With flocks of friends currently flitting around the world on holidays, it was inevitable that I’d return to take a look at our time spent exploring Burma. After Bagan, Inle Lake was most definitely another favourite destination of ours. It wasn’t just the endlessly serene and entirely unique waterscape that enthralled us, but also the chance to see the people, known as the Intha (literally, “sons of the lake”) living in and around the enormous body of water itself. Living in bamboo houses propped up high out of the water on stilts, the Intha have historically depended on the lake for everything. And this lifestyle is still evident this present day – you’ll see fishermen in tiny boats, some still employing the unmistakable leg rowing style found nowhere else in the world (some are legit, some just do it when tourists are whisked by), you’ll see rows of tomatoes and vegetables being cultivated atop beds of floating reeds as if on land, and people living life so naturally entwined with that of the lake, hopping blithely in and out of boats, going shopping, brushing their teeth, washing their clothes, and I dare not think what else.
Where to stay and how to get around:
Long story short, don’t stay on Inle Lake itself unless you’ve got stacks of cash to burn. We stayed in Nyaung Shwe, the township to which Inle Lake technically belongs, which is a mere 30 to 40 minute motorboat ride away from where the main action is on the lake.The majority of the hotels in Nyaung Shwe are strategically placed along waterways which makes hiring a boat and driver exceedingly easy, in fact the hotelier will generally organise this for you.
To get around the town and to nearby places it’s simple! Get on ya bike! Again, the hotel staff can sort you out with hiring one, and it’s super cheap.
What to do and see:
Spend as much time in and around the lake as possible, obviously! It’s pretty impossible for Inle to look bad, but the incredible light and reflections off the still water you get at sunset are unbeatable, don’t miss that. During the day, you must check out the local market. This was not the Thai-esque floating market I initially thought it would be and I’ll admit I’m not proud of the minor hissy fit I threw at first. Little did I know that this market was also frequented by all the locals buying their vegetables, spices, rice, pots and pans, and betel nut of course. Persevere and wade through the touristy dross that gets presented to you right front and centre to where the people gather around rickety wooden tables to buy and eat their lunch. Best tohu-thoke I have ever eaten in my life (Sorry, even better than yours Mum!). My advice regarding the food? Follow your nose. Follow the locals. Eat stuff that’s freshly cooked and hot if possible. Or just be like me and chance catching gastro it because it’s that good. (FYI I did not catch gastro!)
The other place I loved exploring whilst out on the water were the workshops that still practise the art of handloom weaving and the highly labour intensive craft of spinning lotus root fibres into threads. These exceedingly fine threads are used to make a fabric a little like coarse silk but much rarer and quite a bit more expensive, but for good reason!. It reportedly takes 32 000 lotus stems to make just one metre of this soft and unique fabric.
If you’ve got a tiny bit of time to spare and/or feel like doing something on land, hire a bike and cycle to the nearby Shwe Yan Pyay monastery, a beautiful 19th century structure built completely from teak. Walk around quietly and respectfully as this is still a fully functioning monastery. Go very early in the morning as the young monks are just stirring and congregating to have breakfast and beat the usual tourist rush.
How to get here:
There are a number of ways to get to Nyaung Shwe and Inle to meet any budget. I would recommend flying into Heho airport first (as the roads are pretty crappy and extremely tortuous due to the area being on an elevation) then making your way to the town of your choice by road. What I’d love to do next time is head to a nearby town named Kalaw first then trek to Nyaung Shwe, which typically takes two to three days, staying overnight in local villages along the way. Yet another reason to head back to this incredibly lush countryside.