Beautiful Inle Lake in Myanmar

Fisherman on Inle Lake

Inle Lake, in the mountains of central Burma was a highlight of our trip to Myanmar. Inle’s iconic fishermen have a peculiar one-leg rowing style they use while standing at the very bow of their boats, a method that allows them to navigate the weeds and shallow waters of the lake while looking for fish. They also use unique cone-shaped nets to fish, often raising them with a foot as they balance precariously on the other leg.

The nearest airport to Inle Lake is Heho (pronounced “hay hoe”) and it is a good 45-50 minute drive from the airport to the nearest full-sized town to the lake, Nyaung Shwe, which sits a fair distance from the lake down a long canal. Lodging options are split between lake resorts and hotels in Nyang Shwe. I loved the idea of an over-water bungalow on the lake, so was sure I wanted to do that. But, I also liked the idea of staying in town to see what that might offer. So, I decided to do both.

View of front steps of Ann Heritage Lodge and Inle Lake

I chose an over-water bungalow at Ann Heritage Lodge for our first two nights in the area. Reading the details of what it entailed to get from the Heho airport to the hotel made it an easy decision to let the hotel arrange everything, even though at $20 for a taxi to Nyaung Shwe and $10 for a boat fro Nyaung Shwe to the lodge, it was expensive transport by Myanmar standards. On the other hand, it wasn’t expensive for us and it sure was nice to sit back and let them handle what was totally familiar to them and totally unknown to us.

After walking from our plane across the tarmac to the tiny Heho airport, we found a young woman waiting with a sign bearing my name as promised. We joined a clump of our fellow passengers waiting for luggage to be handed through an opening to the tarmac (no luggage carousel here) then followed her to a very nice SUV. The 45-50 minute drive to Nyaung Shwe was a smooth ride along a brand new highway.

Collecting luggage at the Heho Airport. No baggage carousel here

In Nyaung Shwe, our driver stopped canal-side where lots of long, narrow wooden boats were moored. There, he handed us and our luggage off to a boatman who settled us into two free-standing wooden chairs set in the middle of the long boat while he manned the small but incredibly loud outboard motor at the back. In no time, we were sailing down the canal past stilt buildings where people bathed or washed clothes, bird and wildlife preserves, water buffalo and other water traffic.

The canal opened eventually into Inle Lake where we got our first glimpse of the famous fishermen, posing on one leg with their cone nets held aloft. The lake shimmered in the sun, nestled among the mountains and dotted with fishermen who crouched on the bows of their boats, plunging their nets into the water then stabbing into them with long poles…or standing as they rowed with one arm and one leg…or beat the water with oars before moving in in groups of two or three to plant their nets.

Among the fishermen, boats like ours with couples or larger groups of tourists sitting single file motored loudly across the lake, mixing with local family groups going between the villages scattered around the lake. Men also filled small and mid-sized boats with mounds of sea weed from the bottom of the lake. These weeds grow everywhere in the lake, clearly visible below and sometimes reaching the surface to mix with invasive water hyacinth.

About twenty minutes after leaving Nyaung Shwe our driver cut the engine to slip across a bamboo pole floating in front of Ann Heritage Lodge and delineating the watery “front yard” of the hotel. We glided past bungalows with woven walls and perched on stilts in the lake to a stop against wide steps that led from the water to the hotel reception area. (See second photo above.) A young woman waited there to greet us and check us in. It was beautiful!

Pool, spa area (stone) and main building/dining room of Ann Heritage Lodge
The living room area of our bungalow

Our bungalow turned out to be just what I’d hoped. Large, with a sitting area, bedroom and porch, it looked out across “floating gardens” and the lake. A large picture window onto our porch let us enjoy the view from bed, too. We spent lots of time just sitting on our porch with binoculars watching boats on the lake and the locals who sailed by in their boats on a small waterway that ran between the floating gardens and the hotel waters.

View from the porch of our over-water bungalow at Ann Heritage Lodge

The floating gardens are relatively new to Inle, started in the 60’s. Local villagers harvested weeds from the lake, pinned them in place with long bamboo poles, then planted crops on them. The crops thrived in the nutrient-rich environment. Tomatoes are particularly popular and delicious on Inle. Eventually, the floating gardens become attached to the bottom of the shallow lake. The downside to the success of the gardens is a serious encroachment into the lake, some 34% of the lake’s area having been lost to these picturesque gardens laced with small canals.

A highlight and absolute must-do was a day touring around the lake and nearby villages by boat. We chose to book a private boat through our hotel and had the same boatman who’d brought us to the hotel. We paid around $30, a lot by local standards, but very reasonable considering the full day, doorstep drop-off and pick-up and personalized service. Group boats are available in Nyaung Schwe for a pittance according to posters we saw there later. Around $6pp, I think. These small outboard motor boats are everywhere on Inle and they are ridiculously loud. David and I wore earbuds and I wanted to sigh with relief as the “cone of silence” descended when I switched on the noise-canceling function on mine. (Thankfully, boat traffic comes to a near complete stop at nightfall, so noise wasn’t an issue when we wanted to sleep.)

