One of Asia’s most beautiful areas, Myanmar’s Inle Lake is quickly gaining in popularity with tourists. Bob James explains how to plan your visit to Inle Lake and where to stay.
Tucked in between the dusty plains of Bagan and the mountains of Shan State lies Myanmar’s watery oasis of Inle Lake. Unique in weather, landscape and culture from the rest of the former Burma, it has become a “must see” for the few, but increasing numbers of, western tourists who have discovered the country.
It’s a region with almost no roads, where going anywhere requires a boat. Houses sit on stilts, farming is done on man-made “floating gardens” and markets move with the currents around the lakeside. Here the Burmese, Intha and other tribal peoples live together in harmony, harvesting fish and seaweed from the lake, weaving textiles and even training cats to jump through hoops for tourists.
Visiting Inle takes some planning and while not everyone may relish their accommodations being confined in the country’s closest thing to a backpacker haven, Inle is definitely worth the effort. The experience of shooting out in a longtail boat onto the water shortly after sunrise to experience the lake culture is an experience that will not soon be forgotten.
From the many choices of ways to get to Inle, to the fact most people don’t actually stay on the lake, to the surprising size of the region itself, it takes some planning to maximize your experience.
Nyaungshwe Town – Almost Inle
While it is possible to actually stay on Inle Lake, most people don’t. They stay in Nyaungshwe, the largest land-based town connected to the north end of the lake by a canal.
Even though Myanmar gets only 1 percent of the western tourists neighbouring Thailand attracts, Nyaungshwe has more than a little of that Koh Tao vibe, minus the buckets of liquor. There are more white faces than Burmese, every corner restaurant seems to serve pancakes and pasta, and the cheap guesthouse is king.
Budget Or High End Inle Lake Accommodation?
For those coming to Inle hoping to immerse themselves in local life, Nyaungshwe is a definite disappointment. However, it is possible to stay on the lake. It simply will cost you more and the only Burmese you’ll meet are the staffers at your high-end resort.
Virtually all of these high end Inle Lake resorts are located in the South Lake and are almost universally gorgeous. The Villa Inle Resort, Pristine Lotus Spa and Shwe Inn Floating Resort are the best regarded, but also carry per-night rates of $100 to $250.
However, there’s numerous cheaper Inle Lake resorts available to book online too, like the well-regarded Aquarius Inn and Pyi Guest House.
I visited several of Nyaungshwe’s guesthouses, with Mingalar Guesthouse
and Gypsy Inn as two of the best rock bottom budget choices. Both are very welcoming places located a few blocks from Phaung Daw Pyan Road (the main artery through town) and have rooms costing in the single digits.
For those looking for slightly more up-market digs, there are two spots travelers rave about:
- Princess Garden Hotel – Rated No. 1 on many travel sites, this hotel costs around $35 a night, but is not as centrally located. It does have a pool though.
- Teakwood Guesthouse – This has a great combination of nice rooms, beautiful grounds, great location and price, with double- and single-occupancy rooms running about $35 per night. However, there are a lot of mixed reports about the owner and staff being less than friendly or helpful, so study previous guest reviews with care
How To Get To Lake Inle
Even if you choose to stay on the lake, you’ll still need to go through Nyaungshwe, as it’s the gateway to the entire lake, which is split between the smaller North Lake and the humungous South Lake.
There are a few ways to get from elsewhere to Nyaungshwe, obviously depending on where you are coming from.
- Bus – No direct buses run to Nyaungshwe, with the overnight Yangon service ending in Shwenyaung, requiring a taxi or shared pickup ride for the short ride to the Inle area. A 5 a.m. bus from Bagan will also drop you off 19 hours later on the highway leading to Shwenyaung where you can pickup a shared ride.
- Train – Train service from Yangon goes to Thazi with a multi-hour layover before continuing to Shwenyaung, where again you’ll need to get a ride.
- Air – With ground transport such an obvious hassle, most people fly to Heho 25 miles away. You can get taxis at the airport ($25), but many guesthouses will arrange cheaper rides ($18).
- Walking – The most interesting, but more arduous, route is by foot. Three-day, two-night treks from Kalaw will land you right in Nyaungshwe after passing through beautiful mountains and plenty of tribal villages.
Preparing For Inle Lake
Once you’ve made it to Nyaungshwe, there’s not much to do other than eat and book your boat tour for the next day. Your guesthouse will love to book one for you, but you can easily find better rates and tours on the town’s main drag. Book your tour, then grab a bite to eat.
Most tours cover only the North Lake, due to the distances involved. Prices quoted in most 2012 guidebooks already have risen by 50 percent. But even at $18, a private eight-hour tour is a great value.
Shop around, as travel agents are very competitive with many able to arrange private guides with good English for the same price as group tours in larger boats. You just need to ask and be prepared to walk out to shop elsewhere if you get exactly what you want.
Eating At Inle Lake
Once you’ve booked your trip, it’s time to relax. There are a couple of well-reviewed family run Burmese restaurants on Nyaungshwe’s main street, as well average-quality, overpriced Indian (Indra), European (Viewpoint), and Pizza (Star Flower). And if you simply must have pancakes, then Pancake Kingdom is the place to go.
The best option for dinner, however, may be the roadside barbecues near the night market. You’ll be eating by candlelight, as there are no streetlights in Nyaungshwe, but the food is fresh, delicious and very cheap. And the Myanmar beer is very cold.