Nestled in between the mountains of Shan state, Myanmar’s Inle Lake offers much more to do and see than just the lake itself.
Inle Lake area has a vastly different appearance to its drier neighbor of Bagan, its wetter neighbor to the south, Yangon, and its hotter neighbor to the north, Mandalay. Along with these other three key tourist destinations, the area surrounding Inle Lake provides an interesting glimpse into the diverse landscape that this vast country has to offer.
Riverside Town Of Nyaungshwe At The Foot Of The Shan Hills
The main base from which to explore the lake itself is the small town of Nyaungshwe. Although this town is one of the oldest and most established tourist centers in the country, it is still very much a rural countryside town at heart with a smattering of tourist restaurants offering wood fired pizza and pancakes.
Nyaungshwe town itself doesn’t have much to offer at first glance, but it is the most logical place for most people to base themselves, as it has the only sizable selection of tourist facilities such as guesthouses, restaurants, internet cafes and tour guides. A compact and easily navigable town on foot, it is the people of Nyaungshwe that make every visitor feel welcome, greeting them with huge smiles that suggest they have never seen tourists before.
Tours of the area’s most famous and popular attraction, the lake itself, can be arranged at almost any tourist restaurant, internet café or hotel. Be sure to shop around as the price varied from 20 US dollars for a whole day trip, as quoted by one hotel, to 13 US dollars quoted in an internet café. Boats are normally arranged to accommodate the size of the group, whether it be a couple or larger tour group of five or six people.
The lake itself is a little like Nyaungshwe; at first glance, its attractions are not immediately obvious. It is only when the boat driver starts exploring canals and pointing out places of interest that these well hidden attractions become obvious, although part of the attraction is simply sitting back and admiring local life as it happens on the lake.
Floating Markets, Jumping Cats and Traditional Crafts
The driver will most likely visit a set number of popular tourist sites, such as Shwe Inn Thein Paya, a temple famous for its vast collection of stupas perched on the top of a small hill, the floating market at Ywama, (although this may be on land rather strangely depending on the season,) and Nga Hpe Kyaung, or Jumping Cat Monastery, so named after the cats who have been trained to jump through small hoops at the direction of the monks.
All of these attractions are fascinating places to visit, and although some aspects can feel a little contrived, (like the Abbot who seemed to come out of his meditative state very quickly at the chance of charging the tourists a dollar to watch the cats perform,) it is still one of the least touristy experiences in South East Asia and a chance to catch a glimpse of daily life in rural Myanmar.
In typical Myanmar fashion, many of the attractions cannot easily be spotted without a local guide, and the tiny craft factories dotted in amongst the reeds are an example of this. No signs announce many of these private houses, where cottage industries such as traditional weaving, cigar making, and boat building thrive. Although an excellent chance to pick up cheap souvenirs, (handmade garments ranging from $4 for a small scarf, up to $80 for garments made from rare lotus fibres,) the shops are reasonably free from pressurized sales pitch. All of these tiny workshops and villages dotted around Inle Lake provide a unique glimpse into a corner of South East Asia where traditional life trundles on, relatively undisturbed by modern technology.