Updated December 2020
The Heho (airport) arrival hall is a bare concrete structure dominated by a baggage scanning unit. It reminds me of the India of the seventies where passenger comfort played second fiddle to paranoia over contraband. The authorities’ definition of it anyway.
Once luggage is identified from the heap in the middle of the room and passed through the all seeing machine, however, you are transported into this otherworldly landscape of rolling green hills interspersed with cheerful mustard and canola fields and punctuated by large clusters of gilded pagodas at regular intervals.
I hadn’t asked to visit Pindaya. It is a considerable detour (nearly two hours) and not a cheap one at that, with the $2/pp entrance to the village, $3/pp to the cave and an additional 500K camera fee. We have time, and the landscape is working its magic, so we opt in.
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I really have no idea what to expect. The cheesy giant spider – the target of a handsome, garishly painted archer prince – or the glass fronted elevator to the top of the monastery at the entrance to the caves, isn’t it!
The sculptures, and the name of the town itself that roughly translates to “I got the spider!’, refer to a legend featuring seven royal princesses trapped in the cave by the monster spider and their eventual rescue by the hero prince.
The panorama of the surrounding countryside is alone worth the elevator ride that exudes a distinctly Chinese vibe. And then you enter Buddha Disneyland!
A dimly lit series of caves, jam-packed with over 8000 gilded Buddhas in every size, shape and style. The earliest dating to 1773. The bling and some psychedelic lights aside, it is a living site, used with utmost reverence.
Nyaungshwe, the crowded gateway to the primary attraction of Shan state – the tranquil Inle Lake – is just over an hour away by road. We make it with enough time before dusk to explore the beautiful Shwe Yan Pyay teak monastery, before hopping on a long-tail boat to our resort villa for the first of three blissful nights on the lake.
Ringed by the greenest mountains peppered with stilt houses, floating vegetable gardens, golden tipped pagodas and over 400 captivating villages, the 45 square km freshwater lake is an enchanting kaleidoscope of life and Buddhist culture.
It was designated Myanmar’s first biosphere reserve this past June, under UNESCO’s Man & The Biosphere programme.
At Indein, on the West bank, is a veritable forest of stunning ruined stupas that exhibit, to some extent, the evolution of Buddhist (stupa) architecture over the centuries.
Khmer apsaras and mythical birds adorn some of the more ornate friezes while the Buddhas inside the niches display distinct Chinese features.
It is believed that the oldest of the stupas, the tallest among the over-restored ones near the main pagoda up on the hill, was built by the great 2nd century Indian emperor, Ashoka. There is no evidence of his ever having set foot in Burma, but what is a bit of historical proof, or its lack thereof, in the face of absolute faith?
Legends are nurtured and fake relics imbued with more sanctity here, than if they were real. And to me, it is that unquestioning faith in a rudderless populace, that is most endearing. And mind boggling too that a religion can take root on the weight of faith alone and vanish just as easily from the place of its origin.
The Hpaung Daw U pagoda is home to five misshapen but highly venerated 12th century Buddha icons whose original forms are indistinguishable beneath centuries of gold leaf anointing*.
The annual 18 day festival procession has four of these icons paraded through the towns around the lake in a replica of the royal barge shaped like the mythical Karaweik bird.
All five used to be taken out until 1965, when the barge capsized and divers gave up the fifth for lost. They found it miraculously back in its place at the pagoda on their return! It hasn’t moved from its place since.
Then there is the ‘Jumping Cat’ monastery – Nga Phe Kyaung – where clever felines, named after Hollywood celebrities no less, were once trained to jump through hoops by bored monks!
A wise abbot put an end to the circus a few years ago, but the stilted wooden monastery with its collection of giant gilded bamboo Buddhas is worth a visit even minus the cat calisthenics.
The many metal and craft workshops around the lake are patently touristy and it is embarrassing to watch the flurry of activity when a boat arrives, peter out to lethargy even before it departs.
The lotus fabric and silk weaving villages are infinitely more interesting. Possibly because they are real workshops and not exclusively put on for tourists. We pass up a visit to the Red Mountain winery for fear it would not measure up to our very recent tour of the Rioja region. I have to admit, the red we tasted (sometime later) was surprisingly good.
We are fortunate to catch the colourful rotating farmers market at Nan Pan next morning. It reminds us of the rural Khmer Psah we stopped at enroute to Beng Malaea in Siem Reap, and spoils us for markets to come later in the trip.
We sit with the locals and slurp hot noodle soup and taste a variety of sweet and savoury snacks, most rice based and sweetened with jaggery (unrefined cane sugar), that takes me back to similar childhood treats in my native Mangalore.
Roasted rice crackers seem to be a particular favourite. We end up one evening in a village that is entirely occupied in the making of crackers, where the hospitality of its residents, the imperceptible nod by the matriarch to the younger women of the household to rustle up refreshments despite our protests, transports me to a gentler time that has long vanished in the modern India I inhabit.
It is the iconic leg rowing Intha fishermen, however, who are the legitimate stars of the lake. The costumed performers with their conical nets, whose synchronised hypnotic ‘dance’ against the setting sun makes me laugh with delight, as well as the real paddlers who fill me with awe at their consummate skill and remarkable sense of balance.
