This is no surprise: Inle Lake is one of the most fascinating destinations in the world. It is also a threatened destination, sagging under the weight of an increasing population and an exploding number of foreign visitors.
This lake and the surrounding valleys in the very fertile Burmese highlands is home to about 40 hill tribes, between 70,000 and 200,000 Inthas and other people groups of Myanmar (the statistics vary a lot). There are also several endemic species. In addition the lake is one of the prime tourist destinations of Myanmar.
The subsistence economy the lake people have relied on for centuries is declining, but environmental concerns are on the rise. Chemical fertilisers and pesticides, and open sewers, are partly to blame. The shallow lake, 2-4 metres deep depending on season and place, is vulnerable to changes – and the water level is sinking. And so are the cultural traditions drawing so many visitors.
Tourist facilities like restaurants and accommodation are primarily situated in or near the town of Nyaungshwe at the northern end of the long, narrow lake. (There are varying figures on exactly how long and wide it is, but an average would be around 20 x 10 km.) In addition there are several resorts – of sorts – scattered on pillars around the lake. For individual travellers they may seem isolated, and for my part I was more than happy with staying my three nights in Nyaungshwe.
Ahh, the temperatures of the eastern hills were accommodating and Inle proved its reputation as the most fascinating of all the world’s lakes.
A day on the lake
Each morning in particular, and indeed all day long, sees a large number of motorised long-tail boats moving out from Nyaungshwe, or from any of the small tourist resorts scattered around the lake. They are heading for one of the market towns – the markets are circulating between five places around the lake. I had agreed with my hotel the previous day to rent a boat and a driver. (20 USD).
The driver picked me up at my hotel and we walked down to the canal. There I met my guide. I did not know there would be a second person around but accepted my fate as soon as I realised the price would be the same. My guide had clearly been attending language and guiding courses, and was very all right. His English pronunciation was clearly in a developing process, on the other hand. The tour lasted around eight hours, and the price varies slightly with the number of places you visit.
This is what happened.
There is a long river, or canal, connecting Nyaungshwe with the lake proper. It felt kind of cool to sit slightly reclined in that fast moving boat passing all other longtail boats. By far the largest number of boats were coming towards us, carrying locals with all kinds of produce. The noise from the boat engines was quite extreme, so don’t be ashamed to bring ear plugs and use them. It took about fifteen minutes and then we were out on the open lake. It looked a lot larger than I had expected. There was an occasional canoe with fishermen on board, and indeed some larger ones where the men would pull grass onto the boat – for use in their floating gardens.
Longtail boat racing up the river to Nyaungshwe on Inle Lake
Most of the tourist sites are located at the south-western part of the lake. It took an hour or so for us to reach our first stop, the Inthein Market. This is reportedly the most genuine and interesting one, so I naturally spent a good deal of time here. (Some photographic and video footage is included in my “Myanmar markets” video.) If you are short on time, make sure to spend it here, it is very colourful. What relieved me was that this market had local produce, and local shoppers. There were in comparison very few tourists around.
Local tribes people shopping on the Inthein Market
Going home from the market, at Inthein
Right at the end of the market is the long, roof-covered entrance to the Shwe Inn Thein Paya (visit no. 2). This a temple situated on a hilltop overlooking the lake. It takes a few minutes to walk the kilometre to the top, but there is plenty to see on the way, be it temple ruins on the sides or very good handicrafts for sale under the roof. You will probably have seen the likes of the main pagoda building on top, but not the tight collection of stupas surrounding it, 3-7 metres high. There are more than a thousand in the area.
Crafts for sale at the entrance to the Shwe Inn Thein Paya
Stupas on the hilltop of Shwe Inn Thein Paya overlooking Inle Lake
Some were gilded, others had white-washed paint, and some really old ones were stripped naked to the bricks. It seemed like the maintenance of the individual stupas (zedis) were subject to private benevolence, that is donors. The tingling of the small bells on top of the stupas were amazing.
Inthein is a small town situated on a river/canal. We returned to the lake the same way we came. The narrow river was like a snake meandering through the thick vegetation surrounding it on both sides. Going up and down that river gave me flashbacks to a rather famous movie, the Apocalypse Now. Every now and then a bridge would appear, and then a house on stilts, or a tree leaning slightly over the river.
