Inle Lake in Myanmar
As with any travel destination, the more popular it gets, the more touristy it becomes. Inle Lake is one such example, as it has become a must visit attraction in Myanmar. That said, this freshwater lake in the Taunggyi District of Shan State is still large enough to give everyone a unique experience if you care to look. So fret not, because despite the large number of tourist shops in/along/near the lake, it is still very much a business as usual for the majority of village folk.
I spent a total of 3 days and stayed in Nyaung Shwe, the town with the easiest access to the lake and it’s surrounding activities. Here’s a list of my top experiences in and around Inle Lake, from touristy experiences, to more local ones.
1) Inle Lake Boat trip
No visit to Inle Lake can be complete without taking a boat trip. Most boat trips start early in the morning (7-9am) so you’ll get to experience the sun rising through the morning fog, which was pretty cool. By the time the fog clears, you’ll be meandering through the smaller channels into one of the villages to explore their morning markets.
After which you’ll be guided around different villages, visiting temples, touristy workshops (weaving, cigar…), and floating gardens. I thought the floating gardens were pretty cool, as you see how innovative the farmers are in making use of space on the lake. The famous jumping cat monastery however, does not have any cats jumping anymore so don’t get your hopes up.
Pro-tip: Just tell the boatman if you don’t want to visit any of the touristy workshops and they will gladly oblige. However, if you do plan to buy souvenirs, it’s good to just go because you’re helping everyone get a little bit of commission.
The highlight though, has to be sunset watching with the one legged fisherman in the foreground. It’s amazing seeing how they have mastered the intricate control of paddling with one leg to keep their hands free for fishing. There are tourist fisherman too, who gladly pose for photographs in exchange for a little tip.
Renting a boat cost between US$15-20 depending on how far you want to go. Grab up to 5 people and share the cost! Pretty good for a full day trip.
2) Burmese/Shan Cooking class
If you love food and is interested to learn cooking the Burmese/Shan way, taking a cooking class is a great way to get a closer look into local culture. I took up class for US$14 (min. 2 pax) with Inn Thar Lay Restaurant and learnt 5 homely dishes! Long bean soup, green tomato salad, curry chicken, stir fried snow peas, beef curry, and Inle Lake fried fish (most interesting).
Those who cook regularly or are familiar with Chinese cooking might find it too basic though. I was slightly disappointed that they deboned and stuffed the fish beforehand though, because that looked the most interesting. That said, it was still a nice experience and we had a feast by the end of the 2hr class.
You can easily combine this with your Inle Lake boat tour (so you don’t pay double for the boat), if you plan to skip most of the touristy workshops. Alternatively, sign up with any of the tour agencies in Nyuang Shwe and cook with like minded people!
3) Taunggyi Fire Balloon Festival
The Taunggyi Fire Balloon Festival takes place once a year, in the week before the new moon of November. I was pretty lucky, because even though I missed the annual festival, I was there (late Nov) during the Shan 100th Year Anniversary Celebrations, which I was told is pretty similar (at least to us tourists). For both, there was a huge fair in an area just outside the town of Taunggyi (45mins from Nyaung Shwe), with tons of food, amusement rides, and a couple of concert stages.
The main event however, was the Fire Balloon competition in the middle of the fair. For an entire week, different groups will compete with hot air paper balloons of different sizes and designs. It is pretty hazardous to be honest, because the designs were made by hanging candles in different coloured holders around the paper balloon. Some even had fireworks hanging from the bottom!
Check out this video of fireworks going off too early on one of the balloons. I literally had to avoid the fireworks landing around me. Pretty fun though! If possible, definitely time your visit to Myanmar around this period. I guarantee that it will be an unforgettable experience.
Pro-tip: As a tourist, try your luck to be let into the VIP area in the main arena. The guys I was with asked repeatedly until the guards eventually relented for us.
4) Street food at Nyaungshwe night market
After a night of sightseeing on the lake, it is easy to settle for one of the many tourist catered restaurants in Nyaung Shwe. However, I encourage to visit the night market at least once for a taste of cheap and tasty local food. It’s at a small street near the main market with about 10 different stalls. Ask your accommodation staff and they will know. Most of the stalls sell pretty similar food, but i recommend the BBQ stall further away from the main street. There was a short queue of locals so I knew it had to be good. Beer, BBQ sticks, and Shan noodles or rice. Perfect dinner.
5) Trekking from Kalaw to Nyaungshwe
I didn’t get a chance to do this, but I heard from other travellers that this 3D2N trek from Kalaw to Nyaungshwe was pretty good. You get to trek in the beautiful Burmese countryside, through ethnic villages, paddy fields and other “crops”. The best part though, was the village homestay where you can interact with your host family, play with the kids, and see how life is like in an authentic ethnic village.
Consider this as another alternative way to reach Inle Lake instead of taking the bus, train or plane!
Hope this post has been useful if you’re planning your trip to Inle Lake in Myanmar. Do drop a comment below if you have any other suggestions.
Check this listing from BeMyGuest for more ideas on things to do in Myanmar.