Inle Lake is one of the most visited places in Myanmar aside from Bagan and there are plenty of things to see and do. We arrived at Inle Lake after a three day trek from Kalaw and had booked a room in Nyaung Shwe, the biggest town at the north shore of Inle Lake. If you’re looking for budget accommodation, Nyaung Shwe is probably your best bet. There are a lot of cheap (by Myanmar standards) guesthouses and hostels to choose from.
Taking a boat trip on Inle Lake
One of the best ways to explore Inle is by hopping on one of the long wooden boats that wait at the riverfront for tourists. The trek we took to get to the lake included a boat ride from the south end of the lake to Nyaung Shwe, but usually you can expect to pay around 20,000 kyat for a boat for up to five people for a few hour long trip. Our first boat trip took us past floating gardens and wooden houses on stilts, and then went through the canals in town.
We stopped to visit a silversmith, watching locals melting silver and working it in their shop. We also stopped at a small souvenir shop, where two long neck Karen women worked. They wore traditional clothes and an impressive amount of golden rings around their necks. A sign near them claimed the rings were originally meant to protect them from tiger bites. While it was interesting seeing the women, it didn’t feel right that only two of them were there, far from where they would normally live.
Another day we accidentally ended up on another short boat trip. While bicycling around, a local starting talking to us and invited to show us his village and take us to a monastery on the lake. When we asked how much money he wanted, he just said however much we want to give in the end. He paddled us past floating gardens to a small village on the lake. We hopped off the boat and visited a primary school, where kids practiced their dancing and singing. Next to the school was the old monastery we had been told about. There were only a few monks and tons of cats around – the monastery had probably seen better days – but it was an interesting place anyway.
Our guide asked us if we wanted to try to learn how to paddle a boat the traditional way the fishermen do at Inle Lake: balancing on one foot and steering and paddling with the other. It looked very easy when he or other locals (even little kids) did it, but David gave it a try and couldn’t get a single stroke! At least he managed to not fall into the water while trying.
Exploring Inle Lake by boat is a must do while in the area. Boating through the green floating gardens, villages built above the lake, and seeing locals running their errands is a great way to see the area.
Watching the Fishermen
The first thing that comes to mind when you think of Inle Lake is typically the fishermen, standing on one foot and paddling with the other. We already saw a few fishermen paddling with their feet during the day, but we thought it might be nice to see them at sunrise. It was easy to get a boat at 5:30 am, we just walked toward the river and a few people pointed us in the right direction. Next to a bridge a few locals were waiting at their boats to take tourists out. We ended up paying 20,000 kyat, which was high considering we only wanted to see the fishermen and the sunrise, but the early hour apparently justified the price.
It was barely becoming light outside and was still freezing when we hopped into the boat. We had warm clothes on and the boat driver handed us some blankets, but the frigid wind that hit us as we motored down the lake kept us shivering. As soon as we left the main canal from Nyaung Shwe and hit the open lake, we spotted the first two fishermen.
Surprisingly the two fishermen on their boats were putting on a show for the tourists and not actually fishing. They were wearing traditional clothes, had two big wooden baskets, and were balancing and posing with them in their boats. It reminded us a bit of a circus show. After we got over the first moment of disappointment and had taken a few pictures, the fishermen stopped their show and paddled to our boat to collect some money for their efforts.
We waited for the sun to come up over the mountains across the lake and then headed back to town. If you don’t expect an authentic experience and just want a picture opportunity, seeing the fishermen is a popular stop while at the lake.
Cycling around Inle Lake
A good way to get around Inle Lake is renting a bicycle and explore the surroundings that way. You can rent cheap bicycles in town and at many guesthouses. Even though it’s mostly flat around Inle Lake, the distances to some of the sights are pretty long, so make sure you’re up for a few hours of riding. We left town and started riding south toward an old teak bridge and a forest monastery. Once we had left the town behind us, the way was easy to find, as there is only one road leading around the lake. It took us about 40 minutes to get to get to a small village where we left our bikes and walked for 15 minutes uphill to a small forest monastery. The monastery looked almost abandoned, so we didn’t hang out long and just went to see the golden pagoda above it. We were hoping to be able to look out over the lake from the pagoda, but the seasonal haze and trees kept us from getting a great view.
