Inle Lake (also Inlay Lake or Inne Le Lake) in Myanmar’s massive Shan State is not very deep (5m in rainy season, barely 4m in the dry season) but at more than 100 km², it’s the second-largest lake in the country (the largest is Indawgyi Lake in Kachin State in the North). What makes Inle Lake so unique is that it sits on a plateau 800m above sea level. This means that while days here can get just as hot as in Mandalay or Bagan, the nights are refreshing. For the number of (endemic) species in and around Inle Lake, the area is listed in the UNESCO Man and the Biosphere Programme but has not yet been inscribed as UNESCO World Heritage.
Another unique aspect of Inle Lake is how farmers have adapted to life on and around the lake. The “floating island” agriculture – locally known as ‘Yechan’ – practiced by the Inthas people is a form of hydroponic farming and allows the people to produce vast amounts of tomatoes, cucumbers, and other vegetables.
How much does the entrance to Inle Lake cost?
Similar to Bagan, you pay a flat fee for your stay in so-called Inle Lake Zone when you arrive. Since there is only one road leading into Nyaung Shwe, your bus (or private car) will stop and you pay 13,500 Kyat. The ticket is valid for 5 days.
If you stay longer, like I did, talk to your accommodation about getting a new ticket.
However, it is more of an honor system as nobody ever asked for my ticket during my 10-day stay at Inle Lake.
Where should I stay in Inle Lake?
Nyaung Shwe is the largest village close to Inle Lake. The community is located North of Inle and connected via a channel to the lake. Nyaung Shwe has a bus station, a market, shops and restaurants, and a large selection of accommodations.
I stayed at three places: the hostels Gypsy Inn and Song of Travel as well as the Royal Nyaung Shwe Hotel.
- The Gypsy Inn ($8/dorm bed) is located right by the channel to Inle Lake and only a few steps from the main boat station on Strand Street. This means it is very noisy at all times of the day. The property is a lot larger than the name suggests but offers solid and low-price rooms and dorms. A big minus for me (apart from the noise) was the non-existing WiFi in the rooms and the lack of common areas.
- The Royal Nyaung Shwe Hotel was running a special that gave me a giant, modern private with a just as big bathroom and a large breakfast spread for $25/night. So I treated myself. The location – with views of Yadanar Man Aung Pagoda and about 15 minutes walking distance from the market – is convenient but also not very quiet.
- The Song of Travel Hostel ($11/dorm bed) is one of the best hostels I’ve ever stayed in in more than six years of backpacking. The staff is personable and knowledgeable; there is always something going on from activities to free snacks to joint dinners; the dorms are spacious and laid out in a way that even with full occupancy they are quiet; breakfast is a dream; there are plenty of common areas, and it has the best WiFi I had in all of Myanmar. In other words: This place was made by travelers for travelers. If that wasn’t enough raving read my full review about the Song of Travel Hostel here.
If you want to invest a little more money, look at the resorts dotted around the lake, mostly on the eastern sides, with stilted bungalows one the water.
Where do I eat in Nyaung Shwe?
There are countless local and a few international restaurants (with a local flair) in and around Nyaung Shwe. Yone Gyi Street is the main drag with a vast selection from super-cheap to Western-style.
Some of my favorites were:
- Sunflower (next to the Nyaung Shwe permanent market): The best place for Myanmar salads and curries.
- Star Flower Italian Pizza: The pizzaiolo learned her craft from an Italian woman who stayed in Nyaung Shwe for a few years. They also sell Italian pasta variations.
- Red Mountain Estate: They have real French cheese. Do I need to say more?
Nyaung Shwe has a night market on a large square on the corner of Phaung Daw Side Road and Kyaung Taing Ashae Street. But I wasn’t a fan – there’s nothing there you can’t get in the restaurants but prices struck me as higher.
How do I explore Inle Lake?
First of all, tourists are not allowed to rent scooters/motorcycles at Inle Lake – and in contrast to Bagan – there is also no eBike scheme (yet) that would allow for motorized self-guided explorations.
So you can either rent a bike (the Song of Travel, for example, provides bikes for free) or book a guided tour. Cycling along the shores is fairly easy as the land is flat. I did a day trip to the Forest Monastery in the mountains above Maing Thauk and opted to leave my bike halfway up as it became just too steep.
You can also rent a car (with or without driver) to take you around. Tuk-tuks or climatized cars are abundant in downtown Nyaung Shwe. Shared tuk-tuks leave regularly from the market to destinations such as Maing Tauk, Tangyi, and the train station in Shwenyaung.
But of course, the lake is the star of this destination. So you want to get on a boat. You can either book a shared tour via your accommodation (or online), book a private boat, or hop around the lake with the shared public boats.
I very much enjoyed the day trip the Song of Travel organizes leaving for sunrise on the lake and with numerous stops throughout the day. I paid 15,000 Kyat.
However, for as little as 25,000 Kyat you can book a whole boat for yourself leaving from the boat station at Strand Street. But I would recommend that you come with a list of places you would like to stop at as I cannot vouch for the quality of the standard tour.
Hopping with the local shared boat is the cheapest option but also extremely impractical as the standard stops are where people live not where you should visit as a tourist and you’re dependent on another boat dropping by to move on.
How do I get to Inle Lake?
The easiest way to get to Inle Lake (or rather Nyaung Shwe) from all the major tourist destinations in Myanmar – Mandalay, Bagan, Yangon, etc. – is by bus. myanmarbusticket.com is an aggregator site selling tickets by companies like JJ Express, Min Thar, Famour Traveller, etc. Alternatively, buy your tickets for your next destination from your accommodation or – for the lowest prices – head straight to the bus station. Buses range from simple local buses to super-luxury seaters with only three seats per row.
While Inle Lake is not directly connected to Myanmar’s railway network, the train stations in Shwe Nyaung and Taunggyi are only half an hour from Nyaung Shwe (I paid 10,000 Kyat for the one-way journey on a tuk-tuk that easily fits eight). Tickets are extremely cheap but the trains are also extremely slow – I paid $3 for the best seat (Upper Class) on the train from Shwenyaung to Thazi, a 250-km journey that takes about 11 hours. You cannot buy train tickets anywhere else than at the train station. Check on the train travel standard website, Seat61, for current details.
Inle Lake also boasts an airport. The regional He Ho Airport is about 45 minutes by car from central Nyaung Shwe and offers flights from Myanmar destinations such as Mandalay, Yangon, and Bagan (Nyaung-U).
What is there to do in Inle Lake?
Well, first and foremost, there is the lake itself. So you want to get a boat (or join a boat tour) to explore the nature on and around the lake and the floating villages along with the artisans that make a living from crafts as diverse as silversmithing, cigar rolling, weaving, etc. Click here for my review of a boat tour I did via the Song of Travel.
But there are also plenty of things to do around the lake: trekking or visiting villages, monasteries, springs, and vineyards. Click here for a rundown of a half-day bike tour I did solo to the Maing Thauk and the Red Mountain Estate Vineyard.
In Nyaung Shwe, you’ll find small cooking schools to learn how to make Myanmar staples such as Mohinga or tea leaf salad.