Fisherman on Inle Lake, Myanmar

What to do in Inle Lake, Myanmar — your 24 hour travel guide

I loved Inle Lake. Thank God, because I was beginning to wonder why people raved about Myanmar so much (and was pretty much over it by this time). During my stay at Inle Lake, I discovered my Myanmar mojo — and not before time, because this was the last stop on the itinerary. The people were friendly and kind — without any expectations of getting something (i.e. money) in return. The scenery was beautiful — a welcome change from the dry, arid landscape of Mandalay and Bagan. And the smiles on most of the men were clean and white (no betel). Be prepared to pay a “foreigner tax” of USD$10 en route, but I didn’t mind so much (unlike Bagan, which I resented paying because it was clearly lining someone’s pocket). Apart from a spectacularly awful hotel that was recommended by a friend (quickest checkout in history), I couldn’t fault Inle Lake.

#1. Getting to Inle Lake

We flew from Bagan to Inle Lake on flights that we had booked in Hanoi. You could also opt to take the bus — or the train, but this is not recommended because you have to travel via Yangon. Once again, it was a quick flight (only 396 kilometres) on a small plane, so check you’re luggage if your carry-on bag is large. Heho Airport is 46 kilometres from Inle Lake’s main town of Nyaung Shwe. Taxis are located a short walk from arrivals; the trip will take you around 45 minutes and cost around 30,000 kyat. You will be required to pay a US$10 “foreigner tax” en route and they only accept clean, new notes.

#2. Where to stay in Inle Lake

On the recommendation of a friend — albeit a much younger one! — we had booked into the Zawgi Inn. On arrival, we were horrified. It was run down and dirty, and that was just the outside. My room — and that of my friend — had no air conditioning or TV, and the bathroom was riddled with mould. Mosquitoes circled as soon as I entered my room, hoping to engage in blood sport. There was a peculiar smell — musty, like an old man. The wifi was good though, and the first thing I did was hop on Booking.com and find another place to stay. Lucky it was low season, and we had our pick of accommodation. We checked out of Zawgi Inn within half an hour of checking in.

(As an aside, the reviews for Zawgi Inn were excellent, and the photos showed a property that looked clean and well cared for. Based also on my friend’s recommendation, we had no way of knowing we had booked into a dump.)

We opted for the Immana Grand Inle Hotel based solely on the fact that it was new and had a swimming pool. Right from the get go, this hotel bent over backwards to help us, sending a car to pick us up from The Dumpster. The manager is Sri Lankan and runs a tight ship, and the customer service was excellent. We booked our tour through this hotel, and went with their recommendations for food (everything was within walking distance). I don’t eat breakfast, but my friend assured me it was good. The only criticism I had is that the pool was icy — much too cold to swim in even in the blazing heat of the Myanmar summer. My room was modern, comfortable and well-equipped, with a large, clean bathroom and fast WiFi.

**Download your FREE map of Inle Lake here!**

#3. What to see and do in Inle Lake

Visit Red Mountain Estate Winery

Our first stop once we had checked in to our hotel was Red Mountain Estate Vineyards & Winery. We hired a driver for the afternoon (for around 5,000 kyat), so getting there was easy, although we could easily have ridden a bicycle there if we were so inclined — it was only a few kilometres from our hotel. It was hot though, so I’m glad we went with the air-conditioned car option. The winery was set on top of a hill with beautiful valley and lake views, and we perched ourselves outside under a tree to make the most of it. I ordered a rose and a tea-leaf salad (almost a Myanmar national dish!), and while I was happy with the rose, the tea-leaf salad left a lot to be desired. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t made fresh, and it was dripping with oil. Yuck. But the view was lovely, so we whiled away a couple of hours there.

(As an aside, we also met a lovely Vietnamese woman from Hanoi, and had a lovely chat. She was very impressed that two Western women could speak Vietnamese. Actually, I think she was more shocked than anything!)

On the way out, I spied a jewellery counter, and promptly fell in love with a pair of unusual jade and silver ear rings with the kind of hoop I have been trying to find since forever. There were no credit card facilities (really? who doesn’t have credit card facilities?), but I really wanted those earrings, so I handed over my cash. I figured I’d never see anything like them again. We also thought we’d like to do some wine tasting, but we were going to be charged for it (really? who charges for wine tasting?) which didn’t impress us because we’d eaten a meal there. We gave the staff feedback to that effect and continued on our journey sans wine tasting.

