The sight of clouds and golden pagodas reflected in the limpid waters of Inle Lake is a travel photographer’s dream. Part of Myanmar’s remote Shan State, the lake is ringed by forest-clad hills and Inle Lake holidays offer a chance to observe traditional village life both on and off the water. Explore the lake by boat or kayak, and the surrounding countryside by bicycle or on foot.
Cruise Inle Lake Myanmar, learning how the local people cultivate vegetables and fruit on floating gardens amid picturesque stilt houses. Go for a bicycle ride through villages surrounding Inle Lake and see cottage industries at work, including beautiful handicrafts. In the surrounding farms and villages, the variety of agriculture is as rich as the lakeshore soil and the friendly welcome of the people is heart-warming.
The classic Inle Lake boat tour
The most popular way to see Inle Lake is to take a classic boat tour. It’s hard to imagine anyone visiting Inle Lake and not doing this. Although I had already had an amazing experience on a Grasshopper Adventures bike and kayak day tour of Inle Lake, I felt worried I might miss something by not doing the classic boat tour – plus I was meeting a friend and had promised to do a boat tour with her. It’s easy to arrange – just ask your accommodation reception.
My top tips for making the most of a classic Inle Lake boat tour are to leave early and take control by making it clear to the boatman where you want to go. A classic tour will involve visiting a lot of craft shops and the boatman will have a financial incentive to take you to these. I didn’t want him to lose out too much but I made it clear I would only go to one or two because shopping is not my thing. You might be different so decide before you depart and you may have to reiterate the point later in the day. They will also want to take you to see the Padaung ‘long-necked’ women, who sit weaving in a house and smiling for the cameras and tips. Again, you may not feel comfortable with this, or it may be a priority for you.
As soon as you get out onto the lake, it’s impossible to miss the Intha fishermen, standing up in their boats to row with one leg wrapped around an oar is sure to keep your camera busy as you cruise the lake.
Winding through the many floating gardens developed and cultivated by the farmers here is amazing. The clever techniques and rich array of fruits and vegetables produced is impressive.
Visit the holiest site in Shan State, the exquisite Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda, where 12th-century Buddha images are covered in gold leaf. Over 18 days in October/November the traditional Phaungdaw Oo Pagoda festival is held. Images of the Buddha are taken from the beautiful Phaung Daw Oo pagoda and paraded on the golden Royal Karaweik barge across Inle Lake as far as Nyaung Shwe by colourfully-costumed leg rowers.
The village of Indein, where hundreds of pagodas from the 14th-18th century remain charmingly unrenovated, was a highlight of the day for me. Check the whereabouts of the rotating village market before you plan your Inle Lake boat trip. If the market is at Indein, make sure your boatman takes you straight there first thing in the morning without stopping so you can catch this colourful market, as well as the pagodas of Indein, before continuing with the rest of the sights of Inle Lake Myanmar. I really enjoyed the visit here and was sorry to have to leave to carry on with the boat tour.
If you like cats, the Nga Hpe Kyaung monastery on the western side of the lake is a fun stop to ask for on the tour. It was known as the ‘jumping cat monastery’ because they had trained cats to jump through hoops. These days the many cats seem to enjoy sleeping, being petted by visitors, and regular food at the monastery. It is a beautiful place and I enjoyed sitting on the floor of the airy wooden meditation hall, looking at the impressive carved statues and playing with the felines large and small. This is obviously a perfect stop if you are travelling in Myanmar with children.
Relax in Nyaung Shwe, Inle Lake
The lakeside town of Nyaung Shwe is the best base for exploring this part of Shan State, with a variety of Inle Lake hotels and restaurants to enjoy as you plan trips on the lake and its hinterland.
Nyaung Shwe is easily reached with an internal flight from Yangon and a taxi ride from the tiny airport. Or book onto a guided trek from Kalaw to really see how local people live.
One of the best things I did in Nyaung Shwe was going to a performance of the traditional puppet theatre. Generations of puppet masters have crafted marionettes and performed local fairytales in this tiny theatre. The performance was very dramatic and I was able to chat to the puppet master afterwards.
Enjoy the food in Shan State
Shan State is famous for its cuisine so make sure you try a variety of exotic salads, curries, noodles and stirfries. Nyaung Shwe has plenty of lovely restaurants and the boat tour drivers will take you to restaurants built on stilts on the lake.
However, by far the best foodie experience I had at Inle Lake, and possibly in the whole of Myanmar, was the hidden away place the Grasshopper guides took me to on the bike tour. It was in a lovely old stilt house and the tasting menu was overwhelmingly delicious. It was also a great opportunity to chat with the guides in a relaxed setting and learn more about Myanmar.
What to do at Inle Lake, Myanmar
In fact, if I had my time at Inle Lake again, I would not bother with the classic boat tour. I experienced all the highlights of the area in a richly satisfying way on the Grasshopper tour. The classic boat tour either repeated or didn’t measure up to my previous experience. If I went again I would not bother with the boat tour but just hire a boat to take me to Indein village so I could spend a day exploring there at my leisure.
Happy trails and enjoy your time at Inle Lake!