How to Spend Two Perfect Days on Inle Lake


I almost didn’t go.

And when I was sat shivering on the icy cold minivan from Kalaw, surrounded by bundled up locals and watching my breath steam up the windows, I wondered if I shouldn’t have bothered.

When it came to planning my two weeks in Myanmar, I went back and forth over Inle Lake for weeks. I couldn’t find much more than half-hearted recommendations online, and everyone I spoke to told me there were better places. It’s full of tourists, they said. Everyone’s trying to rip you off; it’s too expensive; everyone’s just doing the same thing at the same time in the same way.

I went anyway, and now I was cold.

Inle Lake

Slowly, we defrosted as we descended from the hills of Kalaw and towards Inle Lake. Our minivan dropped us off in the town of Shwe Nyaung and from there, we caught a taxi to Nyaung Shwe (yes, the names are really that similar, and yes, I still get them muddled up). Total cost of the three hour journey: $7.50.

Shan noodles

First on our agenda was finding something to eat, so Dave and I we set off in search of a steaming bowl of Mohinga, a fish noodle soup favourite and what had been our breakfast staple in Bagan. When our search proved unsuccessful, we settled on a bustling side-street restaurant instead. It was shaded and noisy, full of chattering locals and lined with wooden tables splattered with coloured paint. I liked it a lot.

Breakfast ended up being a bowl of delicious Shan noodle soup — another staple from my time in the country — and a spicy salad, three samosas, and two glasses of tea that comprised of what tasted like 80% condensed milk. Total price for breakfast? $2.

Myanmar has a reputation for being pricey, but if you eat local and travel overland it doesn’t have to be.

When it comes to accommodation, though, it’s hard to find a bargain. We checked in to our hotel: the $40-a-night Inle Lake Star. Our private room was clean, with air conditioning and surprisingly usable Wi-Fi (for Myanmar, at least), and the rooftop terrace and free local breakfast was a nice touch. Ultimately, it did feel a little too expensive for what we were getting, but you’ll get a cheaper price through booking online, rather than turning up like I did. Our main reason for choosing to stay there? The guesthouse was approximately twenty metres away from where you catch the boats to get on the lake.

Nyaung Shwe

I was still suffering from occasional but extreme fatigue at this point, thanks to an exhausting nine-months-and-counting stint of mono, so retired to bed for the afternoon, while Dave walked for several hours to reach a nearby vineyard. I just asked him what his verdict of Burmese wine was, and he replied, “awful”.

By the time evening rolled around, I was back to feeling human and Dave was back from his walk, so we wandered outside to see about hiring a boat. For $15 each, we agreed to a sunset tour for that night and a half-day tour the following day. You could easily bargain for a cheaper price, but we were happy to pay without negotiation.

Inle Lake boats

And then we were off!

And guys, THIS SUNSET CRUISE WAS ONE OF THE MOST AWKWARD MOMENTS OF MY LIFE.

Cruising on Inle Lake

Here’s the deal: the boats are pretty narrow, so you end up sitting single file on plastic chairs, all facing in the same direction. We puttered down a canal and onto Inle Lake, and I immediately started snapping photos in every direction. It was beautiful.

Then I stopped taking photos because the fake fisherman began dancing at us in hope of a tip. Dave kept his camera raised and took a few photos, then handed them a thousand kyat. I then stole the photo he took of them; here it is:

Fisherman on Inle Lake

After five minutes of speeding across the lake, we stopped.

Silence.

Silence that was broken only by the occasional click of my camera shutter.

Fisherman on Inle Lake

I estimated we had an hour until the sun would lower behind the mountains, and after a few minutes of craning my neck to check out the views, I began to stare at my feet in silent horror. This was awkward.

Water lapped against the side of the boat.

The driver drummed his fingers on his seat.

An agonising five minutes passed.

Boat on Inle Lake

I cleared my throat.

“It’s so pretty, isn’t it?” I whispered to Dave.

“Yep.”

Silence.

I’ve seen a lot of sunsets over the past four years, and I can tell you that my hour of silence in the middle of Inle Lake was by far the slowest one ever.

Sunset on Inle Lake

Next morning! After breakfast on the terrace overlooking the lake, we jumped back in our boat and set off to spend a half-day day on the water.

My expectations were not high. I’m not much of a tour person, and after reading this would likely be full of stops at factories and souvenir stops, I prepared myself for a day spent trying to explain that I didn’t have a house to put all of these trinkets in.

Fishermen on Inle Lake

We cruised past tourists making the same journey as us and it felt a bit like a procession. Past dozens of fishermen who were actually fishing and not dancing for tourists. Past floating weeds and reeds, until we entered the stilt-house villages.

Stilt house village on Inle Lake

Then, we left the main lake behind and passed through a series of canals flanked by houses, shops, and schools, as well as the occasional pagoda.

