Cruising on Inle Lake, Burma

The Burmese escape continues north where we find the beautiful Inle Lake.

Inle Lake is a shallow freshwater lake located in the Shan State of Myanmar and surrounded by the picturesque Shan Hills which cover parts of Burma, Thailand and the Chinese Yunnan province.

There is no direct railroad connection between Bagan and Inle Lake and this complicates and prolongs your journey if you want to travel by railroad. First, one would need to take the train from Bagan to Mandalay after which you would hop on the Mandalay to Yangon train and finally switch to the Thazi – Kalaw – Shwenyaung train. We did not have time for such detour and decided to derail and catch a bus from Bagan to Inle Lake. A bus ticket on the Bagan Min Thar Express goes for 11,000 kyat ($10) per person and you can ask to be picked up at your guesthouse at no extra charge. Departure from Bagan is daily around 7 PM and arrival is scheduled at 5 AM the next day.

In a country where the GDP per capital is barely $1,000, AC has become a peculiar status status symbol and this was no different on the Bagan – Inle Lake bus. Consequently, I was shivering all night, didn’t close an eye and was more than happy when the bus arrived at 3 AM, surprisingly two hours earlier than expected. Mind that, just as when arriving in Bagan, you are aggressively forced to buy tickets for the Inle Zone ($10) which you can avoid by claiming that your hotel already has bought the tickets for you.

The bus drops you off Shwenyaung Junction after which you can get to Nyaungshwe (or Nyaung Shwe), the main town next to Inle Lake, for about 1,000 kyat per person. It was surprisingly cold in the morning (Inle Lake has an elevation of 880 m) and a dense fog limited visibility to a few meters. Trash is getting burned alongside the streets and, together with slash-and-burn agriculture, produces an eye-watering smoke which made me cough in the early morning.

We stayed at the Gypsy Inn (on Strand Road) which offers doubles including breakfast for 20-25k kyat per night. The rooms are basic (but clean) and the breakfast features pancakes and fresh fruit.

Then the lake.

Inle Lake covers 116 square kilometers and is best explored by renting a boat including captain. You pay 20,000 kyat for an entire boat per day (I read you can bring prices down to 15,000 kyat). You can fill the boat with up to 5 people which makes it cheaper and we found two other persons to share the boat. Boats are made from wood and nowadays powered by a (loud) diesel engine. Traditional leg rowing has become obsolete and we only saw it once during our stay and it was a fake fisherman begging for money.

You should start your cruise early, say 8 AM, to experience the mystical fog which reminds of epic scenes of The Lord of the Rings. The captain will give you blankets to keep warm and slowly, once the morning fog has cleared, you will be able to witness Inle Lake in its full beauty. The all-consuming celestial blue of the lake and surrounding resplendent green rain forest make for excellent pictures.  You will also quickly exchange your blanket for an umbrella – it gets hot!

The captains make commissions from souvenirs you buy on and and around the lake. Except if you want to go on a shopping spree, explain your captain that you do NOT want to buy anything. I found it a bit sad to see that all markets on the lake were reselling Chinese-made souvenirs and overpriced clothes and jewelry. They did not seem to understand that most tourists are looking to experience real Burmese life and not something artificially created.

There are, however, plenty of things to see and sample on and around the lake. It was particularly interesting to see the floating garden agriculture which is yielding excellent fruit & veg. These gardens are little islands constructed of water hyacinth and mud kept together by long bamboo poles. They can be transported and are traded as they were regular farmland. Clearly, Inle Lake’s food was superior to the rest of Burma because of the abundance of fresh produce. We tried tasty salads of tea leaf, tomato and avocado. Also the fresh juices are superb, most notably the papaya-lime juice. A new combination with which I immediately fell in love with. Approved restaurants with reasonable prices are: Sin Yaw, Linn Htett, Evergreen and Sun Flower (take the grilled fish!).

In the evening, the setting sun reflects off the surface of the water and you can hear youngsters play Beatles songs covered in Burmese. Inle Lake needs to cope with an increasing amount of visitors and many of the markets and villages around the lake are purely set up for tourists and felt fake to me. However, it are the amazing views, “Hey Jude” in Burmese and the fresh food that make this trip a genuine escape.

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The best (and cheapest) way to get out of Inle Lake is songthaew for 1k kyat per person to the Shwenyaung Junction. The songthaews depart from a little station close to Mingalar Market and the last one departs around 4.30 PM. You can sit on the roof as I did.

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From Shwenyaung you can either take a bus/minivan for 11k kyat per person (last one departing around 6 PM; picture above) or wait alongside the road on the T-junction for a songthaew to stop. For 3k kyat per person you can experience a very local ride to Thazi. The journay takes you through mountains and the stretch takes about 4 hours. The songthaew will also stop for a very local dinner which will only set you back 2k kyat per person! It will be late when you arrive in Thazi and you can spend the night in one of the two guesthouses with similar prices (20-25k kyat for a double) and inspiring names: Moonlight and Wonderful. Trains. There is absolutely nothing to do or see in Thazi and the town serves the purpose of transit town only. We found great (but fatty) snacks at the Power Cafe next to the main road.

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As previously mentioned, no central Burmese train ticket booking system exists which means that you cannot book tickets in advance. However, you can persuade the railroad clerk to call up the Mandalay railroad station (all trains going south to Yangon come from Mandalay) and inform whether there is a place on the sleeper train. If possible, try to hop on train number 6 which has sleepers and departs from Thazi at 5.45 PM and arrives next morning at 5 AM. We were out of luck and had to take the “4 Down” which did not have any sleepers unfortunately. An Upper Seat Ticket on the 4 Down goes for 7,350 kyat per person and departs at 7.49 PM to arrive the next morning at 8 AM in Yangon.

This brings us full circle.

This was the fourth post about travel in Burma. You can read part 1 to 3 here:

Burmese Days

The Bumpy Train Ride from Yangon to Bagan

Exploring Temples in Bagan, Burma

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