Inle Lake lies in the cool, green hills of Shan State, an area of outstanding natural beauty and cultural diversity. For centuries the Intha have developed their own unique lifestyle based around this beautiful body of water. They live in stilted houses built on the lake and even grow their vegetables on floating gardens that are secured to the lake bottom with bamboo stakes. Skilled boatmen and fishermen, the Intha are famous for their unique style of rowing in which they stand on one leg while using the other leg to push the oar through the water.
The lake, which measures 22 km long by 10 km wide, and sits in a valley between two mountain ranges, feels like a different world to the rest of Myanmar: in villages and towns across the lake, wooden houses are built high on stilts and fishermen steer their one-man boats with a unique rowing style, wrapping one leg around their oar.
There are many restaurants dotted around the lake where you can indulge in their delicious catches of the day. Along with fishing, traditional handicrafts are an important part of the local economy, and you will get to see silk weavers and silversmiths plying their trade on the lake. And as with all of Myanmar, religion plays a massive part in local life, and numerous pagodas and monasteries can be found on the lake and its shores.
Inle is one of Myanmar’s most popular destinations for travellers, so when you travel around the lake, part of what you see will inevitably be geared towards tourists (particularly some of the handicraft workshops, where all visitors are taken, as most guides get commission if you buy anything). One uncomfortable example of Inle’s focus on tourism is the Kayan women, who wear traditional rings which elongate their necks, and are ‘on show’ to tourists at some shops; taking photos of them is encouraged, but the tribe is not in fact indigenous to the area, and questions marks can certainly be raised over the ethics of them being paraded in this way.
However, in many places the authentic life on the lake shines through, and it is so large – and the sites sufficiently spread out – that, outside of the villages and markets, it rarely feels crowded. For a wider selection of photos from Inle Lake, go to our Flickr photo set.
Accommodation in the Inle Lake area can be found at the town of Nyaung Shwe (mostly budget and mid-range) and around the shores of the lake itself (mostly luxury).
Getting around inle lake
Most boat trips around Inle Lake start at the town of Nyaung Shwe, a few kilometers to its north (go to separate section for information about the town), although some people may base themselves at the hotels dotted around the lake’s shores. There is a US$10 entry fee for the Inle Lake area, which you have to pay when entering Nyaung Shwe.
The boarding area is located around the bridge at the western end of Yong Gyi Road in Nyaung Shwe, where local fishermen and guides compete for mooring space. From here, you will want to set off early in the morning for your trip around the lake.
There is a huge amount to see on Inle Lake and in the villages that surround it, so, unless you stay in the area for a long time, you will need to be selective about what you want to see and do. Boat drivers, who also act as tour guides, will advise you on many of the best sights on the lake and its shores, but some of the highlights can be found listed below. You can hire a bicycle for around K1500 per day in Nyaung Shwe, allowing you to explore the beautiful scenery on the eastern side of the lake, including Maing Thauk and the Red Mountain Estate vineyard.
Having a swim in the lake is highly recommended, particularly on hot days – just jump off the side of your boat! But check with your guide first and be aware that the lake is very shallow (in most parts around 1.5 to 3 metres). And remember to pack your sunscreen before a day on the lake, because between stops there is no shade out there.
Inle Lake highlights
Nampan village and floating gardens
The village of Nampan is an excellent example of a traditional Inle Lake village, with its wooden houses all built on stilts. In the village you will find hand-made cheroot (traditional local cigar) factories and the oldest pagoda on the lake, the Alodaw Pauk Pagoda, a large gem-encrusted golden shrine. There are also several good, affordable restaurants here.
Just to the north of the village, you will find floating gardens where the Intha people grow a variety of vegetables and flowers, both for their own consumption and to export around the country. This method of agriculture is another unique aspect of life on the lake, as the villagers harness nature to develop these gardens over many generations.
Located on the eastern shore of Inle Lake, half of Maing Thauk village is on the lake and half is on land, with the two parts linked by a long wooden bridge. Here you will find a bustling market and, further up the side of the mountain, the Maing Thauk Forest Monastery, from where you can see lovely views over lake. Maing Thauk can be reached either as part of a boat tour or by bicycle from Nyaung Shwe.
Ywama is another good example of a traditional Inle Lake settlement, and is most famous for its floating market. It also has various handicraft workshops, a monastery and a pagoda. Beautiful as it is, this village has become a focal point of tourism on Inle Lake, and can sometimes get very crowded – if you want to avoid the crowds, get there early in the morning. There are a number of excellent restaurants to be found on the canal to Ywama village, serving traditional Shan food, as well as other Chinese and Myanmar dishes.
The village of Indein (also spelt Inn Thein, and meaning ‘shallow lake’) is most famous for its crumbling and atmospheric groups of ancient pagodas, some of which are now being restored (in a perhaps rather too pristine fashion). These include Nyaung Oak, immediately behind the village, with its carvings of mythical creatures, and Shwe Inn Thein Paya, which can be found at the top of a covered stairway leading up the hill; this features many hundreds of densely packed stupas to be explored – both ruined and restored. From Shwe Inthein Paya you can also see some wonderful views across the lake. Inthein village also has a vibrant market.
The village and pagodas can be reached by boat on an atmospheric narrow canal to the west of Ywama, although this is usually not accessible during the dry season, as the water is too shallow.
Indein is some distance from the main circuit of Inle Lake, so a trip here will make your boat tour slightly longer and more expensive (by around K2000).
Nga Hpe Kyaung monastery, Inthar Heritage House and cats!
Nga Hpe Kyaung monastery, located on the lake, is constructed from wood and features a beautiful meditation hall. It was famous for its jumping cats; the local monks trained them to jump through hoops. This practice has now stopped, however – due to the cats becoming arthritic and/or because they thought it was an unfair practice. The monks were always honest enough to say it was only done for the tourists!
But cat lovers are well catered for on Inle Lake; the Inthar Heritage House, a beautiful structure located in the middle of the lake and built from reclaimed wood, is a restaurant, art gallery and cat sanctuary. The Burmese Cat preservation project has carried out a breeding program to reintroduce these elegant felines to Myanmar.
The Phaung Daw U Pagoda
This pagoda is one of the holiest sites in Shan State, and is visited by Buddhist worshippers from all around Myanmar. The shrine itself is huge and features five ancient golden Buddhas, and next to it can be found a large golden barge, a replica of the one said to have been used by King Alaung Sithu to travel around the country.
The Phaung Daw U Pagoda festival takes place in October and features the passage of four revered Buddha images around the villages of Inle Lake on the barge, taking 18 days to complete their journey. There are also rowing competitions between the villages, using the renowned local leg rowing style. To find out more about festivals around the country, go to festivals in Myanmar.
Red Mountain Estate Vineyard
For an entirely different type of experience, head up to the Red Mountain Estate vineyard in the hills to the east of Inle Lake for some wine tasting. One of only two vineyards in Myanmar, this definitely breaks the mould of your day-to-day Myanmar experience, making it suddenly feel as if you have been transplanted to the south of France. You can try the tasting menu for K2000 (featuring wines from four different types of grape) whilst taking in the stunning sunset views over the lake. The vineyard can be reached by taxi or bicycle from Nyaung Shwe.