Despite its turbulent past, Myanmar remains remarkably beautiful. At Inle Lake, you can experience unique culture, pristine landscape, and explore a local way of life that continues to be largely self-sufficient with many locals living from the bounties of the lake.
The second largest lake in Myanmar is located in the Shan state hills; an expanse of freshwater that is home to various endemic species of snails and fish found nowhere else on earth. Known best perhaps, for the fishermen that glide across its surface on rickety wooden boats, steering the oars with one foot, a trip to Inle Lake is considered a rite of passage to anyone visiting the country.
The Intha people are native to the Inle Lake region. They live in stilted wooden houses perched on the waters of the lake and in small villages along its shores. The majority are self-sufficient farmers and fisherfolk, and their daily lives are entwined with that of the lake. The gardens where they grow their produce often float on the water, sitting on a base of lake weeds and bamboo shafts, fed by the mineral rich water. They make their way around in small wooden canoes. Due to the way these gardens are constructed, they rise and fall with the water levels and thus are resistant to flooding during the rainy season.
Inle Lake is considered one of the holiest sites in the Shan state. If you visit at certain times of the year, this will become more apparent with the grand festivities that take place there. Inle Lake is host to a few notable festivals and key events throughout the year, the largest of which is the Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda Festival. This festival is celebrated over the course of three weeks in October and November. Five revered buddha statues, covered in gold leaf, are taken from the pagoda in beautiful elaborate barges (each with a golden bird on each of the bows), and transported across the lake to spend a night in each village.
In January is the annual Dhamma Festival, shortly followed by the Full Moon and Dark Moon. The Full Moon and Dark Moon are two particularly important days, where tradition sees people doing their best to undertake good deeds and spend time worshipping at the local pagoda.
In April, Myanmar’s answer to the popular Thai Songkran water festival is celebrated across the country. Understandably, given the large expanse of holy water right at the doorstep, this is a greatly enjoyable and anticipated time of year for those that live in the Inle Lake region.
On Buddha’s birthday in May, the sacred Kason Bayan Tree Watering takes place, this is preceded by a celebration known as Yadanar Mann Aung Kason where the women take offerings through the streets and the men play traditional music.
With all this in mind, it’s unsurprising that the lake itself is such a huge attraction to visitors, but the small region has more to offer than just that. Against the backdrop of its beautiful green hills, you can take locally-run cycling tours, delve into authentic cooking classes, visit Burmese monasteries, or go wine tasting in a vineyard.
Tourist accommodation is still somewhat sparse in Myanmar compared to many other locations in Southeast Asia. Although there’s certainly still a good selection of hotels and a handful of hostels to suit budget-conscious travellers.
For comfortable and middle range accommodation, Shwe Inn Tha Floating Resort (Thar Lay Village, Nyaungshwe 11411) makes the perfect middle ground for those not looking to sacrifice home comforts. Many of the rooms are located in local style huts on the water with canopied beds, and the decor throughout stays true to its surroundings.
Among the handful of hostels, there is the popular Italian owned Ostello Bello (No. 1, Win Ward, Nyaungshwe 11221) chain, who have several hostels in various locations throughout Myanmar. They serve both western and local dishes from their restaurant, and provide several dormitory options as well as private rooms all with incredibly comfy beds.
There is also a smattering of more luxurious / high end accommodation, with the likes of The Villa Inle Boutique Resort (Maing Thauk Village, Nyaungshwe 11181) offering stunning views over the lake and the surrounding countryside.
Nestled in an enclave to the east of the lake sits the Inle Princess Resort (Magyinzin Village, Inle Lake) that offers some of the most spacious suites and serene surroundings. Their relaxing beauty and spa treatment room boasts floor to ceiling windows that look out onto the water and distant mountains.
Food & Drink
One of the region’s best known dishes is Shan Noodles, and the best places around Inle to grab these would be The Shan Noodle & Food House (Phaung Daw Side Rd, Nyaungshwe). Expect a dish not dissimilar to udon noodle ramen, with thick, chewy noodles in a delectable broth (although you can opt for them to be served without broth in a salad instead).
Then there’s the infamous Lahpet Thoke or “Tea Leaf Salad”, as divisive as marmite. The key ingredients often involve fermented tea leaves, chopped tomatoes, dried shrimp, garlic and crunchy peanuts — delivering a burst of flavours and combination of textures. You can decide for yourself whether you love or hate this dish at Bamboo Hut (War Daw Village, Nyaung Shwe).
Golden Moon (located on stilts in the lake, take a boat taxi and ask to go to Golden Moon) restaurant serves up a delicious Burmese tomato salad and traditionally cooked whole fish, covered in fragrant ground fresh herbs and spices and then steamed or fried whole. You may or may not wish to sample the pungent ngapi fish paste, or add a side dish of fermented soybeans to your meal, depending on how adventurous you are.
Other local dishes not to be missed are a traditional Burmese Curry, Shan Style Rice, and Mohinga Noodle Soup. All of which can be found at the traditionally styled Ancestor Restaurant (Phaung Daw Pyan Rd, Nyaungshwe).
Drinking isn’t a huge part of life in Myanmar, and thus you won’t find as many bars as you would in Western Countries or those more used to catering to tourists. That being said, there are a few places you can go; in particular, the eccentrically designed Inle Palace Cocktail Bar (Main Tauk Inn Village, Inle Lake) offers an unparalleled setting on the edge of the lake.
Cafes & Teahouses
There are a few cafes around Inle Lake where you can find a decent cup of coffee and even some freshly baked pastries, such as the flaky croissants and pain au chocolat baked fresh every morning at The French Touch (Myt Lae Quarter, Nyaungshwe).
There’s also the Coffee House by Pleasant Garden (Kansas Village Road, lwal Tan Dam, Inle, Nyaungshwe) for a brew with a view. Pass through the floral arches outside and enjoy your coffee on the terrace with a panoramic view of the lake and surrounding farmlands.
Teahouses on the other hand, are much more abundant, as they are an essential part of socialising and and an integral part of everyday life in Myanmar. If you wish to experience something a little more local and authentic (seeing as Myanmar isn’t famed for its coffee production) then pop to The Inle Tea Saloon (Nandawoon Quarter, Nyaung Shwe) or simply keep an eye out for where the locals are stopped on low stools and sipping cups of green tea.
Another offering for Burmese tea comes in the form of the traditional, rustic Thukha Cafe (Lan Ma Taw Street Nyaungshwe). Thukha is the perfect place for an authentic experience, and is popular with the locals at breakfast time. They also serve delicious sweet pastries which make the perfect accompaniment to your tea of choice.