Boat trips on Inle Lake

Our journey to Inle Lake started on 14th May 2018 by getting a taxi and then sitting in an open air waiting room at the bus station. The taxi ride to the station had been half the time we had expected and so we had over an hour to wait before our bus. We had booked a VIP night bus for around £15 each (26,000 kyat) with a company called JJ Express but didn’t really know what to expect of this. Our expectations were drastically exceeded when we stepped onto a bus that was nicer than the majority of flights we had taken, let alone buses. The seats were like arm chairs with leg rests and reclining backs. There was a tv screen in the back of each seat and we were given snacks and a drink of pop as well as a refreshing wipe when we got off at every services to freshen up. It was like no bus we had ever been on before and we were very happy to have paid the £15 as the other bus options hadn’t been significantly cheaper and I imagine wouldn’t have been nearly as nice! We left around 7pm ready for a reasonably luxurious journey!

We arrived into the main village of Inle Lake, Nyaung Shwe at around 5:30am. The journey had been fine although we were obviously tired particularly because Myanmar has some windy and bumpy roads so it wasn’t the smoothest of journeys. We had booked two nights in a hostel called Ostello Bello which was a hostel chain in Myanmar and had infinitely more reviews on Hostelworld than any other whilst still having a really high rating so we considered it a safe bet that it would be good. As it was too early to check in they gave us juice and let us use a ‘free bedroom’ they had on the roof for people who come in early from a night bus. This meant we were able to get a bit of sleep and they got us checked in a couple of hours early at noon so it wasn’t a bad start to our time there.

After getting showered we hired bicyles for the rest of the day to explore some of the nearby temples and villages around town. It was only 1,500kyat (80p) to hire a bike for the day which was really cheap and the area was pretty flat so it wasn’t a hard cycle at all. Our first stop was to Shwe Yan Pyay Monastery which is from the 19th Century and is made of teak wood which seems to have been a common material used in Myanmar during this era. It’s a really nice building and we saw quite a few monks here. It was also next to a pagoda which was very busy with locals when we turned up. As well as seeing the monastery it was the ride itself that was so nice. We like hiring bicycles as it gives you a chance to really take in your surroundings and can be quite relaxing when you don’t have giant hills to climb. The ride to the monastery was through town and then along a straight road lined with bright green rice paddies which we hadn’t seen for a long time as it was the dry season in lots of South East Asia when we have been there. It was just stunning.

We then cut through town again and headed out into the countryside on the other side of town. As we had come from the monastery we took a few back streets and came across Nigyon Taungyon Paya which was a small pagoda full of small stupas which were all white and gold. It wasn’t a tourist destination so we were able to enjoy the peace of the place as no one was around. We didn’t visit Myanmar in the high tourist season and so everywhere we visited, particularly Inle Lake, was quite quiet so nowhere felt that touristy which was nice.

We cycled until we reached Maing Thauk which is a village that’s partly on dry land then spread out over the water with the houses being set on stilts. The whole place is incredibly peaceful with a wooden bridge that connects all of the houses to the mainland that you can walk along. We walked along to the end of the walkway and ate lunch at one of the restaurants here that was set back far into the water surrounded by the rice fields and lily pads and it was also bright green. Our fried rice was nice and was a huge portion and it was in such an idyllic setting. We left our bike at the end of the wooden walkway and then carried on our cycle ride when we were done looking around but there is also the option to pay to go on a rowboat through the villages that are cut off from the mainland and sit in the water. We didn’t do this as we had a boat tour booked for the next day but having all the small, colourful boats lined up at the jetty made for a pretty picture!

We spent the day cycling around enjoying the scenery with only a few set destinations to see. We cycled for hours in the beautiful weather surrounded by rice paddies and mountains in the background and hardly past any traffic or other cyclists.

We ended our day of cycling at Red Mountain Estate Winery for some wine tasting – this is one of the two wineries that are located in Myanmar. We didn’t know Myanmar had winery’s so had to have a look and see what it was like. We’ve also taken part in way more wine tasting days than we expected to during our travels! We were given two red wines and two white wines for 5,000 kyat (£2.70). We got given a 2016 Sauvignon Blanc and a 2011 Muscat for our white wines and then a 2014 Syrah and a 2015 Shiraz Tempranillo for our reds. At the end of the tasting we still weren’t huge fans of wine but I’m definitely getting used to white wines and didn’t mind the ones we were given at all. The muscat in particular was very sweet and even with my sweet tooth I’m not sure if I’d be able to manage a full glass of it! We were both in agreement though that red wines definitely weren’t for us!

