Sunday, 25 February 2018

Inle Lake

An ASEAN heritage site, wildlife sanctuary and tentative world heritage site, magical Inle Lake is deservedly many visitors favourite destination in all Myanmar. Eleven miles long, this beautiful lake is ringed by the Shan Hills, hills that seem to change colour with the position of the sun; green, blue, even purple. The scenery is unique, but that is far from the only attraction. The hills are inhabited by hill tribes, especially the Pa-O, who farm the slopes and trade in markets on the lakeshore that rotate between villages every 5 days.

The lake itself is the territory of the Intha, a culturally distinct people who are thought to have migrated here from the Dawei area of southern Myanmar in the 18th century. With the land already populated, the Intha constructed stilt villages on the lake and established amazing ‘floating’ gardens to grow their crops. The Intha also fish the lake and have come up with a unique way of catching their quarry, on this shallow and weed-filled body of water. The Intha fishermen row with one leg, leaving their arms free to manhandle the conical fish baskets they use to trap the large fish they are seeking. The people sell their fish and produce via their own 5-day market system, using boats to trade at villages on the lake.

A typical day on the lake starts with a long-tail boat ride, from your scenic lake hotel bungalow or from the town of Nyaungshwe, along the canal to the northern end of the lake. The first thing you will likely see is the fishermen, standing on one leg and rowing in a snake-like motion, or squatting on the stern of their small boats – gazing into the water for signs of fish. You will see other boats too, low in the water, heavily laden with weeds and water hyacinth; dredged from the lakebed to be used in the floating gardens. Then you reach your first destination, the village hosting that day’s 5-day market. You can walk through the market and photograph the villagers, many of them wearing traditional dress. Traders sell land crops such as soya, rice and oils and the produce of the floating markets such as tomatoes, purchasing dry goods imported from the cities.

Later in the morning it’s time to continue on, to the centre of the lake and a group of villages that have established cottage industries. Silversmiths work in one village, Shan paper is sold at another. In Phaw Khon village is well known for its weaving workshops complete with clattering looms that produce high quality fabrics including products made from scarce lotus fibre. Remember to bargain if you want to purchase something. You can also visit the cheroot-rolling factory, though we are yet to meet a visitor who enjoys smoking them! You will probably want to stop for some lunch at this point – there are several restaurants in convenient locations in amongst the floating villages.

The Intha are Buddhist, so of course there are some interesting stilted teak-built pagodas and monasteries to explore; Phaung Daw Oo and Nga Hpe Kyaung (Jumping Cat Monastery) being the best known. And of course, there are those amazing floating gardens. Staked to the lakebed by bamboo poles, these metre-thick mats of vegetation and mud grow delicious tomatoes, as well as other vegetables and flowers, for placing at the owner’s Buddha shrine, or the local monastery. And then it’s time to return, across the still lake, watching the sun as it dips behind the hills.


The main town in the Inle Lake area, Nyaungshwe is connected to the lake via a six kilometre-long canal; a thoroughfare busy with boat traffic and water buffalo. The town dates back to the 13th century and was the seat of the Shan ‘Sao Bwa’ (Sky Lord) of this rice-growing plain. It is possible to visit the brick and teak ‘haw’ or palace of the last Sao Bwa, Sao Shwe Thaike, who was also, briefly, president of independent Burma.

The morning market is interesting, filled with the produce of the lake’s floating gardens. South of here the Yadana Man Aung Pagoda is the most important in town, containing a unique stepped stupa and an interesting collection of costumes and antiques. The quieter, eastern half of the town away from the main canal and market is dotted with interesting monasteries where you can listen to the soothing chanting of the monks. Shwe Yan Pyay Monastery, just a short walk north of town is well-known by photographers for its unique oval-shape windows which serve as eye-catching frames when novice monks stand to look out. The monastery also has a beautifully carved, gilded ceiling. The town boasts most of the budget accommodation in the Inle Lake area and has many restaurants, some serving delicious lake-caught fish. Nyaungshwe is a good base for walks into the surrounding rice paddies and the hills to the east of the lake.


In the centre of the lake, this very pretty ‘floating’ village is the location of one of the very photogenic 5-day floating markets that take place on a rotational basis around the lake. The village’s boat channels are lined by teak stilt houses, and the village has several shops and restaurants, making it the ideal place to stop for lunch during a boat tour of the lake.

Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda.

