domingo, 27 de maio de 2012

Untouched Myanmar: Inle Lake

Previous Post: Misterious Bagan


Inle Lake is located in the Northeastern part of Myanmar, in Shan state. Even though this state has the majority of the ethnic Shan, the communities around Inle Lake are known to be part of the Intha ethnic. The lake has an area of 116 km² and it's 800 m high - 2nd highest lake in Myanmar - which is a relief for travellers coming from toasting Bagan. In the region live around 70,000 people within small towns and villages over and around the lake.


Given the recommendation of many forums and travelers we didn't try to take the bus between Bagan and Inle Lake because it could take up to 15-18h an the result could be unpredictable given the roads rubbish conditions. We then chose to fly through Air Mandalay and left around 7 am from Bagan arriving at 8.30 am in Heho, with a scale in Mandalay.

Heho is the nearest airport to Inle Lake and it's 35 km far from it. As soon as we got there we've found a British guy - with some interesting stories - who was also going to the lake. The taxi costs K 25,000 and when you get "there", it's not actually "there" because the backpackers area with cheap accomodation and food is Nyang Shwe, which is close but no in the lake in fact.

We went directly to a guesthouse called Mingalar Inn due to a friend recommendation. For US$ 18/night we had a double room w/ fan, private bathroom, an excellent breakfast. A/C wasn't necessary here. Besides that the owner of the guesthouse made all the arrangements for all our tours with quite reasonable prices. There were many testimonials hanged in the wall and including one of a Brazilian couple.

Inle Lake's region map
Nyaung Shwe is located in the Norteastern part
Source: RoadtoMandalay
Tour in the 1st day


One of the most common tours for the just arrivers is to cycle in the West direction, then go South completing 11 km, take the boat to cross the lake and then in the East side go North on time to watch the sunset. It should look like a 'square'.

We rented our bicycle for K 1,000 each and left around 10 am. The beginning of the journey had basically rice fields in both sides of the road.

In the dirty road we saw many motorbikes, cars and old trucks - tractors would be the most common 'cars' - and sometimes some local people carrying stuff. This technique to carry with a bamboo beam it's quite common even in Cambodia and Vietnam.

On the way we found that we were not the only one and some other tourists appeared doing the same itinerary by bicycle. There were some hills and our bicycles were definetely nto made for that so we had to pull it. We've found a temple in the top of a hill but nothing special. Mr Bart and his fear about dogs was an extra diversion/excitement in the road - which had plenty of dogs.

After a curve and a rise we saw many simple restaurant stall and since we were hungy stopped for eating. The most traditional dish in Asia fried noodles/fried rice cost K 1,500 and for K 500 each we could order two tomato salads, referred by the owner of our guesthouse. I can't tell if it was due to the spices or the tomato itself - which is a regional specialty - but this salad was delicious!

Tomato salad
After that we rode more 10-15 minutes until we could reach a hotel - very fancy and expensive for sure - that had the boat service to cross the lake. We bargained to K 5,000 to take both of us and our two bicycles. The crossing lasts for 1/2 h and even though it was quite nice it wasn't that incredible like the next day, so I will show you the lake's pictures below.

Leaving the private "lake" of the hotel
When I told you that their specialty was producing tomatoes I wasn't kidding. Besides the huge plantations over the water we saw loaded boats transporting tomatoes buckets.

Tomatoes being unloaded
We continued our tour going through a very friendly village over the water and part inland. We saw a school and some of the kids came out to scream "Hello, hello!" and we obviously replied back. Then all the kids came out to see us. It was funny because later we saw the teacher coming out and screaming at them to come back and ok, we decided to stop troubling the teacher's class and left.

Kids leaving the class to see us
Also referred by our guesthouse owner we decided to watch the sunset in the winery - maybe the only - in the region called Red Mountain Estate. Getting there was a bit difficult again because of the hilly area and our heavy - not made for hills - bicycles.

Obviously the winery bar sold wines produced by them so we decided to test until the sunset. We had two bottles, one of red wine Inlé and then a blanc one that I don't remember. The prices ranged from K 7,500-8,000 which is cheap in pratice. Neither me or Bart were specialists on that but it tasted quite good.