It was a lovely day cycling around and we instantly liked what Inle Lake had to offer. The cycle back was as lovely as the cycle there particularly as the ride was relatively flat. It was the perfect way to start our time in Inle Lake and both of us really enjoyed our day and were surprised how we had managed to last the full day. I’m glad we did though as it had been great! We had a good feeling about the next few days of exploring.

Our second day in Inle started early as we had signed up to go on the ‘Ultimate Boat Tour’ that was run by the hostel and started at 8:30am. The hostel included breakfast in the price of their room so we had gotten up early for that before our tour and were ready to go with a handful of other people doing the tour with us when we were met by a guide and walked down to the river. We got on a long boat that sat very low in the water and had seats with cushions on in a row down the middle. The boat had a motorised propeller on the back of it as we had quite a distance to cover that day and, all in all, it was a relatively comfy journey. We sped through the canal that was lined with houses and restaurants and were quickly out on to the lake.

Inle Lake is the second largest lake in Myanmar at around 7 miles wide and 13.5 miles long. It’s located in the Shan State and is home to the Intha people who have a special technique when it comes to fishing as well as nine other Shan ethnic groups that live on the lake who make and sell their goods throughout the country. The lake itself has loads of gardens, villages and industries dotted around it and it would take a few days to explore the entirety of the lake but we were happy we were going to get the highlights.

The Intha fishermen at Inle Lake are famous and one of the reasons why people go there. Those fishing on Inle Lake are very good at what they do as they balance on one leg whilst using their other leg to row their boat and keep it steady. This was developed as a technique as the lake used to have long weeds that were impossible to see over from a seated position. It also seems very handy for keeping both hands free whilst using their fishing nets as well as meaning their arms don’t get tired from doing all the work of fishing and rowing. We saw many people do this which was really clever and did seem to make their life a lot easier when fishing. It’s great to watch and I can’t believe they’re able to keep such good balance. There is also a famous pose that the fishermen will take in the early mornings when using cone shaped nets to catch fish, we saw this in pictures and murals throughout Myanmar and, on our way into the lake there is a spot where a fishermen was waiting to pose for photos of his technique. Even though we didn’t see the famous pose in action by someone actually fishing I’m still glad the fisherman posed for us as it’s an iconic sight and one we were hoping to see during our time out on the lake.

Our first stop of the day was to Ngwe Sin Tun silversmith workshop located in Inchan Village on the lake. We were greeted by a young lady who was part of the family who owed the silversmith and she told us that the silversmith had been in business for three generations now and that it had been set up by her grandfather. We got to see the different steps in the making of the silver jewellery from extracting the silver from the stone, melting it down and then adding 2% copper to make the metal stronger before moulding it into the different designs. Apparently 100% pure silver snaps easily which is why the copper is added. We were shown lots of different designs of jewellery from traditional chains to intricate metal ‘lucky’ fish. It was interesting to see how it was all done and we got to hold a freshly moulded block of silver which had just come off the fire which was cool. After being shown the workshop we were taken to their show room where we looked around before leaving. There were some very nice jewellery in there but considering our budget doesn’t even stretch to a fancy meal, I think hand made silver jewellery is out of the question.Back on the boat we were taken through lakes and villages on stilts standing in the water. The houses can only be reached by boat which must be annoying if you wanted to storm out and then had to get on your boat and row away or even something little like borrowing something from a neighbour or coming home from the pub!

We were dropped off on the mainland to a village called Thaung Tho. Here we walked up a long passageway to a pagoda to see lots of small stupas around it. The area itself was pretty with green rice paddies and the river running past. There had been a market on earlier that day but the tour guide didn’t get us here early enough as they’re mainly on in the morning so everything was already packed up. The pagoda was nice but looked the best from afar when you could see all of the stupas clustered together on top of the hill.

