Burma’s Bagan to Inle Lake

July, 2014

This 22-kilometre long lake is an incredibly beautiful region in the centre of Burma and is densely inhabited by many different local tribes; it’s very easy to cycle around or take a boat trip down this spectacular lake!

A month in Burma!

The Princess bus from Bagan to Inle (tourist price is 11,000K) leaves at 07:30 and arrives mid-afternoon, but this depends on whether there are any issues along the way.

You can also catch an overnight bus but as the roads are pretty bad and typically, there’s either loud Burmese TV or music blaring, which you can’t turn off, you won’t be sleeping.
You must be ready for pick-up at your hotel from 06:30 am. A small covered pick-up truck arrives for the drive around the endless Bagan hotels until the vehicle is rammed full with other passengers and luggage before continuing onto the out-of-town bus station.

It appeared that our bus was overbooked and 2 Scottish guys had to sit on small stools in the middle of the aisle. Not great, considering they paid the premium tourist price for the tickets and the locals pay a quarter of the ticket but got seats – a very long trip to be sitting in a bus aisle!

Entry Fee on arrival
The entrance fee for the Inle Zone is USD$10 or €10 and valid for one week only. However, if you want to pay in the local currency, the government has it all sewn up so that you actually pay more than the US or Euro cost. The majority (or total) of each entrance fee in Myanmar goes to the government, but of course there’s no corruption.

Sights

Day Cycling and Lake Crossing

All hotels, most restaurants, and booking agencies hire bicycles (2,000K per day). Depending on how energetic you’re feeling and if you want to cross the lake, you can cycle either way of the bicycle route.

Starting from the boat landing bridge in Nuang Shwe, head west on the bitumen road for gorgeous rural vistas and rustic farming methods dating back centuries; like stepping back in time! The cycle to the Hot Spa (US$8 entry) is about 10 kilometres and from there, it’s about 20 minutes to Kuang Dein, which is where you’ll be approached by young and old locals that own a boat, and anxious to take you across the Lake for a price (low season 6,000K). But before Kuang Dein and about 2 kilometres after the Hot Springs there’s a local market worth a stop for photos.

Shan, Burma, Myanmar, Inle Lake, herder

Traditional methods

Shan, Burma, Myanmar, Inle Lake, transport

Hard day’s work over

Shan, Burma, Myanmar, Inle Lake

Hard labour

Shan, Burma, Myanmar, Inle Lake, temple

Nuang Shwe

Apart from crossing this beautiful ink-black expanse of water, which changes colours depending on the time of day and the sky’s condition, this quick boat ride provides glimpses of the floating villages and vegetable gardens at Mine Thauk – a taste of better things to come on the full day boat trip!

Once across the lake, stop and walk the half-kilometre Mine Thauk rickety wooden bridge, which runs through parts of the floating vegetable garden. The leisurely but uncomfortable cycle back north, passes the Red Mountain Winery into town and will take you about 2 hours (not sure of the actual distance). Stop at the winery (open until 18:00hrs) for some wine tasting (4 different wine tastes for 2,000K or why not buy a bottle?).

Shan, Burma, Myanmar, Inle Lake

Lake home among floating tomato garden

Shan, Burma, Myanmar, Inle Lake

Overlooking the Inle Valley from the winery

From the winery it’s about a half-hour cycle back into town but beware, the bitumen road resembles a tarred moon crater, you won’t be cycling the next day due to a sore backside! The scenery in the wet season is stunning providing fluorescent greens contrasting a deep blue but cloudy sky – a photographers delight!

Day Boat Trip

Wow, what a fantastic and excellent day! A day’s boat trip with Inle Lake Boat Trip Services (09 30381520 – Aye speaks English) cost 25,000K.

Try to secure a boat trip from the town’s bridge (or wait until you’re approached – only minutes) the day before as leaving it until the morning will only waste time and create more stress. Aim to leave around 05:00 to 05:30 hrs to avoid the masses of tourists along the way. Tried to make sunrise but apart from the cloud cover, we left a little too late.

