If you or one of your friends thinks about how to escape from the urbanized city and get into the rural village while traveling in Myanmar, Inle Lake would be the best choice. This lake is Myanmar’s second largest, measuring twenty-two kilometers long by ten kilometers wide. This picturesque lake sits in a valley between two mountain ranges, in the Western Shan State.
While the scenery is spectacular, what makes Inle Lake truly unique is the way of life of the region’s inhabitants, the Intha community. Some in this community live entirely above water, with their houses built on top of stilts, and their only means of access being their one-person-wide, long tail, wooden boats. It’s a fantastic place to visit, and it was a great change from the communities we’d seen so far in Myanmar.
We had three full days to explore Inle Lake and its surrounds, and we didn’t get bored. There is so much to see on and around the lake that you could easily spend an entire week there. Here is a list of our favorite things to do in this area:
1- Take a boat trip on the lake
Well, this is a pretty obvious one. You simply can’t visit Inle Lake and not take a boat tour to explore the lake; it’s the area’s main attraction! Most boat tours begin from the town of Nyaung Shwe to the north of the lake, but if you are staying in a hotel around the lake, they can organize a boat to pick you up directly.
You can hire a boat for a few hours, but we’d recommend a full day hire, including either sunset or sunrise. There is so much happening around the lake, and so much to see. You’ll watch locals going about their daily activities, see entire villages built on stilts out over the water, and marvel at floating hydroponic gardens. All boating on the lake uses the traditional, slender, long tail wooden boats, which makes the experience even more unique. Don’t forget to take your camera with you!
2- Visit the Floating Gardens
Twenty-Five percent of Inle Lake is covered in floating gardens, where locals mainly grow tomatoes, cucumbers, and a few other vegetables, in large gardens that rest on the surface of the lake. These garden beds are built up from the mud and weeds that the locals gather from the deeper parts of the lake. During your boat trip, you may see them piling up those weeds onto their boats.
The tomatoes from Inle Lake are the nicest in the country and are normally picked green. They are used to make the traditional Myanmar tomato salad, that consists of sliced tomatoes, shallots, peanuts, and a lovely sesame seed dressing. It was one of our favorite dishes to eat in Myanmar.
As you check out the gardens, you’ll find many locals standing or sitting on their boats in amongst the vines, picking vegetables or pruning and weeding their gardens. Cruising past row after row of these amazing floating gardens is an incredible experience.
3- Visit the stilt villages
Most of Inle’s villages are built on top of stilts out over the water. A highlight of our visit to the lake was our time spent boating around these villages. They are a photographer’s paradise. Needless to say, my camera needed a good rest at the end of the day, as did my shutter finger!
The main inhabitants of the villages are the local fishermen and farmers, but the villages also contain shops, schools, and small temples or pagodas; and all of those buildings are set on stilts!
As you cruise past, you will come across many locals going about their daily chores. You’ll often spot the locals bathing or doing their laundry in the lake.
Some villages are working villages, which specialize in crafts such as silk and lotus root weaving, boat making, and pottery. Many of these do seem targeted at tourists, but they don’t seem to care very much whether or not you buy anything. They are happy to demonstrate their skills regardless. That’s the Burmese spirit, always smiling and always friendly.
4- Watch the sunrise and sunset
Watching the sun rise over the lake is amazing. Perhaps getting up early is not your thing (me neither), but it’s worth it to watch the sun rise over the mountains behind the lake. The scene in front of you is nothing short of spectacular. Plus it’s so peaceful out on the water at that time. Apart from a few local fishermen beginning their day, everyone else is still asleep.
If you really can’t wake up for sunrise, then at least make sure you catch a sunset. Sunset is a lot busier, with more tourist boats around, but it’s still pretty amazing as well.
5- Take a hot air balloon ride over the lake
If you think that hot air ballooning is just found in Bagan, you’re wrong. Oriental Ballooning runs morning balloon flights in Inle Lake from October to April. These balloons are smaller than the ones in Bagan, and it’s a fair bit less popular, but the scenery during the flight is nonetheless breathtaking. Our balloon ride in Bagan was canceled, so we decided to try a flight in Inle, rather than getting a refund. We were really glad that we did. There certainly weren’t as many temples, but the views over the lake, the floating gardens, and surrounding villages were spectacular.
6- Watch the traditional fishermen do their tricks
Intha fishermen have a unique leg-rowing technique. They wrap one of their legs around their oar to guide their boat through the water, leaving both of their hands-frees to handle their nets. This has become a big tourist attraction in Inle Lake, and some of them will patiently wait on the lake for the next tourist boat to come along, before performing a little fishing show. They balance on one leg, perched at the stern of their boat, holding their big conical nets. It’s a pretty incredible balancing act. Needless to say, I’d pretty quickly end up in the water if I ever tried this!