Our tour guide/boat driver took us to his village and to his family home for lunch. There we had fish, vegetables, rice, chips and prawn crackers (or a variation of a prawn cracker at least) ending with some watermelon. It was a traditional lake town meal and the food kept on being filled up on our table until we couldn’t eat any more. What was interesting was that some of the vegetables we were eating we saw growing in the lake as we travelled around – they were a bit like salad leaves but also looked like small lily pads and didn’t taste bad at all.

We were then taken out by our boat driver’s mother and another family member, perhaps an aunty, on very small canoes around their village. It was cool to row around the village and meant we got to see the lake villages on a much more intimate level. The women seemed to know everyone as we passed and spoke out to a lot of people as well as responding to many people coming to see us as I don’t think we would have been a common site for them around their little floating village.

Our next stop was to a place that did lotus weaving. I found this really interesting as they made the fabric from the stalks of the lotus flower and it’s seven times more expensive than silk! The stalk is snapped and pulled slowly apart which reveals a lot of thin fibres which are then rolled together to make the thread. This is then made thinner later and woven into fabric. The factory we visited also made cotton and silk garments and some were a mixture of the fabrics. Everything was woven using looms by hand instead of machines. Once we were shown around the factory we were taken to their showroom which was full of all sorts of clothing including silk ties and, of course, the traditional Burmese longyi.

Like all of the other buildings in the area, the factory was located on stilts in the water but they had a lot of greenery around which was beautiful. The factory grew their own lotus flowers but also had fields nearby growing other foods which is common on Inle Lake as many families are self-sustaining. There must have been some mainland nearby as on one side of the factory all you could see was lush, bright green fields leading to the surrounding mountains

One of my favourite stops of the day was to see the Burmese Cat Village. I hadn’t realised but the Burmese cat, a subspecies of the domestic house cat, is endangered. Cats don’t seem to discriminate and so breed with whatever subspecies of cat they like! This led to there being very few pure breed Burmese cats left in the world. To reclaim their species of cat the sanctuary bought back cats from America and the UK where they had been kept as pure breeds and have started to breed them again in Myanmar. The sanctuary has 34 cats and had successfully bred their first kitten with the hope of breeding many more. Villages in Myanmar were allowed to adopt their cats for free providing they would promote responsible breeding of them. The sanctuary was also a floating set of houses that was attached to a small island which the cats could roam freely on and they had strict visiting times so that the cats weren’t being bothered all of the time. There are three types of Burmese cat, the traditional brown cat, the blue cat (us Brits likes those) and the lilac cat (a favourite in the US). The cats were beautiful and a bunch of them were fine to be stroked so it was a nice stop of seeing and petting lots of cats. Both me and Niall have grown up with pet cats so it’s always nice to pet some that aren’t just random street cats (we try to avoid that)!

Our final stop on our tour was to see another industry within Inle Lake, sheru cigar making. The tobacco is brought over from the hills of Mandalay and then mixed with flavours such as mint, banana or fruit juice. The cigars are made of entirely natural ingredients with the filters being made out of corn husk. The tobacco and filter are wrapped in a leaf cut into a circular shape and then stuck together using sticky rice. Three ladies were making them in front of us when we visited but the man telling us about the process told us the majority of ladies make the cigars from the comfort of their own home. They’re very quick and make around 800 per day each. He told us only ladies make the cigars as the men go out farming or fishing.

On our final day (16th June) in Inle Lake we negotiated with a boat driver to take us to Indein for a couple of hours before we would then get ready to get a night bus to our next destination, Mandalay. We got the boat at 11:30am and were brought back around 4pm all for 20,000 kyat (£11). Indein is a village that’s best known for its two sites of ancient pagodas called Nyaung Ohak and Shwe Indein. The two sites seem to run into on another with pagodas that have been restored by donators from Myanmar and around the world and others still in ruins from hundreds of years of ageing, neglect, and natural disasters. To get into the site it’s costs 300 kyat (17p) as a camera fee so we only had to pay this once for using my phone. I still don’t fully understand the point of camera fees except for a way of paying some form of entrance but it wasn’t a lot of money so it was fine.

The village is very far up the lake and took around an hour to get there and the driver would have stayed as long as we had wanted so we didn’t see the price as bad at all. The journey there was really nice and took us to different areas of the lake that we hadn’t see on the previous day. We had to go through a creek to reach it which was a long, thin canal broken up by wooden partitions that we had to navigate through and it amazed me how much precision the boat drivers have with the long boats they transport us in.

Nyaung Ohak is the first site we came to once we were dropped off by our boat and walked through the village. This has a lot older, more battered looking pagodas that have not been restored with some even having trees growing out of them. Saying that, some are in a good condition and must have been built a bit more sturdily or just struck lucky when the typhoons and other natural disasters took their toll.

The place is a maze of pagodas which you can weave in between but also some are so close to one another you have to go around the whole group to get past. It’s interesting to walk around as they’re not all the same with some adopting a different house of statue to guard it or worship such as naga serpents or statues of the Buddha and others having different, intricate carvings visible through the worn stone and brick. We walked through some of the pagodas and then chose to head up to Shwe Indein which you reach by walking through a 700m walkway that’s got a metal roof and is lined with a few stalls selling clothes, trinkets and puppets as you climb. As it’s the low season there were only a few vendors who only looked up from the programmes they were watching on their phones to say hello as you passed but I imagine the place would be a lot busier during the high season. Apparently Shwe Indein is believed to date back to the 3rd Century but most of the pagodas here are actually from the 17th and 18th Century and are in a much better condition (some being even newer still due to the renovations).

Once you reached the top we took off our shoes and walked through the temple that was the entrance to the many pagodas here. This was my favourite spot of the day. I think there was only a couple of other people at the site and the peacefulness was bliss. All you could hear was the jingling of hundreds of little bells that hung off the tops of the pagodas as they blew in the breeze. The pagodas within the temple were gold and white and very tightly packed together. They were more like shrines and had engravings of the people they honoured and anyone who donated to have one reconstructed. The place was like nowhere we’d been before and I spent ages walking along the few corridors in here taking pictures and just generally enjoying my surroundings.

Niall had left the temple before me and I found him playing football with two young local boys outside the temple entrance. I left him to play pass with them and explored a bit more of the area and then when I later came to talk with him the boys still shouted to get his attention to continue playing. Eventually he said goodbye to them and they ran off to do something else. Football really is everywhere and I don’t think we’ve been in a country where we haven’t seen it being played at least once – this kid even had a full Barcelona strip on and we saw another man in Inn Thein as we walked back to our boat with the Newcastle football logo sewn onto his top!

In all honesty I’m not sure where the two pagoda complexes started and ended but it doesn’t really matter really as you’re there to see the mass of pagodas regardless of what they’re called. Around the temple was an awful lot more pagodas that were made out of brick. The majority of these were in neat rows and in good condition (so I’ll wager they’re part of Shwe Indein). They’re all really big and tower over you and a lot of them have different statues of the Buddha in the middle of them.

We then walked down the hill that Shwe Indein was on top off and decided against taking the path, choosing to meander through the many pagodas that were built into the hillside instead. These varied dramatically in their condition with some hardly looking like a pagoda at all, others having lots of foliage or trees growing out of them and some looking in quite good condition. It was nice to just walk around them all at our leisure and especially so as there were probably only two or three tourists there at the same time as us.

Once we had seen all we think there was to see we headed back through the village to get our boat back. The village was quite small but the river was a beautiful rich blue and had little boats driving up it every so often with children playing in it further downriver. It was very picturesque and just reminded us again how nice Inle Lake was to look around.Once we were back we got an early tea of curry and rice (Niall’s was chicken and mine vegetable) at a place called Evergreen. We both really enjoyed the food and it was only 2,500 kyat (£1.40) each so a good price as the curry dishes we had been seeing on menus had often been double that. We were then able to get a free small snack of pasta that the hostel offered three times a day for free (which we nearly always took them up on) before we left so had been able to eat a lot. We would be spending the rest of the evening on a night bus which we hoped would go as smoothly as the last one.

Inle Lake has been really great and is probably our favourite place in Myanmar. Although we didn’t have long there, we made sure to see and do everything that we had heard about and had managed to pack it all in very easily. Being out on the lake was fantastic even when we were in transit between destinations and our cycle ride had also been stunning. We had been lucky to have very good weather whilst we were there with Inle Lake also having much more manageable temperatures so, really, it had all been pretty perfect.

Next stop: Mandalay

Sending love x

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