Inle Lake in a nutshell

The Inle Lake in the heart of Shan State, Myanmar, immediately casts its spell on any observer: Small longboats with fishermen float over calm waters, thatched cottages line up on the lake shore and grey looming shapes of distant mountains decorate the horizon. If Marty McFly and Doc Brown would have landed their DeLorean here, they might not have noticed any difference in the 30 years they skipped. Time seems to stand still at Inle Lake.

To fully capture Inle Lake’s beauty, we decide to spend one day on the lake, literally “in a nutshell” or whatever you like to call the longboats that are available for hire, and one more day exploring the countryside by bike.

Day I: A 12h boat adventure on the Inle Lake

No pain, no gain: In order to be on the lake before sunrise, we rise at 4.30 to catch a boat at 5 am. The night is still black when we arrive at the pier and we are freezing. The days are really hot here, but at night temperatures drop below 10°C so that we gladly accept the fleece blankets that our boatman offers to us. Despite the early hour, we are not the first on the waters. People in Myanmar rise early to make most out of the daylight hours and we pass a handful of long boats transporting goods through the narrow channels. After 20 minutes the channel widens and finally we glide the vast waters of the lake itself.

Leg-Rowing Intha Fishermen

As the sun rises, we are rewarded for the early start into the day: Silhouettes of the Intha fisherman appear around us out of the morning mist on the Inle Lake. The men use cone-shaped dip nets for fishing and elegantly maneuver their wooden longboats in a special leg-rowing technique.

travel tipp infoIntha people, also called “sons of the lake”, are members of a Tibeto-Burman ethnic group populating the shores of Inle Lake. Many are fisherman, practicing a unique leg-rowing technique, or they tend the floating gardens on the lake, where they grow vegetables such as cucumbers or tomatoes. Intha people speak an ancient dialect of Burmese and are traditionally Buddhists.

The Intha leg-rowing technique has been developed due to the fact that in the small channels which connect the villages with the lake, the only way to see where you are going is to stand upright on your boat. Thus, the boatman stands at the end of the boat with the paddle wrapped around his lower leg and his hands free for working the fishing nets.

The Floating Gardens

While the sun slowly climbs above the mountain ridge and immerses the landscape in warm red light, we drift past huge floating gardens on the Inle Lake where the locals grow tomatoes as well as other vegetables and fruits.

Building these gardens requires a tremendous amount of manual labor. The farmers gather up lake-bottom weeds from the deeper parts of the lake and combine them with water hyacinths to form floating beds, which are then anchored by bamboo poles. The gardens are extremely fertile due to the continuous irrigation by the nutritious lake waters and are resistant to flooding as they freely adapt to any water level. Thanks to these great constructions, local restaurants offer the most tasty tomato salad in whole Myanmar, which we enjoy every day.

The Nanpan market

After a 45 minutes ride across the lake, we arrive at the Nanpan market. Its 7 am now and the market is already crowded with locals but luckily, we are the first tourists to arrive.

travel tipp infoIf you don’t explicitly ask for it, boat tours only start at 8 am from the pier in Nyaungshwe.

The market is a local trading hub where mountain villagers exchange their goods with people from around the lake. The amazing diversity in fresh vegetables and fruits reflects the rich agricultural landscape of this area. We try a Shan style tofu dish for breakfast and enjoy the business savvy market life. The market is a great place to try different food and at this early hour, we are almost an attraction here. We don’t know Burmese, so we have to rely on gestures but even this limited form of communication is lots of fun.

Stilt House Villages and Handicraft Manufactures

Back on the boat we continue our journey through stilt house villages. In the villages, roads are substituted by channels. Some houses are connected with bamboo bridges, but apart from that boats are the only means of transport. The temperatures are rising and the mist that still hangs in the air like a veil starts to lift.

