Mystical? Dreamlike? Magic.
During the course of calling 20 hotels to try to find one that had availability, I started wondering whether going to Inle was even worth it. Having spent four days here, I can say with utmost assurance that it is. Go to Inle. And go now.
For the most popular of all destinations in Burma, Inle still somehow feels undiscovered and untouristy.
Sure there are touts trying to get you on their boats, but it says something that there are still empty boats to be had. We topped out our budget at Inle at about $70/day, but it was worth every dollar and kyat. Plus, that covered EVERYTHING. In San Francisco, that's how much I threw down for a dinner with wine--for one.
The main reason to go to Inle is to spend a day on the lake. There's no reason to book with your hotel as walking down to the bridge in Nyaung Shwe means you meet plenty of boat drivers--or at least people who tout for them. An all day boat trip should cost around 15,000K, which you can split with up to six people. Rob and I had nobody to share with, so we did a private trip and asked for it to include Indein, which is an ancient site with over 1000 crumbling and/or restored stupas.
The beautiful petite Burmese lady near the Mirror Pagoda quoted me 20,000K for the trip including Indein, then quickly dropped it to 18,000 when I told her it was too expensive. Her name is Ma Than Tahn Aye and her husband is Ko Soe Lin. Their nephew took us around, and though his English was limited, he understood what Rob wanted: photo opportunities. Over the course of one day, we saw the floating gardens of Kela with squash and tomatoes; artisan shops for paper umbrellas, cloth, cigars and silver; long-necked women;
several villages, including one in the process of making a similar boat to the one we were in (1 month, 4 men, $2500US); and a monastery that used to make its cats jump until tourists protested that it was "un-monklike." (The cats will still jump for you if you pet them and then make a circle with your arms in front of their eye level.)
The most incredible part of the trip was just being on the lake itself. Inle is a misty place and the fog doesn't dissipate until late in the afternoon. Throughout the mist and the calm waters all you see are stilted houses on patches of grass, the spray of water coming from the motorboats, and the silhouettes of the local fishermen who use one leg to row, one leg to balance on the very edge of their boat, and both hands to fish. Whether it's the most effective way to fish is questionable, but the strength and balance required to pull it off is impressive, and incredibly picturesque. The highlight of the trip was sunset, during which time the mountains surrounding the lake finally pop out of the mist, outlined in shades of orange and pink.
Aside from a boat trip, you can also do a self-guided bike tour. Half day rentals (after noon) should cost 1000K per bike. Going across the bridge takes you through beautiful scenery and about an hour later you hit a hot springs resort, $8 pp for coed bathing with three pools. After spending some time there, continue on the road until the next town and negotiate for a boat ride across the lake. We paid 6000K, split amongst four people.
Once on the other side, you cycle over a long teak bridge and make a left to head back to Nyaung Shwe. Some people stop at the winery for sunset, but we enjoyed it on the road, amidst farmers, cows, and water buffalo.
More Inle Lake
It took Rob a long long time to narrow down from the 2,000 photos he took around Inle Lake, so be sure to check out our Inle Lake photo tour. Interested in more of the nitty gritty? Check out our tips for backpacking in Inle Lake.
Have any tips for budget travel in Inle Lake? Leave them in the comments!