Where to eat and drink: Inle Lake

Inle Lake: Where to eat and drink

Nyaung Shwe town offers a fine choice of eating and drinking spots to travellers -- even if not many of them are Burmese. They do cover Shan, Intha and Burmese, but also Thai, Indian, Italian, French, Chinese and classic pub grub -- many places lump all of them together on the same menu. Quality and prices range from cheap and cheerful to high-end fine dining, though in a nutshell, Nyaung Shwe has some great food but sadly not great Burmese food.

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Our focus of the scene is the town rather than the large stilted eateries on the lake, such as Mr Thoe’s, In Thar Lay I and II, Nice Restaurant, and Nam Pan, as these really cater to tour groups. Full set lunches are served at these joints, and while the food isn’t disastrous they don’t cater so much to independent travellers. You’re better off trying to grab some noodles in a village shop to tide you over or waiting to get back to town for a decent dinner. In Dein and Khaung Daing have plenty of local-style simple restaurants and any lakeside market will have noodle and curry stalls.

Breakfast at Thu Kha Coffee. : Mark Ord.
Breakfast at Thu Kha Coffee. Photo: Mark Ord

Hotels and guesthouses typically provide decent complimentary breakfast, though some don’t. For some local colour and atmosphere, forgo the freebie and head down to our favourite tea shop, Thu Kha Coffee, opposite the market. Apart from the friendly service and appealing street corner location, they serve real black coffee as well as the ubiquitous 3-in-1. Table snacks vary from day to day so you may get offered: falafel, samosas, pakora or perhaps a coconut tart or bean paste pasties. If none of those take your fancy, then fall back on their excellent Shan noodle soup, a bargain brekkie or brunch at 1,000 kyat for a tasty, filling bowl. Run by a Muslim family, many of the snacks are cooked on site and they even have a small English menu for drinks and more substantial dishes. They open all day until 17:00 for teas, coffees, soup and snacks.

Another top Shan noodle spot, which we couldn’t see an English name for, sets up in a very basic looking cafe around halfway down Yone Gyi between the market and bridge on the south side. Tables spill into the adjacent yard and it’s hugely popular with locals, though food usually runs out by mid-morning.

Shan noodle soup -- always a stand-by. : Mark Ord.
Shan noodle soup -- always a stand-by. Photo: Mark Ord

More chic coffee and croissants can be had round the corner at The French Touch on a quiet side lane. You’ll face a choice of three kinds of coffee -- one Burmese or two Italian brands -- as well as a wide range of varied and classy breakfast options. The orange-painted restaurant has a wide wooden deck area out front, a small but cute garden out back and photo-lined walls in the main section. The French owner is a photographer, explaining the proliferation of fine images. They also open for lunch and dinner. Mains, from around 3,500 kyat upwards, are a mix of Shan/French fusion or well-prepared pub grub such as burgers with house-made lemon mayonnaise and pizzas. Most tempting for us out of the fusion offerings was an avocado and onion salad with a creamy lemon dressing accompanied by Shan crackers. The salad was 5,100 kyat while pizzas started at 10,000. Smooth chill-out music will accompany your choice of espresso and they have a free showing daily at 19:30 of films on aspects of local and Burmese culture, produced again by the owner himself.

Espresso at French Touch. : Mark Ord.
Espresso at French Touch. Photo: Mark Ord

In a similar bistro vein is new-looking (as of 2016) Chillax, with plenty of varnished wood and spacious decking. Coffee is again very good and they offer a wide range of caffeine brews and teas, both local and imported. Pain au chocolat and croissants among other bakery selections may tempt Western breakfast fans away from guesthouse pancakes while their signature sandwich for lunch is turkey on rye. A range of classic local and Asian mains start at 6,000 kyat if you stick around for dinner. Kitchen closes at 21:00.

Tea leaf salad at Inle Palace. : Mark Ord.
Tea leaf salad at Inle Palace. Photo: Mark Ord

Perhaps a bit later in the morning, cutesy Inle Palace isn’t a bad spot for coffee, with a downstairs room plus upstairs terrace seating area. While not quite the coffee haven as our previous two suggestions, their brew is okay plus they have some pretty good local lunch options. Both their Burmese ginger and classic tea-leaf salads are excellent, as is their Intha-style fish curry, even if they are more aimed at foreign than local tastes. Salads are a reasonable 2,000 kyat and the inevitable pizzas 9,000-10,000 kyat. Bright green and yellow is the theme here as evidenced by the chairs, cushions, walls, and even waitstaff.

