Things to see and do around Inle Lake, Myanmar
After a few awesome days in Bagan, we headed over to Inle Lake with a V.I.P. night bus. The bus ride was an experience of its own, specially since it was way more luxurious than we had expected. The bus was fully equipped with comfy spacious chairs, built-in TV monitors and power plugs to charge our electronics. It even had a private stewardess to go over safety regulations “on board” and announcing stopovers. Each passenger was provided with blankets, water, snacks, washcloths and even a toothbrush.
A fraction of those 2200 pagodas in Bagan
We arrived in the middle of the night in Nyaung Shwe, a small town connected with a canal to the northern side of Inle Lake. To our frustration, every single night bus in Myanmar seems to arrive at its destination around 4 or 5 am, no matter the distance. It can be difficult to bargain for an early check in during these hours but the lovely ladies at Lady Princess Hotel seemed used to the circumstances and instantly offered us a room without any additional cost.
Nyaung Shwe is easily walkable but the town itself doesn’t have much to offer, accept for accommodation and a few restaurants. The lake itself is the center of attention and taking the boat ride is a definite must !
Tip! There are endless tourist shops on the main road of Nyaung Shwe that offer boat trips. If you’re traveling solo then choosing a shared boat might be a good option (6000 kyat), if not, the price is around 15.000 – 20.000 kyat for a single boat (3-5 persons) for a full day tour.
Our boat for the day
The one legged fishermen
Inle lake is especially renowned for the peculiar rowing style of the fishermen; they balance on one leg at the edge of the their small streamline boats with the other leg wrapped around the oar. With a standing position they have the advantage of a better view of the dense seeds or water hyacinths below surface (the lake is pretty shallow) as well as bubbles, pointing out shoals of fish. They make it seem very easy but there is a lot of technique involved; with the oar locked under one armpit and the wrapped-around leg to propel and steer the boat, they have two free hands to pull up the nets. Ask one of them how it’s done and they’ll happily teach you, although I can’t promise, you won’t fall over board!
“One legged fisherman”
A fisherman smashing the lake’s surface to drive the fish into the nets
The Floating Garden
About a quarter of Inle Lake is covered with floating gardens, growing the finest tomatoes, cucumbers and gourds. These gardens are built using seagrass, mud and debris from the bottom of the lake, which are piled together into a 1m thick fertile layer, where seeds can be planted. It’s amazing to see the “gardeners” on small teakwood boats, harvesting ripe tomatoes from plants rising from the water. I guess you never have to worry about watering your plants in this garden!
The floating gardens
After the floating garden you can stop for an hour to visit the local market on the northeast end of the lake. This is a true local market, we enjoyed watching the local people buying all sorts of seeds and nuts, fish fresh from the lake, or tropical fruits like durian, mango, pineapple, dragon fruit, rambutan etc. The prices are also local; I bought a big bag of peanuts (around 500 grams) for 500 kyats!
A betel-chewing saleswoman with red stained teeth
On the west side of the lake there is a river that leads to Indein, a small village famous for endless pagodas and stupas. They are all situated densely in on area, some are ancient, other are brand new, a gift from various companies, families or foreigners. Surrounded by forest this place is very calming and scenic, and you often see monks in this holy place that make your picture perfect. Make sure your boat ride includes a stop at Indein, it isn’t included in some tours unless you especially request it.
A cheerful Indein villager smoking his cheroot cigar
The Long Neck Women
Myanmar has many different ethnic tribes all over the country. One of them, the Padaung tribe (or Kayan), is especially famous for the so called long neck women. These women use brass coils to elongate their neck, starting as early as five, adding more rings as they get older. The long neck actually doesn’t get “longer”, rather their collarbone and chest is pushed downwards and their chin upwards, creating an illusion of a longer neck. However, the neck muscles elongate so when they occasionally do take the coil off, they feel lightheaded and their neck feels unstable for a couple of days. This was done for the sake of beauty; the longer the neck the more attractive you are, but today it’s mostly worn to protect their cultural identity. In Inle, you can find long neck women around the floating market, the sad part is, they are not indigenous for this area.
The Padaung people live in the Kayan state close to the Thai border but some of them have been brought to Inle to attract more tourists. They same thing, at a much larger scale, has happened in Northern Thailand (Mae Hong Son) were many of the Padaung fled during the civil war. Many of them claim they are forced to live in a “human zoo” to attract more tourists to these areas. The local government in Thailand refused to allow the Padaung refugees to accept resettlement offers in developed countries. However, some say they are happy to receive the extra revenue from the tourism industry.
The question arises wether you should boycott these tourist traps or not, but if you visit them don’t take your photos and leave, rather try to learn about their culture, their story and buy some of their handicrafts to support them. You can read more about ethical travel and their struggle here.
The Cheroot Factory
A cheroot is a cigar distinctive to Myanmar and quite popular throughout the country. A visit to a cheroot factory is one of those commissioned-based stops of the boat tour on Inle lake. We were skeptical at first, but we actually enjoyed the visit; you get a warm welcome, some tea and you can see the cheroots in making. Some of these women can handroll over 500 cheroot cigars a day. They sell a variety of cheroots, from traditional strong to anise-flavored and even big Cuban style cigars. They also sell hand made cigar boxes but they are not pushing you into buying.
The Textile Factory
Same goes for the textile factory, even though it is a commissioned-based stop they aren’t nagging on you to buy something. You can walk around the factory and see cotton, silk or lotus scarfs in making, from beginning to end. The workers seem to be working when you arrive and after you leave, so it doesn’t seem to be only for show. They are using over 100 year old equipment that has been passed down for three generations. It’s interesting to see how much time it takes to make one scarf by hand.
The Red Mountain Estate
On a sunny day we decided to rent a bike (500 kyats each) and explore the outskirts of Inle. We rode past farmers, still using buffalos for the hard work, and villages almost entirely made of bamboo. After a few kilometers we finally saw the vinery, Red Mountain Estate, a complex of beautiful red houses up on a hill surrounded by vineyards.
They have a small restaurant with a nice view over the north side of Inle lake. We sat down and tried the tasting set; a small glass of rose vine, red vine, and two different white vines (4000 kyats). Frankly, they all taste terrible, but it’s a good opportunity to taste Myanmar vine, since they are mostly produced for the locals and not for export (except Japan). We also attended a complimentary tour of the estate (held at noon, 14:00 and 16:00) where one of the staff showed us the oak barrels, big tanks and other equipment for winemaking. It was a short tour but interesting. Even though the vine wasn’t the best we still recommend a visit to the estate, it’s a beautiful bicycle ride and the view is worth it.
The Golden Kite
If you are tired of Myanmar food, you can head to the Golden Kite restaurant for some good pasta and gnocchi. They serve an amazing pineapple chocolate pancake and offer free wi-fi with a fairly good signal compared to the rest of the country.
Inle lake is an incredibly scenic place to visit and a real heaven for photographers. It was definitely one of our highlights in Myanmar!
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