Arriving at Inle Lake was a bit of a rude shock: at 2am someone got on our bus demanded money and then told us to get off the bus – all legit but entirely unexpected. It took us a moment to start moving, we paid our $2 entry fee to the Inle Lake region, stumbled off the bus and grabbed our bag. We had expected to arrive at Inle around 5am during daylight hours but were evidently mistaken. A trio of travellers from Peru had booked a hotel, so the rest of us just jumped in the taxi with them and we all headed to the same hotel. Six of us turned up at this hotel at 2:30am, they didn’t ask questions but just gave us each keys and showed us where our rooms were. We were most grateful!
Inle Lake is 22km long and 11km wide. At the very northern top of the lake and up a canal is where the town of Nyuangshwe can be found. This is the main traveller centre for the Inle Lake area.
We stayed at the May Guest House and while I found the bed uncomfortable and for many reasons had the worst sleep here (I’m generally a bad sleeper to start with) – the staff more than made up for it. They were friendly and helpful, they booked tours and transport for us, gave good, helpful advice and their prices were very good. May was located just off the main road, as was basically every hotel since Nyuangshwe essentially only seemed to have one main road. This small town is fairly sleepy and small, and it is easily explored on foot.
Boat Tour on the Lake
A must-do activity at Inle Lake is a boat tour. There are usually a few slight variations to pick from, but they all have the same core activities and essentially the longer tours go further down the lake and visit different villages. You do feel a little bit like a cash cow on these tours; they take you to silver smiths, blacksmiths, umbrella makers, cigar makers, boat builders, lotus fabric weavers and local markets. While they are hopeful that you buy what they are making, don’t feel that you have to. It is a good opportunity to see how some things are made and interesting to see how the people live. It is also good to know that if you do buy directly from the person who made it, more of the money is likely to go to the community rather than to the government.
I really enjoyed the boat cruising between all the stilt houses so we could see the lifestyle of the people living on the lake. The particular boat tour we chose included a visit to the jumping cat monastery, which I found a real disappointment. Most of the cats seemed unwell, were skinny and had gunky eyes and I most certainly did not see any cats jumping through hoops. I call this ‘false advertising’. The monastery itself was quite lovely though, in the lake surrounded by floating tomato crops. Yes, that’s what I said, floating tomato crops – really quite amazing to see.
The tour had two main highlights for me: Inn Daing and the fishermen.
Inn Daing was a little village along the lakes western shore. We stopped here to wander around one of the five day markets and the village itself. Up on the hill behind the center of this tiny village were a number of abandoned stupas, all in various states of disrepair. They were really quite eerie and beautiful; broken down, trees growing in and on them, but still standing majestic on the hillside.
The fishermen were all around the lake in their long shallow boats. Some had nets to throw, others had the small cages to drop into the water, with their nets in the water they were often seen splashing the water with their paddle to scare fish into the nets. If they weren’t busy with their nets, the men would mostly stand at the bow of their boat and somehow wrap their foot around the paddle and paddle with one foot while standing, balanced, on the other. I never saw any fishermen catch fish, but they were pretty cool to watch.
Hot tip for boat tours, you spend the entire day fully exposed to the elements. Bring hats, sunscreen, sunglasses, raincoats etc. We experienced a light drizzle, some glaring sun but thankfully it was an overcast day. Unfortunately for them, our Peruvian friends had a full day in the glaring sun.
Red Mountain Vineyard
An afternoon excursion worth doing is renting a bicycle and riding east and then south roughly parallel to the lake, to Red Mountain Vineyard. It is approximately an 8km ride through some farm areas and smaller towns. As you head up into the hills the jungle-like surrounds are a lush green and the earth beneath is such a deep red colour, which is incredibly striking to see. The vineyard, aptly named red mountain, is on a hillside overlooking the lake. A perfect spot to relax with a glass of wine and watch the sun set. We had a wine tasting for 2000kyats (US$2) each, and this gave us four half glasses of wine to try; Sauvignon Blanc, Rose, Shiraz and a Late Harvest. I’m not particularly a wine snob, though I do appreciate a nice wine but I didn’t love these wines. The Late Harvest wasn’t too bad so after my tasting I ordered a glass of that and my friend ordered a Pinot Noir to try (which was better than the Shiraz) and we enjoyed the amazing view and the warmth of the sun as it sank into slowly into the hills.
