Every year, more and more people decide to venture to Myanmar to continuously explore this beautiful yet rugged country. While the cities of Bagan, Mandalay and Yangon are the main tourist hotspots, another destination worth visiting is Inle Lake. Inle Lake is remarkably different from the aforementioned tourist cities of Myanmar and significantly smaller compared to them. Inle Lake, the second largest natural lake in Myanmar which has a length of 22km and a width of 11km and is 875 metres above sea level, is located in the heart of Shan State which shares borders with Thai & Laos.
Slowly gaining in popularity and hype, Inle Lake is made up of a vast serene lake filled with stilt houses, swampy marshes, and faint hills and temples glimmering from afar. It can be a bit cold there. Thanks to the surrounding hills and because of its location, it can also be tricky to travel to the lake. Tourists can travel by plane, Inle Lake is 35 km away from the nearest airport in Heho, and travelling by road can be a bumpy adventure in itself. However, the beauty of the place is worth the trip. Inle Lake is an example of a rural countryside town that is calm and peaceful, which is perfect for a vacation of relaxation. Visitors can spend their days canoeing or trekking in the lush countryside or maybe watch the Inthar people, the inhabitants of the island, do their tasks by the outrageously beautiful lake. It is therefore recommended for travellers who are looking for a relaxing vacation.
The Best Time to Go To Inle Lake
The climate in Inle Lake can be described as monsoonal, as it receives an average of 1,370 mm of rainfall every year and the wettest period falls between the months of May and September. However, dry season rain is quite frequent on the Shan Plateau, more frequent than in any other place in Myanmar. Because of the altitude, tourists can expect a cool climate and while mists are to be expected, visitors need not worry about frost. Throughout the year, the climate in the lake area is cool but it gets downright chilly during early mornings and evenings during the months of January and February. Tourists are advised to bring socks, sweaters or jackets to keep themselves warm.
September to November is peak time to visit, as temperatures abate after monsoon season. This is mainly because of the ceremonial Phaungdawoo Festival, the most important event held there. This festival lasts for almost three weeks, where four gleaming buddhas from the Phaungdawoo Pagoda are paraded around the lake on a royal barge. It occurs between late September and early October. The Phaungdawoo Festival is closely followed by the Thadingyut, another festival and one of Myanmar's best-known events. The Inthar and Shan folks wear new clothes to celebrate the end of Buddhist Lent, or ‘Waso’. Plus, flowers abound in October and November, adding gorgeous bursts of yellow to the scenery. So book early if you want to participate, but note that things often shut down for the holiday.
Getting there and getting around
The best and common way of travelling to Inle Lake is by plane because all the other routes to the area are time-consuming. Heho is the entrance to the Inle Lake region, and all major airlines fly to this destination. These include Air Mandalay, Yangon Airways, Myanma Airways and Bagan Air. From Heho, a traveller still has 11km to go to Nyaungshwe or 20km to Taunggyi.
Tourists with more time on their hands can travel by road from Bagan, Mandalay, Thazi or Kalaw. The road trips can be excruciatingly long : Mandalay is about 8 hrs while Yangon takes 9 hrs. Means of transportation available for a road trip include buses, pick-up trucks and taxis. The prices are of course much cheaper than by plane, for example, you could expect to pay about $15 for the route from Mandalay to the Inle Lake. The departure point and last destination of all public transport is Taunggyi, but travellers in Nyaungshwe and Inle need not worry. They can wait by the side of the road in Shwenyaung junction, where buses stop and pick up passengers. Open pick-up trucks are also used to transport people to the lake. It is possible to take a taxi from the airport to town, but drivers usually charge more. Shared taxis are better for groups.
For getting around there, the buses, cars, bikes, motorbikes and especially, boats are the main transportation there. As for the boat, every tourist coming to Inle Lake must pay an initial entry fee around $3. In terms of price, most boat tours vary between 25,000 and 40,000 kyat, depending on where you book the tour and which stops are included. You can also book the tour directly through the hotel sometimes which makes it more convenient for you. However, there are still many locals almost everywhere asking if you wanted to do a Boat Tour with them.
Things to Know When Travelling to Inle Lake
- Visitors are required to pay a fee of $3 to enter the Inle Lake zone. Payment can be made at one of the hotels or guesthouses in town.
