8 ways to experience Inle Lake in Myanmar

Pip
July 09, 2015

There are some places you intend to visit for only a few days, and then those few days unknowingly turn into a week or more. Inle Lake is one of those destinations. It attracts travellers to witness its natural landscapes and cultural sights, then lures them to stay with its atmospheric beauty. While a day tour cruising its placid waters is a valid way to visit for those short on time, spend a few more and you can explore deep into the heart of the unique lifestyle led by Inle Lake’s inhabitants and soak up the grandeur of the surrounding Shan Plateau.

Here are eight ways to experience Myanmar’s Inle Lake, giving you plenty of reasons to linger a little longer.

1. Take a boat trip along Inle Lake’s tranquil waters

Perhaps the best introduction to Inle Lake is on a boat tour, departing during the atmospheric dawn hour when a soft mist covers the water and the photo opportunities of local life as it gently hums into motion are sublime. Watch as fishermen cast their nets across the tranquil water and children peek out from behind women preparing the morning meal on the stilted wooden houses that hang over the lake’s shores and islands. Boat is the only means of transport, winding through narrow waterways lined with floating gardens that are carefully tended using an aqua biotic system first introduced to the lake in 1960.

A highlight of a boat tour on Inle Lake is a visit to the island artisan factories where you can see traditional handicrafts being made and purchase direct from the manufacturer. Inle Lake is famed for its textiles and a visit to the village of Inn Paw Khon allows you to see its most experienced textile artisans at work on traditional looms. For a particularly special souvenir purchase a garment made from lotus fabric, with the flowering plant finding ideal growing conditions in Inle Lake’s shallow waters.

Inle Lake is also home to more than 200 monasteries and most boat tours will visit at least one of these to give you an insight into the devout religious lives led by the monks who reside here. The most popular is undoubtedly the ‘Jumping Cat Monastery’, or Nga Phe Kyaung, a beautiful wooden stilt structure that dates back to 1890. Here dozens of cats have been trained by the monks to jump through hoops, and while this exhibition is the main drawcard, the monastery also houses an important collection of Buddha images, brought here by residents for safekeeping during World War II and never collected.

Perhaps the best introduction to Inle Lake is on a boat tour, departing during the atmospheric dawn hour when a soft mist covers the water and the photo opportunities of local life are sublime.

2. Visit Inle Lake’s sacred pagodas

No visit to Inle Lake is complete without paying your respects at Phaungdawoo Pagoda, home to five gilded Buddha images that are highly revered within the Buddhist community throughout Myanmar. It is believed they were originally brought to the region by King Alaungsithu and have been so adorned in gold leaf by devotees that they are almost unrecognisable today. If you are male you can participate in adding your own gold leaf to the images, but make sure to have a look at the old photographs within the pagoda that capture them in their original form. The images play a central role in the annual Phaungdawoo Pagoda Festival when they tour the lake for all to see, but if you are not visiting during this time, seeing them in their place of residence is the next best thing!

Follow the winding Indein Creek from Phaungdawoo, past rice paddies irrigated by bamboo dams and water buffalo bathing in the waters, and on a small hill on the western bank lies another pagoda worth visiting. Here at Indein Pagoda, a Buddha image has been enshrined within an elegant whitewashed stupa, while a cluster of ancient stone stupas nestle beneath, overgrown with vegetation. The site is being gradually restored, but it evokes a special charm in its state of faded glory.

In the Indein Pagoda, a Buddha image has been enshrined within an elegant whitewashed stupa, while a cluster of ancient stone stupas nestle beneath, overgrown with vegetation.

3. Wine taste and soak in hot springs during a cycling tour around the lake shore

After exploring Inle Lake’s inner waterways and islands, set your sights on its shores, ideally explored by bicycle. With flat, traffic-free streets, it’s a pleasant and easy place to cycle through small villages and farmlands, taking in the beautiful scenery en route. From the main tourist hub of Nyuang Shwe it’s a short cycle southwest to some hot springs whose waters have been piped into a series of swimming pools and make for a perfect soak overlooking tranquil fields tended by local farmers.

Alternatively, head 3 kilometres north from Nyuang Shwe through sugar cane plantations to where Red Mountain Winery, set atop a small hill, offers spectacular views back across the lake. Here you can taste their noted pinot noir and sauvignon blanc, or take a tour of the viticulture operations, all set within beautiful surrounds and boasting one of the lake’s best sunset spots.

You can also combine the two sights in a day trip by hiring a boat to ferry you and your bicycle across the lake when the fancy takes you. Stop for lunch at a local island restaurant on the way or peddle to the village of Kaung Daing just to the south of the hot springs where the region’s famed tofu is made and can be sampled in authentic local dishes.

