Inle Lake is one of Myanmar’s absolute gems. I didn’t really know what to expect, but that was probably because I did absolutely no planning. I’ve never been a fan of guidebooks and the way I travelled around Myanmar was simply by asking fellow backpackers where I should go. Almost everyone I spoke to told me to head to Shan State, where I was greeted by a gigantic picturesque lake that was home to floating markets, villages on stilts and a community of people who live their lives entirely on water.
My friend Steve and I caught our bus from Yangon at around 9pm, which meant we arrived in a dark and silent town at about 4am. I soon found out that this is the norm in Myanmar. Pretty much every bus I took arrived at my destination in the dead of night. I found it absolutely bizarre and slightly unnerving, especially when we hadn’t even looked at guesthouses in advance. Luckily, the nice men who drive you to hotels when you give them cash were not far.
Quick tip: Myanmar is a place where you really should book accommodation in advance, unless you like walking around hotels in the middle of the night and waking up the owners only to find out they have no vacancies. I feel like I should take this moment to extend my deepest apologies to the hotel proprietors of Inle Lake and Bagan. Sorry guys, I hope you all got some sleep in the end.
I should also probably mention here that there is a $10 entrance fee to the region, so don’t be surprised if you’re asked to cough up as soon as you arrive.
A pleasant welcome to Inle Lake
First things first, we began to explore our new surroundings. We were staying in a town called Nyaung Shwe, which had a distinct backpacker feel to it. I’m sure the rest of the town is a lot more rural and traditional, however the main street was clearly catered for tourists, of which there were many. I’m not complaining though, as I had some of the best Burmese food I’ve ever had here. The dusty main road is Myanmar’s backpacker haven. Although small and remote, it is complete with restaurants, handicraft stalls, travel agents and souvenir shops.
Another quick tip: I found one of the only Western language book stores I could find in Myanmar on this road. Look out for Golden Bowl Travel Services and you’ll find a small selection of second hand books.
In terms of food, I’d urge you to pop into Sin Yaw Restaurant. I have dreams about their crispy grilled fish and green tea salads to this day. Budget restaurants can be a bit hit or miss, so this is an opportunity to taste some good Burmese cuisine. Everything was delicious and reasonably priced, so don’t worry if you over order. The staff are also super friendly, so here’s your chance to make some friends in Myanmar!
Next up, we rented bicycles and set off to explore the town by road. There are heaps of bike rentals places that will charge around 1000 kyats ($1) for a day and they usually give you a map. If not, your guesthouse will have one. We spent the afternoon exploring the countryside and then settled down at the Red Mountain Estate Winery for a glass of my beloved vino.
Sunsets quickly became my favourite time of day
As far as scenery goes, the winery was peacefully exquisite. As far as drinks go, the wine was crap. This is Myanmar so I wasn’t exactly expecting Moët & Chandon standards, but it really was guff. Interestingly enough, the plants have all been imported from France and Spain and the outfit is run by a French winemaker.
Oh well, the backdrop was so breathtaking that the price of a glass of wine was certainly worth it. The bar is sat at the top of a hill that is enclosed by the vineyards and the surrounding countryside. We watched the sun go down (sunsets were really becoming a thing for me in Myanmar) under the hills and it was just lovely.
The morning docks.
It was time to get some rest though, as we had organised a tour of the lake the following morning at 5am. We booked our trip through Mr A Tun Travel Agency for $20 between 4 of us. I heard some people going straight to the docks and getting a cheaper boat trip there, however as the lake is so big and there are so many things to see, we found it better to go through an agency and hand pick the sights we visited. Also, Mu Kyi (Mr A Tun’s widow) was super lovely and helpful and interesting to talk to.
When we got back to our guesthouse the evening before our boat trip, we got chatting to the hotel owner. Everyone in Myanmar wants to chat, which is perfectly delightful as they’re all so pleasant. The owner was shocked when we told him we were leaving so early in the morning. “But your breakfast!!!” he gasped, “You will need breakfast! I will prepare some for you.”
And sure enough, just as we left for our trip, the owner runs out at 5 o’clock in the morning waving two little bags of bananas and sandwiches. This is a wonderful example of Burmese generosity.
With bleary eyes and bellies full of bananas, we boarded our long boat. As we slowly started to float through the lake and away from the town, I truly began to take in it’s sheer size. Miles and miles of water spread out around us and the sun began to rise, highlighting every little ripple below us and causing the surrounding hills glow.
Our first encounter was a couple of early morning fishermen, who steer their boats in a unique rowing style, wrapping one leg around their oar to push themselves through the water. I’d like to say the below pictures are a product of spontaneity, but these fishermen weren’t making their money from their catch of the day, but rather from posing for photographs. Still, there were plenty of traditional fishermen going about their trade later on in the day and we observed this traditional fishing technique in all it’s glory.
