Longboats, Monasteries & A Winery – Inle Lake, Myanmar
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On his recent round-the-world trip, TPG Special Contributor Eric Rosen visited Myanmar for a week. He wrote about his tips for visiting Myanmar, his experiences in the country’s largest city, Yangon, how to book flights within Myanmar, his experience staying at the Hotel at Tharabar Gate in Bagan, what he did in Bagan. Today he talks about visiting another region in Myanmar, Inle Lake, where he spent two days exploring monasteries and ruined temples, watching local fisherman and farmers out on the lake, and visiting local handicraft workshops.
The final stop on my tourist circuit of Myanmar was the region of Inle Lake, in the central eastern part of the country. This is a beautiful area of mountains, forests and streams, and Inle Lake lies at its heart, nestled between two mountain ranges in a valley that itself is at about 3,000 feet in elevation.
Inle Lake is home to traditional stilt villages, ancient cities, traditional craft workshops, and even two wineries! I spent two days exploring this fascinating region, and here are some of the highlights.
The nearest airport to Inle Lake is Heho, about an hour’s drive away. Taxis from Heho to the village of Nyaung Shwe at Inle Lake’s northern shore cost about $30-$40 US, though you can also arrange transportation either with your hotel or through a tour company if you have booked a tour ahead of time. The road is windy and through a mountain pass and some villages, so though the distance is not far, it can take a while.
I do work from time to time for a luxury US tour operator called Ker & Downey, so I had them set up my transportation and touring for me through their partner in Myanmar, Tour Mandalay.
My guide, Nemo, met me at the airport along with a car and driver, and the two of them brought me to Nyaung Shwe to catch a longboat (also arranged through Tour Mandalay) to my hotel, the Pristine Lotus.
Activities and Sights
Along the way to Nyaung Shwe, we stopped at a 19th-century monastery called Shwe Yan Pyay to admire the beautiful wooden architecture and listen to the students learning their Buddhist scripture.
We then continued on our way to Nyaung Shwe, which is the main town on Inle Lake at the northern tip of it. It’s a pretty busy, dusty place with a big market every few days (the market moves from town to town along the lake over the course of a week) and a bunch of cheap accommodations including some hostels. We actually passed through it on the way to the Red Mountain Estate Vineyard and Winery on a hill along the eastern side of the lake to have a quick wine-tasting. The winery is about 10 minutes from Nyaung Shwe (you can easily bike there from town if you want) and owned by a Burmese tycoon, though the winemaker is French. I was given a quick tour of the winemaking facilities, then settled into a table in the winery’s restaurant garden to try a few wines, which included a Sauvignon Blanc, a Shiraz and a semi-sweet rosé. Was it great wine? By no means. But the view from the garden was lovely, and it was a fun way to spend some time on a beautiful day. After the tasting, we went back to Nyaung Shwe to catch a longboat to my hotel, where I spent the rest of the day.
The Pristine Lotus is on the western side of the lake along the main road that runs along it, so once I was settled in, I rented one of their bikes for the afternoon for $4 and went for a ride.
At first I went south and stopped at some temples just off the main road which were marked with signs, then I rolled through a couple lake-side villages including Kaung Daing. This ramshackle little village is known for making tofu from yellow peas, and I stopped to watch a lady making it while her two teenage grandsons strummed a guitar and asked me about “Hollywood” when I told them I was from Los Angeles.
There were not many people out and about, but the ones I ran into were friendly and helped point me back to the main road when I got lost. Once back out on it, I pedaled north to visit a hot springs spa, but when I got to the complex, I found that it was closed for renovations. Usually you can pay an entrance fee of about $7 to swim in pools fed by hot springs, relax in the garden and get something to eat in the restaurant. Along the way there, I stopped at one of the roadside bars to buy a bottle of water, and I met a boat tour guide who takes people around the lake for $20-$30 a day, so hiring an independent guide is an option here.
Cruising the Lake
I just had a quiet afternoon and evening catching up on work, and got to bed early because I wanted to be rested up to explore the lake the following day.
Nemo picked me up at about 8:30am the following morning, and one of Tour Mandalay’s longboat drivers met us at the hotel dock to take us around the lake. After plying some of the narrow canals along the shore and watching folks tending to their floating gardens, we sped out onto the main body of water along with lots of other tourist boats as well as just your normal morning traffic of people shuttling from village to village or to that day’s market.
Our first stop was the little town of Indein, where we perused the wares at that day’s market, including lots of tomatoes and peppers plus shimmering piles of MSG. Then we hiked up to Shwe Indein Pagoda at the top of a small hill above town and wandered through the ruins of the 1,054 stupas that dot the jungly hillsides. Unlike many of the other villages on Inle Lake, which are actually on the lake and have houses and buildings supported above the water on stilts, Indein was on dry land, so it was easy to explore the town and surrounding area.