One of our fave places to hang out in town: Min Min's. : Mark Ord.
One of our fave places to hang out in town: Min Min's. Photo: Mark Ord

Just a little further up Yone Gyi towards the market is one of our favourite hangs in town out at any time of day, Min Min’s. They get going around 09:00 or 10:00, and this is a fine and friendly spot for a morning coffee break, lunch, afternoon snack or early evening beer. The decor is unreconstructed Nyaung Shwe retro, with breeze block walls, a tin roof and toilet that’s reached through the kitchen, but it has a couple of well-placed outdoor tables and owners Min Min and wife are helpful and friendly. Their menu includes juices and lassis and their curious local-style pancakes, coming in sweet or savoury versions, make for good mid-morning or afternoon fillers. If you’re after something more substantial then try their curries -- ask for it spicy as otherwise they are mild. Pancakes are 1,800 to 2,300 kyat while curries are 2,800-3,000 kyat.

Across the road, Ever Green is another simple but popular hole in the wall, with a bunch of footpath tables and an equally eclectic menu, though the draught beer at 1,000 a glass is probably their main draw. It’s very popular with the backpacker crowd in the evenings, despite their food tending to be slightly more expensive than Min Min’s.

Linn Htet has been keep travellers happily sated for years. : Mark Ord.
Linn Htet has been keep travellers happily sated for years. Photo: Mark Ord

For cheap, authentic and tasty Burmese fare, Linn Htet still gets our vote. While it’s very well known among tourists these days -- you’ll see more foreigners than locals eating here -- they haven’t compromised their authentic food, raised their prices or altered their grungy decor one iota and staff are as friendly as they ever were. Some of the Burmese and Shan dishes can have some pokey flavours such as the fermented soya beans or fish sauce based dips, but each curry comes with six to eight included side dishes, so if you don’t like one you’ll hopefully like another. There’ll be a soup, vegetables with dip and various bean dishes and pastes – they vary from day to day – plus each side dish is filled up free on request. Price is 3,500 kyat regardless of which curry you choose, though they also have a menu with some classic one-dish options such as noodles or various local salads. The vegetable curry option is very good. In high season don’t come late or you won’t get a table. Linn Htet is on the corner of the market, at the junction of Mingalar Ashae and Yone Gyi Streets.

Opposite Linn Htet on Mingalar are two adjacent restaurants both worth a look, though they can get very popular during busy months. The one on the corner of Yone Gyi is Sun Flower Restaurant and next door is Sin Yaw Restaurant. Both have similar set-ups and plenty of friendly staff and both are much newer than Linn Htet, so they are laid out and decorated more with tourists in mind. The same goes for the food which, while good enough, is very much aimed at foreign tastes.

Sun Flower in its glory. : Mark Ord.
Sun Flower in its glory. Photo: Mark Ord

Sin Yaw specialises in Shan food with a range of traditional curries, salads and noodle dishes. Salads, starters and vegetable dishes go for 2,000-2,500 and mains with meat for around 4,000. Their Shan-style pork masala curry with mint was pretty good but again unless you ask they will err very much on the mild side. Attentive service and we have it on good authority that their cocktails are very good. Equally friendly Sun Flower is a pleasant spot to sit and has a similar menu to Sin Yaw, though more Burmese than specifically Shan. They seem to be undercutting their neighbours a bit with salads at 1,500, vegetable dishes at 2,000 and meat or fish curries at 3,000. There’s not really a lot to choose between the two, so we’d go for the one with the best available table.

One Owl Grill is a cosy, welcoming little restaurant with some cool decor and an eclectic menu thought up by its French boss. Options are again a mix of local and Western but aside from the inevitable pizzas (sourced from their sister restaurant round the corner, Pub Asiatico), they have some excellent tapas-style dishes including various dips and skewers from the grill. They’re in a reasonable 1,500-2,000 range and their hummus was the best we’d tasted in a while. This is a very convivial spot for just a drink or a meal.

Classy nibbles at One Owl Grill. : Mark Ord.
Classy nibbles at One Owl Grill. Photo: Mark Ord

The next corner up Yone Gyi sees you in front of another longstanding Nyaung Shwe eatery, The Golden Kite. (They also have stilt restaurants on the lake so don’t confuse them.) For a change these guys do specialise – in Italian – though it’s Burmese owned and staffed. The chatty boss is an Italian fanatic and claims to have been taught cookery by some passing tourists from Bologna. You frequently get a tour of the kitchen where you can see his Italian basil, imported cheese and salami and his pride and joy, a wood-fired brick oven. Authentic pasta dishes go for around 5,000 kyat, and pizzas are 7,000 which considering the imported ingredients is very reasonable. Our pizza here was the best we tried in town. They also serve Red Mountain at sensible rates. Sit outside on a terrace; the slightly dingy interior was being renovated last time we passed.

Green Chili serves an extensive range of Thai dishes with an emphasis very much on stylish decor and presentation. In that respect they’re successful, though we found the food slightly pricey and fairly bland. The chic setting and mild dishes may well appeal to the more timid or chilli-challenged visitors but genuine Thai food this is not. Count on around 10,000 kyat per head for a full nosh.

