Inle Lake is a fantastic place to spend a few days unwinding in nature, especially after exploring the cities of Mandalay and Yangon or the plains of Bagan. Foreigners are allowed to stay in the Inle Lake area for a week and must purchase a ticket for 12,500 kyats (about US$9). Travelers have been enjoying the pristine lake’s many unique sites to see, quaint lifestyle, and delicious Shan noodles for ages. Inle Lake is over 7 km long at it’s widest point and used to b 3x wider before the floating gardens and villages were built on the water. Although it’s the second largest lake in Myanmar its name literally translates to small (le) lake (in). Le also means four and initially, there were only four villages around the body of water so perhaps that’s a more logical translation. The unique and fragile environment of Inle Lake in Myanmar expands to the surrounding countryside in Nyaung Shwe with many spectacular views to uncover. Don’t miss these amazing 15 things to do around Inle Lake.
TAKE IN THE BEAUTY OF INLE LAKE FROM A LONG-TAIL BOAT
For the quintessential Inle Lake experience it’s necessary to hire a boat from a local fisherman to take you on a tour. You can rent the boats from agencies, like from Mr. Atun where I did so that you can work out with an English speaker what you do and don’t want to see as it’s likely your boat driver won’t speak English. Don’t expect a guided tour if you go this route and book an independent boat ride. For a more organized tour book this private Inle Lake full-day tour with an English-speaking guide. No matter where you go on your long-tail boat ride you’re sure to enjoy spectacular views around Inle Lake. Be respectful and don’t leave any waste or disrupt local life. Inle Lake is at-risk of ceasing to exist due to over-tourism and pollution. So much so that UNESCO has designated Inle Lake as a biosphere reserve to try to preserve the ecosystem.
SNAP A PICTURE OF THE ANCIENT METHOD OF CONE NET FISHING
The only thing the famous Inle Lake cone net fisherman catch are tourism dollars in exchange for photos. The fishermen are from the Intha tribe, a name which means sons of the lake They did once stand on one leg as they cast coned nets into the water with the other leg but tourism has made this method impossible as the water is constantly moving due to a never-ending stream of boat traffic. Those beautiful photos you see of traditional fisherman on Inle Lake are meant to recreate this practice which was once used by Intha fisherman.
WATCH ACTUAL FISHERMAN PADDLE WITH THEIR LEGS
Fisherman at Inle Lake do still use leg-rowing to steer their boats as they use both hands to toss nets into the lake for the catch of the day. Once they’ve made a catch they keep the fish alive and in a large net tied underneath their stilt houses in the lake water. They only remove the fish when they’re ready to be sold or eaten.
LEARN HOW TO MAKE SILK FROM LOTUS FLOWERS
Beyond the expansive beautiful nature and rural way of life to witness at Inle Lake, there are also quite a few chances to learn about traditional handicrafts at various over-the-water workshops and cooperatives around the lake that are working to keep this unique cultural heritage alive. These crafts are equally important to the local economy as agriculture and are shipped around the country and the globe. I was amazed to meet weavers that have a vegan method to create silk that I had never heard of before! I visited the Inle Treasure Hand Weaving Factory where I was shown the delicate process of Paw Khone lotus silk weaving.
The Padonma Kyar is a large pink lotus flower that grows wild at Inle Lake and is in full bloom during the rainy season–the ideal time to harvest them to create the luxurious thread. The fiber from within the stem of the lotus to produce this rare fabric entirely by hand and typically use all-natural dyes making this fabric incredibly sustainable, eco-friendly, and cruelty-free. One by one the stems are broken and the fibers are manipulated and rolled to become threads. The fiber is almost transparent and appears wet and delicate but it’s actually incredibly dense and durable–I try but can’t pluck through it with my fingers.
It’s said that lotus flowers were first turned into a decadent textile to create lotus robes for monks known as Padonna Kyathingan. It’s believed that the silky fabric robes have the ability to ease the mind making meditation easier. To make a single robe for a monk requires 100 feet of fabric. To create that much cloth over 220,000 lotus stems is needed for the silk thread. To get the job done relatively quickly, in 10 days, it takes 60 skilled artisans. For a small scarf 4,000 plants would be used which can be hand knit on a loom in a day, but the threads for the scarf could take up to 20 days to prepare. It’s no wonder that lotus silk can be up to 10 x the price of regular silk and is one of the most expensive textiles in the world.
SEE TRADITIONAL SILVERSMITHS AT WORK
When you start to hear rhythmic clacking sounds echoing over Inle Lake you know you must be approaching a silversmith workshop in the Ywama floating village. I visited the Aung Myint Mo Traditional Silversmith workshop and showroom. Yes, it’s a tourist trap. But you can politely decline the tea they offer and not buy anything if you wish. It’s incredible to see the men at work manipulating tiny pieces of metal into beautiful pieces of jewelry. The most popular piece is a delicate fish in which each scales moves as if it was darting through the water. I recently saw one of these Inle Lake silver fish in Georgia O’Keeffe’s home in Santa Fe, New Mexico!