Walk along Mine Thauk Bridge

Our next stop was the Mine Thauk Bridge, a 500 metre teak bridge that connects two floating villages. Given that we’d missed the teak bridge in Mandalay, it was lovely to have found this one. It was hot out, but the walk was very pleasant. Groups of Burmese young and old strolled along the bridge and they were friendly, with beautiful, white smiles. No ugly betel (and of course, I’m aware that what is considered ugly and beautiful is relative). We stopped and had a coconut (finally!) and enjoyed the relaxed vibe. We took our time, and we probably spent an hour and a half there.

Go to Khaungdaing (hot springs)

Actually don’t. We were unimpressed with set-up. It was dirty and run-down. I’ve done hot springs in Bali, and this was nothing like that. At all. We were shown around, and we left pretty much straight away. TripAdvisor reviews back us up. Disappointing, because we were really looking forward to it.

See a traditional puppet show

When we were in Bagan, one of the girls in our cooking classes recommended that we see a marionette puppet show. We were delighted that there was a puppet theatre located quite close to the hotel. The Aung Puppet Show was a delightful experience. Puppet shows are common, but Aung is one of only eight licensed puppeteers in Myanmar. He even has puppets for sale — and yes, I did buy one… a white and green horse for USD$10. Aung even showed me how to work it and packaged it well for its journey back to Hanoi. With two shows a night, Aung and his son (this is an art that has been handed down from generation to generation) put on a charming half an hour of puppetry that involved wonderful story-telling and artistic mastery. And this is a family affair: Aung’s uncle makes the puppets and his brother the backdrops.

Before the show, Aung took time to talk to us, and he is a lovely man. He told us that the government puts all its marketing energy into the pagodas, and downplays local artists — which is such a shame. Aung does not have an internet presence but he is easy to find. And his show is inexpensive — around 3,000 kyat. Please  support him if you go to Inle Lake!

A full day boat trip on the lake

The complete opposite experience from the boat trip we had in Bagan, this full day tour for 12,000 kyat (all up!) was fabulous. We had our own boat and our own “driver”. He was kind, hospitable and nothing was too much trouble. We were picked up at our hotel, taken down to the pier where we helped into our long boat by our driver (and another man, who was very handsome!). We navigated slowly until we hit the lake, then it was full steam (or power) ahead,

It was glorious on the lake: mountains in the distance were a grand, hazy backdrop to the expanse of water, blue and clear. Boats passed by on both sides, filled with locals, tourists and goods for sale at markets. The fishermen of Inle Lake, with their unique technique of standing on one leg while they paddled with the other — reminding me of the boat “drivers” of Ninh Binh, Vietnam who row with their feet — dotted the lake. The sun was hot, but the breeze was cool — at least until when we arrived at our first stop, at which time the skies opened and the rain fell in sheets.

First stop

Our first stop was a silversmith, which was quite salesy (i.e. pushy) and VERY expensive. We were taken for a quick “tour” of the workshop and then to the showroom but we were nonplussed. We told our driver, and he took us to a smaller silversmith — a family business — and that’s when the fun began. We stayed there for at least an hour because it was super interesting (and my friend and I bought several pieces of jewellery).

We were shown the silver-making process, and then taken to the workshop and shown how jewellery was designed and made (the other silversmith showed us that too, but it wasn’t as accessible). The showroom looked more like a museum exhibit, with pieces of jewellery in glass cabinets, on tables and hanging from ropes tied to the roof. Some were older pieces, others were new, and we loved foraging around looking for the perfect item. In the end, I bought a pair of earrings and a bracelet, and my friend also bought a pair of earrings from the silversmith’s personal collection.

While we were there, it rained elephant and buffalo (the Asian version of raining cats and dogs) so the silversmith and his wife, being the perfect hosts, gave us endless cups of tea. My friend is a dancer (and took traditional dance lessons in Yangon and Mandalay), and discovered that the silversmith was also dancer and so they put on an impromptu performance, which was charming. Once the rain abated (which was about half an hour) we bid farewell and started out onto the lake again.