The next two hours we drift through the village channels and visit some of the local handicrafts manufactures starting with a forge, a silversmith, a lotus thread weaver, a spice cigar makers and finally ending at a boat builder. Most manufactures are located in stilt houses as well and clearly focus on tourist visitors. Each offers a free tour, explaining their individual craft to us. It is really interesting to see how the items are created from scratch and we learn a lot. Amazing how little we know about the fabrication of goods we often consume. I guess that’s the boon and bane of modern mass production.

The boat also stops at a souvenir shop where long-necked women sit in the corner weaving. It seems tourists land here not only to see the handicrafts on display. We do not like this place and ask the boat driver to leave. Apart from that episode the handicraft stations were very pleasant!

Stupas and Temples

A day in Myanmar would just feel wrong if you haven’t seen at least 100 stupas and visited a couple of temples. Of course these Myanmar signature ingredients are not missing in a day on Inle Lake. While we decide to skip the cat monastery (we are both allergic), we visit the Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda, a beautiful temple in the middle of the lake. A steady flow of pilgrims streams into the sanctuary. The male visitors climb the stairs in the center of the temple to place gold leafs on already gold laden relics. The relics have a weird shape: They look like clumps stacked on top of each other. As far as we understand, putting gold leaves on the shrine ensures potency and fertility. Women are not allowed to touch the relics and have to wait at a designated area at the foot of the last flight of stairs. It’s not because of religion, but more an outdated patriarchal rule.

We also decide to take a detour away from the Inle Lake by going upstream on one of the channels. The ride itself is already interesting as the boat has to go up multiple small weirs. To have enough momentum, the boatman has to do this at full speed! We stop at an old, seemingly abandoned monastery with dozens of white stupas and afterwards continue upstream to the main sight, the overgrown pagoda ruins in the Indein village.

The ruins are the first place today where we have to pay an entrance (=camera) fee, but it is still quite modest. The complex is large and hosts again a plethora of pagodas. All pagodas here are made out of red bricks and have been worn down over the centuries by wind and weather. Plants have conquered back their territory and some trees have made their way through collapsed roofs. The most memorable sight is a huge stone Buddha head in the center of a stupa ruin. After visiting the pagoda ruins, we take a little detour before returning to the boat as we have discovered a small monastery on a nearby hill which just looks too nice to be skipped. From atop the hill we have a terrific view over the lake and the marshland.

Having had our dose of temples and stupas for the stay, we lean back in our boat seats and enjoy the wind in our faces while heading back to our base Nyaungshwe. When we put our feet back on solid ground, we realize that we have been on tour for 12h. I have to correct my verdict from the beginning of the post: Time does not stand still at Inle Lake…it actually flies by! What an amazing day!

Day II: Exploring the Inle Lake countryside by bike

The day on the lake was great, but of course there is much to see in the surroundings as well so that we decide to rent bikes. We are Germans, so we have to have a plan: Head down south-west to explore the west shore of the lake, make a lake crossing by boat to visit the vine yards on the east shore and complete the loop by heading north-west to the city again. So much for the plan.

What actually happened is that we got terribly lost far out in the countryside on the west shore and had a great time out in the middle of nowhere. Indeed, we had such a good time that I would recommend to everybody to do the same as it took us far off the beaten path and made us meet many locals who hadn’t seen a white guy or gal with a long nose in a long time. We will make some suggestions below on how to achieve that without completely losing track of where you are…for all those of you who like to have a plan after all. 😉

Old bicycles in Nyaungshwe are cheap to rent. We pay roughly 1000 Kyat (less than a dollar) for the day. If you want the more fancy trekking bikes, be ready to pay at least ten times as much!

To get out of the city, we head north over the bridge of the Inle Lake channel. Less than a kilometer away from the central market place, the roads become calm, rough and pretty empty. Farmers live in huts along the road side right next to their fields. The road to the west is a nice ally with the shadows of the trees protecting us from the blazing sun.

After half an hour ride, we reach a small mountain where we see signs pointing to stone carved steps suggesting that there may be a pagoda on top. We climb up and are rewarded by – surprise – a pagoda plus a great view over the marshlands and the lake.

