Many travelers headed to Myanmar often miss Inle Lake. Many are eager to stop in the more known attractions of Bagan, Yangon, and Mandalay. While Bagan should absolutely be visited as well, I always tell friends that Inle Lake should be put as #1 priority on their Myanmar Travel Destination. Ever since I stepped foot in this mountainous lake town in 2009, I have fallen absolutely in love with the place, the vibe and in awe with their people. This post gives you a list of things to do in Inle Lake as well as useful information such as recommended tour guides, things to do eat, winery, hot springs and restaurants that can last you a week of fun-filled activities.
Table of Content:
- Basic Information on Traveling to Myanmar
- A short story on the Honesty of the Burmese People
- Highlights of Things to Do in Inle Lake
- Food Experiences in Inle Lake
- Where to Grab Coffee, Drinks and Wine
- Winetasting in Inle Lake
- Nightlife and Bars
- Touristic Things to Do in Inle Lake
- Wooden Boat Tour
- Meet the Long-Neck Tribe Women
- Rent a Bicycle
- Soak in the Hot Springs
- 3 Day Trek from Kalaw to Inle Lake
- Hike the Shan Mountains
- Volunteer at Sasana Young Chi Monastery & Orphanage
- Hire a Local Tour Guide
- Accommodation: Where to Stay
- Low-Budget: Gypsy Inn
- How to Get to Inle Lake
Travel Guide to Inle Lake
Inle Lake is a freshwater lake located in the Nyaungshwe Township of Taunggyi District in Shan State, Myanmar (Burma). It is the second-largest lake in Myanmar with an estimated surface area of 45 square miles and one of the highest elevation at 2,900 feet. Located along the lakeside, it’s the most charming, peaceful town I have visited in all of my travels around the world.
Inle Lake has a population of about 70,000 people who are called the “Intha People“. They live throughout 4 cities around and on the lake. There is also a smaller percentage mix of ethnic groups: Shan, Taungyo, Pa-O (Taungthu), Danu, Kayah, Danaw, and Bamar. Most are devout Buddhists. They live in small wooden houses and woven bamboo on stilts along the water.
The Locals Welcome Tourists
The main jobs in Inle Lake are in Tourism, Fishing and Agriculture. I went for the second time earlier this year (my third time in Myanmar since 2009) where I spent a week relaxing and spending my days roaming around. Everywhere I turned was a new discovery: a neighborhood Buddhist Temple, a new modern Coffee shop, or a generational family-owned restaurant. I made new friends with locals and travelers passing through each day. People seem to be in a good mood here, there must be something in the crisp air.
Due to its location in a smaller, lake town, people tend to live a slower pace of life. This makes it an incredibly safe, peaceful destination. This applies to solo female travelers like myself too. Of course, you should always exercise precautions, especially walking alone at night.
Despite its rise in tourism in recent years, I have felt that most locals still live in pure, Burmese integrity. There are minimal touts for concerned tourists (some may try to sell you things but are rarely aggressive). Especially compared to the more popular towns of Bagan or Mandalay where souvenir and sales gimmicks have become more common. There are tons of hidden gems throughout Inle Lake that make it so lovable and pleasant to visit. Stay at guesthouses, rent bicycles, watch sunsets at wineries and hang out with families while learning about the fascinating, interesting as well as sometimes tragic history of Burma.
Honest People of Inle Lake during my Travels in 2009
Myanmar was a closed, mysterious country to most of the world as North Korea still is today. Myanmar was under total military-dictator rule for 40 years with major suppression of the people. Journalism, Media, Photography/Video, Technology and Information were basically banned or hugely censored. Tourism wasn’t widely opened up to the outside world until 2012 after a victory with Aung San Suu Kyi taking a seat in the government after two decades under wrongful house arrest. The Military power has now been reduced to a 25% seat in government, with the remaining 75% in a more democratic Burma.