Second stop

Our next stop was a silk workshop, and this was no ordinary silk. Instead of the silk being harvested from silk worms, it comes from the lotus. Stems are cut and pulled apart to extract the fibre that is used for weaving. We were taken on a tour of the workshop, and all the steps involved in the process, from extraction to spinning to weaving to dying to design and it was a fascinating process. The final products were beautiful, but expensive, so we didn’t buy anything. A scarf was close to US$100, which is very pricey — even for a special textile like this.

Third stop

Our next stop was a bit meh — to see a long-necked lady. I could have taken a picture, but I don’t go for this kind of thing (it actually leaves me quite cold), so I opted to browse around the souvenir shop that was conveniently located near the entrance of the long-necked lady “exhibition”. The souvenir shop did nothing for me (there was also supposed to be umbrella making going on, but it was lunch time, so nothing was happening) and it was expensive and same-samey so we beckoned our driver to continue our journey.

Fourth stop

After lunch (which was delicious), the sun decided to come out, so the afternoon was most pleasant. Our driver took us to the Hpaung Daw U Pagoda that was also a large, local market. My friend and I were the only tourists there, and the vendors weren’t at all pushy, which was wonderful and made for a super pleasant shopping experience. We spent a couple of hours poking around, and we each bought beautiful textiles for bargain basement prices. I nearly bought a knife (a large, serrated one!), but because I didn’t want to check my luggage on the flight home, decided against it. Coconuts were sale here, so we sat and had a coconut and rehydrated after our afternoon in the sun. One could easily spend an entire afternoon at the pagoda because there’s so much to explore, Unfortunately, we only had around an hour before we had to go — our driver was keen to get back before the sun set!

Final stop

Our last stop was the Nga Phe Kyaung Monastery (aka the jumping cat monastery), one of the oldest monasteries on Inle Lake. Built of wood, and standing on stilts, the monastery is home to many cats, which are trained to jump through hoops. We were there late in the afternoon, so all the cats were doing were lazing around or sleeping. We ran the gauntlet of the souvenir shops next to the monastery, but everything was pretty crappy and same-same. And the vendors were super pushy, which I hate. We spent about half an hour at the monastery (I though it was quite “meh” apart from the cats) before calling it a day.

Get a foot spa

Arriving back in town, we were exhausted, so we did our usual thing and opted for a foot massage to perk us up. Aqua Lilies Day Spa was recommended to us by our hotel, and it was a lovely experience. I had the scrub as well as part of the hour long package and it was super relaxing. My travel companion was so relaxed, she fell asleep! The girls had a lighter touch than our masseurs in Mandalay, but we couldn’t fault them. The service was very good and the girls delightful.

What we could have done (if we’d had more time):

#4. Where to eat in Inle Lake

We ate ate at a couple of different spots recommended by the hotel and both places were good. On the first night, we ate at the One Owl Grill,  starting with happy hour cocktails (special Inle Lake creations). I had a light meal (hummus and vege sticks) and it was delicious. The service was spot on, even to the point that we missed happy hour the following evening because of a parade and they were happy to give is happy hour prices. One Owl Grill was located just a 5 minute walk from our hotel.

On our last evening (after our foot massage) we walked to the Thanaka Garden — again just a short walk from our hotel. I had a simple vegetarian curry and a bottle of the local beer, and it was a delicious combination. It was clean and quiet, and with the candles on each table, would have been perfect for a romantic dinner with someone special. The service was excellent, and we didn’t have to wait long for our meals.

Last word on Inle Lake:

What I liked:

  • Our hotel, the Immana Grand Inle Hotel — excellent customer service!
  • Our driver on the first day — we hired him via the hotel and nothing was too much trouble
  • The puppet show — an authentic experience
  • The boat trip on Inle Lake — great value and not-to-be missed
  • Aqua Lilies Day Spa — so relaxing after a full day of touristing (there is no such word, I just made that up!)
  • The people of Inle Lake — friendly and kind, with beautiful, white, betel-free smiles.

What I didn’t like:

  • Apart from our spectacularly awful first hotel, nothing! I loved Inle Lake!

Photo taken by me on the Inle Lake, morning.

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