The bus from Yangon dropped us at the town of Shwenyaung at around 4am. Shwenyaung is about a half hour drive north of the main tourist base for Inle Lake, a town with an oddly similar name in Nyaung Shwe, and while you might think it would be a problem finding a taxi in a small rural-ish town in Myanmar at 4am you would be wrong. We were immediately approached by a taxi driver and were soon on our way to Nyaung Shwe.
Nyaung Shwe is not actually on the shores of Inle Lake at all, but rather offers access to the lake some 3.5 miles to the south via a wide canal. It is on the northern end of the lake and with tourism growing quickly and locals beginning to recognise the potential advantages of being involved in a tourism trade, the town is slowly transforming itself from a quiet little canal-side town to a quiet and comfortable tourist relaxation point. That said, it is very difficult to know what Myanmar will be in a few years as there are many, many new guesthouses and hotels sprouting up to deal with the new-found influx in tourism, but it does seem that the Burmese are going about this in a more organized and less haphazard way than some others before them have. It seems likely that even with increased numbers, this place won’t be overrun by tourism anytime soon and, more importantly, it seems that both the people and government in Myanmar recognize that it is largely their unique culture that draws people and they seem to make decisions with this in mind.
We arrived in Nyaung Shwe at about 4.30am and out taxi driver tried valiantly to wake the owners of May Guesthouse despite our pleads that he let them sleep. We instead persuaded him to leave us at a cafe in the process of opening, and we rested there for a breakfast of Myanmar-style donuts with split-pea dip and tea until the village began waking up for the morning market. Thankfully, May Guesthouse opened a little while later and allowed us to check-in early despite us not having a booking.
The one benefit to our absurdly early arrival in Nyaung Shwe was that we were able to visit the morning market at its height of activity There was fresh produce, meats, fish, clothing, crafts and more. There are a few rotating markets in Inle but the largest one rotates to five different towns on a five day schedule, and this just happened to be the morning it arrived in Nyaung Shwe, swelling the towns normal morning market with many extra stalls and vendors.
Temples in Nyaung Shwe
Yadana Man Aung Phaya is the oldest temple in Nyaung Shwe and is unique within Myanmar because of its stepped stupa. There are numerous temples in the small village and like most in Myanmar, the majority of them are gilded with gold leaf and glisten from a distance even in overcast weather.
Booking a longboat for a full day tour around Inle Lake is quite simple as there are many enthusiastic and hopeful local boat owners eagerly hoping to secure a slice of the tourist pie. As we neared the canal we were approached by many a potential tour guide, and we found a petite cheerful woman who offered us her family’s boat with driver for 19000kyat (about $19USD). As this was a bit less than other prices that we’d heard and because she was such a pleasant woman who was trying to get a family business going (complete with homemade business cards and pamphlets) we took her up on the offer and scheduled a departure time of 7.30am the next morning.
We left in the morning heading directly to the south end of the lake to the village of Thaung Tho, where a large rotating market was to be found so long as we could arrive by around 9am. The main canal into town was packed with ‘parked’ motored longboats and we deboarded our boat and walked into the market, a patch of dirt heavily trafficked with people, dogs and zebu-pulled carts. The vendors push a hard sell during this tourism off-season and are determined that you walk away with something from their stall, which we did at a few. Angie had a great time negotiating, knocking down the prices. Just above the market is the Thaung Tho temple and monastery with its numerous stupas and nice view back down over the lake.
Perhaps the best way to experience Inle Lake is to just sit back in a longboat and observe all that gradually moves past. The rolling hills surrounding the lake are lush green with sporadic sparkles from gold-gilded stupas and the floating towns exist like some odd mash-up of old western pioneer towns with watery main streets and a less militarized version of Tenochtitlan in all its glory. In the open waters, the fishermen are ubiquitous, leg rowing their way around the patches of floating vegetation and using their free hands to cast their fishing nets all while perched on one leg on the very edge of the longboat’s bow.
There are numerous villages on the lake and on the shores, each with a specialty or craft. There are weavers, cigarette makers, silversmiths, wood craftsmen, floating garden farmers and more. We visited several of the different villages and enjoyed watching their craftsmanship. The weavers used lotus, cotton, and silk to create goods. The cigarette makers used tobacco, local plants and herbs to create cigarettes. It was fun to see the people at work and to grasp the perfection of their chosen skills.