4. Explore village life on a hike through the surrounding hills

A day spent hiking through its local villages is the best way to immerse yourself in Burmese rural living.

While the scenery on and around Inle Lake’s shores is stunning, so to are the hilly landscapes that surround, and a day spent hiking through its local villages is the best way to immerse yourself in Burmese rural living. Whether you want a short three hour saunter or a challenging three day hike all the way to the hill station of Kalaw, staying overnight in village home-stays, there are options to suit all fitness levels and time constraints. Wind through densely forested areas with beautiful views back towards the lake, traverse slopes swathed in vegetable crops being tended by workers in conical huts, and meet the hill tribes who inhabit its small villages. This is local living at its most authentic, with warm smiles and welcomes from people keeping their ancestral traditions alive.

5. Go birdwatching in Inle’s wetland wildlife sanctuary

Many visitors to Inle Lake are unaware that it is a designated wetland wildlife sanctuary, set up particularly to protect the myriad of bird species that either call its shores home or migrate through annually. With more than 250 species recorded (including a few rare ones difficult to find elsewhere), birdwatching tours here will appeal to avid twitchers, and knowledgeable guides with keen eyes will assist you in spotting as many as possible. Early morning is the best time to head out when the birds are at their most active, and December/January are generally considered the months with the greatest diversity of species. Pheasant-tailed Jacana, Oriental Pratincole, Asian Pied Starlings and the rare Jerdon’s Bushchat and Sarus Crane can all be spotted, but don’t forget to pack a pair of binoculars!

6. Take part in local life at the Five Day Markets

The famous Five Day Markets, at the centre of Inle Lake, provides an opportunity for people of different ethnic backgrounds to buy and sell their diverse produce.

At the centre of Inle Lake life are the famous Five Day Markets, rotating between villages on the lake shore to the surrounding hills every five days and providing an opportunity for people of different ethnic backgrounds to buy and sell their diverse produce - vegetables, betel nut, cheroot cigars, lonyis and kitchen wares. The markets are a captivating experience, full of vibrant colours, exotic tropical fruits to taste and the smell of satays being freshly grilled. Arrive early and you’ll avoid the other tour groups who descend later and experience the market at its most authentic.

7. Witness a traditional marionette show

Inle Lake is not known for its nightlife, but one activity not to be missed after dark is a traditional marionette show. The art of puppeteering has a long tradition in Myanmar and while there are many shows on offer throughout the country, becoming a true master (and being acknowledged with a license) is far from easy. The town of Nyaung Shwe on Inle Lake boasts one of the country’s most talented marionette storytellers, Aung, who presents shows nightly that have become a highlight for those who stumble across his small theatre. Accompanied by traditional music, beautiful painted backdrops and intricately hand-made marionettes, these 30-minute shows are filled with humour and wisdom and it is hard not to fall in love with these charismatic puppets. Take in a show and spend time chatting with Aung about this ancient art form or, for a truly unique souvenir, purchase your own hand-made marionette direct from the artisan.

8. Experience the Phaungdawoo Pagoda Festival

For almost three weeks, pilgrims arrive from throughout the country to pay homage to four of the Phaungdawoo pagoda’s five highly revered Buddha images (the fifth is left to guard the pagoda).

If you are visiting Myanmar in September or October then coincide your visit to Inle Lake with one of the largest Buddhist festivals in the country. The Phaungdawoo Pagoda Festival is set in and around the lake’s stilted villages over almost three weeks and sees pilgrims arrive from throughout the country to pay homage to four of the pagoda’s five highly revered Buddha images (the fifth is left to guard the pagoda). These are paraded throughout the lake on elaborately decorated barges, pulled by traditional long boats rowed by the feet of hundreds of locals. This technique, unique to the region and designed to enhance endurance, can be seen throughout the year as fishermen ply Inle’s waters, but is at its most impressive en masse during the annual festival’s rowing competitions. The celebrations also include dancing, feasting and fun-fairs, and the parade is followed by a great procession of traditionally-dressed devotees in wooden boats who pay their respects within a magical atmosphere.

Capturing Inle Lake in all its atmospheric glory

While late September/early October hails in the annual celebrations, this also marks the start of the peak season when temperatures start to drop following the steamy monsoon. Water levels are also at their highest and flowers ignite the floating gardens and surrounding landscapes in colour, making it ideal for photographic opportunities. But no matter when you visit, Inle Lake is one of South East Asia’s most entrancing destinations that inspires those who visit to stay longer or return again and again.

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