A More Hopeful Future for Myanmar
A few tourist visas were permitted throughout the years prior to 2012. They only allowed tourists to visit 6 censored areas to visit. My friend and I were lucky enough to get a tourist visa through mailing our passports to the Burmese Embassy in Washington DC back then.
On an early morning in Inle Lake, July of 2009, I rode my rented bicycle around the off beaten dirt path through villages for a few hours passing through small hut houses and schools. As I approached a classroom with adorable children gazing out, I searched for my camera in my purse and realized that it must have fallen out along my journey. I began to panic as 10 days of my photos through Southeast Asia were potentially gone!
Finding Honest People in the World is a Priceless Ordeal
Tracing back my route for the next half hour, with little hope to find my camera, an elder, thinly-framed gentleman waved me down. He had a large smile with missing teeth and held out my camera to return to me. With no English, he scurried a few workers with broken English from inside the Orange factory to come out and help translate.
Besides returning the camera to me, they wanted to learn about me. They offered me tea, asked where I came from, why I decided to visit their village, asked about my family as they shared about themselves. They like many others you meet in poverty-stricken areas will share the hardship they face working long hours but very little complain. Gratitude is having large families and a network of friends is what keeps their souls shine.
Had they kept the camera, it would have been a hot commodity for them, as there were no digital cameras in the area. Or to sell it, the money gathered would be the equivalent of a 6 months salary to one person at the time. They were earning on average of about $30 a month then. Looking in the eyes of these people who I could barely communicate verbally with, I could tell that it didn’t even cross their minds to keep it. Stealing from others was simply not of practice there. Buddhist teaching, Burmese Culture of a combination of both. That incident held on tight in my heart until this day. And most of the people remain this way today in Inle Lake.
- Spend time bicycling through villages and farms
- Hire a guide to take you on a boat ride to visit local villages that specialize in different crafts
- Visit the remaining Long-Neck Tribe Women (by boat ride)
- Meet people from various villages along the water and their specialty craft in weaving, farming, etc
- Explore the famous Teak Shan Monastery
- There are 2 main wineries in the area
- Wine taste at Red Mountain Estate Vineyards & Winery with one of the best views of Nyaung Shwe
- Take a hike as there are various hiking trails (for all levels) where you can visit temples and monk caves along the way
- For the more adventurous, start your journey to Inle Lake from Kalaw on a 3 day guided (mainly downhill) hike
- Visit the Sasana Yaung Chi Orphanage & Monastery and volunteer your skills
- Marvel at the ancient Pagodas as spectacular as those in Bagan from a different time period
- Take a cooking class with Bamboo Delight Cooking School & Charity
- Pickup is in the morning with a stroll through the market for produce and meats
- Teach English and stay there in the Spring & Summertime
- Dine at locally owned family restaurants or finer establishments
- Get a Massage at one of many spas across town
- Make sure to make an appointment as in high seasons, they often book up!
- Sip on Coconut Juice, fresh fruit juices or a Myanmar Beer while watching the sunset at the most beautiful restaurant I’ve ever been, La Rizière Buvette
- Ride your bike for a beautiful journey through the countryside to soak in the Khaung Daing Hot Springs
- Visit the Daily Night Market for street food, bbq skewers
- End your night at Peter’s Bar & Grill for Beers, Hand-Crafted Cocktails and Burmese Cigars (just find the music & disco lights at the night market)
Food Experiences in Inle Lake
Visit the traditional markets at Nyaung Shwe Market opened early morning to mid-afternoon. There you can taste local specialties and small snacks. Despite the influx in tourism, the market remains quite authentic to how it was years before.
There is also a Five-Day Market that happens every 5 days starting from Taunggyi, the capital of Shan State. This draws people from all over the area to bring their livestock and produce to trade. The rotation leads to Nyaung Shwe and Inle Market as well as surrounding towns of Kalaw, Heho, Aung Ban and Pindaya. Ask the locals which day it is when you visit. The markets double in size and crowd onto the street, making it an especially exciting time to explore the markets. Locals come daily to get their fresh catch of the day or local produce as most meals are prepared fresh daily. These are the experiences that make traveling most exciting for me.
