Ming-a-bal-aa! Temples, gold pagodas, bare feet to show respect, monasteries, fishing villages, skilled craftsmen, sunscreen face designs made from tree bark, floating gardens, ethereal sunrises and pink hued sunsets, mountains hugging the lake, not too curious about me, but I’m curious about you, food from the earth, brown skin, beetle nut red stained teeth, hill tribes bring their goods to market, cigar smoking old ladies, “Lucky money!” A place where time stands still, where media and its influences have not affected the culture…now tourists are starting to come. Scared to know what will happen to this old world in 20 years. How does one preserve a culture?
It’s a journey to make it to central Myanmar to Inle Lake, one in which included flying Air KBZ from congested gas fueled Yangon in the south into crumbling Heho airport where you wait patiently to get a sticker, plus take a breathtaking but harrowing one hour car ride from the airport, followed by a 30 minute boat ride to your new lake home. I watched as a van careened off a cliff and stopped a train on my journey from the tiny airport to the lake. But once you arrive to Inle Lake and are blasted away from the major water artery of motorized long boats, gaze admiringly at the tribes who have existed for centuries fishing with a leg rowing technique. Their hands are free to manipulate nets they use to haul their catch. Marvel as villagers farm their floating lake gardens filled with cherry tomatoes and sweet cucumbers. These calm waters with simple villages offer a pleasurable feeling of a history lesson frozen in time.
The wooden flat bottom boats carry most families from 20 or so villages through the maze of canals, marsh paddies, bamboo stick homes, and labyrinth of inlets. For longer trips the motorized boats (mainly used for tourists today) whisk people around the 48 square mile lake. Now with Myanmar’s first democratically elected new leader in 50 years, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, this is the time to go to Myanmar because this nation is on the cusp of great change!
Memorable Experiences You Don’t want to Miss on Inle Lake
Find peace and quiet at Inle Princess Resort.
Stay at this peaceful property for the luxurious serene setting off the major waterway. Get up early for sunrise on the lake in this lush sanctuary. This place sure makes you feel like a princess as the property sits back from the buzzing boats on the eastern shore hugged by the Blue Mountains that range across the Shan Plateau. A bamboo gate on the lake with a guardhouse keeps intruders out of this quiet inlet, where only the lull of the paddle can be heard as you are expertly rowed into your new home.
The first ever hotel location built on the lake fits naturally into the landscape. My guesthouse propped over the lake was beautifully designed using traditional Inthar practices passed down to the locals. To stay here was worth the money (around $200 – expensive for Myanmar) because I felt safe, the breakfast options were incredible fusing many local foods, and the service impeccable. Also, the staff could understand English better than most places which was helpful when trying to plan a day on the lake and a biking excursion.
The beauty of this place is the landscape that surrounds it, especially witnessing the sunrise and sunset daily from one of the many quiet terraces that formed a perfect symmetrical reflection of hues on the lake. When the sun set around 5 p.m., there was nothing left, but the stars to guide your way. Each night I came back to my mountain view chalet to find my electric blanket on while others in the lake view chalets had in-room fires prepared. Pamper yourself at the hotel spa in a chalet on top of the lake that blends into the environment. For three hours, a massage, facial, and manicure/pedicure cost $100 to have the whole place to myself.
Bike to an orphanage, a winery, and enjoy the scenery.
Bike to the Main Tauk village approximately 30 minutes from Inle Princess Lake Hotel. The hotel provides you a bike, but since my ancient ride had no working gears, I made the best of that rickety rack bike by pushing the pedals harder while feeling at peace with the majestic scenery. From the Main Tauk Village area, take a left past the Main Tauk Restaurant to bike farther down a road by a monastery, then spend some time visiting an all girls orphanage, one of the happiest orphanages I have ever known run by one dedicated woman. The girls were reading material of their choice on a Saturday, laughing and dancing, while a few girls were preparing dinner with what produce they had from the land. If you have more time, push on up the hill to the meditation Forest Monastery.
Bike back the way you came and admire the scenery and lake life while you whiz past Inle Princess Lake Hotel for another 30 minutes to Red Mountain Winery, which is at the top of a very steep vineyard hill. Leave your bike and walk up for dazzling lake views, a wine sampler, and delicious bites from the food that grows around the lake. Try my favorite vino, the rose.
Find the early morning five-day rotating market.
