Arrive at the vast tranquility of Inle Lake and it feels as if you have been transported to a world altogether more serene. Here, surrounded by marshes and floating gardens, villages built on stilts and Buddhist temples rise from the water, while the local fishermen propel their boats using a unique one-legged rowing technique. It’s bizarre but true.
Around 13.5 miles long and penned in by the tall hillsides of the Shan plateau, the shimmering waters of the lake endlessly refract the rays from the sun far above.
The recent explosion in the number of Inle lake hotels forewarns the intelligent traveller that this is a busy spot. There has been a rapid proliferation of accommodation in Inle Lake, from simple guest houses to luxury boutique hotels. We’ve set out on foot, by bicycle and by boat to seek out the best hotels in Inle. And you’ll see from our selection of Inle Lake hotels that there are a few remarkable candidates that would fit squarely in the category of a luxury boutique hotel.
The indigenous people are known as Intha, which translates as ‘children of the lake’.
Balancing precariously on one end of tiny, delicate flat-bottomed boats, the hardworking fishermen row using their legs, leaving their hands free to work with the huge cylindrical nets they use to trap their finny quarry.
The lake is home to more than 200 stilt villages standing as precariously as the fishermen themselves above the waters. They form complete communities with schools, health care clinics, craft factories and even a cigar making workshop.
Around a quarter of the surface of the lake is occupied by extraordinary floating vegetable gardens, lovingly tended by the locals from their boats. Fringed by beautiful water hyacinths providing a sea of colour, these extraordinary allotments are made up of floating platforms of fertile mud, ingeniously generating delicious ingredients for the local cuisine, such as spring onions, tomatoes and cucumbers.
As always in Myanmar, there are monasteries both on and off the lake, while stunning pagodas and temples are not in short supply.
The Hpaung Daw U Pagoda is probably the most famous of all on Inle lake. Located on an island in the centre of the lake, the temple houses five Buddhas that have been turned from detailed statues into remarkable spherical golden globes (they look a little like gilt-wrapped Ferrero Rocher chocolates) through the immense application by many dedicated worshipers of thin gold leaf (you’ll see the application of gold leaf to Buddha statues throughout Burma as it is an offering and a sign of respect).
The main town is called Nyaung Shwe and it is from here that most people hit the water. Boats carrying tourists are increasingly common, as are the showcase shops selling tourist orientated knickknacks, with tribal people ‘imported’ to be shown off to foreigners.
Escaping the tourist hordes can be difficult, but it can be achieved with some savvy local knowledge.
And, lest we forget, the Inle Lake vineyard (yes, Myanmar wine does exist!) is worth a visit. Putting the marketing propaganda to one side, the plonk isn’t bad (we always opt for the rosé) and the views are tremendous.
There is so much to see and do on Inle Lake. We have spent days going around by boat exploring the 200 or so communities that call the lake home. The fabric of the societies has remained constant for hundreds of years. The Intha fishermen are undoubtedly the highlight but there is much more to learn about the local way of life.
The stupas and pagodas that surround the lake are spectacular, as are the golden ceremonial boats docked by Hpaung Daw U Pagoda. We have a particular soft spot for the ruined stupas at Indein village, which is an enchanting place to explore. And the Nga Phe Kyaung monastery (occasionally referred to as the Jumping Cats Monastery for its trained performers, although we prefer to avoid this) dates from the 1850s and is a beautiful but very simple teak building perched on stilts over the lake that contains a significant number of antique Buddha images.
One of our favourite ways to explore is to get out on the country roads using pedal power. It’s easy to find your way around and there’s hardly any traffic. Nyaung Shwe is the main town of the Inle area. It is modern and caters for life’s daily necessities. You’ll find stalls operating out of traditional wooden shuttered shopfronts, a maze of a market selling anything from fresh veg to plastic Chinese children’s toys and a few charming cafes.
Predictably, there is an abundance of fish in the many restaurants built above the lake on stilts. The endemic fish is locally called Nga Hpein which can be translated as Inle carp. It is served up in many different ways, partly depending on the tribal origins of the chef. Our favourite is fried with garlic, chilli and coriander. It can also come in curries or in soups.
Generally, when out and about, we tend to eat local Shan food as the Western offerings are hit and miss. But if you are dying for something familiar, we have discovered a superb place serving up a delicious pesto spaghetti made with locally grown basil and cashews instead of pine nuts. A bizarre and unexpected treat in the middle of Inle!
If you head on to land, the Red Mountain wine estate is a great place to spend a couple of hours. There is no organised vineyard tour but visitors are permitted to walk amongst the vines. The wines are produced under German and French supervision and are refreshingly palatable.
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