Put Inle in Lake Myanmar on your itinerary and you’ll be exploring a freshwater lake that ranks on the UNESCO World Network of Biosphere Reserves. It’s got a tick because locals are actively working to live in balance with nature there to deal with climate change. It’s a challenge, though, due to increasing sediment, says this local activist.
The gateway to Inle Lake is the town of Nyaung Shwe, in the Shan State, part of the Shan Hills. Head into that bustling town, hop onto a motorised boat and down a river channel you go for a few kilometres to reach the lake. Some 200,000 people live in towns and small villages not just around the lake, but also on it. And that last point is the major lure for adventure travellers. The floating villages and gardens set against the backdrop of the Shan Mountains are breathtaking. These people live on the water unlike you’ve seen elsewhere. And it’s a decent expanse of lake – 22km by 10km – as this hot air ballooning video and drone clip shows.
On and near(ish) the lake expect to take in the views of pagodas (such as the grand Hpaung Daw U with its five gold-gilt images of Buddha that actually go ‘on tour’ by barge during the annual festival from September to October) and monasteries (the Nga Phe Kyaung with its cats trained to jump through hoops or Shwe Yaunghwe Kyaung). You’ll be mesmerised, too, watching a lone fishermen in his small boat wrap a leg around the oar and, using his foot, propel himself and the boat forward – a common sight. Feast on the fish at one of the many restaurants nearby (they offer Shan, Myanmar and western dishes even pizza). There are also women wearing rings to elongate their neck – they’re from Loikaw, in the hills south-west of Inle Lake. Be sure to visit the hot springs at Khaung Daing to the lake’s north-west, too (actually an open-air public bath house with no view of the lake, alas). Inle Lake also has unique species of snails and fish, including the silver-blue scaleless Sawbwa Barb and the crossbanded dwarf danio.
Sounding too touristy for you?
Well, Inle Lake is popular with tourists, we admit, but you can find quiet nooks once you veer away from the settlements. The whole country has only been open to mainstream tourism for less than a decade. It’s not traffic jams – check out this video from near Maing Thauk Village. Make sure you add Indein (aka Inthein) Village to your ‘must see’ list when you’re doing a boat tour. You’ll soak in views of pagodas from the 14th century, stupas (mounds of relics Buddhists meditate near) and other cultural sites. If visiting handicraft and souvenir shops isn’t your style, then ask the boatman to divert from them. If you’re thinking you could ‘do’ Inle Lake in a day, reconsider. You’ll miss sunrise/sunset and the real ambience of life on the water. It’s not Venice and it’s eons away from the sci-fi film Waterworld, starring Kevin Costner, depicting a post-apocalyptic life on atolls. For starters, Inle Lake’s not that dangerous, or is it?
How safe is Myanmar for travellers
Despite the forced exodus of Rohingya Muslims putting Myanmar on the major ‘please explain’ list, travel to the Inle Lake region is fairly safe. The official travel advice is to “exercise normal safety precautions” there. However, elsewhere in the country you should “exercise a high degree of caution” because of the risk of further civil unrest. Are you hearing a contradiction here? As High Mowing blogger Becky Maden says, life (and farming) in Myanmar is a “tangled web of tradition, politics, climate, religion, clashing ethnicities, and economic incongruities that I can only vaguely unravel … nothing is really clear when the language is indecipherable curvy symbols, the men wear skirts, there are gold plated temples all over the landscape … and just because you are fair-skinned people treat you like an eccentric celebrity”. On, and if you’re after infamy, please note, it’s illegal to engage in homosexual sex in Myanmar. Maybe you have a tattoo of Buddha. Cover it up or risk being deported as has happened.
Polio is still a problem in Myanmar. If your trip is four-weeks-plus, carry evidence you’ve been vaccinated in the 12 months before you arrived. Mosquito-borne diseases such as malaria, dengue fever, chikungunya fever and Japanese Encephalitis are prevalent in many areas (as is HIV/AIDS). Don’t rely on medical facilities in Myanmar as they are very limited, particularly outside the capital Yangon.