Stilt village on Inle Lake

Our first stop was the lotus fibre weaving at Paw Khon, where we were greeted with a small glass of tea that tasted like mud. As I sipped at the foul-tasting liquid, our guide led us from room to room, first showing us how to remove the thread of the lotus plant, then letting us watch the women loom threads of lotus, silk, and cotton into intricate patterns.

There was no hard sell to buy their products and the weaving process was genuinely interesting. I was starting to rethink my stance on tours.

Inle Lake Lotus Weaving Workshop

Next up was a silver making factory that was more like a jewellery store than any kind of workshop, and we quickly walked back out again.

Back on the water, we cruised under bridges and along narrow canals, the cool breeze and flat water providing the perfect atmosphere for our journey.

Inle Lake bridge

The Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda was up next, and as an ultimate travel fail, I was wearing a strap top and had brought nothing with me to cover my shoulders. While there were tourists wandering inside with similar attire, I didn’t want to run the risk of being disrespectful, so busied myself browsing the trinkets sold at the stalls outside instead. Even though I didn’t have a home to put them in.

Boat on Inle Lake

The highlight of my time on Inle Lake was the cheroot factory. I don’t know how you spent your teenage years, but mine were spent teetotal, filled with textbooks on quantum mechanics and frantic research on how to stop having panic attacks.

I’d never smoked before, but there I was, perched on a stool in the factory with a woman handing me a smouldering cheroot.

I declined her offer and instead watched Dave raise the small flavoured cigar to his lips and inhale.

Phwoar, I found myself thinking. Smoking is sexy! 

“You sure you don’t want to try it?” he asked me from inside a cloud of smoke.

“What do I do with it?” I asked, taking it from him and thinking about how disappointed my parents would be. I felt like I was in a D.A.R.E commercial, but for the first time in my life I was thinking about saying yes.

“Just suck it,” he said with a shrug.

I took a gulp at the rose-flavoured smoke and broke into a coughing fit. When I looked back up again, I had an enormous grin plastered across my face.

“I love it!” I beamed, raising it back to my lips and inhaling a little more expertly this time around. “It’s delicious!”

Dave had to drag me away from the cheroot factory before I could buy their entire stock, and just like that, a new smoker was born.

Not really.

Cheroots! I love them.

Boats on Inle Lake

Our final stop was the Jumping Cat Monastery, famed for its, uh, jumping cats — except the cats no longer jump, so… it was just a fairly average pagoda.

And that was Inle Lake! I came to the water with lowered expectations and ended up having the perfect couple of days. The factories were, for the most part, interesting and without any hard sells, the sunset was beautiful despite the awkwardness, and cruising around the canals and villages ended up being surprisingly fun. I didn’t expect I’d end up saying this, but I’d definitely return.

And not just for the cheroots.

Does Inle Lake Sound Like a Place You’d Love or Hate?

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Inle Lake has a reputation of being full of tourists, but it was one of my favourite places in Myanmar. My personal highlight? The cheroots!

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29 Comments

  1. Monica
    June 22, 2015
    Reply

    I visited Myanmar over 8 years ago – a lot has changed since then from what I read, mostly there are many more tourists.
    I rememeber Inle Lake as one of the highlights of my trip – peaceful, relaxing and quite cheap :)
    It was so good we spent five days there – more than we thought we would :)

    • Lauren
      June 30, 2015
      Reply

      There were so, so many tourists — more than in Bagan, I’d say! I can’t imagine what it would have been like 8 years ago, though. Maybe if I visited in the middle of low season it would be similar!

  2. Olivier
    June 22, 2015
    Reply

    I spent 2 weeks in Feb 2014 in Myanmar, some days at Inle and did the same (but for the smoking, soooo disappointed to miss it!). Great weaving factory ! The fake fishermen are such a sorry sight though, I really felt ill at ease. But the rest was great, especially those remote villages where we could do some urbex and bring back some nice shots ;-)
    (and we tasted some local wine in a restaurant : not so bad!! I’m from Bordeaux, so I like to think I’m used to drinking good wine lol)
    Thx for the nice memories

    • Lauren
      June 30, 2015
      Reply

      Yeah, I had mixed feelings about the fishermen. It annoyed me that they were faking it to extract money from tourists, but I was also happy they’d found a way to make more money than from fishing.

  3. Camille
    June 22, 2015
    Reply

    I loved Inle Lake and the cheroots as well (and I’m absolutely not a smoker)! I have to agree that the wines weren’t the best, but the setting of the winery was beautiful (although kind of a romantic spot, so I can see how Dave would have been underwhelmed sitting there on his own!).

    • Lauren
      June 30, 2015
      Reply

      Ha, yes! I know that he found the views to be amazing, but the wines… not so much! How amazing are cheroots, though?

