Imagine a vast and peaceful lake with crystal clear water, fringed by marshes, floating gardens, stilt-house villages, monasteries and Buddhist temples.
Picture people rowing with their legs, using movements that make it seem as if they’re dancing a ballet; local fishermen using conical baskets instead of regular boring tackle; long neck women weaving fabrics made out of lotus flowers; and craftsmen and -women making cheroots from corn-husks and the most delicately carved silver goods.
I can tell you that this place that sounds like a fantasy, does exist and it’s located in Myanmar. Welcome to Inle Lake.
Inle is a shallow fresh water lake located in the middle of Myanmar, southeast of Mandalay. It’s the second biggest lake in the country, with a surface area of 44.9 square miles (116 km²), and supports an estimated population of 70,000 people who live in four cities bordering the lake.
I have to admit that I wasn’t expecting too much of Inle Lake, and even considered whether I should visit it or not. Will this lake be any different from all the others I’ve visited?? Am I going there just to take a boat trip? Will it be worth it?
With all these questions still on my mind, I decided to take a night bus and then a taxi from Mandalay to Nyaung Shwe, the city where Inle Lake is located, to find out why this lake is one of the most visited places in Myanmar.
I arrived in Nyaung Shwe early in the morning, and after finding a hotel, resting, and having breakfast, I wandered around the city.
Nyaung Shwe is very small and there aren’t many things to do apart from visiting some local markets, monasteries and pagodas, and riding a bike around the lake.
The most popular activity in Nyaung Shwe is to take a boat trip to Inle Lake.
The Inle Lake Tour
On my second day in Nyaung Shwe, I woke up early in the morning and met the boatman who would take me on my trip to Inle Lake on his wooden boat with outboard engine.
At 07:30 AM we started sailing along a canal that crosses Nyaung Shwe’s main street. At this point, before getting to the actual lake, the water was brown and the banks of the canal filled with houses and hotels – not as enticing as I was hoping…
I was still not sure that this tour would be good and my trip to Inle Lake worthwhile.
But everything changed the moment we entered the lake.
I was facing an immense and beautiful lake with crystal clear water, surrounded by huge mountains.
Fishermen were performing their over-water ballet, rowing with just one leg, and holding a conical basket, known as “ngaphankon”, that they use to fish.
It was absolutely incredible to see those men standing on their boats on just one leg, holding baskets as tall as they are, while posing for pictures.
Of course they were also waiting for tips, but for a quite small amount, I now had not only one of the most iconic images of Myanmar, but I was also entering in a world that I had never seen before…
With a big smile on my face and the sun shining in the sky, we continued sailing across the clear water towards our first stop.
We passed dozens of floating gardens where locals cultivate tomatoes, cucumbers, chilies, etc; and stilt-houses with one and two floors, until we arrived at a bridge connecting the lake with a piece of land.
After disembarking and walking for 10 min I was at a very colorful and lively local market, with people selling flowers, fruits, vegetables, meat, clothes, souvenirs and foods that I’ve never tasted before.
Everything was very simple and people seemed to having a good time. And so was I.
I left the market, met my boatman again, and we crossed the lake to our second stop: a silver workshop. I wasn’t expecting to learn much about the silver making process on the fringes of a lake in Myanmar but hearing them explain the use of nitric acid, zinc, aluminum and copper brought me back to the time I was studying chemistry at university and this excited me even more.
A few minutes away from the silversmith workshop, we stopped at a weaving factory and, after seeing the women weaving fabrics using looms, I discovered that they make the fabric out of lotus flowers. What??? I was very surprised and skeptical when I saw the sign, but there, in front of my very eyes, they broke the lotus flower stalks, extracting the fibers and winding it into thread. I was speechless !! I never imagined that one could make a scarf out of lotus flowers. And the fabrics are dyed with natural pigments too, such as mango, lotus leaf, etc.
It was not even noon yet, but my Inle lake tour was going much better than I’d expected, and I was already feeling grateful for doing it.
The third stop was at Inn Joe Phyu, Inle Traditional Handcraft & Cheroot. I’m not a big fan of cigars, but it was quite interesting to learn about this artisanal process.
