As I watched the sun set over Inle Lake, I caught sight of a local fisherman who was expertly balanced at the back of his boat.
In one graceful move, he raised a sinewy leg, wrapped it around an oar and, using his foot, propelled himself and his small wooden boat forward.
Leg-oar. Leg-oar. Leg-oar until he was out of view.
I’d heard about this unique style of rowing before I got to Inle Lake but to see it in action was mesmerising.
As was much of what I saw on my tour of Inle Lake.
Times change: Since writing this guide, the political situation has changed in Myanmar. Some adventurous travellers are still visiting, so I’m keeping these guides online. Also, in the hope Myanmar will open once more. If you do visit, check your government’s travel advice (it can impact your travel insurance) as well as local advice.
Tourism in Inle Lake
Tourism is only just starting to blossom on Inle Lake, where the local people (known as Itha, meaning children of the lake) exist largely from the lake’s resources.
The lake is a place where rudimentary houses built on stilts jolt out of the water, manual labour is the mainstay of the people, and the local market sails into town only once a week.
In small numbers, the tourists sail by, almost un-noticed, enabling a long, laid-back view of Inle life (a far cry from tourism levels on Tonlé Sap in Cambodia).
Meanwhile, the Itha people get to meet the ‘foreigners’, as we’re affectionately known.
It’s a chance for them to practice English, smile a shy hello (usually accompanied by a giggle) and see if there’s a chance we might want to buy some of the local wares. Or share a cup of tea. Or a bowl of noodle soup. Or all of the above.
My tour, which I took with Rickshaw Travel, was the highlight of my three weeks in Myanmar (and that includes visiting Bagan, seeing all the pagodas in Bagan, historic Yangon, taking the boat from Bagan to Mandalay and having the beach practically to myself in Ngapali).
What follows is a summary of my tour. I’ve included more details at the end on how to book this trip.
Prefer video? Here’s what my day looked like on Inle Lake.
And if you like boat trips, check out my trip from Bagan to Mandlay by Boat.
Most Inle Lake tours are missing a trick. They leave from the nearby town of Nyuang Shwe and, after a day exploring the lake, return to Nyuang Shwe.
That might sound nice, until you realise that Nyuang Shwe is a dusty, criss-cross of streets filled with nothing more than restaurants, bars, stray dogs and motorbikes. If ever a town was a ‘jumping-off point’ (read: nothing to see here), Nyuang Shwe is it.
And taking a boat tour of Inle Lake from Nyuang Shwe misses three of the most memorable parts of Inle Lake life: seeing the sunrise over the lake (cup of jasmine tea in hand), seeing the sunset over the lake (glass of gin and tonic in hand) and sleeping in a cottage overlooking Inle Lake – the sound of water and nature in the background.
If you want to truly explore Inle Lake, you’ll make sure your tour includes all three (gin: optional). And, with that in mind, here’s the best things to do in Inle Lake.
1. Spend a night on Inle Lake
My tour started with an afternoon and evening of pure relaxation at Golden Island Cottages on Inle Lake – a fantastic hotel on Inle Lake. After 3 nights in Mandalay, it was exactly what I needed.
I filled the afternoon sitting on the veranda of my lake-side cottage watching lake-life go by.
Here’s the view…
Being British, I may have felt compelled to indulge in a spot of afternoon tea on the veranda with my Kindle. I packed my own banana bread for the occasion but there’s a small snack shop at the hotel where you can buy something sweet.
2. Watch the sunset on Inle Lake
As the sun started to set, I fashioned a yoga mat from my travel towel and did some of the best-located sun salutations of my life.
(I use the Yoga Studio app if you’re interested in doing some yoga on the road.)
After the sun had set, I showered and made my way to the main building for a wi-fi fix and dinner.
Wi-fi at Inle Lake, Nyuang Shwe and, in fact, most of Myanmar is slow and patchy.
Outside the big cities, it’s rare that you’ll find a connection that stretches to your room and you’ll usually have to sit near/next to/on top of the router located at your hotel’s reception to get speeds fast enough for social media and email.
Your better bet is to buy a local SIM when you land at the airport. It will take 5 minutes to set up (the network staff will do this for you) and cost you a few dollars for data access. I chose Ooredoo, which gave great coverage and speed. You can read more about your network choices.