- Because of the cool climate in Inle Lake, tourists are recommended to bring warmer clothing. Cardigans and jackets are a must if travellers plan to visit during January and February.
- For footwear, sandals and slippers are recommended since no footwear is allowed in pagodas, monasteries as well as houses so easy-to-remove footwear is a practical choice.
- Respectable apparel should be worn when visiting pagodas and monasteries.
- Visitors are also encouraged to bring sunblock, sun glasses, hats, umbrellas and insect repellent.
- Just in case, tourists should bring a personal medical kit, which includes medicine especially for diarrhoea.
- Visitors should only eat in decent restaurants. Food sold by street vendors is not recommended.
- The drinking of tap water is strongly discouraged. People should only drink boiled water or water from sealed bottles. Soft drinks are alright, as long as the bottle has not been previously opened.
- Villagers at the market won't accept U.S. currency, so make sure you exchange your money for kyat before you depart.
Eating and Drinking in Inle
The restaurants at Inle Lake can be divided into two categories. The first serves local Inthar dishes or Shan cuisine. Often, Chinese food is not far behind Shan dishes in a typical menu. The second category holds more western-style eateries that normally specialise in pancakes and pasta.
If you’ve ever decided to eat at a Shan cuisine restaurant, we recommend you to try some famous and delicious Shan dishes such as Shan noodles (Shan Kout Suey), Chickpea tofu soup (Tofu Nway), Shan yellow rice cake with tomato sauce (Shan-Htamin) and Shan fish rice (Nga-Htamin).
Ann's Restaurant - One of the most recommended places to dine in Inle Lake is Ann's Restaurant. This is the place visitors should go for a taste of local Inthar specialities. The menu of this establishment also includes tasty Burmese and Chinese dishes and Ann's Restaurant is guaranteed to give diners a unique experience with meals straight from its Shan kitchen.
Location : Myan Ni Gone Village, Nha Phay Kyaung P.O
Aroma Restaurant - Those wanting a break from the local Shan and Chinese dishes, as well as pancakes and pasta dishes, should consider a visit to Aroma Restaurant. It specialises in Indian food, and also has a branch in the ancient city of Bagan. The tasty Indian meat and vegetable curries are worth a try.
Location : Chaung Road.
Four Sisters Restaurant/Inn - The Four Sisters Inn is actually a hotel that has a great restaurant, which also opens for non-guests. The restaurant came first, and the business expanded to include a quiet guesthouse. This dining establishment is known for its excellent Shan dishes with special entertainment of music and dance.
Location : 105 Strand Road, Nan Pan Quarter, Nyaung Shwe.
Golden Kite Restaurant - Around Inle Lake, the Golden Kite Restaurant is considered to be the top dining place when it comes to pasta and pancakes. It is also known for omelettes, fruit shakes and its vegetarian tagliatelle. Tourists love this place because the majority of the staff speaks English well and are knowledgeable about the preferences of foreign travellers.
Location : Yone Gyi Road, Nampan Village.
Smiling Moon Restaurant - This establishment can be found just down the street from the Golden Kite Restaurant. In fact, Smiling Moon also has a similar menu. The restaurant is smaller than the Golden Kite, and it has fewer tables, however, the place is clean and the restaurant staff are friendly. The dishes served are also inexpensive, which is a fact welcomed by travellers on a budget.
Location : Yone Gyi Road, Nampan Village, Inle Lake.
Hu Pin Restaurant - Travellers with the fondness for Chinese food will love this eatery in Inle Lake. The Hu Pin Restaurant serves excellent Chinese dishes and its English-language menu is divided into three sections: chicken, pork and fish.
Location : Kan Thar Quarter, Nyaung Shwe Township.
Inn Thar Lay Restaurant - This dining destination is a welcome sight to hungry visitors to the nearby Phaungdawoo Pagoda. The Inn Thar Lay Restaurant, which is in a quaint two-storey wooden house, is highly recommended for its Shan and Chinese cuisine.
Location : Near the Phaungdawoo Pagoda.