Wine Made in Myanmar
Soon started to get dark and even with the clouds trying to spoil our sunset it created a very nice effect of colours and lights which in the end was very beautiful.

Sunset in Inle Lake
We came back until getting close to our guesthouse and then we decided to eat on the same restaurant there were lots of foreigners. We spent around K 5,000 for both of us which is a reasonable amound and under our budget. Finished the 1st day.

Tour in the 2nd day

Boat tour

The most obvious tour in this region is the boat tour around the lake, villages and markets. We didn't run away of it. We had an excellent breakfast - toasts, pancake, omelette, etc. - and met our British friend again in the same boat. Actually it was very nice that he could join us because the boat tour would cost K 15,000 regardless of the number of people so we spent K 5,000 each.

We left through the small docks in the Nankand Canal that connects Nyaung Shwe to the lake itself. Soon we could see the changes in the scenery and pictures like the ones bellow became common. Something very interesting in Inle is the peculiar rowing technique of the fishermen. Due to the presence of plants and some obstacles in the water it's usually necessary to the fisherman to stand. Since all the transport - and maybe all the food - goes through and from the lake, an efficient way to do many things at the same time is row with the legs. Eventually they throw the fishing nets or try to catch some fish with both of hands while one of the legs keeps rowing.

Fisherman rowing with the help of his leg
Everywhere, West to East, we could see tomatoes plantations, usually within wooden sticks, a lot of greenery below and some smaill cottages.

Tomatoes plantation
Mother and son rowing close to the plantations
Other common practice to be seen is the algae collection. The depth of the lake is short and ranges from 1.5 to 3.7 m during the dry season (now) and up to 5.2 m in the rainy season. That boosts the growing of water plants in the surface.

Man collecting algae

After maybe 1/2 h of tour we started to get closer to villages built over the water. In those villages there are many bridges connecting the houses but frequently the only transportation is through the boats that turn the waters in avenues.

I can't tell if this is a local architecture style or if you visit any lake people will live over it in the same way. However, it was very nice to look at the colours and shapes of the houses, the combination of seen from far away and the many wood pillars spread everywhere.

Here we could notice how Myanmar keeps an untouched place, faithful to its traditions and thus it's possible to see people living normally. Some 'turistification' of the villages is already going on with stores popping everywhere but people still go out for fishing, plant, etc., in the same way they have been doing for years and years.

In the morning, parents use to bath their children in a very natural way. Just soaping them and putting in the water. We saw that more than twice and I got very happy to have the opportunity to see something so inocent and simple. Almost everytime they would smile or say "Hello!" to our cameras.

Mother bathing her son
Father bathing his baby
Not just babys or kids but also adults bath, or adults shave, in that case, an adult shaving the head of a nun.


The boat tour had actually one objective, get to the Nam Hu market on time to watch the natives buying and selling - especially the hills tribes. The market closes at 10 am.

The lake region has an itinerant schedule with markets being held within 5 different places in  during the week. It used to have an authentic floating market in the past in the middle of the lake in Ywama but rising presence of tourists turned it to be a souvenir market. Therefore, if you wanna see a traditional market run away from the tourists main option and go for the far and inland ones.

There's an intensive trade of firewood in the market's entrance. In the next day, when we had lunch in Myanmar style, we saw that in the house there's a fireplace in which they use this kind of wood so I'd guess people are buying it to cook.

As it was expected, a huge load of tomatoes being sold.

Tomatoes produced in Inle Lake
In this market we could get very close to the Inthé people, who come from the surroundings of Inle Lake. We saw many women dressed all in black with some coloured cloths on their heads always carrying all the shopping.

Next to the market there was a hill that took to Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda. Nothing special but it was nice to follow the local people climbing the stairs coming back to their homes.

Depois disso iniciamos o retorno, só que como o lago tem 22 km de comprimento fomos parando em vilas, almoçamos e o nosso barqueiros fez questão de parar em trocentas lojas que pagam comissão pra ele. Essa parte das lojas foi meio pé no saco se não fosse por uma coisa: as mulheres de pescoço comprido. 

