Halfway through our 4 week trip through Myanmar we’d planned some R&R at Inle Lake. We’d booked the hotel with the only swimming pool in Nyaungshwe, but never touched the water. As usual we found too many activities to keep us busy for 4 days: We cycled around Inle Lake, took a boat tour, trekked into the surrounding hills and drove to the incredible Kakku pagodas.
Cycling around Inle Lake
For our first day at Inle Lake we rented a pair of bicycles at a local shop for a fairly easy ride around the lake. Roads were paved and mostly flat, so even Eugénie didn’t have to much trouble to keep pedaling. The sights are low-key (certainly compared to what can be found elsewhere in Myanmar), but it was a nice way to get a glimpse into the local life at some of the 20 villages surrounding the lake.
The loop – crossing the lake at the village of Khaung Daing (boatman will be waiting to ferry you to the other side) – takes about three hours, but it’s a good thing to just take your time. As soon as we crossed the Teik Nan Bridge we were a different world, passing stacked ox carts as we pedaled along. There are hot springs after 45 minutes of cycling, but we skipped those.
After having had lunch at the village of Maing Thauk at the other side of the lake, we rode our bikes to the Red Mountain Vineyards, which is at the end of a short but steep turnoff from the main road (Eugénie had to push her bike up here). We both don’t fancy wine – so no wine tasting for us –, but with a can of Coca Cola the view from the winery’s terrace over Inle Lake was just as beautiful. From here it was a short ride back into Nyaungshwe.
Boating on Inle Lake
Our first day at Inle Lake we were wondering where all the tourists were. In the evening the streets of Nyaungshwe were pretty much deserted. This was not uncommon in Myanmar when we visited, but wasn’t Inle Lake one of the top tourist destinations of Myanmar? On our second day we found out where they were: on the lake. The main reason for most people to visit is to venture out onto the lake in a long wooden canoe propelled by a roaring Chinese outboard motor (bring some ear plugs!).
We’d rented a boat through our hotel at a fair price for just the two of us, starting the day early. As it was quite chilly in the morning (temperatures can drop to as low as 5o Celsius) we were glad we’d taken warm clothes with us for the first hours on the lake. Even with hats and winter coats on we got cold. We pitied people on other boats looking very uncomfortable, bracing themselves against the cold wind. Once it got warmer the coats got off and the sunblock on. Intense sun and being out on the water all day equals sunburn, which we couldn’t completely avoid.
5 day market at Indein
Without a doubt the highlight of a day on the lake – if you can time it right – is a visit to the 5 day market at Indein (or Inthein). The market is held every day at a different village around the lake following a 5 day cycle (hence the name). The one big drawback is that many visitors plan accordingly so it can get very crowded here. Luckily the lake is so big that most of the time you can find some relative solitude – if you have a boat driver who understands you want to avoid big crowds.
At Indein are also some atmospheric pagodas. There are some crumbled, overgrown stupas directly behind the village to the right, but most people only visit Shwe Inn Thein Paya which is reached by a covered stairway up the hill at the other side of the stream to the left of the market. Next to groups of weather-beaten 17th and 18th century stupas and zedis that are mostly untouched, some of them leaning over at an precarious angle, the main group of stupas regretfully has been restored in such a way that they almost look brand new. Pity.
Floating gardens, workshops and fishermen
Other stops on the lake include a visit to the floating gardens where farmers grow flowers, vegetables and fruit, a stop at the so-called Jumping Cat Monastery (with lots of cats but nu performing jumping cats anymore) and you get dragged into some very touristy lotus and silk weaving, jewelry and cheroot making workshops. Be warned that prices here are much higher here than elsewhere.
A bit disappointing was that there are not many traditional fishermen, who row their boats using one leg, left on the lake (at least, we didn’t see many when we were there). What we could see of it, fishing using a basket trap didn’t seem very efficient. For pretty pictures (the ones you also see in many guidebooks and brochures) there are some model fishermen congregating near the entrance of the channel to Nyaungshwe. They will strike a pose for you for a small donation.
Trekking into the hills around Inle Lake
The most popular – and therefore most touristy – trek in Myanmar is the 3 day trek from Kalaw to Inle Lake. As we didn’t want to be surrounded by other travelers all the time, we opted for a one day walk into the hills east of Nyaungshwe with a guide. We started the day with a visit to the local market which was actually quite nice for such a touristy place.
After that we started out for a stiff six hour walk in the hills, our inquisitive guide mostly interested in what we did back home, how we lived and what we earned. It was a nice trek – with no other tourists in sight – but it was by no means the highlight of our stay at Inle Lake. The best thing was to spend some time at a local family that prepared lunch for us using ingredients our guide had bought at the market that morning.
Driving to the Kakku pagodas
Though just 60 km from Inle Lake, the Kakku pagodas only get a fraction of the visitors the lake is generating. Mostly this has to do with the long ride (about three hours one way, the road to Kakku not being that good) and the cost of hiring a taxi (we got a good deal through our hotel) as there are no organized tours and public transport is almost absent. But what a sight it was, this ‘stupa park’ with 2.478 centuries old stupas. One of the highlights of our stay in Myanmar. We were glad we forked out the extra kyat.
The obligatory Pa-o guide was a steal at 5 USD. Our guide Susu was wonderful, spoke English very well and was very photogenic; many other visitors wanted a picture with her. We walked around the pagodas and their constant chiming ‘umbrellas’ for several hours and couldn’t get enough of them. We had lunch at a nearby restaurant with a view of the pagodas.
We visited Inle Lake in November 2014
Travel tips Inle Lake
Stay – Inle Lake is famous for its expensive hotels built over the lake, but the Princess Garden Hotel at the southern edge of Nyaungshwe was a very satisfying alternative. We stayed 5 nights in one of the cozy but spacious bungalows, with firm beds, lots of blankets to keep us warm (it gets surprisingly cold here at night) and a hot shower. We didn’t use the swimming pool.
Each day when we returned from a long day out a staff member brought us freshly made fruit juice on our porch. Each time it felt like coming home with the owners enquiring about our day. They are full of travel info and can arrange taxis cheaper than most agents/bureaus in town. Breakfast was delicious, but as the restaurant is completely open you better bring your coat when having it early.
Wifi worked only in the hotel lobby and restaurant but was not working well. The hotel has generator for electricity in the evening, which is a good thing because Nyaungshwe was the one place in Myanmar where we experienced regular power outages. The Princess Garden Hotel also is a good place to have laundry done, not charging per item (as is common in Myanmar) but per kilo, making it much cheaper.
Eat – Nyaungshwe has many nice places serving traditional Myanmar food or more touristy Chinese fare. We decided to have pizza here for a change and had great pizza at Star Flower.
Transport – We arrived by direct air-conditioned bus from Bagan. The nine hour ride was one of the most relaxing we’ve ever made in Southeast Asia. I was especially happy with the amount of leg room, a rare treat for a 1.88 meter tall budget traveler. The South African B-movies from the 80’s played on the bus needed some getting used to though….
Some other posts about Myanmar: