Why Inle Lake is the First Impression for Any Myanmar Tour

Posted on 21/07/2017 7:34:00

In the western Shan State of Myanmar, you can find the picturesque Inle Lake. Famous for its floating villages and gardens, the local Intha people live a unique way of life, with whole communities living entirely on the water.

The Inle Lake region is one of Myanmar’s most visited destinations, and the reputation is well justified. This vast, serene lake measures 13.5 miles long and 7 miles wide, and is fringed with marshes and floating gardens.

Stilt-housed villages and Buddhist Temples rise above the calm waters, and the local Intha fishermen propel their boats using their technique of leg rowing, a method that is unique to these indigenous locals. Majority of the local people are Buddhists, and live in the simple, stilt-houses made of wood and woven bamboo. The Intha people are mainly self-sufficient farmers and fishermen.

The lake is surrounded by hills that are home to a huge variety of ethnic minorities, the Shan, Pa-O, Taung Yo, Danu, Kayah, and Danaw. These hill people descend to the lowlands for the markets that hop from town to town on a five-day cycle, selling their home-crafted goods and stocking up on essentials.

The nearby township of Nyaungshwe is the hub for local transport and accommodation. While it may not be the prettiest place in Myanmar, it is a typical Burmese town, with all the reality of the country included. Scrappy streets and tin-shack houses sit side-by-side with new restaurants and modern hotels. And with the waterworld that sits close by, very few people leave the area disappointed with their visit.

As a major tourist attraction, Inle Lake has seen a lot of development of tourist infrastructure. Privately owned hotels and restaurants have risen over the past few years, and the local shops are now flooded with consumer items for the tourists.

Local Attractions

Alongside the fishing, traditional handicrafts are a major part of the local economy here, and many tradesmen ply their wares on the lake, from silk weavers to silversmiths. Myanmar is rich in mineral deposits, jade, and gems and silver is an abundant ore that can be easily worked into fine jewelry.

As with all of the country, religion plays a huge part in people’s lives, and Buddhist temples and pagodas cover huge tracts of the country. Inle is no different, and there are many monasteries and stupas along the shore, and even out on the water.

Tourism is now a big part of the life of Inle, and as you travel around and across the lake, you will find that many things you see are geared towards foreign travelers. The lake has a multitude of restaurants, where you can eat the locally caught fish, fresh from the lake.

And your guide, if you employ one, may take you to some of the local handicraft workshops that can be found both on the shore and sitting on stilts above the water. Many of the shops in the area are run by Kayan women, from the hills south west of Loikaw, over 150 km southwest of Inle. They are not indigenous to the area, and have moved to Inle to take advantage of the tourist trade. The women still wear the traditional rings that elongate their necks, and they are open to having their photos taken, for a small fee.

Despite the increase in the tourism industry in the area, in many places the authentic lifestyle of the lake shines through. Moreover, the lake is so large and the sites so spread out, that there are many places outside the villages and markets where it is possible to find those quiet, secluded corners where tourists are seldom seen.

Most visitors to the lake take the boat trips around the lake, starting at the town of Nyaungshwe, a few kilometers to the north. Boarding the boats is done at the western end of the Yong Gyi Road, and it is best to set off early in the morning, to get the most out of the day on the lake. Boats cost around K12,500 per day, which you pay at Nyaungshwe.

There are hundreds of things to see and do around the lake, as well as on it, so it is advisable to plan your activities in advance, unless you have plenty of time to spend there. Just touring the lake and surrounding sights can take about a week. The boat drivers also act as tour guides, and can help you with knowledge of the best sites to visit, both on the lake and on the shore.

For the energetic, bicycles can be hired in Nyaungshwe for around K1,500 per day, and you can take a leisurely ride through the beautiful scenery along the eastern edge of the lake. Visit the village of Maing Thauk, with half its population living above the water, and the Maing Thauk Forest Monastery, just a few miles up the side of the mountain. From the monastery, you can get the most spectacular views of the lake.

