The second largest lake in Burma, the rather shallow Inle Lake sits at an altitude of almost 900 metres above sea level and is an important source of fresh fish and harvested fruit and vegetables from floating gardens on the lake. It’s also one of the most popular tourist sites in the country.
A typical tour of Inle Lake consists of a boat cruise around the lake, passing from village to village, with stops at various handicraft or cottage industry workshops that can either be full-on tourist traps or very interesting to see; add in a lakeside market plus a pagoda or two, the floating gardens and the ruins of In Dein and you have a full day trip. Here’s a rundown on which stops we’d recommend — and those we’d skip — for a day tour of Inle Lake.
The first thing to bear in mind is that on a busy high season day there can be at least 500 tour boats departing from Nyaung Shwe jetty. Our first and possibly most important piece of advice is leave early! Most boatmen will have a fairly set route so ask if they can vary their timing a bit to avoid the worst of the crowds; expect to pay 18,000 to 20,000 kyat per day for a group up to four; the price for a half-day/no workshop tour of the lake is around 15,000 kyat for a group up to four. Note that there isn’t a large discount in price for a half-day tour because no workshop commissions can be earned by the operators.
In Dein — a must see — and any lakeside market are best done first thing. The market rotates from lakeside village to village on a five-day basis, but we reckon the best of the lot is actually Nyaungshwe market, which is on a five-day roster between inland towns including Pindaya, Aung Ban, Kalaw and Heho – not the lakeside villages. (Don’t confuse this market with Nyaung Shwe, the permanent daily market.) Unless you do get there very early, the lakeside markets will have more tourists than locals and if you’ve been able to catch the superb street markets at say Aung Ban or Kalaw you could conceivably skip the lakeside one without missing much.
The floating gardens and stilt villages can be seen on your way to pretty much any lake destinations, while one or two of the lake’s pagodas also feature on typical tours. Since the abbot recently passed away the cats no longer perform at the famous ‘jumping cat’ temple — so skip it, as the temple itself is of only limited interest. Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda is the other regular stop and while very popular with local tourists, you’ll likely have seen more spectacular temples on your Burma trip, so if you’re looking to pare down your itinerary this could be another spot to skip.
That leaves the famous — or infamous — handicraft villages, though we wouldn’t write them all off. They do at least provide a structure for your tour and give you a chance to get out of the boat and stretch your legs. Most, while possessing souvenir stands or even occasionally full on air-con showrooms, are never really a hard sell. The concern really is more whether they are actually interesting enough to stop for, bearing in mind that if you stopped at all of them it’d take all day.
These are nearly all traditional handicrafts and they would likely go on whether tourists visited or not — charges of exploitation by some are, we think, somewhat exaggerated. Of course, the bosses rake in the cash and the cheroot workers are paid a relevant pittance — but that doesn’t only happen in Inle Lake and these tourist sites are providing employment. The most controversial is certainly the Padaung or ‘long-neck’ workshops but most Padaung women we’ve talked to seem happier to be there than stuck in their remote home villages scraping together a monotonous living with no electricity or running water. On a recent visit, the women were absolutely fascinated — and taking photos on their own phones — of a girl in our group who had a pierced tongue. ‘That must be really uncomfortable — doesn’t it hurt?’ asked the Padaung women with several kilograms of brass around their necks.
The other main classic handicraft stops are to see lotus weaving, cheroots, blacksmiths, boat building and silver making. Having been there many times, the former two are very interesting and always popular while the blacksmiths and boat building are of rather limited interest, and the silver making more showroom than workshop. These are the spots where boatmen and guides get their commission, sip on free tea and munch snacks, and chat with their mates, so it can be difficult to persuade them to change itineraries, but there are non-tourist alternatives in some of the less-visited lakeside villages.
Give your Inle Lake trip some thought in order to get the best out of it, especially if you’re visiting during high season. Of course a decent tip to your guide or boat man may well help him think outside the box a bit more!
Another great way to spend a couple of hours is to do an Inle Lake sunset tour. For around 6,000 kyat it's possible to hire a boat to go out and view Inle Lake at what is perhaps its most photogenic state. You'll likely see several fishermen as well. For around 4,000 kyat (7,000 kyat for two) a canoe can be hired for a few hours. This is a great way to explore rural villages and paddy at a much slower pace – not to mention great exercise.
By Mark Ord
Last updated on 27th April, 2014.