Miss Nyaungshwe Restaurant - Most restaurants in Inle Lake either serve pancakes and pasta, or Shan and Chinese cuisine. Miss Nyaungshwe Restaurant falls in both categories, as its menu includes all the aforementioned dishes. Aside from the food, the good views are also one of the reasons people frequently visit. Miss Nyaungshwe also has a good selection of bottled beers.
Location : Phaungdaw Seiq Road, Nyaung Shwe Township.
Nam Pan Restaurant - The Nam Pan Restaurant is another recommended dining spot and is found in the southern part of Inle Lake. The establishment is given thumbs up by diners for their traditional Shan dishes. Chinese food is also served here.
Location : Nampan Village.
Unique Superb Food House - This restaurant may seem like just an ordinary patio with half a dozen tables, but the food served here is described perfectly by its name – superb. This joint has successfully catered to the taste of tourists without losing its local flavour and while the restaurant serves mostly Shan dishes, the speciality of the restaurant is its mouth-watering filet mignon.
Location : 3 Myawady Road, Nyaung Shwe Township.
Inle Markets for the Shopaholic
Shopping at Inle Lake is an entirely different experience and because it is a rural area, Inle Lake does not have malls, shopping centres or supermarkets. The Inthar people who live on the lake get what they need from floating markets present in every village and the tribe people from the hills come down to sell their goods on the market days. With so many people hawking their wares on boats, there are times when the canals of the lake experience heavy traffic.
Inphaw Kone - Inphaw Kone is not a market, instead, it is a village that has become a popular tourist destination because of its weaving workshops. Most visitors stop by to watch young weavers skillfully operating the looms made from bamboo and teak. The result of the weaving is high-quality fabric. In fact, the village is best place to purchase lotus-silk shawls. The shawls can be expensive, mainly because of the laborious process involved in production.
Location : West of Nampan Village.
Mine Thauk Market - The Mine Thauk Market is a large and bustling affair that features a wide selection of merchandise for shoppers. It is also known as the ‘five-day market’ because the people from the hill sell their products in five different locations over a five-day period. This is where the Inthar people buy products such as tomatoes, eggplants, peppers and the like. There are also people selling Shan bags, Buddha statues and lacquerware.
Location : East bank of Inle Lake, Nyaung Shwe Township.
Mingalar Market - Mingalar Market is another good place to shop for local products. In this market, there is a lot of good food for those who are brave enough to try it and one of the most common dishes sold by vendors is ‘kauq-sweh’ or noodle soup. Another one is maung jet, which are round and flat rice crisps.
Location : Win Quarter, Nyaung Shwe Township.
Nampan Market - Just like the Mine Thauk Market, the schedule of the Nampan Market is also a bit difficult to keep track of. The scene at this market is rather lively with various townsfolk selling colourful product and an assortment of other products. It is great to see the Pa-O tribal people from the hills come down in their traditional dress to trade in the village.
Location : Nampan Village.
Ywama Floating Market - Ywama Village is well-known for its floating market because it is the biggest in the area. The canal is crowded with the boat of local farmers trying to sell goods to locals, as well as pedlars selling souvenirs to tourists. To enjoy the market before it gets overcrowded, one must wake up early as the market is already full by 8:30 AM.
Location : Ywama Village
Things to do in Inle
At first glance, it seems that there is not much to do at Inle Lake. Visiting pagodas is a given, since it is done in almost every city in Myanmar. Sightseeing is also an expected activity. As a rural area, Inle Lake and its surrounding areas boast stunning lake views and glimpses of a picturesque countryside. Indeed, Inle Lake is the destination for a laid-back and relaxing vacation. Nonetheless, the lake still offers its visitors several things to do in its vicinity. Because it is a body of water, naturally some of its activities involve travelling by boat. Trekking is also a popular activity in the area, especially with such a vast landscape to explore. The hidden treasures of the lake, such as a sanctuary, also give Inle Lake visitors plenty to do.
Every tourist should experience at least one motorboat trip during a visit to Inle Lake. These boats bring tourists to attractions such as the Phaungdawoo Pagoda, the Jumping Cat Monastery, as well as floating gardens and souvenir shops. Almost every hotel and guest house in Nyaungshwe can arrange boat excursions, but naturally, the high-end hotels charge a bit more.