We let our boatman choose most of the itinerary, saying only that we were sure we wanted to visit one of the markets that opens on a rotating (and hard-to-decipher) schedule among various lake-side villages, Nga Hpe Kyaung monastery (the “cat jumping monastery”) and Schwe Indein Pagoda. We saw and did so much more.

Boats parked near the market

We started our day at the market which, while interesting and containing a few stalls for locals, turned out to be largely geared towards tourists. Fun to walk through, but we weren’t in the market for souvenirs.

Souvenirs for sale at the market
Locals examining a fisherman’s wares at the market

We did enjoy a quick duck-in to a local temple, viewing the produce. We passed on a silver jewelry “factory.” Other stops included more manufacturing displays including an extensive and rather high-end weaving factory and shop, a small rustic knife-making shop and a boat “factory,” these last two doing nearly everything by hand or with primitive hand-powered machines and tools.

Spinning lotus fiber for weaving. (The woman has thanaka on her face as is so common in Myanmar.)

Tiring of these tourist-geared stops, we passed on an umbrella-making shop only to realize that was the location with longneck women of the Karen tribe. We’d seen them before, but a woman who glanced out the window at our boat startled us both with the seeming length of her neck. (Modern x-rays demonstrate that the long-necked effect is actually the result of the collar bone and shoulders being deformed downward by the metal hoops the women wear around their necks, adding loop after loop over the years to distort their bodies for beauty’s sake.) We visited several large temples, including Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda with legendary Buddha statues so heavily leafed in gold that they seemed to be a cluster of large gold blobs. Lunch was at a small open-air restaurant with toilets that were surprisingly acceptable.

Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda with Buddha statues gilded to the point of being indistinguishable blobs

The pinnacle of the day for us was Schwe Indein Pagoda, but we nearly missed it entirely due to our boatman’s lack of English. Located far up a tributary of the lake, the “pagoda” is a large temple complex, not the Japanese-style tower we usually associate with the word in English. Our boatman docked our boat in a residential area of Indein village, then pointed vaguely ahead and sent us on our way. We came across a small cluster of old stupas eventually, and wondered if that was what all the fuss was about. Thankfully, we ran into a Frenchwoman and her husband who pointed us in the right direction where we found a long covered walkway lined with vendors’ stalls that mounted a low mountain to deposit us among a veritable forest of stupas. A breeze made chimes on the stupas sing as we wandered among them. Magical!

Covered walkway and stalls leading to Schwe Indein Pagoda
Golden stupas of Schwe Indein Pagoda
Musical chimes on the stupas of Schwe Indein Pagoda

We headed back towards Ann Heritage Lodge through a series of rough wooden “locks” resembling long beaver dams. Our boat shot through low openings in these dams, sometimes waiting to let a passing boat proceed before taking our turn. We turned off this main tributary to snake through floating garden canals just wide enough to accommodate our boat before a last stop at Nga Hpe Kyaung monastery, a place formerly boasting a show of jumping cats. We knew those were gone before we started our tour, but were happy to see one of the cats still in residence.

At Nga Hpe Kyaung monastery a/k/a the “jumping cat monastery”

Just past the monastery, the canal opened back into the lake where we came upon more traditional fishermen who we stopped to watch before returning to the lodge. What a great day!

Inle Lake boats are great fun…but loud! (I wore noise-canceling earbuds to dampen the sound.)

Practical info:

We really enjoyed our stay at Ann Heritage Lodge. I researched several over-water bungalow-style resorts on Inle and chose Ann Heritage Lodge for value and location. I was pleased with my choice. We paid $231 for 2 nights which included taxes, fees and breakfast. I booked on Agoda and, as usual, I booked through Topcashback for a cash rebate. (I’ll get credit if you use my link, so thanks to anyone who does.) There are cheaper, non-bungalow rooms available. I read about frequent upgrades, but didn’t want to gamble on that. We ate at the hotel restaurant as there isn’t much other alternative. It’s expensive by Myanmar standards, but cheap by western standards. I can’t find the exact costs now, but for example, a bottle of local wine at dinner was on sale for 16,000 kyat or about $10.43US.

I highly recommend staying in an over-water bungalow on Inle Lake, but do your research. Some over-water bungalow resorts are on tributaries rather than the lake itself and that would be a let-down, in my opinion. The lake is beautiful and unique and, as mentioned above, my worries about nighttime noise were groundless as boat traffic stops at dark. (The boats do start up fairly early in the morning, though.) We broke up our stay near Inle Lake into two nights at Ann Heritage Lodge on the lake and two nights in Nyaung Schwe town. If I had to do it again, I’d go for three nights on the lake and skip staying in Nyaung Schwe although we enjoyed it. I’ll write more about that in my next post.

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