Be sure to go early. Ancient Burmese women smoking cigars enthralled me in this colorful lakeside market below the Indein village temples on the western shore of Inle Lake. Just observe the lively activity at this vibrant marketplace as tribes comes from all around the lake to sell candy, tofu, dried fish, colorful produce, jewelry, clothing, Shan bags, gold and silver wares, ancient artifacts like traditional tattoo tools, and hand crafted wares.
Hike up to thousands of crumbling stupas to Shwe Inn Thein.
A tributary on Inle Lake will take you to this special spot as your motorized longboat jumps through a series of dams. Spend significant time enjoying the lively colorful market before walking through the village to a covered colonnade (almost a mile long) filled with vendors to the temple hill. Best witnessed in the early morning light, the Indein Temples were a shocking surprise because they were a grand mixture of crumbling unrestored stupas with plants growing and twisting out of them in myriad directions seeming to want to pull the manmade structures back to earth blended with hundreds of new gold and white temples. The spires of over 2,000 magnificent Shan stupas glistened against the deep blue sky while the mountain and lake backdrop added a magical feel to this unique setting. Many homeless dogs milled about, happy and free.
Visit the Burmese Cat House and Cat Monastery.
Burmese cats have existed in mainland south east Asia for over a thousand years. Historically, the cats were kept by royal families and used as temple cats and guardians of many temples in Myanmar. The Burmese cat resembles other oriental cats like the Siamese except in color and temperament. Brown cats are still considered to be the most original and valuable today. The reintroduction of the brown Burmese cat from the U.K. and Australia as breeding stock is to assure the future of this pure breed in Myanmar.
At the Cat House there are many mini wooden temple-like houses for the cats to rest and I spent some time letting the affectionate cats curl up all over me. You can play and pet the cats and one of my favorite meals on the lake was upstairs at the Cat House. Try the fried spring onion dish especially since you will see these long spring onions drying around most villagers’ homes.
In another area on the lake you can venture into the Cat Monastery built in 1843, once known as the Jumping Cat Monastery because a monk had trained the cats to jump, but since he is no longer there, the cats have lost their jumping abilities. In this ancient monastery with five flights of stairs I observed monks coming and going, washing the dishes, all while kittens and cats roamed freely around the lakeside property.
Spend a full day on the lake learning about the local trades and crafts.
At sunrise spend a full twelve hour day on the lake where you can delight in a magical splash of colors reflecting in the lake with just the birds and your boats man. My expert longboat driver sped me from one area to the next stopping all over the lake so I could witness the local crafts and skilled trades that have been around for centuries. As you fly across the lake, observe the fishermen with their ancient practices like smashing the water with a long pole to scare the fish into their nets.
At the Nam Pan Village, watch ladies make hand rolled leaf cigars with tobacco and anise glued with sticky rice, then try a few of these tasty smokes yourself. Witness boat carpenters expertly craft a longboat by hand using materials from the land or a team of muscular boys pound hot iron to make tools.
In the Silk Weaving Village or Inn Paw Khon Village, be wowed at the traditional weaving processes where even children sit all day at these bamboo machines moving their hands and feet in a rhythmic dance. The gorgeous silks are made into scarves and dresses while most items are sold to the major city Yangon. The lotus flower stalks are used to create thread and are sold as the most expensive material, not as soft as silk but more valuable. In another location I watched as a lady and a child created large sheets of thick paper with smashed pulp and inlaid flowers before drying the sheets out to be used for lantern shades, umbrellas, and thick journal paper. Also, the silversmith craftsmen making jewelry was another interesting trade to experience.
Explore village life on a wooden boat. Meet a lake family.
Observe village life by gliding through the waterways on a local wooden boat (with no motor) used by families. I paid less than $10 at my hotel to be paddled by one of the locals around the villages. No running water, no toilets, they live in a way Americans did a hundred years ago. To my surprise, my rower asked me in what words I could understand if I would like to go to his home. This special experience with his family where the woman prepared a meal from their chicken down below and their floating gardens while the men and I tried to communicate sitting on the floor around a makeshift table was one of the most memorable experiences of my journey. I will never forget their kindness as they waved goodbye to me below their bamboo stilt home.
Tips: Make sure to bring Burmese kyat because most expenses and even flights booked within the country need to be paid in cash. Credit cards are not widely used. Expect to pay a $10 Inle Zone entrance fee as soon as you land in Heho.