(with a List of Boat Trip Stops and Main Attractions)
Before you start reading this guide to the Inle Lake in Myanmar, there is something I need to mention. Myanmar is one of those countries with an evolving tourism industry where everything changes rapidly. The prices that I’ve mentioned may not be as accurate with time. I encourage everyone who has more recent knowledge to share it in the comments section below.
Inle Lake in Myanmar is one of those locations that makes many question whether the place is worth visiting. I was hesitating, too. Myanmar was the last stop on my long travel list, an almost unplanned detour before my flight back home. I had less than two weeks to explore the country. Recently opened for tourists, it did not have much coverage in the blogosphere. Among other reviews, most of the Inle Lake travel blogs labeled the Inle region as the most touristic one.
Just to be clear – it really is tailored for tourism, but…
…for some reason (and although it is hard to believe, please do) -–being as tourist-targeted as it is, it is an absolutely magical place – peaceful, almost meditative, and full of surprises.
I’ll tell more about those in a bit, and meanwhile….
…fighting with my scepsis, I wrapped up my Inle Lake travel research and thought that a two-day trip to this Myanmar location is worth a shot.
Arriving at Nyaung Shwe by the Inle Lake, Myanmar
Inle Lake is located in the Shan Hills of Myanmar. This is almost in the heart of the country, and usually marks the middle of the journey for those doing the standard round trip from Yangon or Mandalay.
There are several ways to reach the lake:
- The fastest and the most convenient one is by plane from all major hubs (Yangon, Mandalay, Bagan area). On average, the ticket will cost around 100 USD, plus another 20 USD to get to the town. Heho airport is located around 25 km (15 miles) away from Nyaung Shwe. This is approximately a 45-minute taxi ride.
- Buses are also a common way to reach Inle, and the ticket will cost anywhere between 17 to 25 USD. The majority of bus commutes in Myanmar are overnight ones, which is a good deal for travelers on a budget. Among other pros is the fact that buses arrive in Nyaung Shwe, and from there, it is a short a cheap ride to any of the booked hotels or hostels because the town is small. This commute is longer, though, and with all the stops (sanitary, for food, to pay the entrance fee to the lake) most likely you won’t get much sleep.
- There is also an option to hike to the lake from Kalaw, and I’ll tell more about it a bit further down the page.
I was on a budget, and the lake was my second stop in a Burma travel list. So, a night bus took me from Yangon to Inle Lake area and arrived at Nyaung Shwe around 5 AM. Since it was almost the end of the touristic season (mid-March is when the dry season in Myanmar starts), there were almost no other passengers. Just me, and a silent tourist from Japan.
Both of us were tired from a sleepless night, as well as unprepared for a cold morning. We were shivering in our light jackets. In the daytime, the Inle Lake weather in March is very comfortable and reaches 25º C (75º F). At night and around sunrise, however, it drops down to 12º C (54º F). This fact catches many off guard, especially after hot days in Yangon, Bagan, and Mandalay.
Oh, how I wished for a sweater and a scarf as I was knocking on the door of a small guesthouse that I picked to stay in!
Because the entire Myanmar journey was such an improvisation, I did not have time to book a boat tour in advance. Thankfully, Nyaung Shwe is a small town where everybody knows everybody. Of course, my hosts knew someone who owned a boat and knew the route!
Day 1: On the Water. Inle Lake Boat Trip Itinerary
Depending on the length of your stay, as well as on the budget, you can either opt-in for a full day on the water, or a half-a-day trip. The price will range between 15,000 to 25,000 kyat (approximately 15 USD) for a boat. You may also try to haggle. It might work, or at least it did with some of the travelers that I’ve later talked to.
My boatman was a young Burmese man, not much of a talker (or was it just because he barely spoke English?), and not a travel guide, so most of the day, I had to rely on my knowledge about the country. Considering how tired I was from an active three-months trip around South-East Asia, I was totally fine with being silent. I knew enough about the area, and whenever I had questions, I wrote them down in notes to later ask my hosts or Google.
But if you want this to be a guided trip, there are lots of alternatives to my silent trip. Of course, these are better to be booked in advance.