Just downhill from the monastery in the same village is an old 500 meter long teak bridge. We left our bikes at the start and walked along the bridge, passing by locals offering to take us on a boat trip or sell us things. Walking along the bridge, we had nice views of some floating gardens and turned around once we reached the village at the other end.
If you get tired of cycling or want to head even further along the lake but not ride all the way back, you can always pay a boat driver to take you and your bikes back to Nyaung Shwe. Renting a bike is a fun way to explore Inle Lake and the surroundings, and gives you more freedom to stop and explore than going on an organized tour.
Wine tasting at Red Mountain Estate Winery
Visiting the Red Mountain Estate Winery was the last stop on our cycling trip before heading back into town. We didn’t expect to go wine tasting during our time in Myanmar, so we were intrigued when we heard about the winery at Inle Lake. Some friends had warned us about the quality of the wine, but we wanted to try for ourselves. Entering the winery, there’s a nice terrace with views over the hills where you can order glasses or bottles.
We decided to try the wine tasting, which took place behind the main building of the winery. The views from there weren’t bad either, if you manage to get one of the tables on the outside. We paid 5,000 kyat each, getting to taste two red and two whites wines plus a plate of peanuts. Not expecting too much, we tried the reds first and they were pretty awful. We worked our way to the white wines, which weren’t great, but a lot better than the reds. Although we didn’t enjoy the wine, it was still a nice experience since we hadn’t had wine in a few months. It may make more sense to skip the tasting and just order a glass of white on the terrace instead.
Hot Air Ballooning over the lake
Probably the most beautiful and exciting way to see Inle Lake is from high above. Balloons over Inle offer daily sunrise hot air balloon flights over the lake. While it isn’t cheap, it is definitely an extraordinary experience not to be missed if you can afford it. We were excited for our first hot air balloon flight to be in such a beautiful place. The balloon took us 2,300 meters into the air, where we had amazing views over Inle Lake and the green floating gardens. If you want to read more about our experience of this incredible way to see a sunrise at the lake, click here.
After you have explored the closer surroundings, taking a trip to Kakku Pagodas is good way to spend the day. Having seen pictures of the pagodas, we were intrigued to go see the place for ourselves. The pagodas are a two and a half hour drive from Inle Lake, and set us back 40,000 kyat for the car. After only about 30 minutes of driving, we stopped in the city Taunggyi where we had to buy the entrance tickets (US$ 5) to the pagoda, which was still another hour drive away. Normally you also get a guide there, who then joins you in the taxi. We didn’t have any room in our taxi since there were four of us, so we continued on without a guide.
When we arrived we saw a couple of big tour buses park in front of Kakku, but the place itself didn’t seem crowded at all. Kakku was different than other religious sites we had visited in Myanmar so far. At Kakku there isn’t just one or a few pagodas, but 2,478 of them. There are different types and sizes of pagodas at Kakku, stupas and hollowed out pagodas – some of them with Buddha statues inside. Once there were over 4,000 pagodas at Kakku, but a mayor earthquake in 1975 destroyed almost half. Only a few of the pagodas are in their original state, which was of plain red brick. Most of the rest have been restored to some degree or are under restoration at the moment.
It was really impressive to wander around at the site, walking between seemingly never ending rows of different looking pagodas. We first just went on our own, but the lack of any information made us long for a guide to learn more about this fascinating place. We asked a local that was sitting at the entrance if it’s possible to get a guide on site and as luck had it, he turned out to be a guide himself. He was there with some other tourists, but they were done with their tour so he offered to quickly show us around again and tell us more about Kakku.
Inle Lake ended up being a bit more built up around tourism than we originally expected, but it also was one of our favorite stops in Myanmar. Seeing the long neck women stuck in their shop at the lake made us decide to go visit them in one of their home villages, so our next stop was a long minibus ride south to a town called Loikaw!