Everyone visiting Inle Lake in Myanmar’s hilly north-east has an image in their mind of an Intha fisherman rowing with one leg at the stern of a flat-bottomed canoe, past a backdrop of mist-shrouded mountains. Fortunately, most leave having seen their dream.
With its stilted villages built over the water, ancient stupa complexes and a backdrop of green hills, Inle is the top attraction of Shan State and it has become one of Myanmar’s most visited tourist areas. But the region holds plenty of other compelling destinations, many of them in areas newly opened to tourists.
Shan is Myanmar’s largest state, and its administrative capital is Taunggyi. The state stretches for 350 km east to Laos; nearly as far north to the Burma Road and the Chinese border; and a lesser distance south to the tribal states of the Kayah and Kayin (Karen).
There are flights from Yangon, Mandalay, Bagan, and a few other small ports to little Heho airport which at times seems overwhelmed by the volume of travelers. The tarmac is small, but the runway was recently expanded to accommodate jet aircraft. It seems that the seven internal airlines currently flying to Heho like to schedule flights at similar times so it is like a feast or famine.
We had organized a van to pick us up and driving towards the town of Nyaung Shwe we passed through some spectacular mountain scenery before arriving an hour later in the town. It’s a tougher undertaking reaching this area by bus along mountain roads via the junction town of Shwe nyaung, or highland capital of Taunggyi but it can be done.
This is the largest town near the lake but many visitors prefer to stay at one of the small hotels, guest houses or resorts around the lake. The town serves as a marina for the numerous long boats carrying tourists into the lake. The lake itself is located a few kilometers south through a river channel. Even if you are not staying here, don’t overlook the town. Some of the attractions are:
The Nyaung Shwe Cultural Museum in Museum Road is a brick and teak building, which is a reconstruction of the Royal Palace previously destroyed by fire. There is a display of Shan furniture and royal costumes but the palace itself retains little of its former glory. The last Sao Pha was the first president of the Union of Burma but he was arrested during the 1962 military coup and died in prison.
Yadana Man Aung Pava with its stepped gilded stupa is the oldest and most important Buddhist shrine, and a museum contains various carvings, dance costumes and other objects collected by the monks.
A little way outside the town is the teakwood Shwe Yawnghwe Monastery. The monastery has an ordination hall with unique oval windows and this has become a tourist attraction because of the opportunity’ to photograph young monks standing behind these. (See the cover of this book).
The busy Mingalar Market is in the northern part of the town and this sells a range of goods, mainly in the morning.
You can rent a bike and ride to the Red Mountain Estate Vineyards and Winery (http://wvvw.redmountain-estate.com/) which is assisted by a French winemaker. The estate’s reds and whites are stocked in several of Myanmar’s top restaurants and wine tasting on site in the late afternoon is popular. Hot springs are also within easy cycling range.
In fact, you can rent a bicycle for about 2000 kyats for the day and see many of the sights around the lake. A good plan is to peddle west from town along an unpaved road through farmland then take a left at the T-junction and head south, following the mountains. After about six kilometers you will reach hot springs, where the water is piped into a series of swimming pools where you can stop for a soak.
Continue pedaling south for a further few kilometers until you reach Kaung Daing, an Intha village producing Shan state’s famous tofu which is made with split yellow lentil flour. You can enjoy a tofu thoke (tofu salad) for a few hundred kyat and finish with one of the local sweet chewy candies.
After lunch, rent a boat for about 7000 kyat to ferry you and your bike across the lake to Maing Thauk, a quaint traditional village that begins on dry land and spills into the water. On the east side of the lake, you can continue cycling north through sugar cane plantations and small villages to the winery.
The town has several good massage places with Lavender – Spa & Beauty Center (No.91, Phaung Daw Pyan Street) and Amaradavi Day Spa (Yone Gyi Street) considered two of the better ones but there are several others which we haven’t tried.
There are also a couple of cooking schools. Bamboo Delight Cooking School (6/261 Aung Chan Thar Quarter) is in the town while Mr. Min Cooking Class is in a village by the lake. Both start with a market visit where you buy the food to cook then you are instructed on various recipes and techniques for cooking local food.
Ballooning has arrived at Inle Lake (http://www.orientalballooning.com/flights-over-inle-lake-nyaung-shwe/). In 2015 only one company with one balloon was operating but this is likely to grow in the future. One of the highlights is taking in a view of the lake as the remnants of morning mist slowly drift over.
The Aung Puppet Show is a fascinating eye- opener to a rapidly dying tradition of Burmese marionettes, a form of string puppetry. It is relatively expensive at 5000 kyat each for a 30- minute show of about 12 traditional dances.
