February 15th 2017
Oh, Inle Lake! It’s not surprising that those who escape here from the searing heat of the plains find it difficult to leave. Legitimately in the mountains and deliciously cold at night, think lake Titicaca transplanted to northern California with bananas and bougainvillea. And even though it too is at the end of a dry and dusty winter the water flows freely and for once looks clean.
Of course, the other reason for not leaving is how one gets here in the first place. The trusty hotel guys (Bagan version) have assured me that the ‘JJ’ bus is the way to go. It certainly looks the part. Massive and thoroughly air conditioned, the staff of 5 starts the Valentine’s Day trip auspiciously with chocolates all round and for three randomly selected couples an extravagantly wrapped gift of plastic Hello Kitty bowls with odd looking spoons (at least one pair of lucky recipients do not fall into the ‘couple’ category to their intense embarrassment).
The existential crisis begins not five minutes into the nine-hour trip when we are reminded of the major difference between bus and train travel, namely the lack of on-demand bathroom opportunities. Fortunately, and in the nick of time, a gentleman further forward begins to bitterly regret the mutton curry he had for dinner last might (I personally avoid the ‘mutton curry’ for the simple reason I have never seen an actual sheep). Too bad for him, but all the over 50s are cheering en-masse for the frequent unscheduled stops that will ensue. Meanwhile the millennials sleep like babies, as they will for the entire trip, thus preserving their life expectancy.
The road up into the mountains is pretty much a single lane; luckily it is mostly paved, and in some areas even built out a bit so that oncoming traffic has at least a fighting chance of passing safely, although when the vehicle is about the same size as ours, which is often, this seems hardly assured. Our three drivers change out every hour to cope with the stress of having to navigate and lean on their horn simultaneously. Fortunately, from time to time what seems like a random guy with a cell phone halts traffic in one direction for 15 minutes or so that the other can proceed without, or more precisely, with less, anxiety. On the plus side, the total number of crazy drivers encountered somewhat unbelievably is zero. Indeed, the craziness crown must go to the pelleton (presumably French) in full fluorescent spandex spotted 2/3 of the way up, and therefore with not a hope in hell of reaching anywhere meaningful before dark.
Then, at precisely 4:45, five minutes after the young Vietnamese woman sitting in front of me suddenly realizes that her returning tardily to the bus after lunch is also going to make us arrive in the dark too, I reach the conclusion that only one thing in the world could be worse than this journey up into the mountains; at least I now have 4 days to make a plan.