Myanmar: Inle Lake

From the history lover’s paradise of Bagan, I hopped on a night bus to my next destination: Inle Lake. The night buses here have actually been a lot better than I was expecting of a place still adjusting to tourism. JJ Express is the best provider, but for a price bracket down, Shwe Sin Satkyar is also very good – the seats don’t recline all the way back but are wide and comfortable with pillow, blanket, snacks, water and friendly service. Night buses are the best way to get around Myanmar given that some of the distances are quite considerable, so I’d say it’s worth going for one of the better companies.

We arrived at a ripe 5am, and I headed up to the Ostello Bello day beds area in a room on the roof for some kip before we could check in. After I’d checked in and had a much needed shower, I wandered down to the Nyaung Shwe (the name of the little town most visitors use as a base for Inle Lake) market. It had a variety of little stalls; some pungent-as-ever food suitable only for local stomachs, some clothes, and some little handmade jewellery places. They make a lot of silverware in the area, and I bought myself a little ring (which I unfortunately managed to lose only the next day – they fit in the day when it’s hot and I have sausage fingers but my fingers shrink at night in the cold and they slide off!) When my senses had had all they could take of the market, I went back to the hostel and sat in the sun on the roof with my book until dinner time, when they were doing a bbq. I joined two British guys and a Belgian girl and we tucked into some chicken and beef skewers, potato salad, corn on the cob and delicious sauces. I was then in bed by a babysitter-friendly 8pm after my lack of sleep on the bus the night before!

Next morning, I was up literally at the crack of dawn to go and watch the sunrise from the lake. Ostello Bello offers sunrise and sunset boat tours for 18,000K per boat, which is a little more expensive than organising it yourself, so if you want to save some pennies, speak to the boat drivers who hang around the hostel the day before to arrange a morning tour. A Dutch girl from my Bagan bus came too, and we joined 5 other night owls from the hostel to walk down to one of the little streams feeding into Inle, to get a boat into the lake. It was bloody cold at 5:45am; Inle is 2,900ft above sea level so very hot during the day but very cold when the sun goes down! We hopped into two boats, sitting single file in long wooden crafts with motors at the back. Luckily they had some blankets at the ready for us poor unsuspecting tourists! We whizzed along into the lake, driving for around half an hour and passing early morning fishermen. We’d been told ahead of time that there are some men on the lake who aren’t actually fishermen, but who dress up in the traditional garms to get tourists to take photos of them – and then proceed to hassle you for photo money. We did see some men in the traditional clothing (loose trousers and robes, a basket hat, and a big conical basket) but they seemed to be doing more posing than fishing, so perhaps the warning was accurate. We also passed some guys in more modern clothing, fishing with nets rather than baskets, who were actually catching some fish – so these must have been more the real deal.

An Inle fisherman at sunrise

Our boat driver moored us up against a clump of weeds in the lake facing the direction of the sunrise. There were two hot air balloons going up over the lake at the same time which was nice to watch, albeit not from the basket this time! The most beautiful part of the trip was probably about 20 minutes or so before the sun actually appeared over the mountains (Inle is on a plain in a valley, so you don’t really see the horizon, but the top of the peaks) when the sky was lit up in all sorts of different colours. It was quite a relief, though, when the sun did come up and warm us up a bit!

Having witnessed the sunrise, we sailed back to shore and walked back to the hostel for breakfast, just when everyone else was getting up. I ate and showered, then met my dinner companions from the night before to go back out on a boat to tour more of the lake for the day. We scooped up a Chilean girl also looking to go out and headed down to the water. It’s easy to find a boat for the day if you walk down to the bridge round the corner from Ostello Bello. I’d recommend this over the Ultimate Inle tour offered by the hostel as it’s much more expensive, and with your own boat, you can tailor the tour to the bits of the lake you actually want to see. Prices are per boat, and you can fit up to 5 people in one, so it’s really good value if you have a full boat – we bargained down to 18,000K for the day between us.

Whizzing across Inle Lake

Boat and driver acquired, and seats successfully filled without any men overboard, we set off. Our first stop was a silk and cotton weaving place, but to get there, we motored the length of the main lake and passed through some of the floating villages, which was a beautiful hour-long journey. I don’t know how you even begin to build an entire community floating in water, but it was quite a memorable sight: buildings on stilts, some wonky bridges joining different sides of waterways, and some slightly precarious-looking power lines strung across them…

This video doesn’t exist

We hopped off the boat and were led into the little factory and shown how they create various garments from silk, cotton and lotus. The looms are very complicated and it looks incredibly labour-intensive – it takes 3 days to make one longgyi (the traditional wrap-skirts worn by both men and women)! It was very impressive watching them work though, and how they have to go about setting up the machines to create different patterns in the fabric. The girl showing us round was only 16 but her English was very good and she was very friendly, as have been all the locals we’ve encountered here.