The market parking lot…
We were then taken to the village of Indein, which is one of the smallest of Inle Lake. Here we were dropped off at a morning market and left to our own devices. I quickly realised that this wasn’t a tourist trap designed to sell souvenirs to backpackers, but rather an authentic market that was part of the villagers daily lives. All manner of things were on sale here – fresh fish, children’s toys, casual clothing, flowers, furniture… everything a person could need for their homes and families.
I was reminded of local morning markets in East London, where I’ve spent most of my adult life. Stalls selling stinky fish caught that very morning, and meat strung up ready to buy for your dinner. This would be a place that tourists would have no business, after all they wouldn’t be looking to buy pig trotters to take home with them as souvenirs.
Who will buy this wonderful morning?
I felt quite honoured to be able to see this glimpse of life as a villager on Inle Lake. I understand we weren’t the first Westerners to ever visit, far from it, but I still felt humbled. We watched the world go by as the bustling market went on around us. I realised all these people must row from their stilted houses in the morning, buy their supplies for the day, load up their boats and row home. Something that is part of every day life for them, but something that I am not accustomed to and that fascinated me.
After perusing the market for a while and realising my mum would not appreciate a souvenir carp, we sat down for a nice cup of tea. Now, as an English woman, I’m sure you can imagine how much I like a nice cup of tea. I’d already experienced some of the many tea shops in Yangon, with their little plastic stools and metal tables spilling out into the streets. As an avid tea drinker, I will tell you the Burmese way of tea is much different than the British. However, I was quite the fan.
Tea drinking in Myanmar is cemented into the culture and is a real social event. Just as the British gather in pubs to chat over a pint of lager, as do the Burmese over a cup of tea. The tea is very sweet and mixed with a lot of condensed milk. This particular breakfast was served with a fried pastry called char kway, which I took great pleasure in dipping into my tea as I usually would a biscuit.
A far cry from the streets of London.
As we sailed further into the lake, we began to see the residential side to the community. Rows of wooden houses on stilts stretched out into the distance. Families carrying bags of rice pile into their motorised long boats. Fishermen dip their nets into the lake whilst a young child practices steering with his leg wrapped round an oar.
After an hour of driving around the lake and watching village life unfold around us, we arrived at Shwe Indein Pagoda. As we made our way up the hill and strolled through clusters of pagodas, a cool breeze blew through their delicate roofs. A gentle twinkling sound rung out, the only sound in this silently tranquil site. There were literally hundreds of stupas. If we weren’t at the top of a hill, I swear I could have gotten lost.
Visiting local workshops is a staple of any trip to Inle Lake. The guided tours and souvenir shops may seem like a bit of a tourist trap at first, but they are an important part of the local economy and sustaining traditional methods. First, we visited Shwe Pyae Shun Hand Weaving Centre where we learnt how local textiles are made.
An English speaking guide showed us each step of the weaving process, from extracting fibre from lotus plants by hand, to spinning and dying the thread, until the final weaving stage. Artisans sit at giant wooden loom that weaved in no other way I’ve seen before. They use both feet to work the pedals whilst pushing a wooden shuttle containing thread back and forth. I really couldn’t tell you the ins and outs of how this contraption works, so I’m afraid you may just have to travel to Myanmar to see it yourself!
The gift shop was adorned with intricately woven textiles in traditional Shan patterns, all of which took hours of patience and hard work to create. The pure lotus pieces were extremely pricey but understandably so. Extracting the fibre from lotus plants is a very lengthy process and the end product is gorgeous and soft to the touch. Luckily there were cotton options more in my price range. I bagged 3 cotton scarves for $5 each and a silk female longyi for $14, which is now one of my favourite travel souvenirs.
Next stop was the silversmith where we watched jewelry being forged by hand, next was a visit to the blacksmith and then a lacquer studio. It was fascinating to watch these handicrafts made in such a traditional method and never did I feel pressurized to buy something I didn’t want. Lastly, we visited my favourite workshop, the cheroot factory. I’m known to be partial to a cigar or two, so this was right up my street. Tobacco is rolled in a dried tha nat phet leaf and a sugar cane filter popped into the end where it is then clipped. The speed at which these women were manufacturing these cigars was sublime.
Our boat driver offered to take us to see more sites, but the afternoon was getting on and we were knackered from being up since 5am, so we opted to head back to town. We would be getting a bus to Mandalay the next day to celebrate Thingyan, a New Year water festival that is billed as being an absolute hoot! We had one last evening in Nyaung Shwe, so we decided to check out Aung’s Marionette Puppet Show (7 or 8:30 pm, 3000 kyats). The show lasted 30 minutes and displayed traditional Burmese marionettes performing old folk tales. A unique and cultural way to say a fond farewell to Inle Lake!
Have you been to Inle Lake? What are your tips for exploring the lake? Have you ever had an experience when a local has shown you extraordinary hospitality?