*In what appeared (to me) like a Hindu legacy, the anointing here, as in most other significant shrines across the country, is exclusive to men. Women aren’t even allowed entry into the sanctums.
INLE LAKE TRAVEL GUIDE
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THREE DAY INLE LAKE ITINERARY
Day 01: Your arrival schedule will determine the amount of time you’ll have to explore Nyaungshwe. Allow an hour or so at least for the lovely Shwe Yan Pyay teak monastery before you check into your hotel. Not all lakeside properties can be accessed by road. Some will involve boat rides ranging from 30 min to over an hour.
Day 02: Hire a boat to explore the lake and its temples, markets and craft workshops. The floating villages and gardens are lovely in the late afternoon light. You’ll bump into many Intha fishermen. Those in costume will expect payment in return for posing for photos.
Day 03: Visit Indein and its forest of ruined pagodas. Things to do in the afternoon, if chilling out on a terrace isn’t your thing, include a visit to the Red Mountain Estate winery. We skipped this so I cannot vouch for the quality of their tours. It is possible to get there by bicycle from Nyaungshwe. In fact, bicycling around the lake is one of the recommended activities that gets you up close with the villages on its periphery.
Day 04: Depart.
You can technically cram everything into one full day. But I highly recommend taking it slow and easy if time and budget permit.
BEST TIME TO VISIT INLE LAKE
Summers are hot throughout Myanmar. June to September is the monsoon season in the plains with September being the wettest. November to February is the best time to visit.
Foreigners now need to pay an Inle Lake area fee of 13,000MMK (10US$) payable ideally in local currency or crisp, new US$ bills. Area fees will be collected at the Shwenyaung toll booth. In case you miss it you can pay at the hotel.
GETTING TO INLE LAKE
By flight from Mandalay or Yangon. Closest airport is Heho (Inle Lake) airport (45-minute by road from Nyaungshwe). We flew in from Yangon and flew out to Mandalay. As mentioned above we made a small detour to Pindaya on the way. It was pleasant enough but not unmissable. Taxis are available at the airport in case you don’t need pre-arranged transfers.
By Train: While Naungshwe (via Shwenyaung) is connected to major cities by train the journey takes over 30 hours and so isn’t recommended.
By bus from Yangon (from Aung Mingalar Bus Terminal . Duration: 12 hours) and Mandalay (8 hours): JJExpress operates day and night buses from both cities. The drive from Mandalay especially is supposed to be scenic. The bus stop in Nyuang-Shwe is right next to The Garden restaurant. Make sure you aren’t dropped off at the Shwenyaung junction or at Taunggyi. It might be a task getting a taxi from there.
Private cars arranged through travel agencies will cut down travel time considerably, but the cost might even exceed that of a flight.
GETTING AROUND INLE LAKE
You’ll need to hire a boat either through a travel agent in advance or via your hotel concierge. A guide isn’t necessary if you can find a boatman who can converse in your language of choice. That might be a tough ask though. I go into more detail on general travel around Myanmar in the Country guide linked to above.
WHERE TO STAY IN AND AROUND INLE LAKE
Sanctum Inle Resort (temporarily closed) is my number one choice. We were booked to stay here, but had to cancel due to the devastating flood situation in Chennai. When we were ready to re-book, the local travel outfit we were using offered us good rates in the Novotel that practically shares a wall with the Sanctum. It was a beautiful property but brand new at the time and service and food was below par. And our lake villa had zero lake views!! Feedback from several friends who’ve stayed at the Sanctum Inle Resort since, matches its fantastic reviews.
Inle Princess Resort was one of the first properties to set up shop around the lake and seems to be maintaining its high standards.
Ann Heritage Lodge: Is a mid range property on the western shore of Inle Lake that is worth considering.
If you are on a budget and do not need lake views or resort trappings the Trinity Family Inn – family run guesthouse in Nyaungshwe with on site restaurant and a host of other facilities – might be a good bet. It gets consistently great reviews on all booking sites. Be aware that its central location will mean some amount of noise.
WHERE TO EAT IN INLE LAKE
If staying in lake resorts dinners are usually had in-house. Lunch will depend on which part of the lake you are in. If you get to catch up with the rotating farmers market you’ll have a choice of tasty snacks to feast on, so time your visit right. There are several lovely, albeit touristy, restaurants around the lake to choose from and they all serve decent beer and a mean lassi…thicker than any I’ve had in a Punjabi joint in India!
Nyuaungshwe offers more variety. I even spotted a dosa joint!
Paw Paw is a great choice and offers cooking classes. Also, part of their profits go towards a children’s charity.
Lotus restaurant serves good home cooked fare and is located right behind the Trinity Inn.
- Myanmar’s drone photography laws are unclear. As is the drone-fly map. While many travellers have reported taking drones in their checked baggage without incident, I advise extreme caution. Here are some basic guidelines to follow.
- It can get chilly while on the water early mornings and evenings. You’ll need a light jacket or warm stoles. Boats do carry blankets.
- All standard precautions for visiting a hot destination apply: sunscreen, hat, plenty of water.