Inle Lake, one of the original ‘big four’ on the Myanmar tourist route, is no longer the place to go if you want to get ‘off the beaten track’. An enormous lake surrounded by the rugged mountains of the Shan State, Inle Lake is one of the must-see tourist attractions in the country – and everyone goes there.
Sometimes, however, there is a good reason that tracks are as beaten as they are. Inle Lake is a fine example of why it might just be worth your while checking out the tourist traps every now and then!
Inle Lake Zone Entrance Fee: There is a charge of 13,500 Kyat or $10 USD to enter the Inle Lake Zone for five days. You must pay upon entry to Nyaung Shwe at the small ticket booth at the road side.
Things to do at Inle Lake…
You will most likely be based in Nyaung Shwe, the popular tourist hub providing plenty of shops, bars and restaurants etc. etc. The list of things to do in Nyaung Shwe is as follows…
- Boat Trip: See below.
- Trekking: See below.
- Respond to offers of boat trips and trekking: Depending on which part of town you are in, you will receive these offers between 4 and 40 times an hour. The script is the following…
- Boatman: Hi! How are you?
- You: Very well thank you, and you?
- Boatman: Which country?
- You: (Name of your country of origin)
- Boatman: (Your country of origin)? Great country! What you do tomorrow? You wanna go boat trip? I take you to all the best places!
If you wish to cut this conversation off at any point, you should insert the following line.
- You: Tonight I take an overnight bus to Mandalay.
- Boatman: Okay, bye!
Boat Trips on Inle Lake…
(Written by someone who doesn’t like boat trips!)
Honestly, there are not many words that can run shivers down my spine with the ease that “boat” and “trip”, when put together, manage to. I skulked around grumpily in anticipation of our voyage, fearing endless trips to shops and handicraft workshops (with attached shop, of course).
As we set off, the first thing that hit me was the impressive speed of the boats. We sped along the channel linking Nyaung Shwe with the main part of the lake and I had to admit I was rather enjoying the experience.
We performed little jumps every time we passed another speeding boat, something akin to a scene from Live and Let Die (or so I liked to tell myself). I couldn’t help but be impressed by the floating gardens, where row after row of tomato plants sit productively on top of the water.
I revelled at the novelty of the first village on stilts we passed through. Everything was going swimmingly until our first official stop of the day.
As the boat pulled up at the jetty of a rather smart looking building a group of children helped steady the vessel and greeted us with “hello, how are you’s” warmer than the Burmese sun. I knew I wasn’t going to enjoy what followed. We were lead into the building by a young girl. No sooner were we inside, the spiel started…
We squinted as we tried to follow the details being shot at us on the process of silver extraction, the percentages of copper necessary to keep the products strong enough (which pure silver will not, apparently) etc. As our guide continued at a rate of knots that put our speedboat to shame, there was an unspoken script we were all following. “You know why you’re here. I know you know why you’re here. You know I know you know why you’re here. But we’re all going to smile politely and get through this”. Perhaps it’s revenge for colonialism. Understandable, I guess. Either way, we’re already carrying far too many bags to consider buying any silver.
As we were led around the shop that lay on the other side of the door, we prepared ourselves for the look of disappointment that would follow the announcement that we wouldn’t be making any purchases. Sheepishly we headed back to the boat, empty-handed, the resentful glares of the silversmiths adding extra wind to our sails, had we had any.
We were taken off to lunch just around the corner. We pulled up at another jetty where another child helped steady the boat before leading us up the stairs to sit amongst the many other glum-faced tourists, none of which appeared to have enjoyed their meal. Predictably enough, the prices were around four times those you’d find if choosing your own restaurant on sturdy ground. However, the situation was out of our hands. We ordered our food. My chicken curry turned out to be stir-fried chicken (not for the first time in Myanmar. Bizarre, as real chicken curry is a very popular dish). I, in face of the situation, decided to seek strength from a higher source… A 66cl bottle of delicious Myanmar beer.
Despite the average (not dismal, I admit) food, and the fear of facing further shopping “opportunities” (there had been mention of visiting silk workshops, tobacco cheroots, basket weaving workshops, to name a few. I’m sure you can imagine, none of these prospects filled me with pleasure), we were actually in rather good spirits.
I was definitely enjoying the time on the water, just not the stops. The words “Never get out of the boat” rang through my mind. I’ve seen Apocalypse Now more times than is acceptable… However, these words rang in the voice of Willard, rather than Chef. If you don’t understand this reference, stop reading this immediately and go and watch Apocalypse Now!
Happily, we got back onto the boat, told our driver not to take us to any more shops, an instruction that we were delighted to find he followed. The afternoon took us all around all manner of stops, none of which were shops!
The highlight was, without doubt, the little village we got out at as last stop, where we had a 45-minute walk down a lane between beautiful rice paddies. The locals there were the friendliest you could hope to encounter. Unfortunately, we don’t know the name of the village. Not much use for a travel guide… sorry!
Long story short, the boat trip is absolutely worth doing. However, try and make sure you organise it in a way that fits your personality.
If you don’t want to visit shop after shop, make sure to make this crystal clear to whoever organises your trip.
We did speak to a group who’d found the experience unbearable for precisely these reasons. It’s not just a case of me being a grump… If you recognise yourself in my words, don’t be shy about demanding exactly what you want!
Trekking around Inle Lake and beyond…
The lake itself is like looking in a mirror. Its glassy water reflects everything around and on it. The horizon is dominated by mountains, pagodas, bamboo houses on stilts, and the rising and setting sun. It’s a great place to relax and explore, but you’re not the first tourist to visit there. If you want to experience the authentic traditional culture, you’re going to need to walk a little further uphill. By “a little further uphill” I mean about 6-7 hours. But don’t worry, the slope is gentle.
