Most people have seen pictures of Inle Lake. Iconic pictures of men teetering on the edge of a small wooden boat, balancing on one foot, paddling with the other and holding huge conical nets for fishing. Usually silhouetted against a beautiful sunset. That’s what I was expecting, although it wasn’t exactly what I got. When I went on my boat trip, there were a few fisherman scattered around but it was too late in the day and the light had already gone flat and lifeless. I suppose that’s what I get for sleeping in.
But it was no bother, because as it turns out the boat trip around the lake wasn’t the highlight of my time there at all. I have often found during my travels that the big touristy trips leave me feeling somewhat lacklustre. The big rewards coming from the places I least expect it – in interactions with locals and wandering around dusty little towns. And that’s exactly what I found in Nyaung Shwe.
Nyaung Shwe is a small town located just a few kilometres from Inle Lake and is the base for anyone visiting this area. With Inle Lake being one of Myanmar’s major tourist drawcards I expected it to be a little more developed and tourist-friendly than it actually was. And I was pleasantly surprised that it wasn’t. Here, wifi was few and far between, phone signal was non-existent and aside from the hotels and resorts, which are all fairly innocuously hidden, daily life goes on as it always has. Locals wander around bustling food markets and sit drinking tea at stalls perched on the side of the road.
I was with Milena, a German girl I had met in Bagan. We stayed the first night in Joy Hotel, one of the more popular budget options in the area. And honestly…it was a bit grim. Milena handled it a little more gracefully than I did, settling in and proclaiming is as “not so bad”. I took one look and decided we were moving the next day. And move we did. To Mingalar Inn. For a similar price we got a lovely, clean room and access to a beautiful, peaceful outdoor pool.
Cycling from Inle Lake to Maing Thauk
We hired bikes from the inn and set off to explore the surrounding area. It is actually possible to cycle a loop around the lake and some of the surrounding villages – a route taking about 3 – 4 hours stopping at hot springs, small villages and (my personal favourite) the Red Mountain Estate winery. We decided to skip the loop, instead choosing to cycle the 11km route (one way) to the nearby village of Maing Thauk.
It took an hour of cycling down hot, dusty roads through beautiful countryside before we reached the village. We didn’t even realise we were there at first. It just looked like a long wooden pier to me. In actual fact that’s exactly what it was. A very long wooden pier with a few bamboo houses perched alongside here and there. At the end of the pier was the main part of the village, sitting high on stilts above the water.
Almost immediately we were approached by a young entrepreneur of a boy. He spoke to us for a few minutes before asking if we would like him to take us on a boat trip around the village. After paying him $3 each, he commandeered a boat from another local and we were on our way.
For being of such a young age (he couldn’t have been much older than 15) he was an extremely informative tour guide, telling us about the local area, showing us his house (where his mother looked in concern at my uncovered head and very kindly tossed me a hat to wear) and speaking to us about Western films and culture. He could speak at least three foreign languages fluently and had a tendency for bursting into renditions of Westlife, which was surreal to say the least.
The village itself was fascinating. Its such a strange concept to me – living your entire life floating on water – and yet there’s so many of these villages around Asia functioning as any other village would. We floated through thick areas of mangrove trees rising higher than our heads, past floating farms and houses perched on stilts high above the water. Some houses were small, simple bamboo shacks whilst others were much more elaborate structures, complete with balconies and satellite dishes. People would sail past in boats, on their way to work or carrying goods to and fro. We passed right past a school where the kids, seeing two white girls in the boat, flocked to the windows to shout and wave at us (although how that fitted with this guy’s story that he was on his school holidays was beyond me).
We only sailed around for about 45 minutes and yet, in that short time, I saw more things and found it more fascinating than the entire four hour trip around Inle Lake we took the following day.
Red Mountain Estate
On the way back to Nyaung Shwe we stopped at the Red Mountain Estate winery, at the top of a steep hill approximately 4km outside of Nyaung Shwe (that hill made for a fun trip speeding back down afterwards). The winery itself consists of a large, glass-fronted, modern building sitting high on a hill overlooking the surrounding valley. The views are stunning so its worth a visit even if wine isn’t your thing. Luckily wine is my thing. So we went in for a tasting. For the bargain price of $3, we got four taster glasses of wine – 1 Sauvignon Blanc, 1 dry Muscat, 1 Shiraz Temperanillo and 1 Rose – all produced from locally grown grapes.
Southeast Asia isn’t exactly well known for its wine-producing ability so I wasn’t expecting much. However, I was pleasantly surprised. The wine was pretty good and the Sauvignon Blanc nice enough to persuade me to order another glass afterwards (although my severe wine deprivation may well have had some part to play in how tasty I found it). We stayed until the sun started to dip lower in the sky before climbing back onto our bikes and making our way (a little less steadily than before) back to Nyaung Shwe.
Information on Inle Lake
Located in the Shan state of Myanmar, Inle Lake is a staggering 13.5 miles long and 7 miles wide and sits at an elevation of 2,900 feet above sea level. The most popular way to see the lake is on one of the tour boats that leaves Nyaung Shwe every morning. Make sure you arrange to leave early to catch one of the morning markets (which move to different towns each day). Other stops will depend on who your guide is. On our trip we stopped at the Phaung Oo Pagoda, a silversmiths, an umbrella workshop, a cigar making workshop and a long-neck village (I had refused to visit the long-necked Karen tribe in Northern Thailand for ethical reasons but thankfully it didn’t appear that the women here were particularly exploited for tourism purposes. In fact, we only saw one ‘long-necked’ woman who was sat weaving handmade bags for her shop). Some boats also stop at the Jumping Cat Monastery where the monks have taught the cats to perform tricks. Again, how ethical this is I am not sure. We personally decided against stopping there.
The boat trip is definitely a must-do if you are visiting the region but be prepared to share it with many other tourists (sometimes 500 boats leave for the lake each day).
If you’re heading to Inle I recommend giving it at least two days and spending another day cycling around the area and exploring the village of Nyaung Shwe on your own back.
What else is there to do in Nyaung Shwe?
Visit the local market for some fresh fruit and local handmade goods, try out local cuisine at one of the many restaurants or have a massage at Lavender Spa (I visited this place on the basis of a recommendation and can honestly say it is the best massage I had in the whole of Southeast Asia).
Where to eat
New Star is a small cafe on the side of Phaung Daw Pyan Road serving traditional Burmese food and a particularly amazing tomato salad (I cannot for the life of me find it on google but if you have a wander down that road you should be able to spot it). Alternatively try Innlay Hut for delicious Indian food or Everest which served traditional Nepali food (daal, chapati, rice, pickles).
I rarely like to eat Western food when I am in Asia (Sihanoukville in Cambodia being the exception) but sometimes you need a little taste of home. If you’re craving a bit of comfort try French Touch, a cool restaurant owned by a Western photographer. The pizza was excellent enough but the chocolate orange waffles were AMAZING! Do not leave Nyaung Shwe without trying these!
Where to stay
I can’t recommend Mingalar Inn highly enough. Clean, peaceful, reasonably priced (by Myanmar standards) and it has a pool.
For more information on Inle, including tips for getting there follow this link.