  4. Katie
    June 22, 2015
    Reply

    This post actually made me laugh at loud — especially when you referenced the lack of jumping cats at the eponymous monastery. Beautiful photos!!

    • Lauren
      June 23, 2015
      Reply

      That was definitely one of the least interesting stops! “Oh, look, there are the cats! …But they’re not jumping?”

  5. Aisling
    June 23, 2015
    Reply

    I might have to steal that fishermans dance moves…. :)

    • Lauren
      June 30, 2015
      Reply

      Hahaha — I don’t know how they manage to do that without falling in! :-)

  6. Martin
    June 23, 2015
    Reply

    Never went to Inle Lake, but now after I read your article I want to go. Great story and I really like the landscapes. Great pictures!

    • Lauren
      June 30, 2015
      Reply

      Thanks, Martin! It was certainly a pleasant surprise :-)

  7. Maria Alexandra @LatinAbroad
    June 23, 2015
    Reply

    Omg SHUT UP I’m at the Inle Lake typing this very comment. SQUEE!

    I had that wonderful (but full day) at the lake and it was amazing. Low season, so no dancing fake fishermen and didn’t see more than a handful of tourists for the 3 days we’ve been here. Bagan tomorrow and for my BIRTHDAY.

    CANT WAIT.

    -Maria Alexandra

    PS. Totally bought full box of the flavored cigars :D YAYYY

    • Lauren
      June 24, 2015
      Reply

      Really? Awesome! Sounds like Inle Lake is ever better in low season — it was pretty busy when we were there. Jealous of the cheroots! ;-)

  8. Scott
    June 24, 2015
    Reply

    Aaah, low expectations can be the absolute key sometimes, can’t they? Those fisherman (not those guys, obviously) got us in Mexico, at first you are like “oh wow, what great timing we have, then you’re like “wait a minute!”

    • Lauren
      June 30, 2015
      Reply

      I need to remember to keep them low at all times — I hate being disappointed by a destination I’ve always wanted to visit!

  9. Kim | The Wanderlist
    August 9, 2015
    Reply

    Burma was a dream :) glad you made it to Inle; so hell if it’s touristy.

    We saw it at sunrise and I loved the silence and solitude.

    • Lauren
      November 22, 2015
      Reply

      Sunrise would be a wonderful time to see it! :-)

  10. Piotr Kulczycki
    October 27, 2015
    Reply

    I have been there two years ago. Amazing place!

    What camera do you use for your travel photography? Maybe you write a post sharing what’s in your bag?

    • Lauren
      November 11, 2015
      Reply

      I use a Canon 550D. Hoping to get a post up soon about my photography gear :-)

  11. Michael
    January 7, 2016
    Reply

    Curious, do you remember the name of the restaurant where you ate breakfast (the one with the splotchy paint tables)? I’m planning a trip and may want to check it out one morning!

    • Lauren
      February 11, 2016
      Reply

      Ah, sorry, Michael! I don’t think it had a name.

  12. Julian
    October 11, 2016
    Reply

    Great post – I can just imagine and recall that moment when the boat stops in the middle of the lake to enjoy the sunset. Incredible – we have seen a lot of sunsets but that had something magical. Nice memories and thanks for the story and pics.

  13. Melissa
    June 27, 2018
    Reply

    I’m at the airport heading to Inle Lake next so this article really got me excited. I can’t wait to see this place. Thanks for taking the time to write about your adventures.

    • Lauren
      June 28, 2018
      Reply

      Have an amazing time!

  14. Dan
    July 27, 2018
    Reply

    Bahahaha the “dancing fishermen” are still around (I’m actually on my last day in Inle now)……not sure how to feel about them.
    I haven’t come across many tourists here, at least not as many as I thought I would (probably because of low season). Great article!

    • Lauren
      August 3, 2018
      Reply

      I think less people are visiting Myanmar in general at the moment due to the genocide.

  15. Dennis Emanuel
    March 31, 2019
    Reply

    Hi Lauren, My wife and I were just there .We had such a nice time ,We stayed at the Sactum great place ! We had the whole place to ourselves must be off season. We took the same tour you did , the boat captain found us as we were riding our white hotel bikes to town.And offered us a tour the next day.He met us at our hotel,there was a pier down by the pool next to the vegetable garden. We ended up taking them to lunch at our hotel after running out of kyhats half way through the tour we did knot know about all the great deals on the water way!The only thing I wish could have been better is the smog was soo bad !Everywhere Rangoon Mandalay Enle .Your pics were taken exactly when?Dennis

  16. Momo
    December 22, 2019
    Reply

    We are going to the lake in January because Mrauk U has been recently put on the restricted list for visitors and we suddenly ave a few days free. Hopefully , like you, we will be pleasantly surprised. In the meantime, we are keeping our expectations low.

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