Inle lake sits at 900 meters above sea level, and while it is only 13.5 miles long and 7 miles wide, it is the second largest lake in Burma. In addition to being gorgeous and a key tourist site, the lake is an important source of fresh fish and harvested produce, and provides a key waterway to commuters going between villages.
The lake is interspersed with villages, pagodas and even floating gardens. The villages are made up of stilt-houses of teak and bamboo, small huts and multi-story estates with huge satellite dishes. The native people grow vegetables on floating islands which are made up of lake-bottom weeds held up by bamboo poles. The gardens can be cut and moved and therefore the farming plots can be sold like places of land – this concept of floating garden agriculture started in the 1960s and most locals are now self-sufficient farmers.
Along the lake, you will find tourist longboats and local commuter boats navigating the waterways, literally like a motorway. Additionally, you will see local Intha fisherman looking for their daily catch, using a unique technique of leg rowing. This technique is where one leg is wrapped around the paddle to drive the blade through the water, while using both hands to fish.
A typical tour of the lake consists of a long tail boat ride in the northern part of the lake, visiting various handicraft workshops, seeing a pagoda or two, and having lunch at a restaurant. We opted for a tailor-made trip based on recommendations we received. Here is a run down of our itinerary:
- 8am: We had the long boat pick us up at our hotel’s jetty and we were off. Once we went from the canal to the mouth of the lake, we were greeted by local fisherman posing for pictures. These guys were just tourist traps and we were to see the hard working fisherman later on the journey.
- We headed straight for Thaung Thu Village. This was the furthest village on our journey, which was located south of the main lake, and took us about 1.5 hours to get to. It was market day at Thaung Thu, which was one of the reasons to visit. Market day rotates from each lakeside village on a five-day basis. This one is a small market, but given the distance, there are less tourists, more local villagers fishing, working and bathing along the way. In addition, there is an interesting pagoda to see in the town.
- 11am: We left Thaung Thu village and headed for lunch. We decided to stop at Inthar Heritage House based on local friend’s recommendation. Not only did we have a nice lunch, but we were pleasantly surprised to learn that this was a non-profit organisation that preserves the cultural and natural wealth of the region. They provide a vocational training center, a gift shop to promote the artists of the region and give back to this community, participate in organic farming, and have a Burmese cat village – they are partnering with the Chine Research Exploration Society to bring back an almost extinct race, and they have created an island where 40 cats live and are taken care of.
- 2pm: Post-lunch, we went off to In Dein (or Inthein) – another village just off the main lake. It was a nice ride where we had a chance to see much of the daily life carried out on the jungled, winding canal — everything from children playing, people bathing and washing everything from clothes to buffaloes to scooters!
- We were quite lucky as most tourists visit in the morning, so we had a chance to appreciate the main attraction of the village in peace. At the hilltop of Inthein sits Shwe Inn Thein Paya, which is known as the 1,054 pagodas. This site is believed to date back to the time of Indian Emperor Ashoka, who sent out monks in the 3rd century BC to spread Buddhism. The hundreds of pagodas that exist today date back from the 17th and 18th century and were built by two Kings of the Bagan empire, Anawrahta and Narapatisithy. Some of these have been restored while others are crumbling. That said, it is a site I could have spent hours roaming through – the pagodas were magnificent and I was grateful that we had a chance to wander through them with few others around.
- 4pm: We had just enough time to squeeze in a few more sites: we did a quick drive by Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda, followed by a short stop at Jumping Cat Monastery and then through the floating gardens. As it turns out, there are cats and monks at Jumping Cat, but no jumping cats. It is a quick site, but one I would skip if short of time. The floating gardens however are worth passing through – it’s amazing to see such plump tomatoes growing right on the water!
- 5pm: We made our way back towards the north of the lake, where our boat driver found a great spot to watch the sunset. It was a perfect end to a wonderful day.
You might be wondering where the handicraft villages fit into the list. We tailored our day to
avoid all shopping. While some say that it is worth visiting at least one of the villages with cottage industries (lotus silk weaving, silver smiths, cheroot-making and boat building), we had heard how much of this was a tourist trap and decided to skip all of it.
Overall, it was a great day on the lake. The longboats are noisy and can get cold, but
none of that stops from the magic of Inle Lake.
As we had two days in Inle, we also had a chance to spend some time in the village of Nyuangshwe. If any town in Myanmar is going to be known as a backpacker town it is Nyuagshwe, making it a perfect place to base your visit to the Lake.
We enjoyed exploring Nyuangshwe. Unfortunately, the market was closed as it was a holiday due to the full moon, but we still managed to visit Yadana Man Aung Pagoda, which is famous for its Shan traditional architecture. We spent a bit of time in the cultural museum, less for the history and sites and more for the building which once was the palace.
And lastly, we enjoyed a leisurely evening tasting wine and watching the sunset at Red Mountain Winery.