There is no better way to experience Inle Lake and the communities that have built their lives on the lake than by boat. While you can book a private Inle Lake boat for as little as 25,000 Kyat, I opted for a group tour organized by my hostel in Nyaungshwe, the Song of Travel (spoiler alert: I loved that hostel!). They run a daily boat for at least three people, usually fellow guests, on a sunrise and a sunset tour. The sunrise tour costs 15,000 Kyat per person (about $15) and includes everything listed below. Your only extra expenses are for souvenirs, tips (I tipped the boat driver/guide 1,000 Kyat), and a beer or coffee in Maing Thauk (all of which is, of course, optional).
Note: To find out more about Inle Lake in general – how to get there, where to stay, what to do, please refer to my full Inle Lake guide.
Our journey starts at 5:15 am in the lobby of the Song of Travel. A tuk-tuk takes the four of us to the jetty, which is a few streets away from the main boat station.
We are welcomed by our driver/guide for the day. Admittedly, his English isn’t very good and he doesn’t say much but he will chaperon us successfully and in a calm, courteous manner through the day.
The boat is set up with four seats, one behind the other so that all of us have good visibility. I choose the front seat and put on the provided life vest; not so much for fear of drowning but because it is rather chilly and I didn’t bring a sweater.
As we race along the channel from Nyaung Shwe to Inle Lake, we pass boats loaded with heaps of tomatoes and other goods and people huddled together on their way to prayer, work, or school.
Where the Nyaung Shwe channel meets the lake, a few small boats are getting into position. As we are told, these are fishermen that no longer fish but demonstrate the traditional techniques for the tourist’s snapshots. We don’t stop as we are not interested in staged photography, but if you are, make sure you tip the guys – your photos are how they make their living.
Somewhere in the middle of the lake, the driver turns off the engine and starts handing out breakfast: a small bamboo basket with an egg, two samosas, a banana, and rice wrapped in banana leaf, along with a tin cup of steaming hot milk tea from his thermos. We stay quiet for a while, enjoying our breakfast, watching the clouds caught in the mountains to the left and right of us. The sunrise itself isn’t spectacular, the sun is already way beyond its colorful red-and-orange state by the time it has scaled the mountains, but the rays of light around the clouds make up for it.
Half an hour later, we move on to the silversmith. Here, a young woman explains to us how they turn silver from the mountains into beautiful jewelry and decorative items. We watch artisans at work forming every tiny element for a link chain by hand and making small baskets from strands of silver before we move on into the shop. While the two other women in our group look at rings and ear hangers, I admire the buddhas and puppets in the exhibition. The staff is quickly on hand if anyone has a question there is no pressure to buy. And that’s something I’ll notice at all the other businesses we’ll visit today as well: nobody is pushy or desperately trying to make a dollar; everyone exudes the same zen-like calmness as the clouds in the mountains.
Usually, the next stop would have been one of the five markets that move around the lake. But since there is an annual religious festival going on we instead watch barges – larger versions of the typical Inle Lake boats – go by with men and women in coordinated attire singing and dancing. As I will find out later, the festival sees a prominent Buddha image transported to all the communities around the lake, an occasion no devotee wants to miss.
Our next stop takes us to a group of colorful stilted houses. Inside the one that we stop at, women are making Myanmar cigars. One of them explains that this was a family home and the two ladies left and right of her were her aunt and grandmother. They would get the ingredients for the cigars from North of the lake – a special leaf for the exterior (I forgot the name but it’s not tobacco) and a mix of tobacco and herbs for the inside. There are two kinds of cigars: sweet (for the ladies and tourists) and non-sweet. A note pinned to a beam informs me that tobacco, tamarind, banana, pineapple, brown sugar, alcohol, and salt are in both mixes, but the sweet mix also contains honey, star anise, and fennel.
