The beauty of Myanmar’s Inle Lake is not limited to nature, but also draws from the relationship between the Intha people who derive their livelihood from this lake. The village grows out of the water while the fish from within provide sustenance. And now, the beautiful scenery is providing another source of income in the form of visiting tourists. Surrounded by mountains on all sides , the lake in the middle is so clear and reflective like a big mirror.
A visit to Inle Lake is not complete without a boat tour that takes you around the lake to the different villages and make stops at the various handicraft workshops and the lake-side pagoda. Since some of these things are only accessible from water, a boat trip is a must, to see things like the famous Intha fishermen or houses on stilts.
There are no shortage of boats, and you can either book through your hotel or any agency around Nyuang Shwe. A day trip on the lake costs around 20,000 to 30,000 kyat (about US$17 to $25) depending on how far you want to go. It usually costs more to go further, to the village of Indein. The long boat seats 4-5 people on wooden chairs, so if you can find other people to join the tour, it’ll reduce the cost. Most people usually opt for motorized canoes over the traditional non-motorized boats to cover more ground, with the added bonus of an extra breeze when the boat is cruising on the water. It comes in handy on a sweltering hot day!
A full day tour usually includes a stop for lunch as well as visits to local markets and the other main attractions. There are limited options to tailor your day to skip the more tourist-crowded locations since the boatmen have a fairly set route. The tour usually starts early in order to cover all the stops in a single day. In the morning it can get chilly on the water, while most boats provide blankets you might want to bring a jacket just in case. Here is a breakdown of our boat tour around Inle Lake:
The lake used to be the only source of livelihood for the Intha people. But now with the increasing number of tourists invading the town, they are provided with another source of income. Some of the fisherman stop bothering with the fishing and spend their time posing for tourist photos in exchange for tip. At the mouth of the lake, we saw the ‘fishermen’ who immediately struck a pose for us, but no one asked for money, which was unexpected. Further on, we saw the actual fishermen hard at work. These guys are acrobats on their boats, standing at the very tip of the vessel and using their legs to paddle the boat in a circle, while keeping their hands free to set the net and pull in the fish. It’s quite a show.
Located throughout Inle Lake are villages build entirely over the water using stilts. Since these are only accessible by water, it’s a good reason to do a boat tour to get a close-up view. The villages are a testament to the people’s ability to adapt to their surroundings. Aside from the fact that they are living over the water, life here is pretty similar to anywhere else in the world, except the only way to get around is by boat.
Living on the water does not normally facilitate agriculture, yet somehow they figured out how to make the water work for them. One of the most fascinating things we saw on the tour were the floating gardens, where the clever locals create dense grassy patches over the water to grow all kinds of nutritious vegetables including tomatoes.
Part of the tour involved stopping at the handicraft villages to see lotus weaving, cheroot making, boat building, and many other crafts. If this is your thing, then you’re in for a treat, but for us, they are basically a tourist trap. Unfortunately we had to make a stop at least a few of these places because it’s where the boatmen and guides make their commission.
At most places a representative will walk you through the work process. At the lotus workshop, we saw how they extracted the sticky residue from the plant and twisted it into fiber. To make a scarf you need about 4,000 lotus plants, which explains why it costs about $125-$200 USD. The lotus cloth is usually used to make robes for the higher ranking monks to wear on special occasions.
We also learned about building long-boats using teak wood, a process that takes about a month. Each boat is then sold for about $2,500 USD. At the cheroot workshop, we watched the women roll the flavored cheroots, a local cigar that is famous in this region. The ladies work fast and can churn out about 500 a day. At each stop we were left to peruse through the air-conditioned showroom which provided some reprieve from the hot day.
Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda is one of the larger temples in the area and quite popular with both locals and tourists. While we were there, the dock was already full of boats and to get off you had to hop from boat to boat. The main temple is surrounded by an open air courtyard where vendors are set up to sell everything from bird seed to flower offerings to souvenirs. The bird seed attracts flocks of pigeons to the area.
The center shrine in the main hall of the pagoda houses five small golden Buddha images, covered in so many layers of gold leaf that the original form is completely distorted and now it looks like a big golden ball. Women are not allowed on the podium near the Buddha images, a policy that exist throughout Burma. Even though it’s not one of the most spectacular temples that we visited on our Burma trip, it is worth a visit if you have time.
For lunch we were taken to one of the typical restaurants on the lake, where the boat men have prior arrangements with the owner to bring people in for a commission. The price for everything was double what we had been used to paying. Since the selection was limited and we didn’t want to be ripped off, we just ordered a dish to share. The owners were obviously not happy, so they ended up charging us for the driver’s meal as well.
After lunch we headed over to Indein, one of the villages further away. We were fortunate to visit during one of their festivals, but it meant the place was overcrowded by people from the surrounding region. A large market was set up at the foot of the hill, and the temple is located all the way at the top.
The covered walkway up to the temple is divided into sections, each one assigned to a family. People arrived since the early morning and have already started cooking their feast. As the auspicious time approached, the women got dressed up, while the men set up the family shrine. Smoke, music and drums made the mood extra festive.
All around the area are old dilapidated temples, left over from another era. These are part of the temple of Shwe Indein, which supposedly has over 1600 stupas, however many had been destroyed over the years. The stupas are much smaller in scale than what you might find in Bagan, but they are all packed closely together. Some are old and crumbling, reclaimed by nature over the years, while others had been restored. Some still have Buddha images inside their hallowed walls. Walking around I couldn’t help but be overwhelmed by the beauty of this place.
In contrast to the decaying temples below, the gilded stupas at the top are shiny and new.
Our last stop of the day was at the famous Jumping Cat monastery since it was on the way home. We didn’t actually see any cats jumping – apparently they had stopped when the abbot passed away. Initially, we didn’t even want to make a stop here, so the expectation was not too high, but we did enjoy the pit stop. Usually cats are more aloof, but the ones in the temple are friendly. The cats dashed back and forth around the temple, comfortable with the familiar setting and the sight of many visitors. Once they get tired of running around, they would sidle up to the visitors and allow themselves to be petted. We spent a few relaxing minutes inside the cool room playing with the fluffy goofballs.
After a very long day, we finally got back to town around 4:30pm. Even though I enjoyed cruising around the lake and visiting Indein village, the whole experience of the boat tour left a sour taste in my mouth. It is definitely worth doing once, but I don’t think I would go back again. The place is over-saturated with tourists and we felt like we were being herded from place to place, even though we had our own boat. We tried to explain to the boat driver that we didn’t want to go to the craft workshops, but we were still taken there because that’s how they earn their commission. If we ever come back to Inle, I would just stick to biking and only hire a boat to take me across the river, instead of doing the full day tour.