Inle Lake Travel Guide for Beginners: What you need to know
If you’re considering visiting the not-yet-booming country of Myanmar, it’s quite likely you’ve come across Inle Lake being one of the premier destinations – right after Bagan. And rightfully so. This breathtaking chunk of nature not only hosts a gorgeous lake in the midst of imposing mountains, but it’s also a very unique ecosphere as well as a hub of culture, tradition and rural life. And you’ll find out just what there is to unpack in this Inle Lake travel guide.
We spent a handful of days in Nyaung Shwe, the village that sees the biggest influx of tourist and is a de-facto hub of sorts. However, know that there are other villages around the lake where you can use as a base. But for the purpose of this Inle Lake travel guide, we’ll focus on Nyaung Shwe as a base, and give you some excellent tips on where to stay, how to get your hands on the best Inle Lake tour and other activities, and what to expect.
Planning Your Inle Lake visit
I’ve already pointed this out in my Bagan travel guide, but you should be aware that Myanmar is in some ways a little bit stunted in comparison to its neighbor Thailand. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t visit – on the contrary, the adventure element can be amplified when you experience a less polished and not yet jaded country. At the same time, do know that getting around can take long due to some roads not being 100% smooth, and that you might have a lot less to keep you entertained past 9 pm. You’re in the countryside, after all!
If you’re staying at a social hostel, things might look different as some places do have a bar on their premises or may host events for the guests. However, we’ve noticed that most establishments at Nyaung Shwe closed at around 9-9:30 pm, with the village quickly turning into a bit of a ghost town. A few massage places stay open until 10 pm, though. What you’ll get in return is complete tranquillity and quiet – apart from the occasional street dog yowl, or the local teenagers sitting at the river and playing guitar. Additionally, tourism law dictates that you shouldn’t stay on the premises of a guesthouse or hotel other than your own past 11 pm. How strict they are about enforcing this – I don’t know.
On the logistical side, wifi is not always stellar in this area. Actually, Myanmar, in general, lags a bit in this aspect. However, you can avoid this issue by simply buying a sim card, which should set you back about 1,500 kyat (1 dollar) and load it with some data. Even though wifi routers are not the paragons of technological performance in Myanmar, mobile data seems to be the way to go, since all the locals are on their phones, all the time.
How to travel to inle lake
To get in, you’ll have to hop on a bus or a minivan, which can be organized through your hotel. If you’re coming in from Yangon, you’ll have the option to travel with one of the most sought-after bus companies for foreign travellers – JJ Express. With this company it’s best to book online as sometimes 3rd party tour agencies add a profit margin.
Also similarly to Bagan, you’ll have to pay an area entrance ticket when you arrive – usually done at a checkpoint along the main road into the village. The good news is, Inle is cheaper than Bagan in this regard: as of August 2018, the fee was 13,000 kyat, valid for 5 days. The ticket you purchase will be assessed immediately when you check into your accommodation. Beyond that – no one else asked for our tickets after that.
Inle Lake Accommodation
You’ve already read that there are other villages around the lake that you can stay at; however, Nyaung Shwe has the biggest concentration of guesthouses, hotels and hostels in the vicinity. There is a lot to choose from for budget travellers, with many guesthouses starting from $12/10 Euro with breakfast included in the price. We stayed at Sweet Inn initially booking for 2 nights but extending our stay because we were immense fans of our HUGE room, tasty breakfast, and mega friendly hosts. The property is located at the canal, which was very nice in the evening. The mornings, on the other hand, were marked by the sounds of boat engines. It’s not the world’s greatest alarm clock, but, in a place like Inle Lake, you want to start your day at a reasonable time to beat the heat.
If you’re after a more social vibe, Ostello Bello is a good choice here as well. Free locally-made cigars, possibility to join a group on a day excursion/activity, and a nice rooftop bar. Those with a higher budget can aim for one of the high(ish) rise hotels near the canal, many of which also have rooftop bars and even live music on some days of the week. The Best Western at Inle Lake could be a good choice for midsize budget visitors who are looking for a familiar brand; and it’s located near a small night market!
Inle Lake Things to Do
Well, the most obvious activity – and probably the highlight – is the Inle Lake tour, to which I’ll devote a section below. While in the area, though, you can look into a variety of activities to get to know the locals, the food, and the nature.
Eat all the Food
Few things in life make me happier than food, so I’ll start off with this: eat your way through Nyaung Shwe and explore not only Burmese cuisine but also the specialties particular to this region. The night market is a great place to start – offering low to moderately priced local dishes at makeshift restaurants under a tarp. I tried a fermented tea leaf salad which was, um, interesting, but my favorite by far was a stand serving wontons/dumpling, fried and with a delectable spicy, gingery, lemony-dipping sauce. To accompany this, we got a portion of seaweed salad, which was very cheap considering the size and became my other instant favorite. Different in color to the Japanese or Korean-style seaweed salad, this dish came packed with flavor and tang.
