Leaving the wonderful Hsipaw and its amazing trekking behind, we hopped on yet another night bus (sensing a theme!?) this time to Nyaung Shwe, the jump-off town for Inle Lake.
I had been dreading this particular bus journey since our second day in the country. The 14-hour ride to travel 575km had been described as ‘brutal’ by a girl we met at the hostel in Yangon.
The days of JJ’s joyous journeys were long gone. We skulked into the fridge, I mean bus, at 4:30pm pleased we’d been pre-warned and had packed accordingly.
It got off to a great start as we stopped three times before reaching the end of the road to pick up more people at various bus stops not 20 metres from each other.
And, as expected, there were hairpin bends a-plenty as we whizzed through the mountains back towards Mandalay, stopping too many times for more people to get on, food and toilet breaks.
With just one hour to go, and the end in sight, suddenly the back door with all the luggage piled around it flew open. The driver continued driving, oblivious to the open boot, and so Byron had to clamber over all the bags in an attempt to shut it. The driver eventually got the memo and pulled over to wedge it shut from the outside.
It was quite funny!
Thinking we’d got the biggest bus journey out of the way (we hadn’t, but that’s another story) arriving in Nyaung Shwe was a huge relief, as we skipped off the bus at 5am.
Inle Lake is known for its beauty, as the second largest lake in Myanmar is surrounded by hills and mountains. There are numerous villages bordering the lake and also floating in the lake itself, their houses made of wood and woven bamboo sat on stilts.
The locals also grow vegetables in gardens on the lake which are really interesting to sail past.
It was potentially the most touristy place we’d visited so far (by Myanmar standards), with locals trying to sell boat rides at every opportunity. We obviously wanted our slice of that but decided to explore the shoreline first.
Luckily our hotel, Manaw Thu Kha, offered free bicycles in some awesome colours, some even with multicoloured spokes!
I became quite attached to this one.
Not ones to turn down a freebie, we spent a few days cycling to different villages dotted around the lake.
One morning we headed to Kaik Daung, a village on the western edge of the lake.
As we approached the village we cycled past a group of boatmen offering their services to tourists. We cycled on past shouting ‘no thank you’ just as one hopped on a motorbike and chased us down the road to try to persuade us.
“Um no, thank you, not at this time. As you may be able to see, we’re riding bikes!”
When we reached the village, there was music pumping from a marquee and so, we followed our ears and headed towards it. As we were cycling past, a local lady coming the opposite way on a motorbike invited us in.
She went by the name of ‘Pu’ and in broken English sort of explained she was inviting us to some kind of ceremony, so we parked our bikes and followed her inside. She repeated what the ceremony was for numerous times, so many that it became embarrassing and we still had no clue.
Nevertheless, she showed us to a table in the marquee and started to bring us food, endless amounts of the stuff!
So much that we couldn’t eat it quick enough before they replenished it.
Suitably stuffed, we were then showed into a house where friends and family were sat chatting on the floor, men and women in different rooms.
We met a little girl (who’s ceremony it appeared to be) and Pu’s sister, who was explained as a ‘doner’ (which made no sense to us at the time).
We were offered more food; sweets, sunflower seeds and green tea. After a lot of smiling and repeatedly saying ‘thank you’, we made a donation to the little girl who was clearly minted with all the kyat notes stuck on sticks around the joint, and made a swift exit, still clueless about what we’d just attended.
We have since discovered that we had visited an ‘Ordination and Ear Piercing Ceremony’ for Pu’s young niece, a way of becoming a Buddhist novis.
The following day we headed east to another village, via some caves.
It was a bloody-hard slog up and down the hills to them and not particularly worth it. Never mind.
We eventually arrived at a village to grab some lunch from a restaurant on stilts in the lake. It was a cute little place selling tomato and pickled tea leaf salads (standard draw these days).
After a beautiful lunch, we stopped in at the Red Mountain Estate vineyard to sample some Burmese wine – who knew that even existed!?
It was a perfect way to finish the day, wine glass in hand overlooking the lake as the sun set behind the mountains. The wine wasn’t half bad either!
Tour of Inle Lake
We eventually made our way on to the lake itself and spent one day boating to visit the villages and pagodas.
Hopping into a boat early one morning with a local boatman who had clearly been chewing too much betel nut, we sped off into the lake.
A market that rotates to different villages around the lake each day was our first stop, quickly followed by a sail past floating vegetable gardens. Rows upon rows of tomato plants seemingly just growing out of the water.
Next up was a lotus weaving workshop, built on stilts in the lake which seemed to really float Byron’s boat (see what I did there…!?).
The fibres from the lotus grown in the lake are collected together and then dyed with varying colours. We were fascinated by the handmade weaving machines that pumped one row of lotus at a time.
Our boatman also took us to a silver smith en-route to our lunch stop.
After lunch, we stopped off at Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda (days in Myanmar are not complete without seeing at least one Pagoda).
I was amused by this one! Locals offer pigeon food to you as you step off the boat and then ask you take your shoes off to enter the Pagoda. It seemed to me that the pigeon food option was purely for their entertainment, as tourists waded through the copious amounts of pigeon poo in bare feet to reach the Pagoda.
A great system!
The Pagoda also houses five images of Buddha which have been covered in so much gold leaf that they now just resemble gold blobs.
Being female, unfortunately I wasn’t allowed to add to the blobs.
Over the course of the day, we discovered that the lake is used for multiple purposes of washing; motorbikes, water buffalo and people.
We passed many families on the jetties having a wash and brushing their teeth in the water. Our boat driver even jumped in, in his blue knickers for a wash whilst waiting for us to visit a Pagoda.
I’m pretty sure my lunchtime-wee ended up in the lake too.
The penultimate stop on our boat tour of Inle Lake was Indein village on the western edge of the lake, known for its markets and ancient Pagodas.
The Shwe Inn Thein Pagodas were the biggest draw for us, as we climbed the numerous steps under a covered walkway to a huge collection on top a hill.
Finally, the day was rounded off as we bobbed around in silence in the middle of the lake, to watch the sun go down behind the mountains.
We’d definitely recommend a visit to Inle Lake. Despite its slightly more-touristy nature, it’s a beautiful part of the country and the culture is fascinating to observe.
There are also a lot of things to see and explore in and around Inle Lake, to make stopping for at least three nights there worthwhile.
We hope you enjoy visiting Inle Lake as much as we did!
Let us know how you got on.