Gallery 19 at No. 19, Shwe Chanthar Street, is popular with photographers and others who enjoy looking at all the big prints that are on display in the gallery. There are lots of beautiful shots of landscapes and views of the lake and surrounding area including fishermen, birds, waterfalls, temples, local monks and villagers in traditional dress.
If you are staying in town a day trip on the lake is essential. Boats costs around 15-20,000 kyat depending on the season and this can be divided between the passengers; the long, narrow boats fit around five tourists in wooden chairs. Many trips start at dawn when mist covers the lake and it is at its most photogenic.
You will observe and photograph the Inle fishermen, visit the rotating five-day market, and stop at several villages with cottage industries, including lotus silk weaving, silver smiths, cherootmaking, and boat-building. In reality, however, these are all just fronts for the shops attached to them. After awhile you realize this is just a tour through a spread out shopping mall.
The Htat Eian Caves are nice to explore but you need to bring a torch. There are Buddha statues inside of course and people praying, meditating and sleeping. There is also a monastery nearby where you can chat with the monks. You can bike here over a hill from Nyaung Shwe
Around the Lake
To reach most of the lakeside accommodation you need to transfer to a long-tail boat in Nyaung Shwe for a ride first down a wide canal, and then across Inle Lake itself. We were pleased to find that boats for tourists had padded seats, umbrellas and lifejackets.
Along the way, you may encounter one of the leg rowers – men standing in the stern of their boats with one leg wrapped around a single oar moving it steadily back and forth in an easy rhythmic practiced motion. If you don’t see one here you will undoubtedly see some later.
The people of Inle Lake are predominantly Intha. They are mainly self-sufficient farmers, devout Buddhists and they live simple lives in houses of wood and woven bamboo. Villages are in the lake itself, on the shores of the lake, and by the many canals that run out from the lake.
Around 100,000 Intha live in the towns and scattered villages clustered on the shores of the lake. They appear to be happy with all the visitors roaming around, no doubt partly because of the extra income it brings to the area. The lake itself is a nice body of water approximately 20km long and 5km wide. In June 2015, it became Myanmar’s first designated place in the World Network of Biosphere Reserves.
For the next few days, we criss-crossed the lake in our high-powered boat visiting villages and other attractions as we saw fit. One of the most interesting things is the floating gardens or kyunpaw. These are created by collecting weeds from the surface and lashing them together to form meter-thick floating strips.
These are then anchored to the bed of the lake with bamboo poles, and heaped with mud scooped from the bottom. This means that they can be used regardless of fluctuating water levels. Crops – including cauliflower, tomatoes, cucumbers, cabbage, peas, beans and aubergine – are grown year-round.
We’d seen some of the small wooden boats so piled up with weeds from the lake that they were sitting barely above the water and we’d seen groups of people in their boats working together to collect these weeds and now we knew why.
We visited the Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda in Ywama Village which has been constructed in the traditional and elaborate Myanmar style of architecture even though it is over the water. At the center of the monastery building is a golden stupa topped with an ornamental umbrella-shape. The interior walls of the temple are decorated with murals depicting Buddhist stories.
In the central shrine in the main hall, there are five small lumpy gold objects that were once recognized as Buddhas. Devotees have been placing so much gold leaf on them for so long, that the original forms are no longer recognizable.
Old photographs hanging on the monastery walls show some of the images in a more pristine form. They are in a splendid setting complete with whirling lights and beautiful altar offerings. It is believed that these images were brought to Inle Lake by the Bagan King Alaungsithu, in the 12th century.
Annually, during the September to October period, an 18-day pagoda festival is held, during which four of the Buddha images are placed on a replica of a royal barge and taken to the various villages around the lake. The elaborately decorated barge is towed by many boats with leg-rowers in colorful costumes, and there are other accompanying boats, making an impressive procession.
If you plan to visit, remember you are not allowed to enter the pagoda in tank tops, short skirts or short trousers. Surrounding the Pagoda, and in the basement are shops selling traditional Shan and Burmese merchandise.
Near the pagoda is the boat shelter where the Karaweik boat is stored that carries four out of the five images in a procession across the lake during the festival. The monastery opens daily from 8 a.m. until 6 p.m. Admission is free.
Close to the pagoda, we saw our first one-leg rowers. The smooth lake, the blue sky, the small wooden boats with their huge basket nets, the rowers standing tall, leg and oar moving as one, made for a thrilling encounter.
Theories as to why this method of rowing evolved range from it providing both hands free for handling the fishing nets, to needing to stand to be able to see the reeds and weeds in the water ahead. Whatever the reason, we were thrilled by the sight and lingered for longer than we planned.
Understand that some one-leg rowers pose for photographs and ask for money as fishing is no longer their occupation.