Sunrise on the Lake
The Inle Lake boat trip itinerary is pretty standard. If you are willing to experience a day on the water from its very dusk till dawn, then it will all start with a sunrise over the lake. The journey begins at the boat pier. You can get there either by a minibus or by a bicycle, depending on the distance.
Early morning hours on the lake are chili, and I strongly recommend to take additional warm clothes, blankets, and some hot tea.
Now to some timing details. It is cheaper to stay in Nyang Shwe than to book a room in a resort that is built on the lake. But it does add some extra time to getting to where all the sunrise beauty begins, lake-wise.
You will start your journey from a small canal, and it is a 30-to 45-minute boat ride to the actual lake. This simply means earlier pickup if you opt-in for the accommodations in the village.
If the season is right, the sunrise is well worth the time because a combination of the pinkish-orange sun rays, silhouettes of the mountains surrounding the lake, and the fishermen already there despite the early hours is surreal.
I’d like to warn you, though that in the dry season you can get something slightly different from the glossy travel blogging pictures as the dust covers the mountains and smudges its lines with the sky and the lake, creating a somewhat flat picture.
The Touristy Part of the Boat Ride
On your way across the lake, you will also be taken to lots of local factories + shops. Each of these stops comes with a free tour around the factory/workshop. The tour is led by the owner. Each of the tours I was on was very interesting, and it did not end with a hard sell. Naturally, the tour would wrap up in a shop, but from there on, no one followed me trying to pitch any particular product.
As it usually goes, should you buy something, the boatman that brought you to the factory will earn a commission.
It is this part of the boat tour that many travelers find a bit annoying. I was skeptical about it, too, but much to my surprise, I eventually found myself enjoying touring around these local workshops. Most of this is because I did not feel pressured to buy anything, so kudos to the locals – the whole process is organized in a respectful manner.
As for the workshops, among those, there is the goldsmith and silver workshop, where the entire family produces rings, necklaces, earrings, cutlery, and whatnot.
There is also a weaving factory where they will show you how a silk thread is made out of the lotus flowers. This is quite a mesmerizing process, truly, as you get to see all the stages of the production: extraction of the lotus fibers and they are rolled into long threads.
It gets even better as you walk up to the second floor of the weaving factory, where the three girls skillfully operate the looms to turn the silk thread into the silk fabric of different colors and designs.
The Kayan Women
The factory is also the place where all the popular pictures with the long-necked ladies originate from. These are the Kayan women (very frequently they are referred to as the Padaung tribe, but there are, in fact, several sub-groups, each having its name and history) made famous by the modern digital world due to their unusual jewelry – numerous heavy coils elongating their necks to the point that the only question that pops into the head is: “How…?”
This Tibeto-Burman ethnic minority lives in the Kayah state on the Thai border close to the lake. Wearing coils is a custom that will help the women to identify with their tribe. Within the tourism-oriented Inle ecosystem, these women are a major factor in attracting visitors.
The women are silent, friendly, and somewhat indifferent to tens of tourists visiting the factory daily. I did come across posts in the blogosphere about the factory… I am not sure the verb “employing” is the right one… not only adult Kayans but also underaged girls. During my visit, I saw three grown-up females.
The women were folding scarves and blankets produced here, within the factory. A few moments later one of them took a break and approached the bench next to where I was sitting. As I pointed at my phone sort of asking with a sign whether I can take a picture, she smiled, then turned to the window, uninterested. I can not blame her.
A tour of the local workshops then goes on, and next in line are the carpenters crafting the long tail boats, and a group of Burmese women rolling cigarettes out of the locally grown tobacco. A couple of my friends here in Ukraine are avid smokers, so I couldn’t help but buy a handful of those unusual cigarettes (as I was told, they come in different flavors, too) and delivered those Burmese souvenirs to my friends (“No good”, my friends admitted later).
While intrigued about the origin of the cigarettes, the friends then told me that these were too strong and almost impossible to smoke. I can’t say I was unhappy about it.
Is There Anything Other Than the Workshops?
Among other stops along the way, there is also the Phaung Daw oo Pagoda (or Phaung Daw U), an old temple with a long history, and a famous attraction on the Inle lake. It is most famous for its five images of Buddha that are over 800 years old. Being a Buddhist temple, it does require visitors to maintain a dress code.
