Inle Lake: Worth The Hype

Inle Lake RowIf 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

Biking Inle LakeThe 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

Sugar Cane Inle LakeBiking 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

inle lake travelThe 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

inle lake fishermenWe 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.

 

Exchanging Mingalabas

travel tips inle lakeWe 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.

Modernizing Inle

inle lake travelAs 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

morning fog inle lakeNot 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.

 

Indein Pagoda

Indein Pagoda Inle LakeWhen 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.

 

Secret Temple

Indein pagoda, inle lakeWe 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

inle lake textilesFor 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.

 

Myanmar Smiles

Myanmar childrenAnother 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.

 

Five-day Market

Five Day Market Inle LakeA 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.

 

Thanakha Makeover

myanmar face paintInside 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.

 

inle lake shrineTo 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!

 

inle lake travel
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13 thoughts on “Inle Lake: Worth The Hype

  • September 15, 2014 at 3:26 pm
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    Brilliant post and absolutely loved some of the photos. Every time I read one of your posts regarding Myanmar I just want to head back, now. Inle Lake, like all of Myanmar I saw, has a lot of great memories…even the cat monastery. More for the monastery than the cats though. I will add Indein Pagodas to my list as I had not seen that and it looks amazing.

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  • September 15, 2014 at 3:33 pm
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    I love the photographs of all the people! They seem so happy!!

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    • September 15, 2014 at 8:12 pm
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      So many kind faces, right? Huge smiles from ladies tilling a field to little kids without shoes…there is a warmth in Myanmar people like no other!

      Reply
  • September 15, 2014 at 4:14 pm
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    This is the thing about touristy destinations, sometimes you feel like giving them a miss completely to avoid the crowds (who wants to see more tourists than locals when abroad?) yet you may also miss something really special. Happened to me in Hammamet, Tunisia. First time i went i hated it because of all the tourists and tourist traps, didn’t feel local or genuine at all. The following year, i took the time to explore the city on my own and discovered some untouched spots of amazing beauty… totally changed my mind about the city after that.

    I loved all the pictures especially the Indein Pagodas one.

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    • September 15, 2014 at 4:23 pm
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      Jameela, well said! Places like Angkor Wat and Machu Picchu are similar examples…they are crawling with tourists but you have to look past that and see through to the unique beauty and history of the place. Thanks so much for your comment on the post and the photos!

      Reply
  • September 15, 2014 at 7:59 pm
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    what an amazing place! i expected to see loads of tourists from the title, but really it’s seems warm (actually looks stifling hot) and welcoming and a great day spent.

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    • September 15, 2014 at 8:11 pm
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      Haha, you are right it wasn’t that touristy as compared to say some places like Luang Prabang Laos or Siem Reap, Cambodia but I think we just got so used to the country so peaceful and devoid of tourism that it caught us off guard. It was lovely place (weather wise: blazing hot by day and very cool by morning and night) and a few great days spent for certain.

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  • September 24, 2014 at 11:28 am
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    We loved Inle Lake too — despite the hype and the tourists. We took our bikes one day on a ride around the lake, felt like crossing over at some point, talked to a farmer who agreed to bring us over on his own boat, dropped us at a pier, where another lady scooped us with a promise of a delicious lunch. it was the BEST grilled fish we’ve had in all of SE Asia. We still dream of it, and dreamily refer to the Lady from Inle Lake.

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    • September 24, 2014 at 3:20 pm
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      Love the Myanmar friendliness! Biking is the way to go…getting off the track and breaking down the walls of buses and tour groups just lends itself to those kind of fish Lady from Inle encounters. So glad it was such a special place for you too and thanks for your comments!

      Reply
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