If you are going to find tourists in Myanmar, they are on Inle Lake…but when you get away from the throngs and experience life in the lively canals, floating farms, and stilted houses, its charms are far from lost. We spent three days biking the shores of Inle, boating to the far-flung corners of the lake and meeting the people that make even the most touristy town in Myanmar so special.
Biking the Inle Countryside
The town of Nyaung-shwe is the launch-pad for everything Inle. It’s short on style and grace but it has all the resources you need to get out and explore: bus station, bike shops, markets, restaurants and a harbor. Guesthouses are more expensive in Inle Lake than anywhere in the country but we found a pretty cute place for a good deal at Nawng Kham: The Little Inn for $25 a room. Across the street we rented bikes for 1,500 kyat ($1.50) and explored the farms and villages on the north end of the lake.
Sugar Cane Brewing
Biking through the fields, the sweet smell of hot sugarcane led us to this rugged refinery. Shucking the stalks and feeding the good stuff through a manual masher, boiling in a bamboo cauldron, and straining through a sieve (while trying to dodge an army of bumble bees) was quiet the sight. These guys were surprised when we rolled up but they indulged our curiosity and gave us both a sample of the juice literally hot off the press. FDA be damned, it was delicious!
Floating Village of Maing Thauk
The lake is 13 miles long so we knew were weren’t going to make it all the way around and had to find a way across. We saw the floating village of Maing Thauk at the other end of what looked like the longest footbridge ever (450 yards long, as it turns out) and we figured they’d have the answer. A lady with a canoe told us her buddy could take us across the lake, and added, “Before you go, I’d love to show our town.” We navigated the floating village like you would a normal neighborhood but the streets were water, the houses were on stilts, and the yards bobbed with the tide.
The Art of Rowing
We caught a motorized boat to go the seven miles across and got our first taste of the open lake. The first thing you’ll notice about the fisherman of Inle is their style of rowing. To navigate the shallow waters and floating plants, they stand at the stern with one leg planted and the other wrapped around the oar, then with abs and hip flexors of steel they get it moving in a circular motion to propel them through the water. It is one of the most impressive and beautiful balancing acts.
We arrived to the west side of the lake, hopped back on our bikes and took the dirt roads through the countryside back to Nyaung-shwe, stopping to take in the lush scenery and to exchange “Mingalabas” (hellos) to all the friendly faces we passed.
As lovely as the bucolic scenes were, attempts of “modernization” in the villages were just as fascinating. This construction crew is made of ladies in skirts and flip flops, hauling dirt on their heads, then spreading it on the road, freshly tarred by a guy carrying a holey tin bucket, spewing boiling goo. Respect.
The Boat Tour Begins
Not wanting to go on a group tour (Have you sensed that running HoneyTrek theme?), we paid a little more to go out on the lake for eight hours with our own driver. At sunrise the lake was enveloped in white fog that blurred the horizon and bleached the water and sky. Add the silhouettes of the leg-rowing fisherman and it is pure magic.
When you set up your private tour, insist that you visit the Indein Pagoda and that you head there first thing in the morning before the crowds arrive. It is about 45 minutes up a canal so most boat drivers don’t want to take you there, but it is the best part of Inle Lake! 1,054 zedis built over the course of a 1,200 years are packed onto one small hill. Time is tipping the spires and trees are taking root for what feels like a dense jungle of ruins.
We saw another temple across the valley and meandered our way towards it. A young monk was heading that direction and offered to guide us up. During our entire hour excursion there and back we did not see a single tourist and we had boundless views of the lake and nearby temples.
Phaw Khone Weavers
For better or worse, one of the main themes of a boat tour on Inle is to visit the “cottage industries”….aka the shops that give boat drivers kickbacks. We would recommend skipping the sliver smith and umbrella workshop but watching the weaving at Phaw Khone village. Seeing them spin thread from fresh lotus roots was especially impressive.
Another questionable stop was the “jumping cat monastery.” Apparently between monastic duties the monks have taught cats to jump through hoops to increase tourists and hence donations. Thankfully the cats were off duty, so we meandered to the adjacent village and were greeted by these cuties! The pure unadulterated happiness and smiles (quintessential Myanmar!) made this a worthwhile stop.
A massive market rotates five days a week between different towns along the lake. We arrived just as the market was closing—which you think would be a bad thing but now we realize it is the best time to see it! Boats go bumper to bumper vying for space while everyone on shore is doing their best to carry goods on bending bamboo poles or heads. It was pandemonium at its finest.
Inside the market they are selling eggplants, peppers, cheroot cigars, betel, beans, Buddhas, and plenty of thanakha makeup. This sweet vendor gave me a free makeover.
To maximize enjoyment in this burgeoning tourist destination, our best advice is go your own way. Hop on a bike, hire your own boat captain, don’t make it a shopping trip, and meet the locals!