In Myanmar/Burma’s Shan State, Inle Lake is an iconic destination - and for good reason. Despite hosting large numbers of tourists, the lake’s rural charms remain authentic and alluring. Intha fisherman row flat-ended canoes with one leg while using both hands to fish; floating gardens burst with tomatoes, beans and other produce; and oxcarts packed with the day’s harvest create the only traffic jam you will find. Wooden homes perch above the water on rickety stilts in villages that sustain generations-old cottage industries.
Spend a few days here to appreciate the area’s appeal. Here are the best ways to experience it.
On the bridge in Nyuang Shwe, Inle Lake’s main tourist town, touts constantly beleaguer tourists with the phrase ‘Hello, boat trip?’ At some point, you should take them up on it. A day trip on the lake costs around 15,000 to 18,000 kyat (about US$17 to $20), which you can divide between the number of other participants: the long, narrow boats fit five or six tourists, who sit in wooden chairs.
You can tailor your day (we said ‘no thanks’ to viewing the Karen long-neck women and the touristy floating market), and the rate is slightly negotiable. Hiring a private guide and boat for the day will increase the cost but you will be able to decide when and where you want to travel, and be able to skip some of the more tourist-crowded locations.
Most boat tours include time on the lake to observe and photograph the Inle fishermen (most beautiful at dawn), as well as a visit to the rotating five-day market. There will be several stops at villages with cottage industries, including lotus silk weaving, silver smiths, cheroot-making and boat-building.
Many trips start at dawn, when mist covers the lake and it is at its most photogenic. Sunset trips are also popular, though note it can get chilly on the water. Most boats provide blankets but you will want a jacket and hat.
After you have taken in Inle’s inner delights, explore the perimeter on bicycle. Many sights are clustered around the lake’s borders, including hot springs and more cottage industries.
Begin in Nyuang Shwe, where a six-gear bike will cost you 1500 kyat for 24 hours. Peddle west along an unpaved, bumpy road through farmland. Take a left at the T-junction and head south, following the mountains. After about five miles you will reach hot springs, where the water is piped into a series of swimming pools. A soak costs adults 7000 kyat for gender-mixed pools and 3000 for the sex-segregated ones.
Continue pedalling south until you reach Kaung Daing, an Intha village producing Shan state’s famous tofu. Made with split yellow lentil flour, Shan tofu is made by boiling water and the flour, stirring vigorously and then pouring into a mould to set. Thin tofu wafers are set out to dry, and you can enjoy a tofu thoke (tofu salad) for a few hundred kyat.
After lunch, grab one of the many touts you have no doubt passed, and hire a boat to ferry you and your bike across the lake. A boat costs 6000 kyat and will deposit you on the east side of the water, where you can continue cycling north through sugar cane plantations and small villages.
As you near the north side of the lake you will see Red Mountain Winery (www.redmountain-estate.com) to the east; head up the hill for a magnificent view of Inle and the vineyards as well as a tasting of the local wine. The winery is free to visit and a tasting will set you back a mere few thousand kyat. Red Mountain’s pinot noir and sauvignon blanc are its favoured varietals.
Continue around the north side of the lake, perhaps with a slight wine buzz, and cruise into Nyuang Shwe before sunset as the roads are not lit.
Beyond Inle Lake
Consider taking a day or two to travel beyond Inle’s most easily accessible sights. Taunggyi, the administrative capital of Shan State, is a busy town with a vibrant market. Be sure to eat at the recently-opened Taung Chune Food Centre (find them on Facebook here), which showcases regional food such as Inle mohinga (a local version of the country’s favourite noodle soup) and a homemade banana vinegar (whet your appetite with our food guide to Myanmar).
Inthein, west of the lake, is a popular start or stop point for treks from Kalaw, and you can take a lovely ride through a jungled canal to reach it.
Kalaw, a former hill station that bills itself as ‘Pine City’, is a lovely place to wander and a very popular spot for those taking three-day treks to Inle. There are some beautiful gardens, pine-forested hills, and a large selection of Nepali food (thanks to the labourers who came to build the railroad during British rule).