Inle Lake: A Haven of Calm and Beauty in Myanmar

Inle Lake and I started off on the wrong foot, that’s for sure. Although my flight to Heho, the nearest airport, was uneventful and roughly on time, I was starting to go down with a strong cold and not feeling very well that morning.

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Upon our arrival, everyone scrambled for transportation so quickly that I suddenly found myself with no one to share a cab with. Since there were no alternative means of transportation, I had to cough up an extortionate 25,000 kyat (about €22) for the 25-km taxi ride to Nyaung Shwe, the small town north of the lake where most tourists converge. The taxi fee set me in a foul mood, as I had payed a lot less (7-9,000 kyat) for 1-hour taxi rides into and out of Yangon.

My mood wasn’t helped by the somewhat stressful ride to Nyaung Shwe, which in its first half involves driving across a mountain range on a winding road with far too many blind bends for my liking. Normally I wouldn’t be fazed by this, but there’s this quirk in Myanmar: despite most cars having steering wheels on the right-hand side, driving is done on the right side of the road (apparently, this happened back in the 70s on some general’s whim). This means drivers can barely see incoming traffic before overtaking. So, if you are sitting at the left back seat of a taxi, with a perfect line of sight along a narrow mountain road with one lane per direction, imagine how many times you want to tell the driver “DON’T! We’re going to crash!!!”. The whole thing just works because drivers are now used to it and apply some kind of method to the madness; but still, crazy stuff.

Adding to my financial misery that day, just outside Nyaung Shwe, my taxi stopped at a booth where all tourists are required to pay a $10 tax per week to enter the Inle Lake area.

 

I finally got to Nyaung Shwe and my cold did get worse over the next two days, not helped by the decidedly chilly temperatures between sunset and mid-morning. For that reason, I didn’t do much in my three days there, other than some exploring around town and a one-day boat tour of Inle Lake.

(All photos are © 2015 Fernando Cortés-Cabanillas. Please contact me if you wish to use them).

Boat on Inle Lake, Myanmar

One of the things about traveling alone is that when you don’t feel like socializing, you sometimes have to; either that, or be prepared to pay more. So even if I was feeling sick and not very social, I was hoping I could find some people to split the cost of the boat trip. Not feeling like walking too much around, I went to Thu Thu, one of the tour agencies on the main road recommended in my guidebook. Thu-Thu, the very nice and knowledgeable young woman who owned of the agency, told me that all their boats were full for the following day. If I wanted to be sure to take the tour the next day (and I did, as I was leaving the day after), I’d have to book a whole boat and hope that someone else would show up before closing time.

The tour was about €22, which again seemed steep, but I was in no condition to bargain or shop around. The next morning, Thu Thu informed me that no one had booked any of the three remaining spots on the boat.

Nyaung Shwe Pier, Shan State, Myanmar

But I was ok with that. It was around 7 in the morning, I was feeling drowsy from the medication I was taking for my cold, and I badly needed some hot drink (or, as Sheldon Cooper likes to put it, a hot beverage). I had missed breakfast at the hotel because of a huge group of Chinese tourists who had decided to go to the restaurant at the same time as I did.

At least, my boatman took me to a place where I could get some breakfast to go on our way to the pier (first time in my life I drink coffee from a plastic bag!):

Breakfast to go, Nyaung Shwe, Myanmar

The coffee had lots of condensed milk in it, just as the Burmese like it.

Eventually, things turned out alright, since I hooked up at the pier with three other people, a young French-Belgian couple and a German woman, who were looking for someone else to rent a boat, so they were glad to learn I had a boat already booked with precisely three free spots, and we could split the €22 fee four ways. For some reason, our boatman was not ok with that, even if I’d explained to him my arrangement with the agency. It took a quick phone call to Thu-Thu to sort things out, and we were off.

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After the somewhat rocky start, Inle Lake turned out to be as beautiful as I’d expected, and definitely one of the highlights of my whole trip in SE Asia.

Fishermen on Inle Lake, Myanmar

 

Stilt houses at Inle Lake

 

Farming at Inle Lake's floating gardens

 

Fisherman from Inle Lake

The average length and width of Inle Lake (18 x 11 km) may not sound massive, but the lake feels definitely big because much of its shoreline seems to dissolve into a maze of side canals lined with bamboo stilt houses, floating gardens (they really float!) and marshes.

 

Stilt houses on Inle Lake

 

Bamboo stilt house at Inle Lake

 

Boat on Inle Lake

 

The day trip consisted of a tour around the lake, with over half a dozen stops along the SE and SW shores to visit Inthein market (didn’t really care for it), a few pagodas (at that point in my trip I was templed out, although I recovered later in Lao) and several traditional handicraft workshops (silversmiths, silk and lotus weaving, wood carving) that were quite interesting to visit but felt slightly like tourist traps even though there was no hard selling whatsoever. Although most tourist boats like ours seemed to converge on the same spots, I never had the impression that the place was crowded, far from it.

Bamboo stilt houses on Inle Lake

 

Pa-O tribe women with typical orange headscarf

These women are not Intha, but from the Pa-O minority, as indicated by their characteristic orange headscarf.

Nyaung Shwe, near Inle Lake

 

Inle Lake’s real highlight for me, though, was the natural and man-made landscape, and its people, the around 90, 000-strong Intha minority who for centuries have made a living fishing and farming off the lake. Indeed, if there’s one iconic sight of Inle Lake, it is that of its fishermen with their basket nets and their clever leg rowing technique, which allows them to stay in an upright position (important in these shallow waters) and frees up one hand for other purposes.

Fisherman from Inle Lake, leg-rowing technique

 

Leg rowing technique, Inle Lake

 

Fisherman on Inle Lake, Myanmar

 

My impression of Inle Lake is that it may well have been in the past, even still today, a textbook example of near-perfect integration of man and nature. But this fragile ecosystem is now under threat, once Myanmar’s budding tourist industry has started to gather momentum; indeed, the first worrying signs have appeared.

As the day went on and my symptoms got better, I was glad I found someone to share the trip with. Not only they were really nice people (I wish I could remember their names!), but their company added to the experience; this is one of those places where you enjoy sharing your amazement with others.

I was so enthralled by Inle Lake that I really wish I’d stayed for longer in the area to explore it as leisurely and thoroughly as it deserves. If you have the chance to visit Myanmar, make sure Inle Lake is at the top of your list, along with Bagan and its stunning ancient temples. I’m sure you’ll love it as much I did.

If you’ve been to Inle Lake, I’d love to hear from you in the comments section.

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