Set among the mountains of the nation's Shan State, Nyaung Shwe is best known for being the gateway to Inle Lake. This is the country's second largest lake and features floating villages, gardens, various tribes nearby and fishermen who row with their legs. It's a gorgeous area and deserves its distinction as one of Burma's must-see travel destinations.
The town itself is pleasing too, being quite rustic with a small-town feel, and featuring its own ancient pagodas said to be from the 17th century. Horse-drawn carriages are still a popular means of transportation used by the locals; you'll have plenty to do in the area, and bikes available for hire will allow you to explore much of the countryside. A large winery, hot spring pools, villages, markets and pagodas are just some of the area's main attractions.
Many travellers come to Nyaung Shwe from Bagan, one of the country's other must-see destinations. It's a 6.5 hour trip, relatively short for this country. Another option for getting here though is via a three-day trek from Kalaw. You'll get to see several mountain villages, a variety of plants and birds, all set upon the misty blue mountains of the Shan State.
A channel connects Nyaung Shwe to the lake and is a few kilometres in distance. Given its nearness to the lake, an explosion of development in the area is to be expected; we're told that land prices have skyrocketed. Some new hotels are being built and many of the current ones are conducting renovations. The people of Nyaung Shwe are very hopeful for a coming surge in Burmese tourism. At the moment, 14 resorts are located directly on the lake and developers are pushing for more -- something that we hope doesn't happen.
A few negative aspects have arisen as a result of the anticipation of increased tourism. Population relocation of some tribespeople has occurred and there are several strategically placed 'workshops' that contain workers creating items not traditionally produced in the area (umbrellas, clothing, jewellery and cigars, available for purchase of course). Of course, you can skip the workshops.
If possible, spend at least three nights in Nyang Shwe but four would be ideal. The lake tours (that include visits to the workshops) take an entire day. We opted for a half-day tour that included visits to floating villages, floating gardens, outstanding views of the fishermen and surroundings and a trip to an old fish-farming centre, which was a perfect place to watch the sunset.
A bike trip to the Red Mountain Winery, run by a Frenchman, is an excellent way to spend a few hours or can be part of a full-day bike tour. The wine is outstanding, not just for being Burmese, and the restaurant is inexpensive and offers the best views that we've seen in the country thus far.
A five-day rotating market occurs around Inle Lake. Check with any tour agency when and where it's next on; we're told that the best is the Hmawbe Market. Very few tourists visit and you'll see men and women from the Pa'o tribe, in their black robes and colourful headwear, trading items including animals such as water buffalo and cows.
Being at a higher elevation than destinations such as Yangon and Mandalay, the weather in Nyaung Shwe is much cooler. Many of even the higher-end hotels don't offer air-con because it's so unnecessary. This will allow you to spend your entire day out and about if you choose, with no need to seek refuge indoors during the middle of the day.
With the lake's stunning natural beauty, a trip to Nyaung Shwe is essential if you visit Burma. The scenery, food and activities will surely make the time fly by. The people are incredibly hospitable and you'll likely find yourself staying longer than originally expected.
Yone Gyi Street is where many of the town's travel agencies and restaurants are located. It cuts through the northern part of town and leads to the canal. If you stay in a hotel on or near this street, nearly everything is accessible by foot. Many choose to rent bicycles to get around and they are readily available throughout town for 1,000 to 1,500 kyat per day.
KBZ Bank, home of the town's ATM machine that was working at the time of our visit, is located on Lan Ma Taw Street just off of Yone Gyi.
Just about every hotel offers WiFi to guests. If you need to use it outside of your hotel, it's available at several of the restaurants including The Golden Kite and The French Touch.
Mingalar Market is located on Yone Gyi Street in the centre of town. You'll find the night market a block to the south from there.
Travel agencies are located on just about every block in Nyaung Shwe. With so many options it pays to shop around. We liked Thu Thu Travel Agency [T: (081) 209 258, email@example.com]. It's run by Thu Thu and her niece Yin Yin. They both speak excellent English, are very knowledgable about the area and were happy to answer all of our questions.
By Matt French