Given the location on the lake, you’re pretty much committed to the hotel restaurant, which always makes me nervous in case I’m locked in to high prices or bad food or poor service or, if karma’s really having a pop at me – all of the above.
Fortunately, the prices were reasonable (6,000 kyat for a fish main course and around 2,000 for a fruit juice), the food was excellent and the restaurant itself was the right level of busy.
I stayed at: Golden Island Cottages
I spent my first night at Golden Island Cottages, which I’d highly recommend. I mean – those views ^
The bathroom was a bit ‘rustic’ and, to be honest, a bit grimy, but that’s quite common in Myanmar, even in high-end hotels, so be prepared.
A word on mosquitos: The presence of the mosquito net in the room make my stomach plummet – I’m a mosquito magnet – and when the ladies came in to do the turn-down service, pulling the net over my bed, my eye twitched a little. However, I’m pleased to report that it was all for show. I didn’t have a single problem with mosquitos on the lake.
That said, you will find mosquitos in Myanmar – check out my thoughts on the best mosquito repellent.
3. See the sunrise on Inle Lake
Given sunrise was at a very respectable 7 a.m., I didn’t need to go any further than my veranda and I could do all of that in my pyjamas, I roused myself (at 6:55 a.m.) for sunrise.
The sun rose behind the mountains, casting some pretty ethereal shadows over the lake.
And it was all perfectly timed to lead into breakfast, which was included as part of my stay.
At 8:30 a.m., all packed and ready at the hotel jetty, my boat tour of Inle Lake really began.
What to wear?
I’d recommend long, loose trousers and a t-shirt. Not only will you be doing a lot of stepping in and out of the boat, making trousers essential for your dignity (even if you are wearing your prettiest underwear), you’ll be visiting a few temples.
In Myanmar, ‘temple clothes’ are pretty similar to other places in Asia: cover your shoulders and knees.
Myanmar is overall a very conservative country and although you might see tourists traipsing around Yangon in short shorts and tiny strappy tops, the local people are less used to this western style of dress on Inle Lake.
4. See the stilt houses
It was still a little chilly on the lake when we set off and I was pleased to find snuggly blankets had been packed in preparation. I saw many boats without these and the poor ‘foreigners’ looked chilled to the bone.
The first ‘sight’ on my boat tour of Inle lake was the stilt houses shooting out of the water on wooden legs so spindly they defy all the rules of engineering, architectural design and gravity.
5. Visit the floating gardens
More impressive than the houses, if that’s possible, is the farming that occurs on the water.
Using water hyacinths as an incubator, the local people have learned how to ‘grow land’ that is suitable for cultivating produce on the water.
One of the main things grown is tomatoes. They are shipped across Myanmar, making up around 80% of the country’s stock.
I might have had a sneaky pizza when I was in Nyuang Shwe (at Golden Kite, which has a wood fired pizza oven). Just to taste the local tomatoes, you understand.
6. Count the Number of Pagodas
And where there are people in Myanmar, there are inevitably going to be pagodas. There are lots of them – I dare you to count them all.
Did you know? 90% of the people of Myanmar are Buddhist?
7. Shop at the local market
The market works on a rotation basis on the lake. Given the lake is over 22km long and 10km wide, it’s a great way of ensuring the local people never have to travel too far for their essential supplies.
It also makes market day a busy, social event and as I walked around with my guide we stopped several times as she bumped into people she knew; had a catch up with friends (about her upcoming wedding) and stopped at the mobile library to exchange a few books.
This isn’t a market put on for tourists. This is the real, local deal.
Top Tip: don’t snarf down too much breakfast. I was at the market early and wish my appetite was ready for some of the treats I saw on offer.
Though I personally didn’t fancy the ants.
You can even have your hair cut if you need to – look at that mass of hair on the floor.
The importance of having a guide with good, clear English
I had both a boat ‘driver’ and a guide with the latter possessing excellent, clear English. This is not as common as you might expect in Myanmar. Although many Burmese people claim to be English-speaking guides, their English is commonly mumbled and unclear. I spent a whole day in Bagan pretending that I understood what my guide said which, for the most part, could have been Chinese it was so incomprehensible to me.