One of the few stops on this trip that is off-water is the local Inle Lake market. I spent quite some time there, wandering around the stalls and exploring the goods. Locally grown vegetables and greens interested me the most, but this is also a good place to get some souvenirs.
Floating Gardens of Inle
The trip continues through the unbelievable floating gardens of Inle Lake where I caught myself thinking that I admire the inventiveness with which the Myanmar locals use every inch of the land – or in this case – water that they live on.
The seeds are planted into plots, amidst which local farmers cruise in their boats, and even step onto the plots to take care of the plants or to pick those up. Tomato is the most popular crop here. Also growing on water, there are cucumbers, beans, and flowers.
Before telling about my favorite stop on the way, I will also mention the Nga Phe Chaung Monastery (or a Jumping Cat Monastery) – a wooden temple on stilts that is almost 200 years old. It is the very next stop after the floating gardens and is set almost amidst those.
The oldest monastery in the area got its second name due to the cats that once inhabited it. The legend says it the cats were taught to jump through the hoops. I could not check if this fact was true as I did not spot any cats around. The monastery itself is well worth a visit, though, even without the meowing attraction that the cats are. It is very peaceful, secluded and is a relaxing stop at the end of the day…
…but not nearly as meditative, as..
…the Shwe Indein Pagoda
Located further from the lake, it is a secluded temple getting to which is an attraction within itself as the boat rides through a relatively narrow canal with the rapids. For a moment there, I felt if I was a kid again, holding my breath in excitement as the ride in the theme park approached its next twist-and-turn.
I think that at a certain point of this ride I even laughed. After a day of touring around factories and mingling with the visitors, locals, and merchants, it was a pleasure to escape to this narrow canal, surrounded by the green landscapes of the fields.
At the end of this canal, stands the Shwe Indein Pagoda – a group of Buddhist pagodas of different sizes and colors (mostly white, golden or ocher), all topped with little bells that are gently ringing all day long as they are very light and responsive even to the tiniest blow of the wind.
It is these little bells and their ringing that create an unbelievable emotional experience as if you are wandering through a magic area. Just imagine – there are over 1,500 of those stupas, built between 14 to 18 centuries. Many of these have sacred relics within. A pagoda is a place to which many come to meditate.
For my route, I had to ask the boatman to take me there. The Shwe Indein Pagoda was not part of the regular lake tour. It is actually an 8-kilometer detour down the canal. I am not saying such will be the case with your trip, but just pointing out the possibility.
Day 2. On the Ground. Exploring Nearby Villages
While a boat trip is a predictable activity for this area, there is also an additional way to explore it, and that is by bike or bicycle. This route will allow seeing the rice paddy fields, canals, and villages.
Nyaung Shwe is the most popular destination near Inle, but there are, in fact, more than 15 other villages, each having its particular attraction. For instance, The Intha village Kaung Daing is popular for its hot springs and tofu making. Se Khong is known for its blacksmiths and production of knives and farming tools from scratch. Ywama village is the starting point for the five-day market, which got its name for its schedule. The market rotates between five nearby locations over five days. Among some of the popular stops are the hot springs and a local winery.
What’s really good about driving around the area is that you get to see how the locals live, and this will allow adding some dimension to a rather touristy experience that you get while exploring the life from the boat.
It really does not matter much, in my experience, which way to go from Nyaung Shwe. Village life is a village life anywhere you go. Kids are leading their buffaloes to the fields, women are washing clothes in the water of the nearby canals, local public transportation (sort of) is filled with people is driving by, and the passengers are waving and smiling at you, their Tanaka-painted faces friendly and curious.
As with Bali (or any other SEA destination during the high season), the best idea is to wake up early to avoid driving in exhausting heat.
Inle Lake Myanmar: FAQ
What are some other attractions not included in the standard itineraries?
Among such, there is a visit to the Shwe Yan Pyay Pagoda and monastery. A complex consists of a building made entirely out of teak wood, as well as of several newer buildings. While this one is optional, there is also a highly recommended additional stop on the Inle Lake route for those of you who have more time, and it is a Kalaw Myanmar Hiking activity.