The only things that stand in your way are panoramic views and open doors offering you cups of fresh green tea. Along the trail, you’ll pass several small villages that belonging to the Pa-o, Shan, and Intha peoples, just 3 of the 135 ethnic groups recognized in Myanmar.
When you’re looking down 1500 meters at the lake below, you’ll be glad you took the walk.
The hiking trails meander slowly over one ridge to the next. The main enemy is the heat, so bring plenty of water. Overnight trekkers can reprovision at Loikaw village at the south end of the lake. There is a general store with limited basic supplies, mostly canned drinks and bottled water all served at the current room temperature. They also have a selection of longyis for sale, the traditional Myanmar unisex skirt, but they are the same prepackaged ones you can buy in town.
What will you eat on a trek?
When you share meals with the local families, you’ll eat the same meal they do. You’ll notice that while the ingredients may be few, the taste is plentiful. They know how to cook. They combine the freshest produce, with a few local spices that compliment, rather than overwhelm the dish.
The main entrée is a few farm-fresh vegetables cooked in a mild curry sauce, served over rice. On the side, you’ll be served a leafy soup, usually boiled mustard greens. It tastes much better than it sounds. If the food is not spicy enough you can turn up the heat with some chilli powder. You probably won’t be served meat except for a few small fish plucked from Inle Lake below, but you won’t miss it. Don’t worry – you’ll have plenty to eat.
Arranging Your Trek in Inle Lake:
There are many travel agencies in Nyaung Shwe offering trekking guide services. They offer a variety of trips trekking trips that fit any time frame, both on foot and if you fancy it, on horseback. All trips are private and can be customized to your liking.
One of the most popular treks in the region is the trek from Kalaw to Inle Lake – Read more here.
What to Bring on a Trek?
Pack as light as possible. A small backpack is all you need. Your food and bedding material will be provided, but carry your own water, at least 1 litre per person. Although hot tea will be provided along the way, the local drinking water is not potable. Bring a few basic toiletries. You won’t need much since full bathing facilities are not available. Be sure to bring tissue paper. Even though the squat toilets are remarkably clean, the bamboo strips to wipe with don’t look so comforting!
You don’t need hiking boots for the trek. Trainers or sports sandals will work fine. Most of the local people, including guides wear flip-flops, but they probably won’t provide enough support for most trekkers. T-shirts are fine during the day. If travelling winter or spring bring a light sweater or jacket. It can get cool at night. Convertible pants are perfect for this trek. You can get by with one pair and wear pants at night, and shorts during the day.
LOCAL TIP: Try wearing the traditional longyi on the trek. They are practical because they keep you cool during the day. They also make bathing easier. They convert into a portable shower curtain while using the public springs! Wearing one will also win you extra love and respect from the local people. They are unisex and make great souvenirs.
Wine Tasting around Inle Lake…
After a year in Asia, one aspect of Europe I really miss is decent wine! Surprisingly enough, it turns out that Myanmar offers a couple that really do hit the spot.
One of the best we tried was Red Mountain, the French-Myanmar owned vineyard of which is found just outside Nyaung Shwe town. There is a slightly snooty atmosphere at the vineyard itself, especially if you’ve tackled the “mountain” on a bike and turn up with a good bottles-worth of sweat on your vest. However, if you’re willing to look past the looks, 5000 kyats will get you a sample set of four tasters, two reds, two whites and a plate of peanuts which you can accompany with a fantastic view over the valley (and of course, the lake itself).
Bottles start at 12,000 kyats for whites and 15,000 kyats for reds. The cheapest red was perfectly nice. If you’ve been on the road for a while, I’m sure you won’t be disappointed.
Also check out Aythaya wine, a German-Myanmar wine produced in Kalaw at 13,000 Kyat/bottle.
Where to eat?
Best local restaurant: We particularly enjoyed Linn Htat on the main road serving traditional Myanmar food alongside the ubiquitous fresh vegetables and various spicy side dishes. We had the local aubergine curry and pork curry – both delicious! Curry set, with veg, side dishes and Burmese sweets is just 3,000 Kyat.
Best Western restaurant: If you fancy a taste of home, head to Pub Asiatico who have very reasonably priced pizzas, draught beer and cocktails!
Where to stay in Inle Lake?
Nyaung Shwe has many many options for the backpacker, of varying budgets.
We stayed at Little Eco Lodge, a small guest house which proudly offers visitors the chance to stay in a more traditional setting than you might otherwise find in the main town. It’s a wooden building on stilts, surrounded by an organic garden (where many of the ingredients of the delicious food that they serve are produced).
Water is heated by solar panels and the sound of the traditional weaving that is carried out in the shade under the main building is your soundtrack throughout the day. They also offer free bikes which you can use to take yourself into town, or up to the nearby vineyards at Red Mountain.
How to get to Inle Lake?
The fastest way to get to Inle Lake is by aeroplane. The nearest airport is in Heho. Flights from Yangon start around $115 US dollars and take a little over an hour. From Mandalay, it’s $72, from Bagan $105.
Taxi rides from Heho to Nyaung Shwe costs around $25 US dollars for the one-hour trip, but it’s possible to share costs with other travellers at the airport.
If you’d prefer a cheaper option, there are buses that run from all the major cities. The overnight VIP option is surprisingly comfortable. The morning mini-bus we took from Bagan was anything but!
Perhaps the most fun way to get to Inle is to trek from the wonderful town of Kalaw. Treks usually take three days. The company that organises your trek will even have your bags transported to Inle Lake for you. The same option is on offer if you decide to bike your way instead (one day). It’s downhill, thankfully, but still a great way to earn that first beer upon arrival!
Trekking section by Brian McLaughlin. The rest by Dave Noakes.