It started to rain while we were up at the pagoda, so we walked back to town and got back in the boat to drive over to the Phaung Daw Oo Paya, which is home to five revered Buddha statues that have been completely covered in gold leaf by pilgrims as offerings and more resemble golden lumps now. Every year, the statues are paraded around the lake villages and temples in an enormous golden barge in October, and you can see the barge in its dock outside the temple.
Our next stop was the Ko Than Hlaing Silk and Lotus Weaving workshop, which is in a series of stilted houses in the village of Inpawkhon. We spent a little while here watching both men and women weaving thread from lotuses and silk, then looming it into fabric – it was fascinating, and everyone was happy to chat and answer questions about their work. I stopped at the small shop on the way out to buy a few souvenirs and was happy to pay the (only slightly) higher prices than you find at the markets in the lake towns and in Yangon, since the goods produced here are fair (or at least fairer) trade.
After that, we also made a quick stop to the silversmith’s village and took a look at the workshop and boutique there (nothing for me, thanks!), then had lunch at a restaurant that seemed like it was almost in the middle of the lake called the Cherry Pann. I had whole grilled lake fish (though it is actually farmed elsewhere since the lake itself has become somewhat polluted and people are discouraged from eating the fish from it) and rice. We had actually wanted to stop at the restaurant at the beautifully reconstructed Inthar Heritage House near the silk/lotus workshop, but it was closed for the month for repairs. It is supposedly one of the best restaurants in the area and serves traditional Inthar cuisine and uses ingredients from its own organic garden.
After lunch, it was another quick visit, to a blacksmith’s village this time, where we watched burly young guys hammering glowing-hot hunks of metal into various things like knives and hoes. We waited out a sudden downpour there then floated through the fisherman’s village and watched the men casting nets and smacking the water with their oars to stun fish. It was almost hypnotic watching them paddle their dugouts using their legs to row in the traditional fashion here. They do so in order to have both their hands free to fish.
Passing by some floating farms, we came to the Nga Phe Kyaung monastery, which was once known for its trained jumping cats, but now has simply become a place for learning, worship and reflection. Then, knowing I’m a foodie, Nemo took me to a small village to see how the traditional rice crackers of the area are made, and I even got to sample some right off the coals. On our walk to and from the village where people were making rice crackers, we chatted with locals and stopped here and there along the way to look at the pigs, chicken and geese people kept in their little yards.
By that time, it was just about 4:00pm and we’d been out for the better part of a day, so it was time to head back to the Pristine Lotus. It took about 45 minutes to get back there, but it was a relaxing cruise through the center of the lake, and I just sat back and took in the gorgeous scenery as clouds rolled in over the mountains and folks went about their daily lives in the boats and floating gardens around us.
Before I started putting my final trip itinerary together, I had actually planned on going to Mandalay instead of Inle Lake, but a friend told me I should see Inle instead, and I am glad he did. It was one of the most fascinating places on my trip, and felt like walking back in time to a way of life that looks much the same as it did a century ago here. Yes, there are more tourists than ever, but I had come in very low season just at the start of the wet season, so it didn’t feel crowded or overly touristy to me. If I were to go back, I would skip things like the silversmith’s village that are clearly geared specifically to tourists, and would have explored some of the less-frequented villages and monasteries instead. However, I had a really great day out on the lake and would highly, highly recommend coming here on a trip to Myanmar.
That said, there are some considerations to take into account. First, I lucked out a bit with the weather and only got a few heavy downpours, but the weather can be truly inclement in wet season (usually June-October), so be sure to look into your dates before coming here.
Second, though it is generally cooler and more temperate than other areas of Myanmar, Inle Lake is still quite hot and sticky for much of the year, so bring appropriate clothing – and clothing that you can wear into temples as well, so mid- to long sleeves and no short shorts – as well as plenty of sunblock. I brought mosquito repellant as well, but I think I only got one or two bites the whole time I was there. My doctor had also given me antimalarial medication to take during my visit since it is present in this part of the country, but as I said, I had no issues.
Tourism here is relatively safe, and I felt fine about biking around to various villages by myself. However, always be aware of your surroundings and make sure you have a map or some form of guidance to get back to the main roads.
Finally, as with everywhere else I visited in Myanmar, I found the people here to be reserved but very friendly and I really appreciated the chance to get to speak to them about their daily lives and their vocations. They were helpful with everything from directions to bargaining for souvenirs, and I even accepted tastes of various things people were cooking like the yellow tofu and the rice crackers. I had no problems with the food, but use your own best judgment about what to eat and not to eat.
Inle Lake turned out to be the surprise hit of my trip, and though I had not originally planned to go, now I would not have missed it for the world.
Did you visit Inle Lake? Where did you go and what did you do?