For those who do not want the noise that comes with motorboats, canoe trips prove to be a good alternative. It is a delight to pass through the villages and observe the serene surroundings in silence. Going on canoe trips is also better for those who want to take pictures. One place visitors can go by canoe is a big nat shrine found in the middle of a swampy jungle of banyan trees opposite Nanthe village.
Inle Lake is also a place for ecotourism and is the home of Inle Lake Sanctuary, a wetland sanctuary. Since 1985, this sanctuary was made to protect and conserve natural vegetation, wetland birds and freshwater fish. Another objective of the sanctuary is to conserve the geological characteristics and scenic beauty of the mountain areas. In this place, tourists can learn about the traditional floating agriculture practised by the Inthar people.
Location : In between the Nyaungshwe, Pinlaung and Peh Kon Townships of the Southern Shan State.
Hiking is another activity that is often done in and around Inle Lake. While the days were hot and humid, the scenery along the way made up for it, giving you a glimpse of the simple yet happy way of life that the Burmese people were living. Two favoured destinations for an all-day hike are the Koun Soun Taungbo Monastery and the nearby Ta-Eh Gu Cave. Another popular option is the hike from Inle Lake to Kalaw and vice versa. If you have a couple of days, trekking is something we highly recommend. Guided day hikes can be organized by some guesthouses and hotels.
Horse-back riding near Inle Lake
Visit the Inle Horse Club and try their 2-hour horse-back riding experience which offers guests the opportunity to visit local breeding horses along the trails through the rice plantations and the small town of Lwe Kin. Each guest will receive their own horse, based on size, with 2 guides to accompany you wherever you go. So it is suitable for both beginners and advanced. You can also take a stroll through the local plantations, old farms and even the village of Lwe Kin and if you want, you can grow one tree there at the end of your trip as memory. You will be guided by a guide who will guide you along the way. After 2 hours, return to Inle Horse Club from Nyaung Shwe, where you can enjoy snacks and drinks at the balcony.
Ride a Hot Air Balloon
If you’re in Inle Lake and haven’t had enough of your hot air balloon yet, consider doing it over the beautiful and serene Inle Lake as the sun rises over the sky. While floating and gliding up in the air is an absolute blast regardless wherever you are, seeing the roofs of the stilt houses and the lush greenery around you is something else.
Fascinate Yourself with Buddhist Culture
Although there aren’t many pagodas in Inle Lake as the city of Bagan, Inle Lake allows you to experience Myanmar’s Buddhist culture in its own unique way where you can tour many religious sites along the shores of the lake. Begin your culture tour with Inle Lake's most-visited house of worship, the Phaungdawoo Pagoda. This temple in Ywama village houses five golden Buddhas, each rendered from layers upon layers of gold leaf. Afterward, travel to the Shwe Indein Pagoda, which is made up of two groups of stupas in Shwe Indein village that date back as far as the 8th century. Both are readily accessible from a jetty on Indein Creek. However, the group of stupas known as Nyaung Ohak that is closer to the creek is a little more run-down than Shwe Indein. In fact, some of Nyaung Ohak's stupas have trees growing out of their crumbling infrastructure while many of the stupas in Shwe Indein have been completely restored.
Celebrate a Burmese festival
We were lucky enough to be on Inle Lake during the Phaungdawoo Pagoda Festival, Myanmar’s largest festival. Because it is the most anticipated and most significant religious event in Inle Lake, the Phaungdawoo Festival can be considered as an attraction in its own right. The 18-day event includes a grand procession of Buddha images, a boat race and other activities. Four of the five Buddha images in the Phaungdawoo Pagoda are transported on a royal barge, which is pulled by big Inle traditional boats. As for the boat races, the boats hold around 20-30 men, all rowing with one leg as fast as they could down a stretch of water. The festival is generally held in September or October, depending on the Myanmar calendar.
