One of my favorite things to do when I’m in the Shan State town of Nyaung Shwe is just hop on my bike and pedal around town, or more often out of town, hitting the dusty and bumpy country roads.
Some roads in the area are paved, and some are not, and some might better be called lanes or paths, as they meander through rice fields and up hills. Wherever I wander, however, the scenery is invariably splendid. Not many people in these parts, at least it’s not congested like back in Bangkok, but there are always friendly, smiling children out playing and waving, monks making their alms rounds (or you might see the younger novice monks also out playing), and sometimes a stubborn farm animal camped out on the road.
On my last trip I had Ye Man Oo from Mandalay with me, and thankfully he proved to be a good cycling companion, keeping pace with me no matter where I decided to venture, although, admittedly, we both had to dismount and walk our bikes up the big hill leading to Tat Ein village! But there is a “refueling” rest spot at the top of the hill, halfway to the village, complete with free drinking water, so that made the trek easier.
We rented our bikes from Aye Aye Travel Services in Nyaung Shwe, located in the same building as Chinlone Books. No flat tires and the brakes were good too; what more can you ask for!
During my last couple of trips to Tat Ein village in Shan State, just down the road from the town of Nyaung Shwe and the famous Inle Lake, I haven’t taken as many photos as usual. But that’s not to say that my camera hasn’t been put to use!
Indeed, the camera has been getting a good workout each time thanks to the photo-loving novice monks at the village’s small monastery. Upon arrival I’ll usually had the camera over to young Aung Thaung, who will take some photos, and then he will hand the camera over to another monk who will handle the photography chores, for a while, and then back to Aung Thaung, and maybe another monk or two, and so it goes.
The one constant during these photo-taking sessions is that I just stand back and observe, enjoying both the serious and silly poses that these kids think up. Here are a few of the MANY photos that those novice monks have taken in recent months.
There’s caves in them hills! Yes, all you spelunkers, we got your caves! Over in the tiny Shan State village of Tat Ein, just a few kilometers down the road from the larger environs of Nyaung Shwe and scenic Inle Lake, there is at least one interesting cave worth exploring.
Accompanying me on this trip to Nyaung Shwe this time were Ye Man Oo and his parents from Mandalay, along with his friend Zin Min Phyo, and my friend from Bagan, Nine Nine. None of those fine folks had visited the larger of the Tat Ein caves before, so we put that on our agenda this time, hoping to squeeze in a visit between the rain storms.
Well, the first day the rain won and we couldn’t go to the cave, but on the second day our luck held and we were able to make a visit, accompanied by Aung Thaung, one of the novice monks from the village’s monastery, and one of the local kids. Armed with a huge flashlight, Aung Thaung and his friend led us through the labyrinth network of dark passages and Buddha images that decorated the interior.
The next day we returned for a quick visit to say goodbye to the monks at the monastery. While we were there we met Chaw Jo, a friendly young female tourist from Hong Kong who was traveling by herself. We didn’t have time to stay and show here around, needing to be at a friend’s house before dark, but we suggested that she visit the cave while she was in the village. Once again the senior monk assigned Aung Thaung and the other boy the task of taking a visitor to see the cave. Not sure if Aung Thaung was thrilled or petrified with this extra task, but he obediently accepted the duty!
We met Chaw Jo for dinner later that night and she reported that the excursion was a lot of fun, although because Aung Thaung and his friend spoke only a few words of English, and Chaw Jo didn’t understand any Burmese, they resorted to using a lot of hand gestures. All in all, this was another good example of the joys of travel and the unexpected things — and people — that you can encounter along the way.
I was back in Nyaung Shwe again last month, primarily to deliver more books to Mar Mar Aye at Chinlone Books. Ye Man Oo from Mandalay came along to help me organize the bookshelves, and his parents kindly drove us all the way there. And that’s not a short or easy journey, having to navigate several mountain ranges to reach Shan State. In any case the trip was a success: we increased the bookshelf count from two to six, while adding about 500 books to the mix. And more are on the way!
Besides the sheer number of books — not only in English, but also French, German, Spanish, Italian, Dutch, Swedish, Russian, and Japanese! — perhaps the most exciting aspect of being in Myanmar this time was seeing the new logo for the bookshop, one that was designed by Ye Man Oo himself. This kid is a very talented artist and has been brainstorming ideas for the past several months until he came up with a very cool design.
The next step was getting some t-shirts made that sported his creation. We found a company in Mandalay called Moe Pale (thanks to my friend Ko Soe Moe for the recommendation!) that offered reasonable prices and good service. Unfortunately, we didn’t have enough time to get the shirts made before we made the trek to Nyaung Shwe, but upon our return to Mandalay the shirts had been printed and were ready!