Burmese Cuisine, Ingredients & Flavors
Burmese cuisine is flavorful and delicious. Flavors range from spicy, sour to slightly sweet. It is oftentimes compared to a mix of Indian, Chinese and Thai cuisine. Depending on the region in Myanmar, spices obviously various. Almost every meal is served with white rice or rice noodles. Typical ingredients include garlic, ginger, onions, tomatoes, green chili, red chili powder, lime, curry powder, turmeric and fish sauce. Peanut is heavily used across the country. Many dishes are fried or topped with Peanut Oil and many dishes are topped with crushed peanuts. “Ngapi” is commonly used in many dishes which is a fermented fish or mini shrimp to give it spice and flavor.
Myanmar also grows a wide range of vegetables and tropical fruits, making the cuisine a balanced, healthy diet. It’s vegetarian, pescatarian and carnivore friendly.
Bamboo Delight Cooking School is highly recommended for those that love cooking and want an authentic local experience. Call or e-mail the owner Leslie and Sue ahead of time to arrange the class. With at least 2 people, they will run the class. Their passion for meeting people from around the world and love for food lead them to open shop. They also run a charity where a portion of every cooking class benefits children in need. There are classrooms near the cooking area where volunteers can teach English to students from neighboring villages during summer break.
Here’s a detailed post with colorful photos on my experience: https://www.bohemianvagabond.com/cooking-class-in-inle-lake
Coffee House by Pleasant Gardens, opened by M Minn Thu, the same owner as La Buvette Riziére. Both spots are ideal for sunrise or sunset. Coffee House is near Red Mountain Estate Vineyards and is the hangout spot at any time of the day. Grab your morning coffee and catch up on some laptop work. Or lounge on the lawn, play some games and do some yoga. Grab beers and wine on the upstairs deck during sunset. Food is also available as well as a bookshelf that guests can help themselves to.
Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/winegardenandsunsetbar
La Rizière Buvette is the best place for sunset in Inle Lake. It is absolutely one of the most beautiful restaurants I’ve ever encountered in my life. The restaurant sits on the rice fields in a secluded village area a few kilometers from the main town. Beautifully decorated with the perfect balance of colors with the restaurant structure carefully constructed with bamboo. Full menus served all day with a wide range of traditional Burmese, International food and a selection of wine, beer and fruit juices.
Wine-Tasting in Inle Lake
Who would have thought to visit Myanmar and to go Wine-Tasting? But yes, this was one of the many highlights in Inle Lake. Red Mountain Estates Vineyard was opened in 2002 by a French man and is located along the Shan Hills. 400,000 of the plants were imported from France and Spain. The wine is now produced by locally grown grapes with a combination of the cool climate and soil. Red Mountains Estates serves up a collection of: Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Late Harvest, Rosé de Inle, Pinot Noir, Shiraz Temperanillo, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Muscat and Tawny.
I recommend going here during the late afternoon by bicycle or short taxi ride. Easily stay for hours as a way to relax after a day of exploring as it’s an absolutely beautiful setting with a mountain view of Shan State.
Grabbing Drinks in Inle Lake
Almost every restaurant will serve Myanmar beer or Burmese Whiskey so finding alcohol is typically not a problem here. There is also a variety of bars, pubs, karaoke joints, rooftop spots, hotel lounges and more fun to be had at the night market.
Looking for some fun in the evening? Head to the Inle Lake Night Market, usually open every night of the week. There are typically 1-2 dozen stalls where you can grab a quick dinner or a small bite. Meat and Seafood skewers are common as are Shan Noodle Soups and Hot Pots. Sometimes there is live entertainment during holidays or special events.