The best times to see these performances are just after sunrise or around sunset. Bare in mind that if they perform for you, they will expect a tip. I can’t say I blame them, it’s probably much easier to perform for tourists a few hours a day than to spend the whole day fishing on the lake. And no doubt they make much more money as well! It’s a pretty cool performance to watch, and a fabulous photo opportunity for us anyway.
7- Shop at Inle Lake’s “five-day” market
The market is called the “Five-Day-Market” because the local people rotate the market around five different lakeside villages, over a five-day period. These markets are colorful, very picturesque and always super busy. People travel to the market from all over the region to buy and sell produce. Plus the markets are also full of tourists! Most people arrive by water, which makes finding a place to tie your boat rather tough. Somehow the boat drivers always seem to find a way to make it work, however! Trading is also conducted on small boats out on the water, so as you approach the market, expect a visit from boats full of trinkets. It is a great place to buy souvenirs.
8- Visit the local temples and monasteries
Just because you’re in Inle Lake, that doesn’t mean you won’t come across lots of temples. After all, the locals are predominantly Buddhist, and you’ll find temples all over the country, including Inle Lake. But unlike most places in Myanmar, in Inle Lake, you’ll also find temples on stilts!
Over two hundred monasteries dot the lake, but the most popular one seems to be Nga Hpe Kyaung, also called the Jumping Cat Monastery. It’s a weird name I know, but it’s named after the cats that the resident monks would train to jump through hoops. But that was in the past. These days the cats can’t be bothered with any of that, and they prefer to spend their days lazying around the monastery instead. But the monastery is still worth a visit. It’s a beautiful wooden structure built on stilts, housing an impressive collection of ornate Buddhas, and of course many sleepy cats.
9- Visit the Paduang women
The Paduang women (also known as the long neck women) wear brass coils around their necks, arms, and legs. They start wearing them from an early age, and the weight of the rings pushes their collar bone down and compresses their sternum and rib cage. This makes their necks appear longer. The reason for doing this is unknown, although some say it was initially done to protect their body from tiger attacks!
I had never seen a long neck tribe before, so I enjoyed the visit, but nowadays it is mainly done for tourists. The friendly ladies will encourage you to take their photo and pose with them. The tip jar is never too far away!
10- Take a day trip around the beautiful countryside
If you decide to spend some time on the ground instead of on the water, take a car or bike trip around the stunning countryside surrounding Inle Lake. You’ll come across lots more villages, and endless, beautiful fields full of blindingly yellow sesame flowers. They’re so pretty! Along the way you may also get caught up in a water buffalo created traffic jam!
11- Take a two-hour boat trip to Sagar Village
Sagar Village is a ruined royal capital situated at the far southern end of Inle Lake. It is full of ancient monasteries and pagodas. It’s a much quieter part of Inle Lake because most tourists don’t make it that far south.
However the best part of the visit to Sagar is not the village itself, but the boat journey to get there. As you leave the main body of the lake, and your boat winds down the narrower waterways on its way to Sagar, you’ll have plenty of time to lean back and enjoy your idyllic and picturesque surroundings. Although it takes some time to get there, you won’t be bored. With the hazy Blue Mountains constantly on the horizon, you’ll pass by floating farms and several more stilt villages. You’ll come across ponds covered with lotus flowers, and spot migratory birds flying above you. The whole journey there was spectacular, and the camera had another good workout!
Once you arrive at the village, you’ll be welcomed by the friendly villagers and given floral necklaces and plenty of smiles. You can wander through the village and get lost amongst the crumbling stupas.
12- Visit the Pindaya Caves
The Pindaya caves are next to the town of Pindaya, just less than two hours’ drive from Inle Lake. Set deep into the limestone hillside, these caves are stacked with over eight thousand statues of Buddha. Some date as far back as the 18th Century. The Buddhas are in all different styles and sizes and are made from white marble, bronze, emerald, painted plaster, or wood coated with gold leaf. The limestone cave reaches back about 490 feet into the hillside, and it’s a jaw-dropper. It’s an important pilgrimage site for Burmese Buddhists, and for us non Buddhists it’s a very unusual and fascinating temple to visit. It’s quite far from Inle Lake, but it was well worth the visit. If you are visiting Kalaw, then it is much closer to get to from there. Sadly we couldn’t visit Kalaw on this trip.
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