Serene and scenic Inle Lake lies nestled among the rugged mountains of southwestern Shan State and is dotted with picturesque stilt villages and floating gardens. Lakeside markets see ethnic minority hilltribespeople descend from the mountains with their ox-carts, while traditional handicraft workshops and gilded pagodas make for stopping-off points on a journey around this magical watery world.
Out of Burma’s so-called Big Four tourist destinations – the others being Yangon, Mandalay and Bagan – our favourite is probably Inle Lake. As much as we love the lot, hectic Yangon can overwhelm; traffic-clogged Mandalay can underwhelm and Bagan can on a bad day invite unflattering comparisons with Angkor. But Inle Lake? Satisfaction is guaranteed.
The shallow lake, around 22 kilometres long and six kilometres wide, is mostly bordered by marshlands. With lake villages creating floating gardens, as well as reclaiming land for building, it can be tricky to see where dry land and water meet. In theory at least the surrounded marshes have been designated as the Inle Wetland Bird Sanctuary; UNESCO added it to the World Network of Biosphere Reserves in 2015. Inle has a high density of villages with some on the lake shores, others on stilts over the lake itself and some a bit of both; none are actually ‘floating’, Tonle Sap-style, as some descriptions would lead you to believe.
Inle Lake is usually visited from the nearby town of Nyaung Shwe, four kilometres up the main channel (Nan Chaung) from the lake’s northern tip. The small town now forms the tourism epicentre of Inle and is home to the majority of accommodation and restaurants.
The main attractions on Inle Lake are the spectacular temple ruins at In Dein and the stilt villages of Nam Pan, In Phaw Khone and Ywama with their cottage industries and the five-day markets. The majority population of the lake villages is Intha – an ethnic group found only in this area – while the surrounding hills are home to numerous Pa-O, with some Palaung and Danu villages particularly to the west.
If you enjoy Burmese food, Myo Myo from long-running Linn Htet (Corner of Yone Gyi and Mingalar Streets; T: (094) 2832 6575, (093) 239 7712) runs morning cooking courses on traditional Burmese family dishes for 20,000 kyat per person, with vegetarians catered for too. You won’t spend hours on frills and presentation but she’ll teach you to knock out an authentic curry along with soups and local salads. Sun Flower have also started running cookery classes and we wouldn't be surprised to see more places open soon.
Bicycling is a great way to explore the area, particularly given the cool upland temperatures. You don’t need to shelter from a baking midday sun as you do in Bagan; early winter mornings can get decidedly chilly. Well organised Active and Authentic (Kyaung Taw Shayt Street, opposite French Touch; T: (094) 2102 8786, (093) 628 1856; email@example.com; open daily 07:00-19:00) offer rentals and half- or full-day bike tours on good quality, carbon-framed mountain bikes. Hiring is 7,000 kyat for half-day or 12,000 kyat for a full day, dawn to dusk, including helmet.
Both Inle Lake and Nyaung Shwe are changing quickly. With an explosion of tourism in recent years, lake sights can get seriously crowded during peak season. Little Nyaung Shwe town is seeing its first higher-rise hotels and chic bistros, though for now Inle’s main town retains a grubby, dusty charm and the lake itself is still looking good. The government has imposed a moratorium on hotel building in town and on the lake -- it's not a bad idea, though good connections or loads of money mean many are ignoring it -- but a huge area has been zoned for hotels in the future on the southeast banks of the lake. Expect more change.
And while everything might appear fine on the surface, the lake already faces serious environmental challenges. The siphoning off of water by close to 100 hotels and resorts plus lake-side farming means water levels are falling. As the lake's surface area contracts, and insecticide and fertiliser use rises, water quality declines and fish stocks decrease. Deforestation on the adjacent slopes leads to more run-off and silting up. Add that to obvious rubbish and sanitation issues in the scenic, but rapidly expanding, stilt villages and the result is a fast-growing toxic soup. Organic and more eco-minded practices need to get going quickly, or the entire population of lake fishermen will be reduced to putting on fishing demonstrations to visitors at the lake’s mouth to make any sort of living.