Meet the Cats of Burma
The ordinary house cat is an important part of Burmese culture, and almost every house on Inle Lake has one. If you are a cat person, hi-five! To see fun cat tricks, visit the Nga Phe Kyaung Monastery, which is popularly known as the "Jumping Cat Monastery" and thanks to the resident monks that once trained the cats to jump through hoops. Unfortunately, when the last head monk died in 2014, the practice of training cats was retired by the new head of the monastery. Although the number of cat shows has dropped to near non-existence in recent years as a result, you can still see these acrobatic felines when visiting Nga Phe Kyaung. Comparatively, the Burmese Cat Sanctuary at the Inthar Heritage House is a place set up to reintroduce the Burmese Cat to its country of origin (where they were practically extinct) in 2008. The Burmese Cat Sanctuary now takes care of 40 pure-bred Burmese Cats in three out of the four recognized colors.
Watch Traditional Fishing Methods
One of the best things to do in Inle Lake is to marvel at the ingenuity of the fishermen as they utilize traditional (and very peculiar) fishing methods. You'll see lots of local fishermen standing on the stern of a wooden canoe, each fisherman uses one leg to balance and essentially, one leg to propel a small oar in a snakelike pattern, all while holding onto a conical-shaped net bumbling with fresh fish. Mastering the art of not falling off, their rhythmic movements and incredible balancing skills proves that these fishermen’s unique rowing style are one of Inle Lake’s most well recognized features. While modernization and tourism are slowly creeping in this developing country, it is somehow refreshing to see traditions still being honored and respected through this timeless tradition.
Ride a Bike to Red Mountain Winery
Active travelers can hit one of the many biking and hiking trails that wind out from Nyaungshwe, passing by peaceful countryside and the small rural villages. The bike trail from Nyaungshwe to the Red Mountain Winery is one of the most pleasant and easy to navigate - a quick two-mile jaunt to a winery set amidst Inle Lake's surrounding hills. Once you arrive, you can book a wine tasting session that lets you sample the fruit of the local vineyard.
Traditional Puppet Show
If you are looking for something entertaining in Nyaung Shwe, the puppet performance is one of the best things you must do. The whole show lasts only about 30 minutes. The mini theatre is entertaining the audience of all ages with the traditional puppet dances and performances. It is worth an experience with only around $4 for tourists.
Shop at Traditional Markets for Handicrafts
One of the stops of the boat tour is a visit to a few traditional markets where you can see locals selling traditional products. For a more authentic shopping experience, Thaung Thut village holds a big market where people flock every five days. Each village has a market that has everything from souvenirs for the tourists to meat and vegetables for the grocery shopping. If you go a bit further, you'll be taken to crafts villages like Ywama for silver-crafted goods, In-phaw-kon for a linen-like cloth made from lotus fibers, Nam-Pan for cigars, knives, and wooden handicrafts, Kyauk Taing for pottery and Kyauk Kan for robe weaving. While some people can argue that most of the little handicrafts made are specifically for tourists, this still provides employment and livelihood for the locals. During the traditional markets tour, you may also see Karen long neck tribal people whose gold elongated necks made them a popular tourist attraction. Although visiting these types of attractions is solely up to you, if you do go, rather than treating Karen tribe people like attractions, take the time to speak and get to know them and their stories. However, before you set out for a day of shopping, be sure you understand how to use the local currency Kyat, which is worth significantly less than US dollars.
Places to go in Inle
Alodaw Pauk Pagoda
The main temple of Nampan village, Alodaw Pauk Pagoda is one of the oldest shrines on Inle Lake. The pagoda was originally named the Innphaya Pagoda, but it was changed into Yadana Pagoda before assuming its current name. The Alodaw Pauk Pagoda is home to the fabulous gem-encrusted Shan-style Buddha stupa.
Location : Nampan Village, Nyaung Shwe Township.
Inle Lake has a unique style of aquaculture. The Inthas live on the lake and also live off of it. Intha farmers grow flowers, vegetables and fruits on long strips of floating land, both for their own consumption and to export around the country. The land, which is formed through the collection of water hyacinth, weeds and reeds that are accumulated on the rim of the lake, is tied down to the bottom of the lake with long bamboo poles. In the morning and afternoon, farmers paddle up and down between the rows cultivating their crops. This method of agriculture is another unique aspect of life on the lake, as the villagers have been developing these gardens over many generations.
Location : Nampan Village, Nyaung Shwe Township.