Another great attraction is the Nga Hpe Kyaung Monastery, which is actually located on the lake, and is made entirely from wood. The monastery includes one of the country’s most beautiful meditation halls, and was once famous for its jumping cats. Although the practice has now been stopped, the local monks once trained the cats to jump through hoops.

And cats are a big part of Myanmar, with the world-famous Burmese breed being catered for right in Inle Lake. The Burmese Cat Preservation Project is housed in the Inle Heritage House, a beautiful building set in the middle of the lake and built from reclaimed timber. It houses a restaurant, an art gallery, and the cat sanctuary, where a breeding program is being carried out to reintroduce these beautiful, elegant felines to Myanmar.

If you want an experience of a different kind, you can head up to the Red Mountain Estate Vineyard, which lies in the hills to the east of Inle Lake. It is one of only two vineyards in Myanmar, and with their wine tasting sessions, you can feel like you have been transported to the south of France.

The vineyard features wines from four different types of grapes, and it is an inexpensive tasting menu that gives a break from the touring and boating. The vineyard is also one of the best spots to view the spectacular Myanmar sunsets, and the sun drops to the horizon, turning the skies into changing palettes of red, orange, and yellow.

Biosphere Reserve

Inle Lake is also the subject of a UNESCO designation, to take steps in protecting the area from further man-made damage. UNESCO has designated Inle Lake as a “biosphere reserve”, which is designed to promote solutions for reconciling the conservation of biodiversity with sustainable use in areas comprising terrestrial, marine, and coastal ecosystems.

Inle Lake is Myanmar’s first biosphere reserve, and it has opened up a new chapter in the government’s commitment to biodiversity and ecosystem conservation. UNESCO is working closely with the Myanmar government to provide assistance for the lake’s ecosystem and the Norwegian government under the Inle Lake Conservation and Rehabilitation Project now funds the biosphere reserve.

Visa Requirements

If you have a valid passport with at least 6 months remaining, you should have no problem getting a visa to enter Myanmar. While you will be required to obtain your visa before leaving your country of origin – there is no visa-on-arrival for Myanmar – there is also no requirement to provide onward travel details or tickets in order to enter the country. Typical, single-entry visas last for 28 days, although certain countries, such as the United Kingdom, have a visa-free allowance for up to 21 days.

Citizens of certain listed countries can apply online for tourist e-visas through the Myanmar Ministry of Immigration and Population website, and the cost of the 28-day tourist visa is around US$50. The e-visa is then sent by email, and you can just print it and show it to the passport officials on arrival at one of the permitted airports (Yangon, Mandalay and Nay Pyi Taw international airports) or at one of the three Thailand-Myanmar land border-crossing points: Tachileik, Myawadi, and Kawthoung.

For majority of visitors, clearing customs in Myanmar should not be a problem, although there are certain restrictions you need to be aware of in order to guarantee unhindered passage. Any foreign currency in excess of US$2,000 must be declared upon entry, and while cameras, video equipment, cellphones, laptops, and other electronics are permitted, there is a ban on antiques, pornographic materials and any form of drugs without proof of prescription, including narcotics. Myanmar does not allow the use of medical marijuana, so American nationals with medically prescribed cannabis should not bring it with them.

Best Time to Visit

The south-west monsoon season starts in around mid-May, and peaks from July to September. Rain can often make the roads impassable, which makes this period the low season for Myanmar holidays.

The high season for travel to Myanmar is normally from December to February, when there is very little rain, and the country is not too hot. It is recommended to book well in advance, especially for city visits, as these can be busy periods in Myanmar’s up and coming tourist industry.

The shoulder seasons are normally from October to November, and March to Mid May. The weather in October and November is drier than the low season months. It is getting cooler and is an ideal time for travel to the country, especially if you are going backpacking or hiking. From March to May, it is very hot and dry, and temperatures can reach as high as 40 degrees centigrade. Areas around Bagan and Mandalay are often hotter, while the hill towns of Shan State are higher up, and quite a lot cooler than at sea level. The Burmese New Year festival, “Thingyan”, falls around mid-April, and transport and accommodation is normally booked solid at this time of year.