The next stop is a weaver and clothes shop. They offer all the staples of traditional and tourist Myanmar wear – longyi, shirts, blouses, shawls,… – but more importantly, they also weave their own fabrics here. We are introduced to a fiber I have never heard about: lotus. A woman is taking the 2 or 3 m long stems of the lotus collected from the lake and breaks off roughly 3-inch-long pieces. Fine threads hold the pieces together, she rolls those threads on a table to form a thread of about half a millimeter thickness. Using this technique over and over again, it takes hours to produce enough thread for a shawl or a blanket. The quality of the finished pure-lotus product reminds me of thick linen, but there are also finer cotton-lotus and silk-lotus mixes.
From the weaving mill, we head to beyond the southern end of the lake to Taung Tho Kyaung. The pagodas sit a few hundred meters above the shore. The typical covered walkway begins at a market that is deserted today.
We take half an hour to climb up, greet two old couples sitting in the top pagoda, admire the golden Buddha image, the stupas dotted about the main pagoda, and the lake view, before getting back onto our boat.
It’s quarter to 12, time for lunch.
We stop at a two-storeyed stilted house, not a restaurant but a typical family residence. The rooms are large and mostly bare apart from some mats, low tables, and a sewing machine in one corner. Our hostess hands us small cups of tea and a plate of tea leaf salad, a typical Myanmar dish served with crispy soybeans and varying amounts of chili. This one is, fortunately for me, rather mild. When another woman who has been scurrying around us gives the signal, our hostess leads us into an adjoining room where a low table is loaded with food: salads, fried fish, meat, rice. There is no way the four of us will finish all of this.
But we try anyway.
A few mandarin oranges for dessert and our hostess whips out the thanaka board. Thanaka is the traditional Myanmar sunscreen and beauty secret. A yellow-white paste is created by rubbing a piece of thanaka wood on a board wetted with water. The paste is applied with a brush, a sponge or fingers. We all take turns as our hostess lovingly applies the thanaka to our faces, even the men’s.
After lunch and entertainment, we are pointed to a corner of the room with mattresses and pillows for nap time. Inle Lake boat tours can be exhausting… While my travel companions chat quietly about their Myanmar adventures, I lie down and close my eyes for half an hour.
Freshly rested, we are led to canoes. Each canoe takes two tourists, a woman, and a boy. All of us have paddles. The boys – maybe six years old – are trying to impress us, their moms, and each other and start a race. I try to keep up and paddle as well but after a few minutes, my arms are tired. I don’t think I could live on Inle Lake having to row everywhere.
Back on our motorized boat, we run into a few of the procession boats from this morning presumably returning from the other side of the lake.
Our next stop is the forge of a blacksmith. The workshop is empty when we arrive but our guide finds the blacksmith who, a cigarette in one corner of his mouth, cooly sits down on a little throne by the fire, switches on a ventilator to get the fire going, and then call his assistants. The two teenage boys proceed to take turns banging with heavy hammers on what looks like the early stages of a knife, which the blacksmith holds and moves ever so slightly along the point the hammers hit.
After two minutes, the spectacle stops. The knife goes back into the coals, the boys disappear, and the blacksmith serenely smokes his cigarette.
When the knife is hot enough, the spectacle starts again.
I use the break to admire the sabers and knives on display in the shop.
Our last stop for the day is the Maing Thauk teak bridge. It’s not a U Bein Bridge but it’s an engineering feat nevertheless. The way to Maing Thauk is lined with seemingly endless rows of tomato plants set neatly onto the water. At first glance, it looks like the fields were floating. But I learn that in the dry season, the farmers create planting mounts and the water rises around these mounts, perfectly watering the vegetables.
Rather than setting foot on land and exploring Maing Thauk village – I will do that a few days later by bike -, we opt for a beer at one of the restaurant/bars along the bridge.
At 3:30, the boat docks back in Nyaung Shwe and the tuk-tuk drops us at the Song of Travel Hostel before four – just in time for the afternoon snack.
Check in with the Song of Travel hostel (or the Nyaungshwe/Inle Lake accommodation of your choice) or check out the tours offered on Get Your Guide (the widget only shows six but there are many more):