Inle Lake was our fourth and final destination, and turned out to be a great end to our ‘big 4’ Burma trip.
Tourists flock to the area for the beautiful lake and surrounding areas, to take boat trips and explore by bicycle.
We stayed in the town of Nyuang Shwe, which was the closest town to the lake and the most populated. It was obvious straight away that this was the most touristy area we had visited – nothing compared to most of Southeast Asia but it actually had Western restaurants and travel agents!
On our first day, after arriving at 5am on the night bus, we decided to take it easy and explore by bicycle. Following a map from our guesthouse we cycled west, away from the town and through numerous small villages, with stunning scenery over rice paddies with mountains in the background.
Once we reached the junction that would take us toward the lake, it became obvious there was a storm closing in – from both directions! Hoping that we could somehow avoid it, we cycled on, towards the edge of the lake and some hot springs where we hoped to stop.
Sadly we didn’t even make it to the hot springs before the heavens opened and we dived for cover at a roadside restaurant The rain didn’t look like letting up any time soon so we drunk lots of tea and ate some wonderful salads while talking to the owner who was a really friendly guy.
After nearly 2 hours, the rain let up, but by this point it was getting late so we made the decision to head back to Nyuang Shwe and abandon our trip.
The next day we bit the bullet and went for a boat trip. I was in 2 minds about this, as it is of course a must do, but I’d read a lot about the trips being a glorified shopping trip, being driven between various craft centres. The price gives it away slightly – for a full day trip it was around 14,000 kyat ($14 roughly) which is pretty cheap.
We decided to go with a guy who ran a laundry we used of all places. During our time in Burma we tried not to use trips and tours from our hotels because they were already making an obscene amount of money from their rooms, compared to the average Burmese person, so we wanted to spread our money around when we could. Our guide said his tour would cover all the main points of interest, and seemed to include a good balance of sights and things which were obviously shops but unavoidable.
Early the next morning we were picked up (which meant walked down to the river) where we met our driver and boarded the boat along with the guide. It took 20 minutes or so on the river before we reached the lake, but even the river was really pretty and rural after we had left the town.
We reached the lake and powered straight across it, before heading down some canal type lanes through a village to our first stop which was a silversmith. It was genuinely interesting watching the workers pound and shape the silver.
Of course before long we were invited to look around the huge shop. We enquired about one fish pendant and instantly realised there was no chance of us affording it – they were after 30,000 kyat which is all we had brought with us for the day!
We were then supposed to go to a floating market but instead we were directed over a bridge to a long tourist market selling souvenirs, all quite desperate for business.
Disappointed by the lack of an actual floating market we pushed on to a textile shop where the ‘attraction’ seemed to be some long neck Karen tribe women doing the weaving. We were encouraged to take photos but I’m really not a fan of ‘let’s gawp at people who look different’ (hence why I’ve never had any desire to do a hill tribe trek) so I wasn’t impressed.
Next was to another weaving factory but this one was a bit different. For a start it wasn’t a token factory with an enormous shop attached, it was a genuine factory and the girl who showed us around was enthusiastic and took her time explaining everything. We couldn’t afford to buy anything but there was no hard sell which is nice. They used various materials but the most interesting was lotus – they pull fibres from the stem of the lotus plant and bind it together. Once weaved it feels really soft and strong, it was quite impressive.
We visited a cigar factory next, this was one I was looking forward to. Burmese cigars, or cheroot are usually sweet with spices and actually not very much tobacco – the sweet one we tried tasted like star anise.
The ladies working at the factory were incredibly quick and skilled at cigar making. Katy had a try and wasn’t quite as quick but did get a few made!
We next went to Hpaung Daw U Pagoda which was interesting if unremarkable, apart from some Buddha images with so much gold leaf applied they just look like gold blobs.
After a very expensive lunch stop which lasted for 2 hours because it started raining and our driver didn’t want to leave in it, we went to the jumping cat monastery. This is supposed to be exactly how it sounds – monks have taught cats to jump through hoops.
Sadly although we saw and played with plenty of cute cats, they were not jumping. Perhaps the monks were required for it, and we only saw 1 the whole time!
Our final stop was supposed to be a trip through the floating gardens but our guide seemed to forget this and we headed straight back! We didn’t realise until we looked on our supposed itinerary when we got back to our room.
Overall the trip was good for what it cost but involved a disappointing amount of shops and our guide really wasn’t very good. We would recommend paying a bit more and asking for a tailor made trip – there are surely plenty of other things to see at the lake that don’t involve being pressured to buy something.
On our final day Katy sadly wasn’t feeling too great so I spent a few hours cycling up the west side of the lake. I got a lot further than we did on the east but it wasn’t the most comfortable ride since the road was being repaired and huge trucks kept thundering past me. However it was a chance to see more villages and the local way of life.
In the evening, still alone, I visited the Red Mountain winery. A sweaty cycle up a long hill led to a fantastic view and the chance to taste some wines. I wasn’t expecting much but they were all very agreeable to my unsophisticated palate. It was a lovely way to watch the sun go down, just a shame Katy couldn’t be there with me. I had a good chat with a friendly American guy so I wasn’t too much of a loser!
It was a great way to round off a relaxing last few days in Burma, and probably our favourite place in our short visit to the country.
Where We Stayed
We booked May Guesthouse in advance but there was no need – it was almost empty the whole time we were there. Rooms were simple but very clean and had a nice shared terrace outside to enjoy an evening drink. Breakfast was good and the WiFi was the best we found in Burma. They even let us stay a few hours extra for free on our checkout day. We paid $25 per night