LEARN HOW TO ROLL CHEROOT CIGARS, BUT DON’T SMOKE ONE
I don’t need to tell you that smoking is detrimental to your health so let’s go ahead and assume you know that smoking a cheroot cigar isn’t a great idea. Visiting one of the women’s cooperatives where the sweet-tasting Burmese cigars are rolled is fascinating, but purely because how fast the craftswomen work! I swear they can make a complete cigar in less than 30 seconds. They sit in an assembly line on the floor which each lady has a dedicated job from prepping the leaves, rolling the tobacco, and packaging the final product. It’s astonishing to watch the process of how the cheroot cigars are hand-made. These are the same cigars that are smoked by many of the tattoo-faced women of Mindat.
SHOP FOR LOCAL PRODUCE AND CRAFTS AT THE 5-DAY MARKETS
One of the most fascinating stops along the typical boat tours of Inle Lake is a visit to the daily market along the banks. Around the lake there are 5 villages that rotate market days. On full moon and dark moon days, there are no markets so plan your boat tour accordingly! Luckily the market day when I went out on Inle Lake was at Indein which is also where the incredible Nyaung Ohak Pagodas are located. The traditional name, Inn Thein, means shallow lake which makes sense as it’s impossible to visit the village via boat during the dry season. A beautiful boat ride down the Indien Waterway took me through remote villages where I got short glimpses into the local lifestyle–monks washing their crimson robes in the river, massive water buffalo plowing land, and children gleefully playing along the banks of the water. At the Indien market, local villagers walk around with massive baskets that they carry on their heads or their backs to stock up on fruit, vegetables, meat, spices, and of course cheroot cigars for the week. The Indien villagers wear colorful headwraps that look like hand towels to stay cool in the warm temperatures but also make quite the bold fashion statement. This was the best place to try authentic yellow tofu Shan noodles!
SEE THE IMPACTS OF TIME, WEATHER, AND TOURISM AT THE INDIEN PAGODAS
After exploring the market I walked up the dirt road towards clusters of ancient Nyaung Ohak Pagodas from the 16th century that has been overtaken by plants and trees as they’ve disintegrated over time. It’s also possible to reach the main Shwee Inn Thein Paya structure through a covered walkway but if you go this route you’ll miss out on more obscure temples along the way. I went back down to my boat via the walkway and was overwhelmed as it’s densely lined with vendors trying to hawk their goods on you. This spoils the mystical experience of wandering through the crumbling ruins. Fortunately, many of the delicate ruins are now being restored and preserved so future generations can enjoy the stunning pagodas.
GO ON A BICYCLE TOUR WITH GRASSHOPPER ADVENTURES
I was invited to join the Bike, Boat, and Kayak Grasshopper Adventures Tour around Inle Lake. The full-day tour is an immersive look into the local way of life along the way of a 25 km bike ride. My amazing guide, Sam, took us well off-the-beaten-path, literally, as we perused through dirt roads, narrow mud ridges that cut through picturesque rice terraces, bamboo forests, and traditional villages. I had the next few experiences detailed below while I was on the Grasshopper Adventures tour. Exploring Inle Lake by bicycle is both environmentally responsible and socially sustainable as all tour guides are locals. Grasshopper Adventures offers community-based travel experiences all around Asia. I also had a chance to travel the grasshopper way in Bagan!
STOP AND SMELL THE FLOWERS
As we rode through tiny trails we went through several flower fields where local farmers were tending to the flora crop. As like much of Southeast Asia the majority of the laborers were women who were working to prepare the land before planting flowers and harvesting the crop manually. Around Inle Lake, there are many sunflower fields, Gerber daisy fields, and of course lotus flowers.
KAYAK THROUGH THE FLOATING STILL VILLAGES
As a part of the Grasshopper Adventures tour, we paddled through an Intha stilt water village. The bamboo houses reflect in the mirror like Lake beneath them that ripples gently as we paddle by. Amused locals giggle as we pass, I’m not a great kayaker and went underneath a few stilt homes unintentionally. By being on the water we were able to get a direct look into the day-to-day lives of the Intha people. Fisherman tended to their nets where they keep fish alive until it’s time to sell or eat them. Women sit on their over-water porches laying out peppers to dry, and tiny school children skillfully maneuver wooden long-boats with their legs to take their classmates home, an abstract school bus on water.