The Cat Monastery or Ngaphe Chaung Monastery
While we did see cats lazily sleeping at the famous cat monastery, we did not witness their famous skills. The monks at the monastery train the cats to perform tricks, including jumping through impossibly small hoops, and thisis why Ngaphe Chaung Monastery is more commonly known as the Cat Monastery. Despite the absence of the cat show, the hall is filled with various Buddha statues and images that were worth seeing. Also, we sat on the deck (same as the monks above) and thoroughly enjoyed looking out over the amazing landscape.
Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda
The Pagoda houses five famous Buddhas statues, which appear now more like rough round nuggets than Buddhas such is the thickness of the layers of gold leaf that have been applied by devotees over the years. We did not take any photos of the statues, so click here to see them. The Pagoda is a beautiful gold, red and white building sitting on the lake and nearby is a boatshed that houses a brilliant golden bird-like boat that is used to transport the Buddha images between towns during festival times.
One of the most marvelous sights Inle offers up are the floating gardens surrounding homes and villages which are filled with tomatoes, eggplants, and more. The villagers collect floating vegetation from the lake and organize them into rows and hold them in place with vertical stakes. As time passes, the material starts to decompose leaving small parallel strips of very fertile land separated by water. Once the ‘land’ is ready, the farmers plant tomatoes (or other) and build large trellises which they tend to from their small longboats which easily navigate the canal-like spaces between the rows of tomatoes. These are not quite land, but actually floating gardens – they move with the waves when a boat passes and are mostly not grounded in the bottom of the very shallow lake.
Biking around Inle Lake
Boating around Inle Lake was so really fun and exciting, though Josh had not biked in nearly a decade and it took a while to get his biking legs back. However, we were determined to bike around part of the lake to see more of the surrounding temples and villages and Josh pushed on through and became a lot more comfortable as the day went on.
From Nyaung Shwe we headed west following the gravel road to Khaung Daing. We passed by many temples, roadside vendors and small clusters of homes. Also along the path were resorts and accommodation for tourists, uninteresting except that they again show how Myanmar seems to understand the tourism market more than most would in its position. Near the Hupin Hotel in Khaung Daing and at the monastery sitting high on the hill there are spectacular views of the lake.
In Khaung Daing we found lunch at a family restaurant serving only their fresh noodles with pork, and the owner also offered his son’s boating services to get us and our bikes across the lake to the east side. After loading the bikes into the back of the long boat, we set off through tiny canals in the village. Children waved to us from their doorways high up on the stilted homes and this relatively short ride was one of the best for us on Inle Lake.
After crossing the lake, the boat driver dropped us in the village of Maing Tauk and the Forest Monastery. Walking our bikes into the village, we spotted a school soccer match (girls) in action. It was an enjoyable scene of adults and children gathered around the field and hanging over the concrete wall to watch the game.
The Forest Monastery sits high on the hillside about a 45 minutes walk above Maing Tauk and offers panoramic views that are similar to, but not but not quite as impressive as those offered from near the Hupin Hotel on the Lake’s west side.
We then continued our bike ride north back towards Nyaung Shwe. At one point two young boys rushed to the roadside and held up their open palms to give a high five to both Josh and Brett as they passed. Brett successfully connected and maintained his balance despite the unexpected force of one of the little guys, but Josh was not so lucky and ended up in the flower garden of a nearby house. He was fine and this was more funny to us all than anything, but the little boy who’d attempted to high five Josh seemed worried that he would be blamed. Josh tried his best to assure the child that this was not the case, and as we got back on our bikes the boys lined up to give us high fives again. Josh smartly kept his hands on the handlebars this time.
In all, it was an extremely enjoyable day biking around Inle Lake.
Inle Lake will be one of our favourite places at the end of the travel. It is a stunningly beautiful place with a culture that may be truly unique the world over. Whereas we were impressed with the ability of the Lao people to live within nature, we were shocked at the ingenuity of the Inle people and their ability to manipulate nature to fit their needs.