Inle Lake is one of the main stops on the tourist trail of Myanmar. Tourists are keen to see the floating villages and the fishermen rowing the boats with their feet.
I have to start by saying that my native country has more lakes than dry land, so I am not easily impressed by small bodies of water. On top of that, the lake seems to be in a sad state with shallow water overgrown with weeds fed by fertilisers used for agriculture. Inle Lake has been selected as a Unesco Biosphere Reserve – hopefully this (and the recently launched five-year conservation plan) will help turn the tide of environmental destruction and restore Inle Lake to that magical scenery it certainly was before. All in all, Inle Lake was a fun stop and provided an easy access for the kids to see rural life in Myanmar, but we were not blown away by it like we were by Bagan.
We had read about the lake trips before getting there, and knowing the kids could not, under any circumstances, sit on a longtail boat for a full 12-hour day, had narrowed our stops to a few must-sees: a market, the Heritage House for lunch, floating gardens and a selected stop at a workshop. With these specs we booked a tour from our hotel, and made sure our ideas were communicated to the boatman before we headed out to the lake.
Markets on Inle Lake
The markets happen in different parts of the lake on different days. On the day we were on the lake the market was in Maing Thauk. We were expecting a floating market but were dropped on a long rickety pier and told to walk 15 minutes “that way”. It took some encouraging and bribery to get the kids to walk that hot and dusty half an hour but they were easily distracted by the bull carts and ladies carrying things on their heads.
I love markets so it’s no surprise I’ll say it was the highlight of our day on the lake. There was enough tourist paraphernalia for the kids to spend (very) little money on little bags and pouches and (way too much) on some Buddhist trinkets and “antiques” – as part of our “leave money behind”. Majority of the shoppers were locals who carried their shopping home on foot or by boats.
On our way from the market we traveled through some canals and got glimpses of life on the water – including the floating gardens. It was getting hot and we were grateful for the umbrellas on the boat to shelter from the sun.
Out of the many workshops on the lake we chose a lotus and silk weaving one. Now, a word of warning: if you have traveled in the region before you may have seen this kind of “artisan workshops”. You get walked through the production line and get told how long each piece takes to make. Then the tour ends up in a show room jam packed with products in many different price ranges. The silk scarves in this particular one were beautiful, and while not extraordinarily expensive, definitely not a bargain either. I bought a few because I needed some presents anyway, but found myself wondering whether all those really come from the lake. Anyhow, it was a nice stop after sitting in the hot sun for some time – but a very well oiled tourism machine, that may be disappointing for those expecting something smaller and more private.
We had lunch at Inle Heritage House, a non-profit organisation that runs a restaurant, hotel, vocational hospitality training and even a project to resurrect the breeding of the Siamese cats in the country. We really enjoyed our stop here. The lunch on the deck overlooking the floating gardens and the canals was both delicious and serene. The kids had a look at the cats and their “city” downstairs and I enjoyed browsing through the boutique for some beautiful high-quality crafts from other parts of Myanmar.
At night we balanced the kids on the back of bikes from our hotel, and headed to the town of Nyaung Shwe, that seemed to consist of a dusty main road and a few backpacker-type restaurants. We had a forgettable dinner but did get lucky by bumping into a procession which I assume was organised for these boys upon their entering monk-hood.
We stayed at the lovely Thanakha Inle hotel by the river, a quick 10 minutes bicycle ride from the Nyaung Shwe. The hotel has lots of common areas to spend time after touring the lake, including a great lounge with a TV next to the bar, and rooftop terraces on both sides. The restaurant is very decent, but the outside seating area is very loud with the boats chugging past at high speed. Our room was spacious and spotlessly clean – warmly recommend this place for kids.
Tips for Inle Lake
- Flights arrive at the Heho airport, about 45 minutes from Nyaung Shwe. If your hotel is on the lake, you’ll need a boat to get to your hotel. All hotels organise airport transfers.
- Boat tours can be booked anywhere and you can choose where to go. If you don’t specify, you’ll be touring a lot of workshops.
- Early in the morning can be chilly out on the lake and later the sun is very strong. Most boats we saw had umbrellas for the sun, but don’t forget sunscreen, water and hats (and keep hold of them so that they won’t fly off like ours).
- Check the market days and whether the market is near where the boat drops you if you have babies/kids that are not good walkers.