The people you’ll meet
Intha is what you call people who live in the Inle Lake area. We should mention don’t touch anyone on the head in Myanmar as it’s a cultural transgression. Most people are Buddhists, self-sufficient farmers and their homes are simply wood and woven bamboo on stilts. Many tend floating gardens which supply the country’s tomatoes, onions and flowers. To create the gardens, weeds such as hyacinths, have been anchored to bamboo poles to make beds, which rise and fall with the water level. These flood-plain hydroponic farmers still use chemicals, by the way. And where to buy those green groceries? The market rotates to different places around the lake, so there’ll be a market somewhere close. Nyaung Shwe has a daily market – it’s one of the five things you can do apart from a boat trip on the lake, according to this video.
You’ll need a visa to get into Myanmar, so check with your closest embassy before you go. Visit the bona fide Ministry of Labour, Immigration and Population website to get your e-Visa – it’s easy to be duped in to paying more if you go through other websites. Make sure you print out the approval letter to hand it to the immigration officials when you arrive. Expect entry and exit conditions, including currency, customs and quarantine rules, to change at short notice, though. By the way, there’s a $AUS13 entry fee to get into the Inle Lake zone (lasts five days), which you can pay at most hotels, guesthouses or travel companies in the gateway town of Nyaung Shwe.
All roads lead to Inle Lake … almost
Your options are either or a combo of plane, taxi, bus, train or foot. Bus is the usual way to get to Inle Lake, but if you do fly into Heho Airport (the closest) be prepared to trek 3km south-east to get a cheap option of a pick-up truck or bus. Standard routes into Inle Lake are Yangon, Mandalay, Bagan Nyaung U, Kyaing Tong, Lashio and Tachileik. However, avoid crossing in from Thailand into the Shan State if you can as there’s a higher risk of “serious and potentially life threatening” issues, says advisory site, Smartraveller. And speaking of risks, once in Myanmar, your chances of being killed in a motor vehicle accident just increased four-fold. Keen to take to the wheel anyway? You’ll need a Myanmar driver’s licence as international ones aren’t accepted.
Cashed up and free to roam
You’ll find ATMS in Nyang Shwe, but the fees can set you back $AUS10 each time. Change your foreign currency at authorised moneychangers, banks or the international airport – doing otherwise is illegal. Credit cards are increasingly accepted, but unreliable power means you probably shouldn’t rely on them. Budget to give tips, too.
As for WIFI, it’s patchy even in hotels across Myanmar, so do as we did and once you arrive at a Myanmar airport, buy a local SIM which staff can swiftly set up for you. Here’s the lowdown on your choice of providers. Start your trip on the right foot, avoid drinking tap water or from opened soft-drink bottles and eating food from street-vendors.
So, you’re free to roam, but keep your passport and visa handy as authorities often ask foreigners for them even on domestic air and rail travel and at hotels.
Budget conscious traveller
You can do Myanmar on about $AUS90 a day, but for updates, check this site, then convert to Aussie dollars. Inle Lake is something of a backpacker’s haven, with hitchhiking possible, accommodation at the Ostello Bello hostel for $11.20 per night (including free Burmese cigars) (try also the Gypsy Inn and Song of Travel) or in guest houses about $AUS14 per night and half-day Inle Lake tours by bike and to a winery for a mere $AUS2 per person in a group. (It would take about five hours to circumnavigate the lake and you may need to hop on a boat to do it).
As for food, restaurant meals are usually $1 to $5 a dish. Even cheaper are the street vendors (feeling brave?) or better still, scour the markets and concoct your own. Yep, avocadoes cost on average just 20c each. Read more tips on budget backpacking here. And should you be inclined to do volunteer work in Myanmar, here’s some good prompts on how to go about it, but if you don’t plan to linger, a couple of days at Inle Lake should do the trick – one for cycling, the other for boating.
Once at Inle Lake, you can do a private boat trip to catch sunset for about $AUS12. That’s pretty much all they are – a two-hour boat trip sometimes with a boatman who doesn’t speak your language, so there goes a commentary. During a downpour, don’t waste your money on a sunset trip as you won’t see much. Share the costs where you can – get eight people on a boat tour and it could cost you $AUS2 per head.