I had a flight back to Bangkok the day after returning to Mandalay, but U Khin Maung Lwin graciously accepted the task of sending the shipment of shirts to Mar Mar Aye in Nyaung Shwe. And I’m happy to report that the shirts are now in stock in three sizes (medium, large, and extra large) and in three colors (white, light blue, and tan). And the price per shirt is only 6,000 kyat (about US$5). Why buy a boring Inle Lake t-shirt when you can purchase a beautiful Chinlone Books t-shirt?
Meanwhile, we are gearing up for the next big book delivery sometime in September. Our aim is to beef up the number of books in all sections and languages in anticipation of the upcoming “high season” for tourism later in the year. If you are in Nyaung Shwe you MUST stop by Chinlone Books!
Although it’s one of Myanmar’s most popular tourist destinations, owing to its proximity to Inle Lake, the Shan State town of Nyaung Shwe remains a relatively laid-back and quiet place. You won’t find any skyscrapers, traffic jams, or wild nightlife. Tranquil best describes the town, and I hope that pleasant vibe doesn’t change for a long, long time.
When it comes to rules of the road, it’s best to keep in mind that Nyaung Shwe is very much a rural farm town and you will often find animals (cows, goats, pigs, ducks, etc.) wandering about town, sometimes straying onto the roads. And in the case of the almighty cows, they feel like they own the road and will either refuse to budge from his — or her — comfortable resting place. Beep your horn all you want, the cow is not going to move.
Most motorists deal with the cow factor by just driving around the obstacle, while other drivers will stop and beep the horn incessantly, hoping that the cow gets the message. Sometimes they get up and slowly trot off, looking annoyed by the interruption of their siesta, and other times they ignore the honking altogether. Gotta love those cows! And every once in a while a confused tourist can be found blocking the middle of the road too. Now those are the real pests!
Nyaungshwe is best known as “the gateway to Inle Lake,” thanks to it being located near Myanmar’s famous boat-driven tourist attraction. But a stay in Nyaungshwe should not be confined to taking a tour of Inle Lake and its surrounding villages. Nyaungshwe is a very charming town and there are plenty of things to do in town or the surrounding area. The town itself is ideal for exploring on foot or bicycle. In addition to dozens of Buddhist monasteries, the bustling morning market, and the network of canals in town, there are plenty of narrow roads and lanes that are perfect for catching a glimpse of local life. You will also find some old Intha temple and stupa ruins, big and small, scattered around town. It seems like I’m always discovering new sets of ruins every time I visit.
During an afternoon bike ride around Nyaungshwe recently I came upon some old temple ruins out in the middle of nowhere. Well, the location wasn’t quite that remote, being on the outskirts of Nyaungshwe, heading towards the big canal that leads to Inle Lake. But it certainly felt like it was in the middle of nowhere; no towering hotels or busy roads around me, and not another tourist — or any human beings — in the vicinity; just me and my bike and these lovely old ruins. All in all, a fairly glorious situation!
Inle Lake is an interesting place to visit, but don’t limit your stay in Nyaungshwe to riding in an uncomfortable boat and getting sunburned by the afternoon sun or freezing your ass off in the morning chill (hey, the lake takes no prisoners!); hit the streets of town, slow down the pace, and discover the pleasurable vibe of Shan State!
Nyaungshwe in Shan State is known as the gateway to Inle Lake, one of Myanmar’s most famous tourist attractions. But I’ve toured the lake more times than I can remember, so when I’m in town nowadays I bypass the boat trips and ride my bike around town. And my favorite destination of all is nearby Tat Ein village, a place I visit on almost a daily basis.
In the past, I’ve taught English language lessons at the primary school in the village, donated medicine to the school and monastery, and taken the kids on field trips in the area. I know the people well. School had just shut down for the multi-month “summer break” and I had no plans to take the kids on any trips this time, but I did spend many afternoons at the monastery, just chatting with the monks and taking photos. I time my arrival around midday, after the monks have eaten, or late in the afternoon, after they’ve finished their studies, in order to avoid interrupting their routine. I enjoy their company but I don’t want to be more of a distraction than I’ve become already!
As you can see from these photos, the novice monks at Tat Ein are a playful and lively bunch. Camera shy they are not! It’s gotten to the point where they will demand that I take their photo … but in that cute, polite manner that they have that makes it all so charming. They never cease to amaze me with their ideas for photos, and yes, all of these shots occurred with no prompting or suggestions from me. The monks thought of them all! One kid managed to paint his face with some bizarre red marks; another novice fashioned an outfit out of a feed bag; the boys took turns playing “teacher” in the classroom; one of the village dogs became an unwilling photo prop; the monks took turns sitting in a fountain.
As usual, it was great fun and the minutes/hours flew by while I was at the monastery taking photos. The thought of returning to my hotel didn’t occur to me until I saw that the sun about to set and I’d scamper off and make plans to return the next day, eagerly to see what new photo ideas the novice monks would think of for the next session.