Located in the floating village of Tha Ley, this is the most revered shrine in Southern Shan State. The famous inhabitants of this pagoda are five, small, 800 year old images of the Buddha and his disciples, covered with so much gold leaf by devotees that they are no longer recognisable as such. Four of these images are removed each year to tour the lake and its villages, carried by an ornate ‘hintha’ (mythical bird) shaped barge towed by longboats paddled by 40 uniformed leg-rowers. This event, around the full moon of Thadingyut is one the highlights of the festival year in Myanmar and is extremely popular.

Nga Hpe Kyaung.

Raised on stilts above the western side of the lake, Nga Hpe Kyaung (Better known to visitors as the ‘Jumping Cat Monastery’) is a Shan-style teak monastery built in 1843. Located amongst the floating tomato gardens, the monastery is well known for its very interesting and diverse collection of Buddha images in various styles, displayed on ornate pedestals. The monastery’s nickname comes from the monk’s hobby of training their pet cats to jump high, through hoops for the promise of a morsel of food.


Reached via a long, narrow, scenic canal through the swamps and reed beds of the western side of the lake, Indein village is the gateway to some of the most photogenic pagoda ruins in the Inle Lake area. The village itself is busy and interesting, serving the lake access needs of nearby hill-dwelling Pa-O villagers. The first group of ruins is close to the boat landing and known as Nyaung Ohak, ‘Under the shade of Banyan trees’. From here, a covered stairway leads up the hill to Shwe Inn Thein Pagoda, an impressive complex of 1094, weathered stupas on the hilltop surrounding the central pagoda.


For details of the famous and very popular 3 day trek from Kalaw to Inle Lake, via villages of the Pa-O and Danu hill tribes, please see the ‘Kalaw’ page of our website. Should you wish to spend a day walking in the environs of the Lake itself, here are two popular daytrips worth considering.

Daytrip 1.

Board a traditional long-tail boat for the journey across the lake from your accommodation to the ruins at Indein. Browse the shops lining the route uphill and explore the site itself. We then head to the Pa-O village of Taung Mauk and there, head north towards Ngue (Thaung Thu) along an undulating path. We then turn east onto the scenic, downhill path to the Intha village of Than Daung. The last half hour walk takes us back to the lakeshore where a boat will be waiting to take us to Khaungdaing village, and back to your hotel.

Daytrip 2.

Walks to the north of Nyaungshwe pass through rice paddies dotted with Shan-style pagoda ruins. Walks to the east of the lake lead up into the hills to Pa-O villages with stunning panoramas of the lake itself. This rugged but recommended trek takes you through these areas to the monastery of Koun Soun Taungbo and the nearby Ta-Eh Gu Cave. Total trekking time is about 6 hours.

Mr Myanmar Travel arranges flights to the regional airport at Heho from Yangon, Mandalay, Bagan and Kengtung. There is also a one-way flight connection from Heho to Ngapali Beach, therefore if you intend to spend some time at Ngapali Beach at the end of your trip we would recommend that you end the touring part of your holiday at Inle Lake. The available flight (not daily) to Kengtung also means that Inle Lake can be a logical last stop in Upper Myanmar before flying to Kengtung and exiting Myanmar overland at Tachileik to Northern Thailand. The border crossing requires a permit that we can arrange – please ask us for details. We can also arrange this itinerary in the opposite direction should you wish to enter Myanmar overland. Inle Lake can also be included in an overland tour of Upper Myanmar by hired air-conditioned car. Mr Myanmar Travel can also arrange accommodation of all standards and budgets, boat tours, tours by car and both one-day, and multi-day treks into the surrounding countryside to explore the ethnic villages, markets, floating gardens and historical sites that the area is famous for.

Good standard budget accommodation is available in the area’s main town, Nyaungshwe. Options on the lake itself range from two to five star standard, and include some really beautiful properties boasting overwater bungalows with stunning lake views. Please note that accommodation fills quickly around the time of the Phaung Daw Oo and Taunggyi balloon festivals – please book as far in advance as possible if you wish to attend the festivities. Half, and full day boat tours of the lake and its attractions can be arranged in advance. For daytrips to more far-flung attractions, please see the ‘Daytrips from Inle Lake’ and ‘Pindaya’ pages of our website. Some of the day treks we can arrange are mentioned above. For details of the 3 day Kalaw – Inle Lake trek, please see the ‘Kalaw’ page of our website. Most visitors choose to trek in this direction but treks starting on the shores of Inle Lake can also be arranged.

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