8. Visit Hpaung Daw U Pagoda…maybe
The market was located next to the grand pagoda, Hpaung Daw U, the day I visited and after a bit of shopping, I went inside.
There is a a lot of legend about the five buddhas housed within the pagoda and people travel to the pagoda to place gold leaf on the buddhas. In fact, so many people have applied gold leaf that the buddhas now look more like blobs.
By people, I mean men.
I would have been much more invested in the story and the pilgrimage and the blobs and the gold leaf had I not so carelessly decided to wear my vagina that day.
I was about to make a pitch that I couldn’t really be considered a lady. Not since that night in that bar in a place called Staines back in 1998…but I didn’t want to upset the monks. Not on their home turf.
However, it would have been nice to have a heads-up about the discrimination BEFORE I paid my 500 kyat fee for taking my camera inside the pagoda. Strangely enough, my lady money absolutely wasn’t prohibited.
Top Tip: if you don’t want to become a man in order to visit the pagoda, skip it or at least save yourself the 500 kyat. In fairness, I should add that this was the first and only time in all of Myanmar that I’d seen a ‘ladies prohibited sign’.
9. Say hello to the Padaung ladies
“Do you want to go and see the long neck ladies?” I’d been asked this question before on my travels. Last time I was in Chiang Mai, Thailand and I’d answered no. There’s something about the idea of coach loads of tourists turning up and grabbing a selfie with the ‘strange women’ who bind and stretch their necks in rings of gold that sets off my discomfort-ometer.
But this time I said yes.
Why? Curiosity, I confess. But also the words of my guide. She assured me that tourism numbers were low here and the ladies came to sell their woven wares. I wouldn’t be beating my way past a hundred other tourists, just to take a selfie. I would get a chance to sit down, say hello, check out their cool gold neck wear, watch them weave, and share a few words of English as well as a smile.
As it turned out, I was the only tourist there at the time I visited.
For the record, I didn’t take a selfie. I did say hello. I did share a smile.
10. Visit the silversmith
Industrialisation simply hasn’t happened on Inle Lake and life continues to follow tradition. This is best witnessed at the myriad craft shops on the lake.
At the silversmiths, I watched as the craftsmen heated the raw ore to separate out the copper, the aluminium and the silver. I felt like I was witnessing alchemy in practice.
11. Have a go at rolling cigars – cheroots
Cigars are endemic in Myanmar and on my Inle Lake boat tour I got a chance to see the cigars being hand-rolled.
What was unique about this ‘cheroot’ producer is that all of the ingredients were natural, down to the glue (made from rice) that held the cigars together. Some of the cigars were flavoured with banana, coconut and tamarind and even as a non-smoker, they smelled divine.
I got to have a go at rolling my own cigar, which I plan give to my mum who is a smoker. I think the last thing I took home from ‘school’ was a Christmas tree decoration made out of the inside of a toilet roll tube. I’m hoping this might be more impressive. Or, at least, useful.
12. Stop for mid-morning tea and a canoe trip
I don’t know how my guide knew that I had a tea addiction, but just as I was craving a cup, we pulled up at a local house. This wasn’t a mass-tourism feeding stop. This was me, my guide and the lady who served the tea. A lady who seemed to be a friend of my guide.
Good to know: sugar is abundant in Myanmar and it’s added to everything from the bread to main course dishes. Everything apart from cakes and sweets. Weird, huh?
The lady also owned a canoe and with a tummy full of tea and cake, we took to the water for a slower experience on the lake.
The picture above is a fellow canoeist. See how he’s steering the oar with his foot?
13. Witness the rare art of lotus weaving
Lotus weaving is rare because it’s labour intensive. However, in a country where buddhism prevails, there are not many local people prepared to make silk because it requires them to kill the silk worm.
14. Watch some boat carving
There are over 6,000 boats that ply Inle Lake and all of them are made at the same place. This place. They were busy building boats when I got there, which was no surprise.
Like boat trips? Check out my related article about taking the boat from Bagan to Mandalay.
Planning a trip to Myanmar? Here’s my Guide to Maynamar – Know Before you Go.