If you continue onto the main road of the village, you’ll find a plethora of food joints; one of the current hits seemingly being Indian food, with a handful of well-visited restaurants dotting the road. Another, smaller night market can be found in a side street off of the main road, and while there are only about 6 or 7 stands there, we enjoyed some excellent chicken and pork rice dishes. Service was excellent everywhere we went – I truly believe that in Myanmar you get the same royal treatment in the most budget-friendly and the most high-end eatery, alike.
Explore the neighboring areas
Since the immediate surroundings of Inle are flat, renting a bicycle is a fantastic idea for those who are not so keen on driving a motorbike. Simply follow the road either to the west or to the east of the lake, and you’ll come across hot springs, quaint villages, and even a vineyard and wine cellar (although here, as we heard, one should come for the view, not the wine).
Renting a motorbike or bicycle is fairly easy – many (though not all) guesthouses offer rentals to their guests, and there are several rental services in Nyaung Shwe that will hook you up with a sweet ride. Make sure to test drive and thoroughly check everything before you commit, though. We have not heard of any motorbike scams here yet, but it’s always best to look out for yourself.
Treat Yoself! – To a massage
Many people associate copious massages with trips to Thailand or Bali, perhaps – and so did I, before coming to Inle! But after strolling once or twice through the village, it became apparent that the Burmese are just as into making their guest feel relaxed and pain-free as their Thai neighbors. And the best part is, you won’t face a horrendous price upmark either. We paid pretty much the same as in Thailand, if not even a tiny bit less – but that depends on the establishment. I can recommend the Trathama spa, down the main street, near One Owl Grill. I believe it’s a new-ish establishment, as I had difficulties finding many results for it online. However, the therapists there are very skilled, and provided the best foot massage we have had to date. We came back for a Thai massage the next day and weren’t disappointed.
Planning the Ideal Inle Lake Tour
Touts and sellers generally aren’t that pushy around Inle Lake – but if there is one very keen category of service providers, it’s the boat drivers. You’ll be approached as you walk down the street (usually a friendly ‘No, thank you’ suffices if not interested) and offered a lake tour for the next day. You can also book such tours through your hotel. An Inle lake tour will most likely (unless you run into a very flexible boat driver) be a generic setup, which looks like this: You’ll start in the morning, at around 8 or 8:30, and do a series of stops along the lake. These typically include the silver, cigar, and boat making workshops, a weaving workshop, and some pagodas. The drivers make a commission off of your purchases at each commercial stop, and they also ‘help’ you get good pictures of the local ‘fishermen’ (who fish by balancing on one foot and steering the boat with another), where a tip is kind of expected. This can feel a bit exploitative/too focused on westerners’ purchasing power, and may be a turn off to some visitors. It was for us. So instead of a one-size-fits all tour we decided to organize our trip through Paw Paw Restaurant, an eatery we stumbled upon while bumming around the village.
I highly recommend Paw Paw’s as a tour organizer; let me tell you why. The owner, Zi Zi, is not only absolutely sweet lady with LOTS of information about the local villages, the unique environment and current Myanmar events, but she has also set up Paw Paw restaurant to give marginalized women from the area a possibility to learn key skills in cooking, business, and customer service. Her aim is to arm young women with an expanded skill set and a wider perspective on life, work and relationships with others. The restaurant is thus backed by a larger charity, a part of which is also Zi Zi’s work with the local community commerce and fair trade. The Inle Lake tours she organizes are fully tailor-made, meaning you don’t have to stick to the same itinerary everyone is doing. We made it clear that we weren’t that into buying souvenirs but were interested in seeing the surrounding nature and communities. As a result, our tour consisted of a visit to a five-day rotating market, the pagodas as Indein, floating gardens and various communities of houses on stilts, and only two workshops, since they were on the way. We skipped the popular pagodas on the lake since we were a bit templed out, but therefore our driver didn’t take us to the ‘fake’ fishermen posing for a tip but weaved through a handful of actual local fishermen and showed us how the locals extract the weeds from the lake to be used as the base for the floating gardens.
Unlike with other Inle Lake tours, the price per person was fixed regardless of the number of passengers. However, we didn’t mind paying slightly more than on the street knowing that Zi Zi’s efforts go towards a good cause of injecting job opportunities and visibility into the communities that need it the most.
Inle lake travel guide wrap-up
Whether you only come here to do the Inle Lake tour or you hang around for several days to explore the area, you’ll be taken care of well and always with a smile. Inle was my personal highlight precisely for that reason – pretty much everyone we interacted with was friendly and helpful, regardless of whether you gave them your business or not. And even though some details felt a bit more rustic than in places that have seen their fair share of tourism, all our bases were covered and we left very happy. What ensued next was our epic effort to cross the border into Thailand via Myawadday, so follow the link if you’re interested in seeing how that went. Is Inle on your travel list? Get in touch if you have any questions or comments!