High season, as elsewhere in Burma, is from November through to February, with a second peak in late July and August corresponding to European school holidays, even though this is during the monsoon. Prices and crowds can drop considerably during the low season (and wet) months of May, June, September and October, though low cloud cover can stick to the adjacent mountaintops for days on end during rainy season. March and April are the hottest months. April sees lengthy Burmese new year celebrations while the two-week Phaung Daw Oo festival, one of Burma's largest, is held on Inle Lake during late September/early October. This celebration sees revered Buddha images from the pagoda of the same name taken on a lake-wide procession in a golden barge.
Inle Lake fills a relatively narrow north-south valley between two ranges of rugged mountains. The lake stretches off towards Kalaw to the west and Kakku and Taunggyi to the east and northeast, and both directions offer trekking possibilities, with the Kalaw to Inle route being the favourite. To the south, a marsh-lined channel links two more lakes before arriving in Kayah State, just short of the state capital Loikaw. The main port and boat terminus on the third lake is Pekon village. It’s an attractive but expensive travel proposition and so for now most journeys to Loikaw are via either Kalaw or Taunggyi. To the north, a short hop sees the sealed road from the lake meet the main Taunggyi to Thazi highway, while just further west, set in a rare flat area, lies the regional airport of Heho.
The Inle Lake ticket booth is located at the northern entrance to town and sells compulsory passes for 12,500 kyat per person.
Nyaung Shwe is found on the east side of the main channel leading into the lake. (It isn’t a canal as such but a canalised river course; it's the principal source of the lake's water along with the In Dein River.) The town is linked by a sealed road to the main highway at (confusingly named) Shwe Nyaung, around eight kilometres distant, and so it has reasonable road links to Heho, Taunggyi, Kalaw and all points west.
A second sealed road heads east out of town, creating an alternative route to Taunggyi, while another goes west in the direction of Khaung Daing, before turning north towards Heho, 35 kilometres distant. Both these alternative roads are often used during the monsoon, when the town’s main access road is occasionally under water. Otherwise the direct route to Nyaung Shwe is a cul-de-sac and terminates in the town.
To the west side of the narrow lake the tarred road runs out shortly after Khaung Daing village while to the east a rough track follows the shore south from Maing Thauk village. This is currently being upgraded and will lead to the proposed “hotel zone” on the slopes towards the southeast end of the lake.
The main street of Yone Gyi starts from the Teik Nan Bridge and cuts through the small town centre before leading east out of town. The main Mingalar Market is around half way down Yone Gyi while jetties are spread out along waterfront Kann Nar Street. Restaurants and accommodation lie on the main street and in quieter residential areas to the north on Museum Street and south on Phaung Daw Pyun.
Several banks are found along Yone Gyi and Lan Ma Taw Street adjacent to the market. With the town’s somewhat erratic electricity and dubious internet you may have to be patient with the ATMs. A couple of the more upmarket spots now have their own machines, such as Pub Asiatico. Numerous travel agents are located along Yone Gyi; our favourite for their helpfulness and efficient service is Thu Thu Travel (T: (081) 209 258, (094) 100 3892; firstname.lastname@example.org; open daily 08:00-20:00). The town’s best used book shop is two doors down from One Owl Grill, on the same road.
Nyaung Shwe isn’t large and can be easily explored on foot, though bicycles are widely available. There’s a small post office, hospital and police station in town but for anything serious you’re better heading off to the nearby state capital of Taunggyi or for anything very serious, head to Heho for a flight elsewhere. The town isn't big enough to warrant a bus station and residents tend to head up to the busier highway at Shwe Nyaung. Most long-distance transport out of town is tourist transport and just departs from outside agents’ offices on Yone Gyi.
Police: Yone Gyi St, eastern edge, Nyaung Shwe.
Hospital: Hospital St, south side, Nyaung Shwe (not recommended).
Post office: Opposite Pyi Guesthouse, Phaung Daw Pyan Rd, Nyaung Shew (not recommended).
By Mark Ord . Last updated on 13th October, 2016.