View up river from the seat in a Inle Lake longtail boat
We now paid a visit (no. 3) to a lotus weaver’s workshop. This rather peculiar handicraft looked rather time consuming. A young lady would extract thin strands of fibre from lotus shoots, a few at a time, and another lady was sitting next to her spinning. Quite fascinating process, showing how the Inle Lake people would use all possible natural resources.
The 4th stop, a silversmith’s was, like the previous one, in a house on stilts on one of the canals close to the open lake. I’m not one for souvenirs and not a specialist in evaluating the craftsmanship, but the work seemed all right to me. During the day we passed by several silversmith workshops, so this particular stop must have been as a consequence of a liaison between my boat driver and the workshop. Like everywhere else.
It is quite funny to study the map of the waterways I went, and visited. According to my GPS log I went in a boat on land! The fact is that it’s hard to tell what is firm land or floating islands, onshore or offshore around here – and it changes by the season. Most houses seemed to be built on stilts anyway, and visiting your neighbour three metres away is likely to be by boat. There are a multitude of canals criss-crossing the banks of the lake, between the floating gardens, and up the rivers.
Stop number 5 was at a paper maker’s. I had specifically asked for this one. Here they would use mulberry wood, soak it in water to dissolve the fibres into pulp. Then they let the pulp dry inside a large frame with a filter on the bottom to drain the water. After it had dried they pulled the paper carefully off the frame in one big piece (about a square metre in size). Inside the workshop, and store, a group of ladies were transforming the paper into umbrellas and notebooks. I realised that this is how paper was made, originally, two thousand years ago in China. A man stood next to them operating a foot powered lathe, turning out the umbrella handles. I had been given instructions to bring some paperwork back home, and so I did.
Paper maker workshop
The next stop (no. 6) was actually next door. I walked inside a large room containing all kinds of souvenirs, finding nothing in particular to buy, as usual. Then I noticed a group of people behind a semi-high wall. It was them. The world famous giraffe necked women of Burma. There were four of them, possibly two mothers with their daughters, with brass (or bronze) rings around their necks. The eldest had clearly had their necks stretched for many years (or at least their shoulders lowered creating the same effect). The rings are quite heavy, I could tell. According to my guide they start with this process at the age of nine, and they add a new ring every five years. I might have misunderstood him, for these ladies had obviously fixed more rings than that.
Giraffe neck woman at work
This traditional sign of beauty is of course also a threat. Signs of being unfaithful has one consequence, the removal of the rings. This has a dramatic consequence on a neck without muscles – it falls. Anyway, that’s the way the story goes, a story I and many others have been told for decades. This made it extremely fascinating to actually see them, and it came as a big surprise to me. These women were basically just sitting there, doing some kind of simple weaving, as lame ducks for photo-shooting tourists. They are not native to Inle Lake and a group of around ten have in fact been brought here from the south-eastern hills to promote tourism in general and attract visitors to this shop in particular. I was not only surprised but also embarrassed. It was kind of a freak show, but I managed to take a few photos and shoot a few seconds of video.
By now I had become hungry and we stopped some place for lunch (stop no. 7). It wasn’t a very exciting meal, but I recognised one of the passengers from the Gokteik train a week before, and we joined tables. The view from the restaurant’s front terrace was great, but it was situated on one of the main thoroughfares of the west side of the lake. The passing longtail boats less than 50 metres away produced enough noise to ruin the conversation ever so often.
After lunch, I sank back in my private boat for a tiny sense of luxury and had myself transported for the last round of Inle Lake highlights.
Stop number 8 was at the Phaung Daw Oo Paya temple complex. This is one of Myanmar’s most sacred religious places. It is actually number three after the Shwedagon in Yangon, and the Golden Rock south of Yangon. There is a central temple building housing five “pumpkin head” Buddha images. They are so full of gold leaf that the images have become totally deformed over the decades. Check out the pictures on one of the walls to see what they looked like in 1934 (or have a sneak preview of my picture here).