A two or a three-day guided hike begins at Kalaw and goes through the countryside. This is one of those experiences that I regret not doing due to my short stay in the country. It includes spending the night/nights in either a rural village homestay or a monastery, as well as a chance to see what true life in Myanmar is.
What are some of the recommended Inle Lake hotels?
As I have already mentioned, there are two main locations with accommodations in the area. One is in Nyaung Shwe, and among its pros are cheaper prices and convenient access to all the local cafes. The second one is one of the resorts on the water. Pricing is somewhat higher here, but waking up in the house on the stilts is among some of the experiences worth trying.
Search the area for some of the best hotels, homestays, and resorts.
How to travel from Bagan to Inle Lake?
By bus: I recommend going with the bus company JJ Express. In my experience, as well as according to the feedback online, it is one of the best in Myanmar. I tested it and found it quite convenient. The buses run on schedule, pricing is reasonable, and the seats are comfortable. Well, as comfortable as it can get for a bus.
This one requires booking in advance in high season. Considering how quickly everything changes in Myanmar, I will not go into details about the schedule. It is better to check the current one directly at JJ’s website. The duration of the ride is between 8 to 11 hours. The bus ticket costs between 11 USD to 18 USD.
If for any reason JJ’s schedule is not suitable, there are other bus companies to choose from, too. Also, you may book directly on the ground – from either your hotel or any of the ticket offices. For some reason, JJ’s website does not always display all the departure times. I also used 12GoAsia as it is an aggregator that displays a range of prices, companies, and departure times.
By plane: This is a connection between the airport in Nyaung-u near Bagan and Heho near Inle lake. You’ll need a taxi to get to/from both of these airports. Planes fly several times per day, and it is a 30-minute flight costing anywhere from 70 USD.
How to get from Yangon to Inle Lake?
By bus: More than four companies, including JJ Express, offer daily departures from the capital to Inle lake. Most of those are overnight routes, and you will spend 11 to 12 hours on the road. The cost of the ticket is between 12 USD to 20 USD.
By plane: Tickets will cost anywhere between 70 to 140 USD plus taxi. Three to four companies operate regular flights from Yangon.
By train: This is a 30-hour travel to Shwe Nyaung and another 20-minute taxi ride from there to the lake. You will need to switch trains in between. In the second half of the journey, the Slow Train from Thazi is praised by many for its scenic views from the windows.
How to get to Inle Lake from Mandalay?
By bus: There are daily departures, both during the daytime and at night. You will spend around 8 hours on the road, and the ticket will cost between 10 to 16 USD.
By plane: There are daily flights operated by the two companies (or at least such was the case when I was checking 12Go Asia schedules). Both offer early morning departures. It takes 30 minutes to get to the destination by plane, and the tickets cost from 66 USD and up.
What is the budget for a one-day stay at Inle Lake, Myanmar?
Upon entering the area, you will be asked to pay a tourist fee of 10 USD. The budget for accommodation starts from 10 USD per a simple guest house in Nyaung Shwe. It goes up to 150 USD per a fancy stilt house on the water. Eating at a local restaurant will cost between 2 to 6 USD. Bicycles are often available free of charge in many guesthouses.
Renting a boat is a matter of a bargain unless you opt-in for a guided tour. The rental can be anywhere between 10 to 30 USD depending on the number of stops and the overall route. Visiting most attractions is free of charge. An extra fee of about 4 USD needs to be paid upon entering the Shwe Inn Dein area.
Written by Inessa Rezanova
I am a Kyiv-based screenwriter with 10+ years of experience in producing scripts. I love my job, and no, I did not quit it to travel the world. I see different countries in my spare time. As a storyteller, I believe that it is the emotional journey that matters the most. This is why together with my sister I started this blog to encourage everyone to travel and to do so with a heart and mind opened to adventures.
Images by Natalie Rezanova
I am a photographer based in Kyiv, Ukraine. I am lucky to be able to do what I love the most for a living. Photography is an endless source of inspiration for me. My mission on this blog is to inspire by sharing some of the favorite captions from my journeys. I also provide professional photography tips to help the readers bring home some beautiful photo memories.