If you have time to kill to get to the lake, try the slow train from Thazi, in central-east Shan State. You’ll cover 247km in 12 hours to soak in vistas of mountains and farms. A wooden seat costs about $AUS4, a recliner about $AUS8 or for the overnighter, a bunk costs about $10. Find out more about securing your ticket beforehand here. If you’d prefer to hike with a local guide, one idea is to start from the small mountain town of Kalaw to traverse 80km over three days as these travellers did. They hitchhiked, trekked dusty tracks and stayed in tribal homes. It cost them each $AUS32 for the guide, meals, accommodation (two nights) and the boat across Inle Lake to Nyaung Shwe. That town offers the best budget accommo in the region. If you’re looking to save on accommodation, be aware it’s illegal for tourists to rent an apartment or home – you have to stay in a registered hotel, motel, inn, guest house or resort. Another option is to stay in monasteries as you will if you trek two-three days along any of the 20 trails in the Danu region to get to Inle Lake. Take it from the local tourist organisation, who say “blood-pumping adventure can be found trekking and hiking in Myanmar”.
Pack all the Inle Lake tour highlights with a private trip by car and boat. You’ll be picked up from Heho airport or your hotel to whisk you off to Shwe Yan Pyay and the Nga Phe Kyaung monasteries, the Phaung Daw Ooo Pagoda, have lunch at a local restaurant and tour the lake by day then be returned to your hotel. That costs about $AUS65. Without the hotel/airport transfer option you’ll save $AUS10 on a similar tour. A private Inle Lake Tour by boat will cost about $AUS15 – for the whole boat, so divide that up by how many people can fit into it – but if you negotiate directly with the boatman, you can get it down to $AUS12. Consider cycling as it’s fairly level, but you’d need an average level of fitness and it’s not recommended for young children, even though this Kiwi traveller did it without too much hassle. A private day tour on a bike to Red Mountain Estate Vineyard and to enjoy the sunset costs about $AUS70. Here’s a great resource offering a range of routes and highlights around the lake, too. You can search this site for bike maps.
Fly into Heho Airport, which is 46km north-west of the lake, then take a 45-min taxi (legal ones have red plates) trip ($AUS29) to head to your luxury hotel on the shores of Inle Lake. Treat yourself to a day trip on the lake and you’ll get change out of $AUS100 even if your standards are high. For a different vista, a hot air balloon tour for just over an hour costs about $AUS500.
For a top notch stay, try the Sanctum Inle Resort, a 94-room hotel on the lake, which made it to the top 50 resorts in Asia, according to the Conde Nast Traveler’s Readers Choice Awards in 2017 (standard price is $AUS320 per night). The resort runs a $AUS115 ‘off the beaten path’ day trip to the ruined royal capital of Sagar, which is more than 530 years old. Inle Lake features many four-star hotels such as Novotel – check out the top 10 by review ratings here. For a feed, see these top-rated restaurants near the lake.
For those keen to explore on their own, you can hire a car with or without a driver, or there are Tuk-tuks or climatized cars available in Nyaung Shwe.
Before you go
You know the equation: water + warmth = mosquitoes abound, so invest in some repellent as well as sunblock and a hat and while you’re at it, a personal First Aid kit with meds for diarrhoea. Most accommo will have mosquito nets, too. Your ‘uniform’ while touring the lake and surrounds would be long, flappy trousers and a T-shirt or light long-sleeved cotton shirt. That’s the gear for stepping into and out of boats plus you’ll be demure enough for your visits to temples in this conservative country.
Don’t get rained out
Avoid the monsoonal period from May to September, and aim for September and October (ideal) or the cooler time of year January and February (pack your jacket and cardigan for that time of year). The lake has a decent elevation – about 800m above sea level. The depth is 2.1m on average during the dry season (though up to 3.7m in parts), but come the rainy season, add another 1.5 metres to that.
Asia of 30 years ago
Inle Lake has the feel of Asia of decades gone by, but that won’t last with the environmental challenges and increasing tourist numbers. Whatever floats your boat.