France, Italy, California… Burma? When listing the world’s fine wine regions, probably the last place you expect to hear is Myanmar. However, Myanmar does in fact boast its own wineries - all two of them.
Both are located in the Inle Lake region in southern Shan state:
- The Myammar Vineyard Estate (Myanmar’s first winery and home to Aythaya wines)
- The Red Mountain Estate Winery & Vineyards
Getting to Inle Lake from Mandalay
After Yangon, the Taukkyan War Cemetery and Bagan, I was in Mandalay – the closest major city (and airport) to Inle Lake. From Mandalay bus station there are (at least) four companies that offer buses to Inle Lake, but only one had a departure that evening, for 15,000 Kyat ($15 USD; £9 GBP). I read that if you’re coming from Yangon, the bus should cost anything from 11,000 to 20,000, and also that all buses go to Shwenyaung Junction or Taunggyi, where you have to grab a pick-up or taxi to Nyaungshwe. However, this may’ve changed, because my bus dropped me directly in Nyaungshwe…
I arrived in the early hours, still dark, shouldered my bag and with no particular place to go, and ignoring the offers of waiting taxi-drivers, headed into the dark, silent streets of Nyaungshwe. I passed sleeping guesthouses and shuttered restaurants, silent temples and empty plots, gangs of street dogs - the streets are theirs at this hour – and watched the sky lighten.
I found a place I’d heard about called “Gypsy Inn” but was enjoying the cool, night air too much and continued to walk along the canal-side. A couple of boats started their motors and set off in the murky pre-dawn to I don’t know where. A boat office was just opening (because they do sunrise tours) and I stopped in to inquire about a boat. I was quoted 20,000 for the day and was in the process of digging out my journal, where I’d written how much I should expect to pay (15,000) when a guy appeared and asked me if I wanted to split his boat. He’d booked it yesterday for 17,000 and hadn’t been able to find anyone else.
“Sure. Why not?”
“I’m Paddy, by the way.”
Paddy told me how Inle Lake is a bit of a tourist trap, with these boat tours designed to take you to various “workshops” where you’re then expected to buy something. He’d already carefully chosen his destinations, based on the recommendations of other travellers he’d met and from what he’d read, and the boat-driver had agreed not to pull any unwanted shit.
We blazed up the canal, past fully laden boats and out onto the lake.
The breeze coming off the water chilled me through, but this was the first (and maybe last) time I’d been cold in months, so I didn’t bother to get out a jacket.
We went out to the middle of the lake, where the driver shut the engine off and we sat drifting in the silence watching the sun slowly lift. Dotted about us were fishermen standing on the backs of their boats and rowing with their leg wrapped around the oar. Paddy told me this style of rowing developed here, in isolation, and is unique to Inle Lake and the Shan region.
An indeterminate amount of time passed and then we broke from the mesmerising view and gunned past large patches of green vines growing on the water and wooden houses on stilts. We slid into another canal, our driver negotiating tight bends and jumping bamboo dams. Old people sat on the banks and kids swam in the water and waved at us and we waved back. We passed other boats, but no other tourists at this hour.
First stop was the floating market. Due to the sheer size of the lake, the market is on a five-day rotating schedule, appearing in a different town each day. Today it was in the village of Indein, which, sadly, meant it wasn’t “floating” after all.
Paddy is Welsh, speaks Welsh, English, French, dabbles in Korean, Burmese and just about every other language he encounters. He was one of those travellers – the kind I used to pride myself on being when I was still full of enthusiasm and curiosity about the world – the kind that makes an effort to learn a bit of the local language and interact with the people. It can be annoying sometimes, but it does make the experience of travelling so much more enriching.
He knelt down at a stall and negotiated the price of a watermelon, laughing with the stall-keepers, then we went and ordered what some locals were eating and sat down to our breakfast. Apparently it was “mixed tofu” (to hpu thouk) and was delicious, and cheap. We bought some rice from a kid to go on the side and Paddy picked up some random green vegetable he’d seen.
We whiled away half an hour or so on the wooden benches chatting with an old local couple, then set off again. Everywhere we went, the children said “hello”, Paddy said “hello” back in Burmese, they said “oh, you speak Burmese” (in Burmese), “a little” (in Burmese), something else in Burmese, “sorry, I don’t understand” (in Burmese)…”bye bye”, “bye bye” - accompanied by a lot of giggling and smiling throughout.
We’d seen some impressive golden stupas from the boat so on the way back, Paddy asked if we could make an impromtu stop. We waded out into the river, walked barefoot through mud, across wooden and bamboo bridges, through the grounds of a Buddhist monastry, through a local village on stilts and eventually found the stupas.