They make the filter with cornhusk and paper, mix the tobacco with anise, honey, banana and mint, and make the glue with tamarind, stick rice and water. Everything is natural!
Although these places can sometimes be considered too touristy, I was truly impressed and thrilled that I saw all these things during my Inle lake tour.
We continued our journey, this time to visit a pagoda. Phaung Daw Oo is one of the most important pagodas at Inle Lake, and was constructed over 100 years ago.
The sun had become very strong and, after visiting all these places, it was time to take a break for lunch and to get some shade.
After lunch, we sailed along one of the canals to our next stop, another weaving factory, but this time with a very special worker, a “long neck woman”.
It was not my first encountered one of these women, but it was the first time that I had opportunity to learn a lit bit more about them.
They are originally from the Kayah State, and, according to a local tradition, they started to put the rings around their necks to protect them against tiger attacks. Nowadays, there aren’t tigers around their villages anymore, but the tradition continues. A lot of the women have also migrated to different parts of Myanmar and even other countries in order to find a way to make a living.
I left the factory very happy to have had the opportunity to finally learn more about those iconic and fast-disappearing women.
Our final stop was at Nga Hpe Chaung village to visit the famous Kyaun Khon Kyaung (Jumping Cat Monastery), which was constructed in 1855, four years before the renowned Mandalay Palace.
This stunning teak wood monastery was built on stilts over the lake, and has an important collection of Shan, Tibet, Bagan and Ava style ancient Buddha images.
Visiting this monastery was fantastic, however I only saw two cats, and neither of them did any jumping through hoops…
On the way back to Nyaung Shwe, I had the opportunity to float again on Inle Lake’s crystal clear water, admire the breathtaking landscape and watch the ballet-over-water fishermen for the last time. The scenery was very picturesque and I felt filled with gratitude.
My boatman even asked if I wanted to jump in the water. Of course I did, really badly, but unfortunately I wasn’t wearing a swimsuit.
The boat trip finished around 3:30 PM and it left me in no doubt that Inle Lake, that very special and surprisingly enchanting place, should not be missed during a visit to Myanmar.
Safe travels and enjoy the ride.
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Visiting Inle Lake
Where’s Inle Lake?
Inle Lake is located in the Nyaungshwe Township of Taunggyi District of Shan State, part of Shan Hills in Myanmar (check map here).
How to get to Inle Lake?
You can get to Inle Lake buy bus, flight and train.
* By flight (domestic only)
This is the easiest and most comfortable way to get into Inle Lake, and the closest airport is in Heho, which is a taxi-ride (about 1 hour) away from the lake itself. From the airport to Nyaundshwe you need to take a taxi, which costs 25,000 Kyats (US$ 18.5).
* By bus
Traveling by bus is the cheapest and easiest way to get around Myanmar. Buses depart daily, and cost around US$14-20 from Yangon (12 hours) or US$12 (7-8 hours) from Mandalay. There are 2 buses from Bagan, at 7:30 and 19:30; it takes 8,5h to Nyaung Shwe, and costs 11,000 Ks (US$ 8.1). You can buy your ticket at Famous Traveller Express or Myanmar Bus Ticket.
* By train
There are trains departing from Kalaw, Thazi and even Yangon (direct), to Shwe Nyaung, which town is situated only 13 km away from Nyaung Shwe. The train from Yangon takes around 30h though…
Best time to visit
The best time to visit Inle Lake, Myanmar, is from November to February, when the days are warm and nights are cooler.
From June to September is the monsoon season and roads are in bed conditions, and from March to May the dry season.
I visited Mandalay in March 2017 and it was very hot and dry.
Where to stay in Inle Lake?
Some of Nyuang Shwe (Inle Lake) hotels that I recommend are:
* Budget: Ostello Bello Nyaung Shwe.
Some of my Inle Lake Travel Costs
* Five months travel insurance: US$ 256 with World Nomads
* Bus from Bagan to Shwe Nyaung: 13000 Ks (US$ 9.6)
* Taxi from Shwe Nyaung (Junction) to Nyaung Shwe: 5000 Ks (US$ 3.7)
* Nyaung Shwe Entrance fee: $10
Other Inle Lake Tours