Shan, Burma, Myanmar, Inle Lake

Lake roads

Depending on what you negotiate, most boats provide the same itinerary:

  • Glimpse the Lake’s fishermen incredibly balanced on one leg on the bow of their canoe whilst the other leg paddles the oar whilst also steering the canoe, and hands casting or retrieving the net!
  • Next stop is the floating vegetable garden, which defies farming conventions – hydroponics on a mammoth scale.
  • Thaung Tho market (Shan markets) are bustling with locals eager to buy or sell bargains, produce, and pretty much everything; a scattering of cows and ancient-looking carts provide great backdrops. Walk up to the Thaung Tho Pagoda if you feel the urge but I found the markets much more intriguing for people watching, especially the colourful head-dress donned by the Shan women, contrasted by their black attire.
  • Lotus and Silk weaving is educational and fascinating – such a slow process with a small scarf taking 2 days to weave by hand.
  • Cigar making is handmade (as is almost everything in Myanmar) and you’re offered a cigar to smoke, mine was a mix of rose and aniseed – very different to a normal cigar and apart from the glue, the women cigar makers use, everything else is natural!
  • Boat building is in the same stop; witness a 45’ Teak boat built with hand saws, chisels, using a skill dating back hundreds of years. One boat takes 4 men one month to build and the boat sells for USD$2,500; smaller boat sells for USD$800.
  • Next stop, gold and silver making shops, with loads of jewellery to choose from should you wish to indulge.
  • Umbrella making also included wood-turning with a machine, which probably dated back hundreds of years – the technique hasn’t changed much.
  • The 4 neck-ringed Padaung ladies were purely for tourists and disappointing – I expected to see these locals in a more natural and candid setting.
  • The Nga Phe Kyaung (Jumping Cat Monastery) provides a pictorial history of Buddha’s inception, which is informative and the wooden building quite serene.
Shan, Burma, Myanmar, Inle Lake, fisherman

Traditional fisherman

Shan, Burma, Myanmar, Inle Lake, monks

Nga Phe Kyaung (Jumping Cat Monastery)

Shan, Burma, Myanmar, Inle Lake, markets

Vegetable seller

Shan, Burma, Myanmar, Inle Lake, cigar

Cigar makers

Shan, Burma, Myanmar, Inle Lake, markets

Market day

Throughout the day, the boat whizzes past the most amazing scenery of the lake, which is surrounded by high mountains but more fascinating are the floating villages, which includes Pagodas, schools, shops – all the locals living here use the Lake as their lifeline. Bathing, teeth cleaning, dish and clothes washing, and much more!

Shan, Burma, Myanmar, Inle Lake, haridresser

Market hairdresser

Shan, Burma, Myanmar, Inle Lake, markets

Fresh delicious treats!

Shan, Burma, Myanmar, Inle Lake

Home

If you ask your boat driver to see the famous basket fisherman, you will pay 500K directly to the ‘staged’ fisherman situated just outside of the town’s entrance. This guy is purely for tourists and will perform several poses with his basket for you to photograph – everyone has to make a living!

Shan, Burma, Myanmar, Inle Lake, fisherman

Pristine fisherman

Throughout the day, at all these tourists shops you will be pressured into buying something – MasterCard is accepted (commission charged)!

Ultimately, the day is crammed with activities and memorable scenery, which changes constantly throughout the day; make the effort to take one of these trips!

Shan, Burma, Myanmar, Inle Lake, children

School friends

Walking/Trekking
This region offers many walks and treks (day, overnight, or several days). Shop around for the best price as many hotels and booking agencies can organise everything for you…at a price. Walked east from town in search of the Htut Aing Cave but after running into the same Monk house from several different dirt paths and being turned back each time, gave up and walked back into town for a cold drink!

Although it’s the wet season, it’s still very hot and muggy. You’ll break into mountains of sweat just by walking half a kilometre so always carry loads of water, wear sunscreen and a hat.

Also along this path is a small village with a school full of children and very young Monks; they are fun to stop and play with for a while and quite cheeky!