Feeling like some music and dancing? Follow the disco lights and loud music to Peter’s Pub & Grill. You’ll also recognize it by the KFC-esque, large caricature drawing of Peter’s head. This is where you’ll meet backpackers, travelers and some fun locals as I did. Ask if the owner Peter is there, a young entrepreneur, full of energy and charisma. Tell him Jacki sent you as we’ve become good friends during my visit. The most popular drink there is the “Nyaung Shwe Big Bowl” which is a giant fishbowl of a mixed cocktail good for several people. Try it if you’re not scared of a hangover.
Hire a Wooden Boat Tour
Once situated in Inle Lake, I recommend hiring a boat tour on your second morning. This will take you on an extensive tour of the Lake. This can be tailored to however many hours as you’d like with a large selection of things to see, villages to stop in with various craft making to see in specialty shops.
This is the most touristic activity to do in Inle Lake but also the highlight. Part of the adventure is sitting back on the wooden canoe as you pass Intha Fishermen rowing with one leg. Ride passed wooden houses on stilts above water and kids swimming happily.
There are several stops in various villages to visit handicraft stores with demonstrations on how crafts are traditionally made or weaved. The purpose is to give tourists a taste of the Intha culture as well as to sell you things. Other stops include the Inthein Stupas, Floating Gardens, Teak Shan Monastery and the Nga Hpe Kyaung (Jumping Cat Monastery) that use to host jumping cats but that is rarely to be found now.
Meeting the Long-Neck Tribe Women
Those that have never met the Long-Neck Tribe Women can stop via boat in a shop to meet the remaining few who still live in the area. They are part of the Kayan tribe that has roots in Thailand, Myanmar and Vietnam and stems back as far as the 8th century. There are less than 130,000 of them left today. The tradition calls for girls to start wearing brass neck coils at as early as the age of 5. Each year, they add another ring on which adds more weight.
Visiting them can be controversial as they have become reliant on tourism. This can be a good or bad thing depending on how you look at it. Governments in Thailand and Myanmar have also taken advantage in exploiting this minority ethnic group for more tourism money. If you decide to go, the visit is certainly a photographic opportunity and an eye-opener of various cultures and traditions that have existed in history and still today. I think that regardless of where one stands on the subject, we owe it to them and other indigenous cultures to dig deeper beyond simply a photograph. We should make the effort to engage and learn about them, one on one. This is the main purpose of traveling.
To hire a boat tour, ask the host of your accommodation to arrange. This can be done once you arrive to Inle Lake (no need to book ahead of time). You can also get an idea of the pricing and negotiate yourself as there are plenty of them lined up at the lake waiting to take you. It should cost about $15 for half a day for up to 5 people. Pricing can also depend on the season and size of your group. But remember when negotiating, that $1-2 difference may not mean as much to you as it would to them.
More Outdoor Activities in Inle Lake
Rent a Bicycle
You can rent a bicycle from wherever you stay for $2-3 per day. This is an ideal way to get around town. And at any time you become fatigued or simply lazy, hire a pick-up truck taxi or even hitchhike for a ride back home with your bike.
Visit the Hot Springs
With your bicycle, you can ride about 8 kilometers southwest from the main town (45 minutes) to the Khaung Daing Hot Springs. The ride can be a bit dusty and bumpy but it’s all part of the adventure. The scenery is absolutely gorgeous and peaceful with many photo opportunities to stop along the way. This includes a Sunflower field and a Buddhist Temple up over a hundred steps. Truth be told, it’s not an incredibly exciting hot spring compared to others you may find in Japan or Taiwan, but it’s well worth the visit while you’re in Inle Lake. Relaxing setting to get away from the main town.
Entering the Hot Springs should cost about $7-10 per person and they also have a small restaurant/bar. I would advise to either hire a boat or taxi for return, as you may not want to ride back after feeling relaxed from the Hot Springs.