Day Trip to Pindaya
Approximately 2.5hours drive (our driver was an absolute hoon!) north-north-west of Nyaungshwe is a town called Pindaya. The road between Nyuangshwe and Pindaya passed through many small towns and farmland. Along the way people would stop to wave at the car as it passed by. People could be seen plowing the fields, weeding their crops, crushing rocks and constructing roads. The highlight of the drive for me was the fields of sunflowers, they are such happy flowers.
Pindaya is quite a small town, with not a whole lot to offer. It’s main attraction is the Shwe OO Min Natural Cave Pagoda. Up on the hillside above Pone Taloke Lake, you enter the cave via a covered staircase. Inside the cave are winding tunnels and Buddha’s as far as the eye can see. The caves contain more than 8700 Buddha’s. It was quite enchanting to wander the maze of Buddha’s seeing the different designs and also who had donated (or funded them).
Deeper into the cave were some funny signs “Mythical horse’s tethering pole” and “Fairy bathing”, and funky smells. At the very end of the cave was the sign “Terilinus of Cave” (I assume they meant Terminus) below which was a man sized hole dropping deeper into the cave. The way the path led straight to the hole made you question whether you were supposed to follow it into the hole, until you had a closer look!
After our cave expedition, we made a quick stop at the market in the center of Pindaya. We got caught in a downpour, but still wandered around. The Pindaya market wasn’t overly exciting, but we did see a more bizarre variety of foods to be purchased, including small eels and things that look like silk worms or maggots. We also almost got stuck in the middle of a dog fight where one dog had thieved a bag of offal from a stall and another dog tried to snatch it. There were many bared teeth to be seen and deep growls to be heard – we even almost got splattered with the ‘goodies’ in the bag as the dogs fought over it!
Cycle to Kaung Daing
A really enjoyable half day was spent cycling from Nyuangshwe to Kaung Daing, and back, along the western side of the lake (I would like to say along the ‘shore’ of the lake, but honestly the road is nowhere near the water). Given that the days get so hot and with very little shade, we made an early start to our 26km return trip (13km and 1.5hrs each way). Life in Myanmar starts very early in the day, so by starting our own day early we got to see the local people going about their morning routines, washing themselves and their clothes in the river (I think I have mentioned previously, the Burmese wash fully clothed), fishing, getting into the fields to plow and weed and plant.
At one point along the road I stopped to take a photo of a group of farmers working the field together. As soon as they saw me, they all turned and waved excitedly, called out “Mingalaba” and some even did a little dance for me. They were very excited to have seen us stop on our way past. I thought it was fantastic to see such happy people and it certainly put a smile on my face.
Roughly 1km past the village of Kaung Daing is the Kaung Daing Hotel, inside the grounds is a hilltop pagoda. After parking our bikes in the shade, we walked up the steps to see two things: an adorable pagoda and an amazing view of the lake. The pagoda was very low key, a few monks and locals milling about chatting, preparing the meal of the day or simply relaxing. The décor was all pastels and the columns supporting the roof had beautifully coloured and interestingly design mosaics.
From the pagoda terrace you could see the fishermen in the lake throwing their nets and splashing water with their oars, you could see the floating villages and crops. It was just a stunning spot to be.
Kaung Daing is known predominantly for two things: the Hot Springs and Tofu. We cycled straight past the hot springs, but cycling through the narrow lanes of the village was thoroughly fascinating. It seemed that every second house had reed matting outside drying something different. Some yards were full of tofu, while others had corn or sunflower seeds, mango fruit leather, rice cakes, fish cakes and more. In the yard of one house we also got to see a lady mixing up a batch of tofu in a big steel bowl over an open fire. It was such a pleasant place to cycle through and there were so many interesting things to look at.
At this point many people hire a boat to take them and their bikes back to Nyuangshwe, but we opted to cycle back. It got towards the middle of the day and we ended up getting rather sunburned, but it was such a pleasant trip, one that I would highly recommend.
Just a heads up, doctors advise that you take malaria medication when travelling to Myanmar, and one of the side effects is a sensitivity to the sun. I rarely get sunburned normally, and I got fried in Burma – I expect as a result of the malaria pills and obviously spending so much time in the full sun. So my friendly advice is sunscreen, sunglasses and a hat.