Most of the fishers are men but quite a few women are also employed elsewhere. We saw this when we visited a hand-made cheroot factory. There were about a dozen women sitting cross- legged on the floor, their tray of supplies in front of them and their hands moving with the grace and precision that comes from years of practice.
Each seemed to roll a perfect cheroot every time and then they tied them into bundles. They are commonly smoked by both men and women and we saw this at the markets.
The markets in the Inle Lake area move each day from one of five locations to the next, ranging from Nyaung Shwe at the north end of the lake to Nam Pan towards the south end. One morning we left our hotel early so that we could enjoy cutting through the morning mist that hovers over the lake on the way to the market. Even so there were already dozens of boats at the market when we arrived.
The market was huge. Farmers come from all around to sell their produce, traders come to buy in bulk, and families come to do their regular household shopping. It was colorful and there was a strong sense of community but it rapidly started to get crowded – mainly with tourists.
One of the interesting aspects of the market is seeing women of the Pa-0 ethnic group, the second most numerous tribe in the region. These women wear dark plain colored lungyis with long sleeveless shirts and cropped long-sleeved black jackets. They also wear distinctive brightly colored turbans, often in a red check weave. They are mostly farmers who come down from their villages on market days to sell their produce.
On the way back from the market we stopped at the Nga Hpe Chaung monastery. It was built in the 1850‘s on teak columns in the middle of the lake. It is a handsome building housing many beautiful Buddhist artifacts, and quite a few monks.
Awhile back the head abbot and some of the monks trained several cats to jump through hoops, so it became known as the ‘jumping cat’ monastery to foreign backpackers. The trained cats are no more so you will just have to put up with the idyllic setting, its collection of old Buddhas from around Myanmar, and its peace and tranquility.
On another occasion, we visited In Dein. A narrow canal wound its way from the lake, initially through reed beds but later through dense jungle until finally the village emerged around a bend. It was a perfect rural scene with water buffaloes wallowing while women from the local village washed clothes nearby.
We alighted at a small jetty and were immediately besieged by the locals who peddle their bamboo hats, “Welcome to Inle” T-shirts and Shan- style bags from little stalls. The highlight in town is a breathtaking complex of 1,094 16th century stupas, the main In Dein pagoda and the surrounding ruins which cover the dome of a hill.
You reach here up a long roof-covered passage where there are hundreds of vendors. The top provides a sweeping view of the lake and surrounding farmlands.
While a few of the stupas have been renovated, I found the old, overgrown ruins featuring detailed stone carvings to be more interesting. There is an undiscovered, mysterious quality about this place despite it being well and truly on the tourist circuit. The history of Shwe In Dein Pagoda is still mysterious as experts say there are no records of its construction.
As we entered the small village of Paw Khon, the rhythmic clacking sounds of handlooms resonated from the bamboo and wooden workshops and homes perched on stilts above the water. In this serene enclave, a community produces one of the rarest fabrics in the world.
Lotus weaving was conceived nearly a century ago. Over time, lotus weaving caught on around Inle Lake, and the creation and offering of lotus robes to eminent Buddhist monks and pagoda statues became an act of Buddhist devotion and merit-making.
Today it has become an industry and we are fascinated when we visit one of the many small factories. Once a stem is picked, its fibers are extracted while still fresh. On a small wooden table, a handful of about five stems are simultaneously cut, and their spongy fibers are pulled out, twisted and hand rolled together with water. Then, the fibers are spun, washed and woven.
Raw lotus threads are a neutral creamy color, and natural dyes are often used to color the fabric. The whole process is extremely labor intensive, making lotus cloth one of the most expensive textiles in the world. Lotus and silk blend scarves, silk ikat fabrics in various colors and patterns, and traditional Shan clothing, including longyis and fisherman pants are all available.
In the back of the store, we found an unexpected sight – members of a local tribe who seek to stretch their necks with golden hoops. There were three women of different ages sitting at basic weaving machines. The elderly lady did indeed have a very long neck, but her purpose in life mainly seemed to be as a curiosity for tourists.
The other two had less rings but it was clear that they too were being groomed and stretched. While it is true that this has been a tradition for a long time with this ethnic group, I have problems with the women becoming tourist attractions even though it may be a good way to earn some money. No doubt there will be those who disagree.
There is little wrong with Inle Lake in the early morning. As the sky brightens, the mist is pealed back to reveal a lake already busy with activity. This is a place to be at peace with nature yet there are plenty of things to do. If you let it, time floats by gently in this region and it is easy to forget what mobile phones and alarm clocks look like.
Inle Lake is magical at the moment but there are more and more tourists visiting here and already some places are feeling a little crowded at times. We looked to the hills and saw the devastation that is occurring in what is called a new ‘tourist zone’ where it is envisaged that many new hotels will be established. When that happens, most of the magic of the rest of the lake will be gone. A visit in the next few years is highly recommended.