Hike & Explore by Foot in Inle Lake
Start your travel to Inle Lake from a 3-day trek from Kalaw (northwest of the lake). Though I have not done this trek, I have heard only great things. I will definitely do it on my next trip. The trek should be arranged ahead of time through the various tour companies which you can find online. It’s affordable and is lead by a tour/trek guide with hotels and food included in the package.
In Inle Lake, trek to nearby Villages and Hiking Trails. Meet friendly people and monks along the way. Any direction you turn provides new adventures. There are more extensive hikes where you can find caves where monks reside today. Some other caves such as the Htet Eain Gu Cave And Monastery are ancient with beautiful Buddha statues and remnants.
Visit the Sasana Yaung Chi Monastery & Orphanage (started in 2011) which is located more north on your way to Coffee House by Pleasant Gardens or the Red Mountain Estate Vineyards. There are 2 headmasters who are monks and 2 teachers who teach basic math and science. The children sleep in dormitories there with bunk beds in very basic conditions.
There are about 150 boys here with 1/4 that are monks. While some children here are orphans, others have been brought by their parents from poorer villages for a chance at a better education. It is common throughout Southeast Asia for boys to become monks for some time (months or years) for two reasons:
- If the family cannot afford education for their kids, the monastery is a better, safe option to educate them
- Gives the boys a chance to learn about Buddhism and Meditation
Another option is to teach English at the Bamboo Delight Cooking School & Charity. Leslie and Sue host classes for kids in neighboring villages to come learn during their summer break from March to June. They also offer a free place to stay for those that volunteer on the property. Contact them for more information – firstname.lastname@example.org.
I recommend hiring Win Naung, an honest, genuine Tour Guide who was born and raised in the area. We met in 2009, as a friend of the guesthouse I was staying at and we reunited earlier this year again. He went from being a one-man tour guide in his 20s to now being a father of 2 running a successful business.
There is no shortage of places to stay in Inle Lake, for every type of traveler. If you are looking for a Budget Stay with a family, stay at Gypsy Inn. For about $20/night, you can get your own room or shared hostel-type rooms for about $13. It’s at a prime location right on the lakefront on Strong Road. I stayed here with the same family in both my visits. 3 generations of a loving Burmese family run this guesthouse. Breakfast is included which is a full, hearty spread of Shan Noodle Soup, Eggs, Coffee/Tea and seasonal fruit. Service is amazing here and it feels like you are coming home.
Book a Stay: https://www.booking.com/hotel/mm/gypsy-inn.html
Mid-Range to High-End guesthouses and hotels are available too including a Best Western with a gorgeous rooftop view among many others. There are also resorts and hotels on the water that is perfect for a romantic stay.
The nearest airport is Heho Airport which is 35 km away. There are inexpensive flights from both Yangon and Mandalay. Yangon is 660 km away by road, Mandalay 330 km. If you have time, I recommend hiring a driver so that you can explore areas, not on the typical tourist path on your way there. Otherwise, take an affordable, comfortable overnight bus from any of the major cities for $10-20. There is a bathroom onboard and a few stops along the way. I recommend tasting some noodle soup or any local delights sold at these bus stops.
Note: There is a mandatory fee to enter Inle Lake for about $10 USD. You must pay on arrival at the permit booth located by the bridge at the entrance to Nyaungshwe. Keep the ticket on you during your stay. Tickets are supposedly valid for one week, though no one really checks it once you enter the town.
Due to Tourism, there has been a rise in more luxury busses, boats, resorts, restaurants that have opened up. This does mean that living standards have improved for locals in these touristy areas and salaries have doubled, some even tripled since a decade ago. This translates to about $100 a month for a good salary, with the minimum wage just under $3 per hour. Negotiating is common but keep in mind how much more a dollar can go for a local when doing so.
Enjoy your time in Inle Lake.
I am utterly and completely infatuated with this Burmese town and cannot wait to return for a longer stay soon.