Intha-style spicy fish dip. : Mark Ord.
Intha-style spicy fish dip. Photo: Mark Ord

Placing less importance on decor and setting is Nepalese Everest II, with number I being the longstanding Kalaw institution of the same name. Their rather tucked away location is perhaps a disadvantage since while you’re lucky to get a table in the Kalaw branch in high season we were the evening’s only customers at number II in July. Food is good and plentiful though and there isn’t a pizza or gnocchi on the entire menu. The standard formula is a curry of choice accompanied by dahl, chapattis and rice for 5,000 kyat.

A row of local-style barbecue, noodle and curry shops is located down a narrow lane behind Yone Gyi at the same level as the market (so between the continuation of Lang Ma Taw and Mingalar streets.) There’s a string of around 10 adjacent eateries – all very simple - and which seem to alternate between pick your own curry or choose your own barbecue selection. Though it’s often referred to as the town’s night market the earliest stalls open around midday, closing between 21:00 to 22:00. You’ll get a good fill here for 1,500-2,500 kyat and beer is available.

Carb heaven (otherwise known as Shan noodle salad). : Mark Ord.
Carb heaven (otherwise known as Shan noodle salad). Photo: Mark Ord

Dedicated bars as such haven’t really hit Nyaung Shwe yet and while the majority of our suggestions serve both food and drink, there are a few other spots to head for a tipple.

For sundowners any one of numerous hotel rooftop bars could suffice, though for full bar menu and a chic setting the terrace at Viewpointis the one to beat. One Owl has draught beer, a comprehensive bar selection and a cosy atmosphere and can get pretty lively if the boss is on form. Happy hour from 14:00-18:00 sees their cocktails at a giveaway 1,500 kyat and there are some imaginative choices in their extensive list. The 1,000 kyat glasses of Myanmar on tap at the centrally located Ever Green gets the drinking crowds in though this is 200 kyat more than a local would pay. French Touch have original cocktails, though they do go for 4,000 and up, while those served on Chillax’s terrace go for 2,500-3,000 kyat.

Ginger salad at Inle Palace. : Mark Ord.
Ginger salad at Inle Palace. Photo: Mark Ord

Cafe-style Inle Palace goes more bar style of an evening and serves inexpensive wine by the glass or cocktails with shishas at 10,000. Pub Asiatico is the first spot in town to include the pub word in its name: Found down Museum Street they are an imposing two-storey wooden building with an expansive interior and wide terrace. Worryingly it comes with its own ATM attached. Though managed by the same monsieur as good value One Owl, we found Asiatico’s food offerings underwhelming and it seemed to lack any pub sort of atmosphere. Still, they do propose no fewer than nine beers on their vast drinks list including three on draught; if you were with a group of people it may be more fun. The food menu includes Thai, Burmese, Japanese, Chinese and European. While their chicken schnitzel and mash at 6,700 was pretty good we wouldn’t order one of their rather greasy pizzas again even if they do start at a relatively low 6,500 kyat.

Please note closing times noted below are flexible and generally tend to be earlier in low season and later in high.

Chillax Bistro: Kyaung Daw Anauk St (corner of Mingalar St); T: (094) 311 4526; open daily 09:00-22:00 (kitchen closes 21:00).
Everest 2: Kyaung Daw Annow St; T: (094) 2832 2745; open daily 07:30-21:30.
Ever Green: Yone Gyi St; open around 09:00-21:00 (later in high season).
Golden Kite: Yone Gyi St; T: (081) 209 327; open daily 18:00-22:30.
Green Chili: Hospital Rd; T: (095) 214 101; open 09:00-21:00.
Inle Palace: Yone Gyi St; T: (094) 2834 4972; open around 08:00-22:00.
Linn Htet: Corner of market and Yone Gyi St; open daily 08:00-22:00.
One Owl Grill: 1 Yone Gyi St; T: (092) 6297 2841; open daily 09:00-23:00 or later.
Min Min’s; Yone Gyi St (next to the roller disco); open daily 09:00- 22:30.
Night market/barbecues: Lane 1 block south of Yone Gyi level with the market; open around 12:00-22:00.
Pub Asiatico: Museum Rd; T: (094) 5209 6741; open daily 16:00-23:00.
Sin Yaw: Mingalar Ashae St; opposite the market, next door to Sun Flower; T: (094) 935 1883; open daily 09:00-22:30.
Sun Flower Restaurant: Corner of Yone Gyi & Mingalar Ashae St, opposite the market; T: (094) 2831 7343; open daily 08:00-22:00.
The French Touch: Kyaung Taw Shayt St; T: (094) 936 0030; open daily 07:30-22:00.
Thu Kha Coffee: Yone Gyi, corner of Lan Ma Taw St; open daily 05:00-17:00.
Viewpoint: Tain Nan Bridge & Canal; T: (081) 209 062; open daily 10:00-22:00.

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Based in Chiang Mai, Mark Ord has been travelling Southeast Asia for over two decades and first crossed paths with Travelfish on Ko Lipe in the early 1990s.