Shan, Burma, Myanmar, Inle Lake, fisherman

Lake visiting

Photographic Gallery

Kyaw Kyaw Win, a Civil Engineer, Documentary Film Director, exhibit’s in his Gallery 19 (No. 19, Shwe Chan Thar St, 09:00-17:00 – free entry) many photographs of the country. Kyaw’s photos provides an insight to areas we as foreigners are not allowed to travel to and see; must re-visit Myanmar when greater access to areas is available.

Accommodation
Hotel Brilliant (Ayetharyar Main Way Road, Kantaw Village)
Warning! A long rave about this hotel as it’s amazing! The best quality hotel so far in four months of travelling in SE Asia (Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Burma) and has restored my faith in Burma’s hotels and service.

Shan, Burma, Myanmar

Shan headdress

The service from all staff is exceptional! We booked 4 nights with Agoda and stayed 6 nights as basically didn’t want to leave or spend extra nights in Yangon. Loved this hotel so much as it felt like coming home every day after an exhausting day in the heat and rain exploring the Lake region.

When we first arrived, it was late in the afternoon, the staff took our heavy back packs to the room. We were given information of the Lake and a map then led to the dining room for fresh fruits, 4 different snacks, and a pot of green tea. Each afternoon at around 16:00, complimentary fresh fruit arrived, which is lovely and refreshing to have on the patio overlooking the well-manicured gardens.

The breakfast is excellent quality (varied each day) with real coffee! Actually, we missed breakfast one morning as had a 5:30am start for the sunrise boat trip. The day before I’d mentioned to the lady at reception that we’d be missing their delicious breakfast. When we returned late in the afternoon, room service came with a delicious bowl of complimentary Shan noodle soup that they’d saved for us from breakfast as well as our afternoon fruit (didn’t need dinner)!

The accommodation provides a large comfortable, spotless room (cleaned daily) and bathroom with everything you need. The Brilliant is about a 20-minute flat walk from town but this is not a problem as you’re provided with free bicycles, which can be used at any time.

We requested a late checkout as our overnight bus to Yangon didn’t leave until later in the evening. After a leisurely check-out at 15:00, we were able to sit in reception, use the wi-fi, watch TV, and staff even served us afternoon fruits! Exceptional value for money (low season) and would definitely recommend this hotel to everyone, no hesitation – the experience is wonderful.

Food
Tried several places during the 6-night stay and must say that these restaurants are worth revisiting:

  • The French Touch (from the boat bridge, walk a couple of blocks on main road, you’ll see an orange sign on your right) for its freshly baked bread with Caraway seeds; best bread in Myanmar! Croissants are also excellent. The ambience here is relaxing and meals are offered at a slightly higher price than usual but the quality is very good. The French owner is a photographer/film maker and the restaurant’s walls are covered in gorgeous photos of the country – there’s also a free documentary film showing each night around 19:00.
  • The Live Dim Sum House (No 43, Yone Gyi Rd) is exceptional for local meals (1,500+K) and of course their freshly in-house made Dim Sums (1,000+K); oh, and a Mandalay Rum shot is only 300K! Quality, service, and reasonable prices made this a regular haunt.

Inle to Yangon

Flight back to Bangkok was from Yangon so had the Hotel Brilliant organise the overnight JJ Express Bus (20,000K) to Yangon. The bus leaves at 18:45 and takes about 11 hours. Be prepared, although the bus is very good, the roads are pretty bad, the locals don’t travel well so there’s a lot of throwing up and clearing lung noises, and the driver seems to have a problem with removing his hand from the buses horn or accelerator; it’s relentless!

The bus travelled for a few hours then stopped for dinner, which you have to purchase, before continuing the journey but stopping numerous times to pick up passengers from non-designated stops – doubt you will sleep on this bus!

Flying from Bangkok to Burma, then travelling for almost 28 days in Burma, thought I’d write a short reflections’ blog on Burma, as the experience really resonated with me and not too dissimilar to when I backpacked through India in 1985.

Visit my Nilla’s Photography Burma Gallery for more images. More posts on Burma.

Shan, Burma, Myanmar, Inle Lake

Transport

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