Nga Phe Kyaung Monastery (Jumping Cats Monastery)
The Nga Phe Kyaung is the biggest and oldest monastery in Inle Lake. It is a beautiful wooden structure that was built on stilts over the lake at the end of the 1850s. The monastery is home to a collection of ancient Bagan, Shan, Tibet and Ava-style Buddha images. However, it’s most well-known for the jumping cats, that were trained by an abbot to jump through small hoops like in a circus. It is possible to visit the monastery during a boat tour on Inle Lake for the cats' jumping performance, which is now held by a woman instead by the monks several times a day.
Location : Nga Phe Kyaung Village.
Nyaung Oak Pagodas
Nyaung Oak is one of the tourist destinations for the ruins of ancient pagodas. Nyaung Oak is not a single pagoda, rather, it is a group of ancient pagodas that may be crumbling and choked in ivy, but the intricate details of the structures can still be discerned. In some parts, the highly structured stucco carvings of celestial and mythical animals are still apparent.
Location : Indein Village.
Shwe Indein Pagoda
The Shwe Indein Pagoda is situated in Indein village, west of Inle Lake, which is a little out of the usual tourist area. It is said that the pagoda was built in the 17th and 18th century. We can find a Buddha image enshrined in a whitewashed stupa found on the summit of a hill. Around the hill, there is a cluster of ancient stupas, most of which are old and not been touched for renovation, which gives it an extra impressive look.
Location : Indein Village.
The Phaungdawoo Pagoda is one of the most recognized shrines in Myanmar. In fact, it is the most highly sacred pagoda in the whole southern Shan State. It is found in Inle Lake, in the main boat landing in Ywama. The name 'Phaungdawoo' means ‘front of the raft’ in Burmese. The pagoda houses five Buddha images covered in gold leaf , which were said to be donated by King Alaung Sithu. The pagoda was built for the purpose of keeping these Buddha images. A small entrance fee applies.
Location : Ywama Village.
In Phaw Khone Weaving Workshops
In Phaw Khone is not a market; instead, it is a village that has become a popular tourist destination because of its weaving workshops and its high quality end results. Watching young weavers skillfully operate the looms made from bamboo and teak, you will definitely be impressed by this weaving workshop. The result of the weaving is high-quality fabric; in fact, the village is best place to purchase lotus-silk shawls. There you can see all the complex creation and production of the Lotus textiles, and some silk textiles. Lotus textiles are so beautiful, but extremely expensive as you will see how difficult and time-consuming is to produce them. Make sure you spent some time watching how the weavers make lotus shawls!
Location : In Phaw Khone Village.
Red Mountain Estate Vineyard and Winery
It’s one of two vineyards in Myanmar, which is a great spot to enjoy the sunset with refreshing wine made from grapes grown here. As soon as you arrive, you will find out the tasting area, the restaurant, and the vineyard there. You can book a tasting session where you will be presented 4 wines, two white and two red. If you are a person who is into good wine, though it is a new young wine developing here, it’s worth a visit for new experience and you may even like the wine!
Location : Nyaung Shwe.
Htet Eain Gu Cave and Monastery
It’s a Buddhist monastery where monks live, mostly children. The cave lies behind a monastery. Its entrance is at the end of the monastery housings. If you are biking, you can leave your bicycle at the stairs and continue on foot. The cave contains a certain number of Buddha statues, some wall paintings and drawings. Interesting to see. It is nice to go there before breakfast when there will be almost no one at the cave. Feeling the calmness and quietness of the environment, you can be alone with your own thoughts and feelings which, I suppose, would be a good start of the day. Take a lamp or a flashlight, as it might not always be lighted when you get there.
Location : Nyaung Shwe.
Inle Lake does not have nightlife. It does not have clubs, pubs, discos or karaoke lounges. When the sun sets in Inle Lake, you won’t hear loud, pulsing music and bodies swinging to the beat. After all, it is a rural area in the southern Shan state in the country of Myanmar.
Instead, a different kind of landscape reveals itself when night falls in Inle Lake. The simple night time activities of the townsfolk is expressed by the lights of the night sky, the candles they use, cultural shows and boat races. The luxury hotels and resorts in the area offer these shows and races to interested parties, especially for groups and corporate events. These shows and races are not only entertainment, but they also share the culture, customs and traditions of Myanmar people.