Inle Lake is suffering from the environmental effects of increased population and rapid growth in both agriculture and tourism. Timber removal and unsustainable cultivation practices on the hills surrounding the lake are causing ever-increasing amounts of silt and nutrients to run off into the rivers that feed the lake.
Sanitation in the villages around the lake is an ongoing concern due to untreated sewage and waste water flowing into the lake. Some studies of the lake’s surface water quality indicate that the water is not safe for consumption.
Other places to visit in the area
The administrative center and main market hub for the Inle Lake region is Taunggyi, seat of the Shan Council of Chiefs during the British colonial period. The town was founded by Sir James George Scott, a most respected colonial officer.
The Myoma market is visited in large numbers by the region’s hill tribes who flock here to buy and sell home-grown fruit and vegetables and to stock up on household essentials imported from China. In the city center, close to a monument to Bogyoke Aung San, stands the Taunggyi Museum (also known as Shan State Museum). It is small, but worth a look if you’re interested in the region’s hill tribes, with displays of 30 or so costumes from Shan minorities.
The main downtown pagoda is the Mya Le Dhamma Yon and there are several churches, some mosques and the huge Gurdwara Sikh temple to visit. On the outskirts of town is the white Sulamuni Paya which has a gilded corncob stupa that pays tribute to the Ananda temple in Bagan, and there is the ridge-top Shwe Phone Pwint pagoda with excellent views over the town and the distant lake.
The Mya Sein Taung Pagoda is built on a hill to the north-east of Taunggyi. The stupa has a height of around nine meters and the bronze Buddha statue inside is three meters tall. A beautiful northern view of Taunggyi can be seen from here.
Montawa Cave is situated three kilometers west of Taunggyi and it is accessible by car. It is a long deep cave with a narrow entrance and there are about 1000 Buddha images inside. The Aye Tharyar Golf Club with its 18-hole course of 7380 yards is situated near Taunggyi.
Further afield is Kakku Pagodas where there are over 2,400 stupas with origins dating back many centuries. Kakku is about 53km from Taunggyi. On the way, you can visit Htam Pagoda, located at Hti Han village, where there are about 200 pagodas which date to the 17th century.
Perched on the western rim of the Shan Plateau, Kalaw, 70 km west of Taunggyi, was once a favorite hill-station retreat for British officials and their families during the hot season. It has a beautiful setting amid bamboo groves, orange orchards and pine woods and retains a faded colonial atmosphere.
There is also a noticeably mix of people descended from the Sikhs, Tamils, Nepalese and Indian Muslims who were drafted in as a labor force in the late 19th century.
The British left behind some attractive gardens and Victorian buildings, but most visitors come here to trek in the surroundings hills which have peaceful villages of various ethnic tribes. The most popular trek is the two to four-day trek to Inle Lake.
Kalaw has a glittering gold and silver stupa in the center of town and many restored stupa at the Hsu Taung Pye Pagoda south of the market. The town hosts one of the region’s most vibrant markets, for which minority people descend en masse from the hills dressed in traditional costume.
A little outside town is the Shwe U Min Pagoda, a natural cave with hundreds of golden Buddha statues, but this is not to be confused with the much more impressive one near Pindaya.
Pindaya, a three to four-hour drive northwest of Inle Lake, is a quiet town perched on the bank of the placid Pone Ta Lote Lake which is famous for the extraordinary Shwe U Min Cave Temple, a huge, complex of limestone grottoes crammed with around 9,000 Buddha images. The figures come mainly from between the 16th and 18th centuries but are still arriving, and are made of gold, silver, marble, lacquer, teak and ivory.
The caves honeycomb a steep hillside above the town. They are accessed via a network of covered stairways and lifts leading to ornately gilded and decorated entrance pavilions. The Buddha statues are very much objects of active veneration with worshipper’s bowing before them and offering flowers and incense. At the entrance of the cave is a large bronze bell cast in 1842.
Foreigners are asked for a fee to enter the town and then a further fee for the caves. At the caves, a camera fee is asked for from anyone with a camera out in the open. Cameras in bags and cameras in phones avoid this charge.
The Sin Khaung Monastery is situated at the foot of the Pindaya caves mountain. It is built of wood, is in traditional Shan style and is over 200 years old. There are old bamboo weaving Buddha images and bronze statues inside the monastery.
The process of typical bamboo hat making can be seen at the village of Thayetkone. The frame is made of bamboo and the cover, of bamboo husks. Handicrafts of another sort are seen in Or Yaw where residents enjoy pottery and handicrafts making. They produce water pot, flower vases and toys for children. In Ngetpyawdaw visitors can experience the process of making umbrellas and traditional Shan paper.