After our tour of the factory, one of the boys bought a shirt and we got back in the boat for our next stop; a cigar factory. They’re all rolled and cut by hand; there were seven women in there working incredibly quickly to produce different ‘flavours’ of cigar which we sampled. There was mint, banana, star anise (which I hated as it tasted so much like liquorice!) and palm sugar. One of the guys and I bought a packet of the banana ones between us as we were quite partial to the taste – much nicer than some honey ones I bought in Cuba!

Cigar sampling

Cigars purchased, we got back in the boat for a quick trip to our lunch stop – a restaurant on stilts overlooking the centre of one of the floating villages (the heart of which was marked with a gold-painted pagoda, as I’m so used to seeing in each settlement now!). I had some noodles with the local Inle fish, which was a little oily for my liking. One of the boys had a spicy fish curry which was a bit too much for my fragile stomach at the time, but a little taster told me that was definitely the better serving of the local fish!

Lunch finished, we got back in the boat and motored to our next visit, the ‘Jumping Cat Monastery’. It was pretty, but a little underwhelming. It’s a fairly old and wonky monastery with some shrines and statues, and yes, a number of cats – but to my disappointment, I didn’t see any of them jumping! Cat snaps taken, we headed back to the boat and started the journey back to Nyaung Shwe. On the way, we passed some guys doing a traditional Inle rowing race, where they stand on the boats and paddle with their feet. I’d seen this on a TV programme that featured Inle Lake but it was good fortune that we happened to be passing one in the flesh! It looks very difficult balancing and paddling like that, it was impressive to watch.

A traditional rowing race

When we got back to the hostel, we went and got showered (and inspected the tan/burns we’d managed to get after a day on the water) and then met back on the rooftop for a drink and to sample our banana cigars before dinner. An Aussie couple I met in Laos had recommended to me an Indian place for dinner in Inle Lake, describing it as an ‘experience’ I needed to check out. Intrigued, I gathered the troops and we walked round the corner to the Inlay Hut – which turned out to be an Eminem-themed Indian restaurant run by a local guy who calls himself Stan, after an Eminem song about his number one fan. It was really quite bizarre, there were Eminem stencils all over the walls, Stan was dressed like a rapper, and of course, the only music playing was Eminem. The food was good, and it was certainly the memorable ‘experience’ I’d been primed to expect! It’s worth embracing your inner rap star and going along for one of your Inle Lake dinners…

Stan and the gang at Inlay Hut…

The next day, my stomach was playing up again, but I was keen to get out and about for a little bit. I teamed back up with Nikki, the Dutch girl, and we went and rented some bikes. There’s a popular cycle route which follows the top of the lake, passes some hot springs and involves a ferry across the lake before passing a natural swimming pool and ending at the Red Mountain Winery for sunset. It takes about 5 hours and Ostello Bello does a guided tour – I wasn’t feeling up to the whole day so we did a shortened version, but I heard good reviews about the full loop from those who had done it.

We cycled about an hour out of town around the lake to the lovely little natural swimming pool – a clear, walled pool under the shade of some trees. We didn’t go for a dip in the end as there were a number of locals in there playing a game, but we sat and watched in the shade for a little, sheltering from another very hot day.

The natural swimming pool

From the pool, we cycled back towards town to the Red Mountain Winery. We’d been recommended this by a few people who’d already been up there for some wine tasting (5,000K each) with a lovely view over the lake. My stomach wasn’t quite up to the tasting of Burmese wine (I had one sip of one of Nikki’s and it was god awful) but it was a lovely place to sit and soak up the landscape nevertheless.

The fabulous view (and terrible wine) at the Red Mountain Winery

After the winery we peddled back to the hostel, where I just sat chatting to the group before everyone went their separate ways on night buses that evening.

Inle Lake was really beautiful and there are a lot of ways to explore the surrounding area. A popular backpacker activity is the 3-day, 2-night trek from Kalaw to Inle, which is a bargain at 40,000K. I unfortunately didn’t have time to do this in the end thanks to my sick week, but heard good things from the many other people at the hostel who had done it. It’s easy to get a bus to Kalaw from Mandalay or Bagan to start the trek.

For the time I had I really enjoyed what I saw of the lake and its surroundings – I’d have liked to have fitted in a trek, but the key thing was going out on a boat to experience the unique floating communities on the lake.

Until next time,

Number of strangers I’ve spoken to today: 7, one not really being a stranger, but someone I was not expecting to see in that environment! When I walked into the hostel, the first person I saw, sat behind the reception desk, was a guy I met in Dalat and went round the Crazy House with.
Interaction was: unexpected! It was nice to catch up with someone I’d met in an entirely different place, and use his knowledge of the Inle area to max out my time there.

One Woman and her Backpack x

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