier mache, used to make parasols and paper lanterns, used especially in ceremonies and certain festivities and no longer in everyday life.
After a short break at the Aladow Pauk pagoda, we will spend a long time in a lotus, cotton and silk manual weaving workshop, made on traditional looms, and even be witnesses to the direct extraction of lotus fiber from the stem! A concentrate of know-how slowly disappearing, but which is also perhaps maintained by the tourist attraction it exerts. We will end with a manufacturing workshop of Cheroot, handmade cigars flavored with tamarind and spices.
A rich and beautiful ride that ends under a perfect sky between sun and clouds. And yet, we have only seen a tiny part of the lake which stretches 22km long and 8km wide; a whole ecosystem, fragile, and almost thousand-year-old traditions to be preserved, while leaving room for tourism providing income…
We leave Inle the next day in a rain that seems to want to last this time, to begin our last two legs, with a stop in the only vineyard of Myanmar, in Athaya, and on the site of a pagoda under construction. There, ugly discovery: a crack on the chassis, on the rear stabilizer bar fixation. Not good at all… Loïc decides to dismantle the bar (not far from 25kgs) which we can temporarily do without, at the condition that we are driving even more slowly, especially in the turns, still numerous on the mountainous part of our journey .
The arrival at the guest house of Namsamg, where we meet Irina, will therefore necessarily be late, and the night will be short!
Rise at dawn for Loïc who will go with Kyaw to a welder met the day before, to try a temporary repair of the crack, while waiting for something better in Thailand where we will have more time. For the children and I, it will be a very long road (again more than 300km, mostly through the mountains) to Kyaing Teng (Taugginyi)…in the Hyundai with Greta and Irina who kindly offered us this lift which saves us an endless day in a truck! Mission accomplished, after 11 hours on the road for us and 13 hours for the rest of the convoy.
That’s it, we are already living our last hours in Myanmar, with a taste of not enough. On the 150km journey which takes us to the border town of Tachilek, we imagine a scenario which would allow us to clear the vehicle and leave it parked at the border in order to make a small loop towards Rangoon and the south of the country. Kyaw will try to get information from the customs officials, but it is too late to organize it…
The day will be spent at a much slower pace than the day before, but without us seeing Irina, who has set sail on this side of the border, but will still have to wait for Kyaw to be able to have her exit stamp. We will therefore be alone for the photo-finish in front of Arty, on the small bridge where a continuous flow of pedestrians passes, in both directions. The density of more modern and impeccable storefronts is increasing, clothing is becoming westernized: Sawat dii khaa Thailand!