Afterwards we've started or journey back to our hotel, but since the lake is 22 km lenght we went stopping on the villages, having lunch and our boatman insisted taking us to a dozen stores that pay him a comission. This store tour was quite annoying if there was one thing: the long neck women.

This women are from the Kayan ethnicity, in the Central-Eastern part of Myanmar, bordering with Thailand. Since kids they put rings on their neck, arms and legs and go stretching it until they get to 22 rings like this woman. Unfortunately this people was chased by the Myanmar government in the 80s and 90s making lots of them to run to Thailand. Besides that, the women was being used as an entertaining item to bring costumers which is a quite deppresive reality given their rich and interesting culture.

Women from the Kayan ethnicity
This day ended with some beers and interesting conversations. We could know a little bit better our British friend and see why he's part of the 'alternative group of people that we've met in Myanmar'. He worked for the External Relations Office from UK and lived for 3 years in Afeghanistan - his own will. He also lived in China and backpacked in Southeast Asia when he was 19. He also travelled to Madagascar and his girlfriend - now his wife - also lived in Afeghanistan. After Myanmar he would take many flights through Asia, Middle-East and Europe until getting to Azores to do some whales watching. Then, coming back to Dubai, take his wife to Europe again.

Bart then met a couple of Dutch people. They have already travelled for long and many times to Northern India, China and Nepal and the last time they took a train from Moscow to Beijing, going through Siberia and Mongolia. Extremely mastered in Buddhism, meditation and related stuff, they had classes with Dalai Lama in Europe and India. Well, after all those stories coming to Phnom Penh in Cambodia didn't seem so crazy...

Tour in the 3rd day

No nosso último dia em Inle não tínhamos tanto tempo pois por volta de 14h45 tínhamos que pegar um transporte até um pedaço da estrada onde às 17h nosso ônibus passaria indo pra Yangon.

In our last day in Inle we didn't have so much time because arround 2.45 pm we had to take a transportation until a junction in the road where at 5 pm a bus would take us to Yangon.

To make this half of day an interesting stuff we hired a guide for K 8,000/person including lunch to take us to hike in the mountains in the surroundings of the lake and know more about the villages.

The hike made us more tired than we expected and many parts of the track we couldn't buy any water because there were no stalls to sell.

Eventually we went through villages and plantations and found farmers going from one place to other. Our guide always referred and comunicated to them in a very friendly matter.

Arround 10.30 am we were already very hungry cause we woke up and had our breakfast very early. So we stopped at a small house in which guides usually take their groups to have lunch. Then we could buy some more water and rest until they cooked.

Inthé woman prepares the food in traditional kitchen
After 40 min our food was ready and we had an excellent lunch, maybe the best of the whole trip. The dish was made of thin rice white noodles mixed with salad, peanuts and other spices and a to be mixed soup. For dessert we had a cake, biscuits of wheat and yellow mango. So good!

During all our hiking journey we chated a lot with our guide Muy Úhn. A very good person, educated, kind and that could speak English very well. We could understand some practices in Myanmar like for example the fact that are some pots with water almost everywhere. According to him, in the practice of Buddhism, one must donate and make good things in this life so they can enjoy a better life in their next encarnation. Through this point of view, a wealthy person and that enjoys a confortable life today is a reflex of good actions done in the past. Therefore people donate water, everyday, everywhere. And, due to the fact that is a donation with so strong meaning, people become responsible for the quality of the water, which must be good, fresh and changed daily.

Other interesting point were his comments about how life goes on in the region. His father is half of the year farmer with more than 2,000 tomato plants in the lake shore and the other half of time as a carpenter, making windows, boats, houses, etc. He works as a touristic guide, wth half of day, 1 day or 3 day hikings and also as a moto taxi.

Muy Úhn having lunch with us
Here our aventure through Myanmar practically ended. We had a short and fast week through so many different places but it was unforgetable. The chance of visiting an 'untouched' country is something very special. People, practices and relations are still very sincere and some bad habits from the more openned socities haven't established yet. For those have the time and money to go there, it's really worth it!

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