Before coming to Myanmar, Inle Lake was barely on my radar. Because I was so obsessed with seeing the temples in Bagan, I had glossed over the country’s other big tourist draw while choosing my itinerary. “Go to Inle Lake! It’s incredible!” I heard it plenty of times from other travelers, but despite adding it to my travel plans, I wasn’t all that pumped to see it. I’ve seen plenty of nice lakes, even fallen in love with some (I mean you, my darling Lago Atitlán), so I wasn’t expecting to be wow’d.
But the more I’ve traveled, the more I’ve come to realize that low expectations can lead to some spectacular surprises. In the week after my amazing balloon ride in Bagan, I’d been bored by several sub-par Myanmar “destinations” – Mandalay, Mingun, and Kalaw – so when I rolled into Nyuang-Shwe, the main hub on Inle Lake, I wasn’t feeling all that hopeful.
But as it turns out, Inle Lake is so much more than just a beautiful lake. In the four days that followed, I explored all that this unique body of water has to offer and discovered it has much more wow-factor than I ever imagined. Check out these six reasons Inle Lake is so. effing. special.
1. Entire villages built on the lake
Over 70,000 people live on or next to Inle Lake in four major cities and hundreds of villages, many of which are built entirely on stilts, miles from the lakeshore. On our first boat trip from Nyuang-Shwe, we visited dozens of these towns, both large and small, and it was fascinating to see entire communities built to survive hovering over the water.
2. Acres of floating gardens
How do these communities living on the lake support themselves? By creating row after row of floating gardens rooted to the lake’s bottom by long poles. It’s so weird to see tomatoes growing in the middle of the lake! The vast network of gardens give the nearby water a gorgeous clear, glassy quality, and silently floating through them was so peaceful.
3. F&#king talented fishermen
The traditional fishermen on Inle Lake are like effing acrobats. They balance on one foot on the front of the boat. They hold their nets in their hands while the paddle is gripped and rowed by their other foot. It’s so strangely graceful to watch! Their balance is impeccable. I wouldn’t last half a second standing on one of their narrow boats.
4. Traditional cottage industries galore
As part of most boat trips on the lake, we went to several workshops where traditional cottage industries are still thriving. We visited a silversmith, blacksmith, cheroot rollers (like small cigars), and silk and lotus weavers, to name a few. They all gave demonstrations of their crafts, and then (of course) we were given the opportunity to buy things. It was pretty cool to see the refining process of silver and how to breakdown lotus leaves to weave thread.
5. Temples, monasteries, and golden blobs
As with the rest of the country, Inle Lake had no shortage of beautiful Buddhist buildings to visit. We stopped at Jumping Cat Monastery and Hpaung Daw U Pagoda, where there are five statues of the buddha that devotees have been honoring with pieces of gold leaf for centuries. So much gold leaf has been added that they the icons are now just big golden blobs!
6. Unbeatable peace and serenity
Floating across the lake, through the small villages and floating gardens, I couldn’t help but marvel at how peaceful and serene the atmosphere was. So many parts of Southeast Asia, particularly the cities, are overwhelming with their aggressive sights, smells, noise, touts, and chaos. It was refreshing to be somewhere where silence ruled and traditional ways of life seemed to still be intact, at least partially.
To me, that’s what stood out most about Inle Lake: a calm stillness that reached down into my core.
The one downside?
Inle Lake, like the rest of Myanmar, is clearly changing rapidly. Already in the bigger towns, tourism is taking hold, in both good and bad ways. New touts and scams are emerging, giant corporate billboards are popping up in traditional villages, fake “handicrafts” abound and it seems like the Burmese people are still trying to figure out how to deal with it all.
An example from Inle Lake: as our boat left Nyuang Shwe to explore the lake, we were immediately greeted by some “fishermen” who were conveniently there to show us their traditional fishing moves. During the demonstration, they pretended to spear fish in their nets and then came up with a fish that had clearly been dead for some time. Then they struck poses on the edge of their boats for our cameras and our guide tipped them. As we left, I saw them settle back in their boats for the next group of tourists to arrive.
Now, I don’t doubt they were once fishermen, but it seemed like now they were parading their traditional skills simply for the sake of tourists. Not exactly authentic, is it? But I also don’t blame them. They don’t make a lot of money and if posing for photos makes more money for their families and buys more fish than they can catch in a day, why not do it?
And in some of the handicraft workshops, we felt a really uncomfortable (even desperate) pressure to buy something, even when our guide promised we wouldn’t. While I understand it’s important to support the local economies, if I don’t want to buy any silver, I don’t want to buy any silver. Period. It’s a weird thing, tourism. A lot of it left me feeling a bit weird.
But despite the downsides, I would still highly recommend Inle Lake as a spot to add to your travel bucket list. It’s an absolutely gorgeous and unique destination with more cultural and natural beauty than you can imagine.
Have you been to Inle Lake in Myanmar? Would you go?