ATTEND A BUDDHIST FESTIVAL
Fortunately, during my Grasshopper Adventures tour, we happened to come across an annual celebration at a temple–it was like a Buddhist summer carnival! There was food, live music, dance performances, soccer matches between pagodas, and more. Monks from surrounding villages attend the ceremony to collect alms of rice and bring blessings upon the village. I felt very blessed to be so welcomed at the event where I certainly didn’t belong but none the less my presence was embraced by kind villagers.
LEARN ABOUT STICKY SWEET MOLASSES
In a remote village just a short bike ride away from the touristic Nyaung Shwe area I was invited inside a molasses factory where men work tirelessly to turn sugar cane into molasses which will then be sent to Mandalay to make rum. What a process! There were only three men working here but each had a job, from tending to the fire, stirring the pot of boiling sugar, and flopping out the gooey mixture onto bamboo mats. Out in the fields men had harvested and shucked the sugar cane which can be done just three times a year depending on the success of the growing season. Some of the dried molasses will stay local and be used to sweeten food or consumed as decadent candy bars, it’s so sweet I could hardly swallow a single bite!
SEE AGRICULTURE ON WATER AT THE FLOATING GARDENS
Prior to visiting Inle Lake, I hadn’t known that it was even possible to grow plants on water rather than land. Indeed it is as floating gardens take up ⅓ of the lakes surface space. Farmers tend to their crops from wooden boats as they grow tomatoes, dragon fruit, cucumbers, beans, chilis, pumpkins, and more. The lake is quite shallow and long bamboo poles are used to keep the crop in place. I loved passing the endless floating gardens and had a much greater appreciation for any veggies I ate while I was visiting Inle Lake after seeing the tedious way they’re grown.
ADMIRE BEAUTIFUL FARM-FRESH PRODUCE
Beyond the floating water crops, I was amazed to see tiny wooden boats overflowing with produce. It must have been a good day for harvesting chives when I was on the lake as I saw many farmers taking their bounty of chives to town on their narrow wooden boats. All of the produce is taken to land and distributed around Inle Lake and across Myanmar. There isn’t a floating market here so you’re lucky if you can snap a picture of the picturesque goods passing by.
INDULGE IN DELICIOUS SHAN FOOD
Shan food might be some of the most vegetarian-friendly in all of Myanmar. This isn’t surprising considering how farm-fresh the veggies are here. The most famous dish is, of course, Shan noodles which are gooey and delicious. The noodles are made from lentil or chickpea tofu. I had no idea that tofu could be made from anything other than soybean but any bean will do. The tomato salads in Inle Lake are also fantastic due to the easy access to fresh tomatoes. I ate at mostly street stalls and local shops. I enjoyed fresh juice and coffee daily at We love Inle Eco-Cafe which is operated by local youth volunteers who are committed to conserving local heritage. All profits to support conservation activities around Inle Lake and they have a few eco-friendly fair trade local products available that make for meaningful souvenirs! The best way to learn about the local food customs in the Shan state is to take an immersive cooking lesson at Inle Lake.
Those are 15 of the best experiences to have at Inle Lake. For more on the road less traveled in Inle Lake with Grasshopper Adventures check out my article for the Myanmar Tourism Board. It’s also possible to visit goldsmiths, paper umbrella craftspeople, blacksmiths, teak wood monasteries, and the most significant Buddhist temple in the area, Phuang Daw Oo. No matter what you do while you visit Inle Lake please avoid going to the shops that profit off of Kayin long neck women by exploiting them for tourist photographs. These women are not indigenous to the Shan state and their heritage is being compromised and turned into a tourist attraction which is entirely unethical.
For an unforgettable experience take a hot air balloon ride over Inle Lake during the season from mid-November through March. Another popular excursion is to take a day trip to the fascinating caves in nearby Pindaya. Here there are 8,000 images of Buddha. This trip is best combined with an afternoon at the Red Mountain Winery to taste local wine in a picturesque setting. This day tour takes guests to both Pindaya and Red Mountain Winery for just US$36!
Responsible travelers will love to stay at the luxurious nonprofit accommodation, Inle Heritage Stilt Houses in a traditional wooden bungalow over the lake. All proceeds at the sustainable property are channeled back into the Inle Lake Heritage Foundation to preserve local culture, nature, and provide pro bono hospitality training to people from local ethnic minority groups. For an eco-friendly accommodation options book a room at Villa Inle Resort, A Little Ecolodge, or ViewPoint Ecolodge. Backpackers usually stay at the locally owned Song of Travel and there are many other hostels in Nyaung Shwe. Browse all Inle Lake hotels to find an accommodation within your budget.
Be sure to order travel health insurance from World Nomads before adventuring around Inle Lake. You can fly directly to Inle Lake from many airports, check the best rates on Skyscanner or book a bus on Baolau.
Thank you Grasshoppers Adventures for hosting me. All opinions and photos are my own. This post contains affiliate links. Please read the Miss Filatelista disclosure policy for more information.