15. Have lunch on Inle lake
Lunch was as informal as my tea stop – a small room with calf-high tables and round bamboo mats on the teak wooden floor. No tour groups wearing headsets were going to turn up here. Lunch was a simple bowl of Shan noodles (similar to Vietnamese pho) and one of the nicest things I ate in Myanmar.
16. Explore Shwe Indein Pagoda
After lunch came the surprise highlight of the day: Shww Indein Pagoda.
There aren’t many people who haven’t heard of Angkor Wat and the other crumbling temples in Cambodia.
Conversely, there aren’t many people who have heard of Shwe Indein Pagoda.
On the west bank of the lake, this temple complex has fallen into ruins. Complete with trees running through temples (reminiscent of Ta Prohm – the ‘Tomb Raider’ temple in Cambodia), it’s not going to be long before the existing rubble gives way to a car park and souvenir sellers plaster the perimeter.
Until that happens, you can stroll through the complex with barely another tourist in sight.
Reparation work has commenced and at the moment this makes for a wonderful contrast between old and broken, red and repaired and the golden gleam of full restoration.
If there were a reason to visit Myanmar and visit Inle Lake, this is it.
And yes, that is a tree that has grown right through the centre of this stupa.
You can read more about Shwe Indein Pagoda.
17. Indulge in some luxury in Nyuang Shwe
After one last trundle past the floating gardens, it was time to head north to Nyuang Shwe, where I would spend the night.
The blanket made one more appearance as I wrapped up warm against the cooling night air. And, sitting back, I watched the sun set on my Inle lake boat tour.
I stayed at: La Maison Birmane Boutique Hotel
The second night of my tour included accommodation at La Maison Birmane boutique Hotel in Nyuang Shwe. Although this hotel can’t boast a lakefront location, it ticked every other box for fantastic accommodation.
My room was spacious as was the garden terrace, and as well as having one of the nicest bathrooms I’ve seen (and some of the hottest water I’d experienced in Myanmar), they served an excellent gin and tonic in a relaxed bar setting. It was the perfect end to my stay in Inle Lake.
How to book an Inle Lake Boat Tour with Rickshaw Travel
Rickshaw Travel is pretty unique – they let you bolt together 3 or more bite-size trips (each ‘bite’ is about 2 to 4 days). That means you can design an itinerary that entirely suits your needs. Or, if you’d rather leave it to the experts (and they are experts), you can take one of their ready-made itineraries.
The Inle Lake tour I took, including accommodation, guide and some meals, is one of Rickshaw Travel’s bite-size trips. To book, simply combine it with 2 or more bite-size trips in Myanmar.
After Inle Lake, I went on to Ngapali beach, and Rickshaw travel offer an excellent bite-size tour of Ngapali which you can add to your itinerary. Or, if you fancy something more active, you could go hiking through the emerald hills. This would certainly have been on my list if I wasn’t still recovering from knee surgery. Otherwise, check out these ready-made itineraries that already include tours of Inle Lake.
How to get to Inle Lake
Most sensible people will arrive at Inle Lake by air – Heho Airport is just 40 minutes away from Nyuang Shwe.
Clearly, I’m not most sensible people because I opted to take the night bus from Mandalay. Although I booked the VIP option with JJ Express, being woken every few hours for a food and toilet stop and arriving at what felt like the middle of the night, didn’t make me feel like much of a VIP. Exhausted is what it made me feel and in hindsight a flight would have been the better option.
You can check flight prices and book with Skyscanner.
- Myanmar Travel Guide – Know Before You Go
- The Best Things to Do in Yangon
- Taking the Boat from Bagan to Mandalay
- Things to Do in Bagan
- The Best Bagan Pagodas – Which Ones to See
- Guide to Ngapali Beach Hotels, Restaurants and Sights
- 15 Must-Visit Cities in Vietnam
- The Best Things To Do In Vietnam
- 21 Best Things To Do In Hong Kong
- A Life Changing Experience: Eating Kobe Beef in Japan
- How To Do Your Own Panda Tour in Chengdu (And Why You Should)
- Guide to Visiting Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park
- Myanmar Itinerary – Places to Visit in Myanmar
- Guides to Myanmar
- Guides to Japan
- Guides To Vietnam
Is Inle Lake on your travel wish list? Let me know in the comments below.
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My tour was courtesy of Rickshaw Travel.