The Buddha images at the Phaung Daw Oo Paya
Outside the main complex there is a series of hangars covering large gilded ceremonial barges used once a year. During the big festival on the Inle Lake four of the Buddha figures are taken out, placed on the barges and pulled up and down the lake by huge canoes driven by an insane number of leg rowers. That is: According to pictures on the web; I missed it.
Coming up (no. 9) was the floating village at Nampan. We had now reached the southernmost part of Inle Lake where I believe few tourists come, or perhaps not. It was almost empty when we arrived anyway, and we were able to drift slowly between the stilt houses in this extremely exotic village. There was a cat sitting on a piece of wood over the water, a father was caring for his baby, a woman was doing the laundry in the lake water, a boy was leg rowing a canoe to visit his friend, and a net was fixed to a house serving as a private, little fish farm.
Daily life in the floating village at Nampan
Quiet atmosphere in the Nampan floating village
On this part of the lake, there are several workshops, or factories, producing cheroot cigars (no. 10). I was let into a building (on stilts) were a small group of young women sat on the floor rolling the cigars, or rather cigarettes judging by the size of them.
We were now turning back north to Nyaungshwe, but we did so by cutting through the floating gardens (no. 11). Here the farmers grow tomatoes, squash and other vegetables as well as flowers. The gardens consist of long rows of floating “soil” made of water hyacinths, weeds, roots and grass grown into big entangled “sausages”. These entanglements are fixed to the bottom of the lake with long bamboo poles. There seemed to be few residential houses out on the “fields” so I suppose the farmers mostly live elsewhere.
A typical image from Inle Lake: A leg rower inside the floating gardens. This way of rowing is unique in the world.
Attraction number 12 was the Nga Phe Kyaungor Jumping cat monastery as it usually is called in tourist language. The cats I saw were not jumping, they were asleep on the floor as most cats usually are. The name stems from the fact that the monks here used to train the cats to jump through hoops. There are apparently not so many monks around any more. There are plenty of cats here like in every Buddhist temple in Myanmar, but I found the temple architecture, wood-carved furnishings and Buddha figures much more attractive.
The not-so-much-jumping-cats in the Nga Phe Kyaung monastery
We returned to Nyaungshwe and I thanked my driver and guide. By now I had become very satisfied, and as a matter of fact I even felt the same the next day. A full day on Inle Lake is sufficient for most visitors, I would suppose. The alternative would be to take in less sights at a time. There’s a lot of emotions and impressions to evaluate, because there was so much to see, life on the lake is so varied, and so different from anything you have experienced elsewhere. But then, this is at the essence of what Myanmar is about. Inle Lake is not to be missed.
Video from this boat ride on Inle Lake
In and around Nyaungshwe
Nyaunghswe is the main town on Inle Lake. It has a grid of straight streets, most are dirt roads with potholes. They become quite difficult to walk in the rainy season, and particularly at night. There are few street lights, apart from on the main streets. The best way of getting around is on a rented bicycle and I had good use of my headlight, like I had in Bagan a few days ago.
I found no up-scale restaurants, but plenty good ordinary ones. Linn Htet is my special recommendation, serving traditional Myanmar food. There is nothing in particular to do in Nyaungshwe, apart from people-watching.
Life on the street in Nyaungshwe
On the other hand I was lucky on my last day. One of the alternating market days on the lake happened to be here. This one was larger than at Inthein the previous day, indeed it was a highly rewarding and picturesque display of local life. There were perhaps not so many tribe people here, at least not judging from the look of it, but there were thousands coming to buy and sell their stuff. They would come on lorries, motorcycles or longboats.
Shwe Yuanghwe Kyaung is a monastery a few kilometres north of Nyaungshwe. I took my bicycle and pedalled out for a look at the famous oval windows. The carving work was fine, quite a few young monk apprentices were around, and it was a couple of hours well spent.
Shwe Yuanghwe monastery
This article is part of a series from Myanmar, describing my travels in August 2013. My visit is presented in ten chapters, a planning document and an article with some final impressions from a country which is included on just about everyone’s bucket list. Read all chapters: