The overcast skies and cool mistiness of the mountains were a welcome change from the hellishly hot temperatures – 113 degrees! – of Bagan. After being dropped off near the famous Inle Lake in the Shan Hills of Burma around 3:30 in the morning (we were glad to already have accommodation booked) we didn’t really know what to expect. Everything you read about the region says to do an Inle Lake boat trip, I wasn’t quite sure what a boat tour consisted of or if it would be worth it.
First of all, you can’t really experience, or even see the lake (unless you’re staying at one of the few guesthouses or hotel actually built right on the water) without doing a boat tour. We stayed in the small village of Nyaungshwe, at the north end of the lake and one of the main access points to the Inle region. Our first day there we headed down to the boat jetty to see what was on offer. As you walk, men will come up to you asking if you need a boat or guide.
No one was too pushy but we shopped around getting a few prices before we chose one (more details and contact info at the end of the post).
At 6:30 a.m. the next morning we were down at the boat getting ready for a full day out. Our long tail boat was stocked with (surprisingly comfortable) chairs and umbrellas but little else – make sure to take hats, sunscreen and water with you.
One of Inle Lake’s draws is spotting the “one-legged” fisherman that balance at the end of their long tail boat on one leg while using the other to manipulate the oar. Traditionally they used the cone-shaped nets you see above, but that way of fishing is very labor-intensive and slow so you may not see many of the nets as you glide in between boats.
The lake has a rotating fresh market that’s in a different location each day. The morning we went, the busy market was at the base of the Shwe Indein Pagodas. After being in Southeast Asia for so long, both my traveling companion, Angela from Tieland to Thailand, and I have seen our share of local markets, but there was something different about this one. The mix of people and tribes found in the region is clearly evident from the bustling crowd. Often when you see hill tribe women dressed in garb in Chiang Mai it’s for tourists’ benefit but here people were dressed in their different traditional clothes and simply going about their daily lives. We also saw several different vegetables and items for sale that we don’t often find in Thailand – like asparagus and cheroot.
Our excellent guide (contact info below) took us to the market first thing in the morning and we were the only tourists there when we arrived. By the time we left about an hour later there were more groups trickling in, but we had seen and experienced the market without anyone else taking photos.
If you have time, stop at one of the market’s tea stalls for a steaming hot cup of coffee or tea and fried dough for a quick pick me up before getting back in the boat. Our guide was so sweet that, even though we had requested to get coffee and share a snack with him, he paid for everything. Considering the whole private day tour – plus our guide and driver – cost the equivalent of $15 we were surprised, and a little uncomfortable, about his generosity (and left a big tip at the end of the day…).
From the market we walked up to the Shwe Indein Pagoda…and hundreds of ruined and restored pagodas from over the past seven centuries. Everywhere you turn there are spires reaching toward the sky. Some are made from crumbling brick and are being overgrown by the jungle while others have been “restored”, plastered and painted thanks to donations from around the world.
A surprising part about the boat ride to and from Indein is maneuvering through the Indein Creek. Farmers have dammed the creek with bamboo poles to irrigate the rice fields leaving a small opening for the long tail boats to just narrowly slip through.
Even after the first couple of dams that our driver expertly piloted the boat through (we never even brushed one of the bamboo poles that were just centimeters away from either side of the boat!), it still was a strange experience and got the adrenaline going a little as you felt like you were surely going to crash into the dam each time – especially when going against the current upstream!
Throughout Burma you’ll notice people, often older women, with green leaf cigarettes hanging out the sides of their mouths and small stands splattered with ingredients as women hand roll various cheroots and small packages of betel nut to chew.
The Inle Lake area in particular is known for its flavored cheroots like coconut, anise, pineapple, mint and even banana and you can sample the different kinds before buying a pack for your self – ten hand-rolled cheroots will run you $1-2.
I don’t think I’ll ever stop being completely mesmerized by silk weaving. I’ve seen workshops in Laos, Thailand and Burma and still can’t wrap my head around how these women can manage thousands of thin silk threads and weave them into intricate designs.
An interesting thing that I had never realized before was that you can make thread from fibers found in lotus stems. The sticky, elastic fibers are pulled out of the stem while simultaneously being hand rolled to other fibers to create a long thread.
The thread is then used to make scarves and other items and, I’m assuming because of the laborious way of making the thread, was more expensive than the silk items for sale.
During a stop at a silver workshop we got to see how raw silver was changed into beautiful jewelry and how the decorative water bowls (that are also popular in Thailand and available through the Paper Planes shop) are made. Several craftsmen were also working on delicate jewelry while we perused the items for sale.
Another iconic scene from Inle Lake is its unique floating gardens which are more like little garden islands. Bamboo poles help secure clumps of land, water plants and grasses to the mud below the water then farmers plant their vegetables, mainly tomatoes.
Other stops included time at a couple special temples that are a common pilgrimage site for Shan families. There was also the option of visiting long neck women of the Karen tribe, but we try to stay away from those types of “attractions”. If you’re privately hiring a guide you can choose where you want to go and what you want to skip. While many stops were geared toward tourists and had items for sale, they never seemed super touristy (though we did go in the relative low season so maybe it would seem more touristy or artificial when there are more crowds) and we saw or learned different things at each site that we had never experienced or been aware of before.
Without much to go on, we started heading toward the boat jetty to see what was available and how to go about finding a tour. You’ll quickly realize you don’t need to look too far as people will come up to you trying to sell you their services. While it was good to ask a couple people their prices, I don’t usually like hiring people or things when they’re coming up to me because it makes me feel guarded and defensive. I would rather use someone that isn’t pushing for my business so much. If this is you as well, just tell the people that come up to you that you already have a driver or tour, they’ll immediately smile, apologize and leave you alone.
After getting prices from a couple people, we decided to go with a driver who not only quoted us several dollars less than what we had heard before, but that we just got a good feel from. He seemed helpful, funny and kind. After taking his business card and thinking about it a bit more we had our guesthouse call him and book a tour for the next day starting around 6:30 in the morning. We showed up bright and early and were introduced to the man’s 19-year-old son who would be our guide for the day and the boat driver.
For the private boat, guide, driver, lunch and tour that lasts from 6:30 a.m. to about 3:30 p.m. it cost 15,000 kyat, or about $15 USD total. (We ended up tipping the same amount at the end of the day.
If you want to avoid looking for your own tour or using a tourist agency as a middleman, I would highly recommend trying the driver/company we used:
Nyunt Pe – Boat Driver
Your guesthouse or hotel can call for you to book the tour.
Have you been to Inle Lake? What was your experience like?
Hey! I'm Alana and I've spent nearly the past decade living in Chiang Mai, Thailand, working as a writer and photographer. I started Paper Planes as a place to share local insight, special places, and how to travel well through a range of experiences — from hostels to high-end hotels, street meat to multi-course meals.
New places are always calling my name...
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