As well as the golden ones, we found fields and fields of crumbling stone ones, inside which could be seen ancient stone Buddhas and centuries-old carvings. In my opinion it was more impressive than Bagan, but it always feels that way when you randomly stumble across something incredible, instead of going in search of something hyped up in the guidebooks.
When we got back, the boat was caught on a drift and we had to wade in and help our driver push the boat and rock it from side to side until we were in free, open water again.
Next stop was a handmade “cheroot” cigar factory, where we smoked sweet cigars (made from tobacco, honey, rice, tamarind, banana, anise and so on). Paddy asked for a cleaver and bowl, cut up his watermelon and shared it with me, our driver and the staff of the factory. Again, we all chatted for a bit, then we split 20 sweet cigars for 1000 each and were on our way again.
We stopped at a boat-building factory where a couple of boats-in-progress were perched on beams and suspiciously little boat-building was going on. Because it was unlikely we would want to buy a boat (although I did haggle) they had a table of wooden handicrafts to buy instead. I decided to get out of there and wait for Paddy, who’d mysteriously disappeared into the village.
I heard my name and, when I turned around, Paddy was gesturing for me to cross the bridge. He’d somehow got us and our boat-driver invited to a local celebration.
We sat down and chatted with a couple of ladies while they plied us with food: more mixed tofu, beef, rice, noodles and so on. It turned out the celebration was in aid of one of the ladies’ nephew becoming a novice monk. When it was time to go, we each put 1000 Kyat in the donation pots – still one of the cheapest and best lunches I’ve ever had.
We played some crazy, air-hockey-esque board game with the boat-builders and then travelled through the “floating gardens”, where tomato plants lay on the lake in vast floating fields. Apparently there are so many of them that, from the air, much of the lake is indistinguishable from land.
Finally, we stopped into the Nga Hpe Kyaung (Jumping Cat Monastery) – so named because in their spare time the monks taught the cats to jump and do tricks. However, there are “no more jumping cats”, we were told.
Instead Paddy got down and bowed to a living Buddha, who was laying up on a pedestal with a cheesy grin on his face. Fuck that, I thought, and strolled aimlessly around the monastery. When I came back, he was having tea with a bunch of fellow worshippers. All across Myanmar temples are used for sleeping, picnicking, playing board games and just generally getting out of the heat.
We’d been out on the lake for almost eight hours. When we got back they tried to cheekily change the agreed price because the lady had offered me 20,000 but we weren’t having any of it.
Getting to the Red Mountain Winery
Back at Paddy’s guest house (I wish I could remember what it was called) the guy on reception was great and let me have his own bicycle for the afternoon.
I said goodbye to Paddy, took off and cycled the three kilometres out of town, took the right, along the winding road, up a gradual gradient, swung a left at the “Red Mountain Estate” sign and powered up the not-so-gradual gradient, with rolling vineyards on either side, to arrive at the winery red as an ember and soaked through with sweat. (It would all pay off on the way back.)
Wine Tasting at the Red Mountain Estate
Up at the winery, you can choose from an air-conditioned interior, or an outdoor seating area perched on the hillside overlooking the lake (if you’re lucky) and the surrounding countryside.
They offer a range of wines and good-quality (though not cheap) food (including European cheeses), but probably the best way to sample the goods is the wine-tasting deal, which includes four different wines for only 2000 Kyat.
I tried the…
- Sauvignon Blanc – This is the favorite of the French vintner and I think I have to agree, despite the fact that it’s supposed to be dry yet was in fact very sweet (just the way I like it). It’s fresh, fruity and has a little something of fresh-cut grass about it.
- Rosé d’Inlé – Made from Shiraz/Syrah, this one was a bit too dry and citrusy for my liking, but I’m sure some would love it.
- Shiraz-Tempranillo – Made from 70% Shiraz and 30% Tempranillo grapes, this blend was supposed to taste of vanilla, dark chocolate and morrello cherries, but was actually the most disappointing of the bunch. The overbearing flavour was of tannins and I’m pretty sure this one needs some aging.
- Late Harvest – This was another sweet white, this time made from 60% Muscat Petit Grain and 40% Sauvignon Blanc. It had a heady aroma of melon, lychee and maybe a hint of banana, coupled with the strong sugars and alcohol.
In my humble, completely unprofessional opinion, Red Mountain have some very promising wines and some below-average ones. Considering this is one of only two wineries in Myanmar, I was very impressed. All, except maybe the red, were vibrant in colour and the whole scene – growing gradually tipsy on the side of a hill as the sun set – made for the perfect end to an incredible day.
Later I flew back down the hill at God-knows how many miles an hour, returned the bike and jumped on another night-bus, Yangon bound.