Ten minutes back on the road, we find hot springs, which have been advertised in the city already. However, the place looks more like a mediocre western spa and they charge 10$ entrance fee. We have a look inside and afterwards decide that it wouldn’t be worth the money.

Thus we ride on and pass through several nice small villages. Here it starts to get a bit annoying as at each village entrance a crew of boatmen is eager to convince you to stop here and hire them to take you somewhere else on the lake. As I said in the beginning, our original plan was to cross over to the east shore to visit the vineyards, but we are annoyed by the boatmen and decide to go on for a while.

Well, as it turns out, soon after these villages there is only countryside for many kilometers to come. We ride on and on and the scenery becomes more rural the further we go. A mix of palm trees, rice fields, other plantations and several meter high reed grass surrounds us.

However, we are also 2-3 km west of the lake shore so we decide to follow a small dirt track towards the lake. It is a rough ride on the old bikes. We pass farmers’ huts, meet many people who are working in the fields, also find the places where the touristic goods that they sell at the lake, such as lotus shawls and silverware, are actually produced (in contrast to the “manufacturing show rooms” we visited yesterday) and come to realize that out of the 100 people we meet not a single one speaks a single word of English. When we ask for the way the answer is drawn in lines in the sand.
Our trip continues for 1.5 hours like this. At some places we have to carry our bikes to cross trenches or because the grass becomes too high. The people are very friendly and curious. I guess we are also a good source of entertainment, struggling forward on our shabby bicycles.

After a while we arrive in a small village where the roads become wider again (a motorbike fits) and it turns out that there is a resort that just opened weeks ago nearby. The people at the resort are quite astonished when we walk in as they say it is only reachable by water taxi. The place is still partly a construction site but the staff is very nice and helps us find a boat that takes us back to Nyaungshwe.

Well, we did not see the vineyards this day but we certainly got more out of the ride than we had ever expected.

Here are the instructions if you also like to do this off-the-beaten-path trail without getting completely disoriented:

  1. Drive out to the west of Nyaungshwe on Yone Gyi Street
  2. Follow the road for 4 km until you reach a T-Crossing where you make a left turn onto the Inle West Corridor Road
  3. Continue to the mountain stupa and the hot springs
  4. Go further straight ahead, visit the villages (e.g. the Lwe Nyeint monastery in the first village), go further until you are past Khaung Daing Village.
  5. Now comes a long ride with nothing in between. Go on until you reach the coordinates (20°53’79.25’’N, 96°84’01.69’’E) or, less techie, just look out for a market with many sales stands on the left hand side and take the next bigger gravel road to the left in direction of the lake.
  6. Now just go on in the direction of the lake shore. Make sure to mark the Ann Heritage Inn (20°32’18.1″N 96°53’54.1″E) in your navigation (e.g. google maps) so that you always know the direction. Apart from that, just try to communicate with the locals to get directions.
  7. If you want to save some kyat, pre-negotiate in Nyaungshwe with a boatman to pick you up at the hotel, ask him for his phone number and let the Ann Heritage Inn call him when you arrive there while relaxing on their nice terrace with lake view.
  8. Bonus: Choose your timing right so that you are on the lake for a beautiful sunset on your way back as a perfect finish for a great day.

Where to stay

There are many options at Inle Lake, ranging from homestays, which you will not find online, to standard hotels in Nyaungshwe up to stilt house resorts directly on the lake. We stayed at the Richland motel, close to the market place (20$ for a double room with hot shower, good value for money).

Getting there and away

There are frequent bus connections to Bagan, Mandalay, etc. and bus tickets are sold on every corner. Flights are also possible via Heho, which is a 45 minute taxi ride away from Nyaungshwe. If you want to book a flight ticket, go to the Winair office. All other ticket offices seem to book through them and booking directly there will save you 10-20 $ per ticket. Also they seem to be the better organized.

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