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Burma: Nyaung Shwe (Me, a Bicycle and a Map)

I spent the second day in Nyaung Shwe, the small town on the edge of Inle Lake, on my own exploring. I was a little apprehensive at first, but I need not have worried for it turned out to be one of the most wonderful, simple and fulfilling days of my life.

I began the day with an enormous breakfast courtesy of the ever-hospitable Gypsy Inn staff. I was the only person in the breakfast room at that time, I presume all the other guests had been up before dawn to be able to hit the lake early. Whereas I had slept in past the crowing of the cockerels and enjoyed a feast of a breakfast while I read through my Bible Lonely Planet.

shan noodles and lonely planet
Shan Noodles for Breakfast

Breakfast was typical of that served to foreign guests – eggs in various guises. Plus warm sweet tea. Just as I was finishing one of the waiters asked if I would like to try the Shan breakfast. I agreed and was brought out a large bowl of Shan Noodle Soup. It was the most delicious and satisfying breakfast you could possibly want as a traveller.

bike in BUrma
my bicycle for the day

The hotel reception kindly found me a bicycle to hire for the day. $1 seemed reasonable to me. I took my map and for the first time in nearly 10 years I rode a bike. I won’t lie, I was a bit wobbly at first. But the quiet roads of Nyaung Shwe were actually ideal for learning to ride a bike again, and soon enough I was riding around and marvelling at sites and sights.

market in Nyaung Shwe
the market in Nyaung Shwe

My first stop was the market. I found the bustling centre and what looked like the bike park. It was then that I realised that I had no lock. Oh. I just had to hope and pray no-one would steal my bike. And off I went to wander through the Nyaung Shwe market. I was the only foreigner there at the time. And I did feel quite conspicuous. But I tried to absorb the atmosphere, smile and wander the market. It was mainly local produce from what I could see, with a few manufactured items here and there.

museum in Nyaung Shwe
museum in Nyaung Shwe

My next stop was the museum. I imagine there is little funding for this museum and very little expertise in curating the space. There were many interesting artifacts but they were spread all over this higgedly piggedly building and with little explanation, which was a shame. I would love to have understood more of the significance of the artefact’s.

burmese children

streets of nyaung shwe

Next, I decided to head outside of the town to the Thermal Baths. They were mentioned in my guidebook and the guesthouse staff recommended it too. It sounded simple enough to get too (or so I thought).

I wobbled across a wooden bridge out of the town, and started cycling down one track road. There were women and children walking, men on bicycles and the occasional car or tuk tuk. It was a tree-lined loose stone road that rose up out of the paddy fields that lined either side of me. As I rode along I saw a large wooden temple on my left. I decided to check it out.

tree canopy road
the road out of Nyaung Shwe

As I left the main road along a small path I was confronted by some rather cheeky kids asking for money. I smiled and shook my head and carried on to the temple. It was situated in a large expanse of fields and I appeared to be the only person there. I left my bike outside, took off my flip flops and walked up the wooden stairwell on the right. At the top I came to an enormous room with a huge shrine and Buddha statue. On the left hand-side sat a Monk. He nodded and smiled at me. I knelt, said a prayer and then looked around. A mother and baby came across and I said hello.

temple monastery in the distance

I tried to leave, but my bike wouldn’t work. The wheel had locked up. A rising panic ensued. I know nothing about bikes or mechanics and I could not see why it had suddenly jammed. After several minutes of panicking and banging the bike with my foot, I had to go back to the temple and ask the Monk for help. By then the rest of the local family were there and so they followed my worried and pleading face outside, the Monk included, to look at my bike. Turns out there was a key that locked the back wheel. One of the kids must have locked it and “dropped the key” off somewhere. And so we all began looking through the field and long grass to find it. It was so embarrassing, but eventually we found it and I was off on my way with a very grateful wave.

Shortly after that I came to a rather steep incline. I tried my best but cycling uphill is clearly not my forte and after falling off the bike a few times, I decided to just walk it up there. It was exhausting! And it was around Midday heat too.

At the top of the hill I reached a T-junction. I was confused, and of course there were no roadsigns. To my left there appeared to be a shop, so I wandered over to ask directions. The shop owner indicated that I should sit down at the table to the side of the shop which was under a shady canopy. I did as he asked. I was tired and need to rest my weary legs. To my complete surprise the shop owner appeared with some tea and biscuits for me. How wonderfully hospitable of him! It was that delicious tea that I had mentioned before. So, I sat and enjoyed some tea while the owner practised his English with me. He was eager to know where I was from, what I was doing, etc. He looked completely bemused that I was there on my own.

tea and biscuits

After a very long leisurely break I stood up to pay but the shop owner refused to take my money. I started to feel very guilty, but he simply would not take any money from me. He said it was his pleasure. And with that kindness I was on my way down a long and winding road. This time it was paved, which was nice.

Burmese shopkeeper

I rode for quite some time, noticing the large cobwebs that spread over the bushes lining the road (shudder). I came across new Stupas under construction. I came across wooden houses. I came across a young man sheltering from the sun under a large tree while his buffalo bathed in a deep pond. I eventually came across a large construction project which appeared to be for a new modern hotel. I cycled and cycled. But did not find the thermal baths.

resting man and bathing buffalo

I rested for a bit on a small stone wall. Two young girls were walking up the road together. They came and sat on the wall next to me. I smiled, they smiled. They giggled between themselves. I showed them some of the photographs on my camera that I had taken on my journey so far. I took their portrait too. They were such beautiful girls.

beautiful burmese girls

I then carried on cycling, choosing to take a side road. It started to turn into a small path that led steeply downwards. I thought “why not?” I left my bike at the top and shimmied down the steep path. At the bottom it evened out and beyond some trees the flat flood plains on Inle Lake spread before me. It was stunning. In the distance a group of young boys were jumping in the lake and messing about. It was hot. And I was probably lost. But I didn’t care. I was surrounded by beauty.

view towards inle lake

I decided to head back before the sun started going down, and enjoyed the pleasure and exhaustion of cycling in the heat. I was able to take some striking photographs and by the time I arrived back at the guesthouse I was covered head-to-toe in a reddish dust. I was utterly filthy and exhausted and happy. I had the most wonderful day ever.

the road home