Looking at my travel schedule, there was absolutely no way to avoid it.
I’d already experienced the thrill ride that was the Myanmar train system, so a repeat trip was out of the question. The bus from Bagan was supposed to take 14 hours, with a transfer in Kalaw – essentially requiring 2 full transit days. This just meant that I only had a single option if I really wanted to check out the unique ecosystem within Inle Lake.
I’d have to take an airplane.
Up until this point, I had avoided the Myanmar airways due to their spotty safety record. Sure, an airplane could get me where I needed to go in a fraction of the time it takes the other transportation methods, but that doesn’t do me much good if I end up as flaming wreckage. After surviving the overnight train from Yangon to Mandalay though, I figured lady luck was on my side. For $91 USD, I went ahead and booked a one way ticket on Asian Wings, one of Myanmar’s domestic carriers.
The airplane ride from Bagan was only 45 minutes of smooth skies before we thankfully touched down at Heho airport. Having done my research beforehand, I was ready for the heavily inflated taxi fares and quickly found 3 other people to split the $20 USD fare into town. Unlike in Bagan, this time I had plenty of cash to cover the $10 USD pp entrance fee.
Before too long, we were making our way down the streets of Nyaung Shwe – Inle Lake’s closest town and where most travelers end up staying.
My first course of action was to check into the Yar Pyae Hotel, which ended up being a nice quiet escape from the busy streets outside. For $34 USD a night, I got a decently sized air conditioned room with breakfast included. As with most hotels and guest houses here, the front desk was easily able to help me secure both a boat tour for the next day and a bus ticket for my eventual return to Yangon.
After checking in, I took a brief walk around Nyaung Shwe to see what this small sleepy Inle Lake town has to offer.
An hour of wandering didn’t uncover all that much. There are a handful of nice restaurants and plenty of boat operators asking if I needed a lake tour arranged. Stopping by a tasty dumpling place for dinner on the way back to my hotel, I decided it best to just get to bed before it got too late.
The next morning was an early one, meeting my boat driver Oon in the lobby at 7am. After a brief round of introductions, we slowly made our way down to the docks, all the while discussing the plan for the day.
Passing through the streets, Nyaung Shwe and I appeared to be slowly waking up at the same time. Farmers were making their pick-ups/drop-offs, cafes were preparing traditional breakfasts by frying long strips of dough, and clothes were being washed by hand in the nearby creek.
By the time Oon and I had made it down to the docks, a few longboats were already departing out to the lake, with passengers all bundled up to shield themselves from the frigid morning air.
The trip began with us making our way down a long concrete canal which eventually transitioned into large thatch thickets.
Soon enough the canal opened up, putting the expansive Inle Lake on full display.
Nam Phan Floating Market
Our first stop was to check out the five-day market, which is in a different location depending on the day of the week. These markets are known to bring in various members of the surrounding tribes, so I really wanted to make sure to arrive before the eventual tourist crush.
Even arriving by 9am, the crowds were absolutely immense.
Today’s market was located in Nam Phan, which ended up being a small inlet with hundreds of local stalls lined up against the shoreline. Stepping off the boat, my heart immediately sank as I saw what was for sale along the entrance walkway…
Identical looking souvenirs geared towards tourists, lined a seemingly endless row of tables. Not exactly what I was hoping for.
Continuing down the walkway and getting deeper into the market, the items for sale thankfully transitioned more towards local goods. The interior space was especially large and broken down into different areas of interest, similar to a western supermarket.
Fresh produce was available in one area…
Dry herbs and spices in another…
Building materials, such as bamboo, were for sale along the outer edges…
And even clothing, complete with sewing stations for repairs, is available.
Food is also a very present and important aspect here. A large section at the center of the market is dedicated to mealtime seating and various food stalls serving local breakfast surround the outside.
Unsurprisingly, by the time I had made my rounds and was ready to move on, the crowds had become even thicker, creating a messy pile-up of boats.
After a bit of searching, I finally found Oon and we quickly pushed off, weaving our way towards the exit.
Inle Lake Floating Villages
Slicing through Inle Lake, Oon calls out that our next stop is at one of the nearby local villages. As he mentions this, thoughts of shoreline communities, similar to what I had seen in Zanzibar, begin to swirl around in my head. As we get closer though, it becomes clear that, as is often the case, my expectations were not exactly in line with reality.
The large wooden structures that make up this village are in fact entirely overwater, all propped up in a checkerboard of bamboo poles and twine.
Much like what you would see in Venice, the locals travel everywhere via long shallow boats. Need to make a run to the market? Or check in on the neighbor? Or drop the kids off at school? The family boat is your only option here.
Slowly making our way through the narrow canals, we eventually come out the other side of the village into row after row of clumped reeds.
Oon explained that the locals have developed a method of growing produce within these tufts of reeds, which act as insulation and protection. Amazingly, they’re able to grow tomatoes, cucumbers, beans, and even gourds using this technique.
Inle Lake Craft Workshops
Our final stop for the day was to check out the local craft workshops which, to be honest, I was a bit hesitant about. Supposedly a way to observe the diversity of traditional Inle crafting, I’d also read numerous trip reports suggesting that they ranged anywhere from interesting to being flat out tourist traps.
Before setting off, I did my best to explain to Oon that I wasn’t interested in purchasing anything and only wanted to see real workshops. In apparent agreement, we made our way to our first stop.
Oon ushered me inside as we pulled-up alongside a large wooden structure. Here, a woman sat crosslegged as she hunched over a small workstation removing what appeared to be long white strands from the insides of bright green stems.
Oon explained the process, where the ends of the lotus stalks are thinly sliced to expose the fibers inside. The harvester takes hold of these fibers with one hand and slowly removes them from the stems. This “silk” is then collected and woven into cloth used for shawls, scarves, shirts, or even robes used by Buddhist monks. To make just a single scarf, 2 weeks and 1,200 lotus stems are required.
Currently Myanmar is one of only a few countries harvesting and working with lotus silk, making this fabric extremely rare and expensive.
This particular workshop appeared to be a one-stop-shop, as it not only harvests the silk, but also weaves everything together using large wooden handlooms.
After spending some time observing the process, we shuffled over to the next room, where all the product that this workshop makes, in addition to both cotton and regular silk, is being sold.
By far the most expensive items were anything made from lotus silk, which were going for well over $100 USD for a small piece of fabric. Way too expensive for me, but thankfully the shop owners weren’t all that pushy.
Getting back into the boat, Oon briefly mentions that we are heading to another weaving workshop. This one though is unique and he put his hands on his shoulders.
Sure enough, sitting outside, as if to attract visitors passing by, was a Padaung woman complete with a long set of brass coils around her neck.
Docking the boat, we made out way inside to see 2 other Padaung women sitting at weaving stations.
According to Oon, the Padaung people actually reside in Myanmar’s Kayah State, about 100 miles south of Inle Lake. However, to take advantage of the recent tourist boom, many are temporarily living and renting out space within workshops such as this.
After spending only a few minutes here, I couldn’t help but feel a bit put off by the setup. The Padaung women were placed front and center within the workshop, but really only a small portion of the floorspace was dedicated to their craft. The rest was nothing but your usual set of wooden souvenirs.
It all just felt like one big tourist attraction, which is exactly what I wasn’t looking for.
Getting back into the boat, Oon asked what I was interested in visiting next. The paper workshops or silver smiths? How about an ancient temple?
Honestly, I was pretty much over the workshops and had reached a point of temple fatigue after my day in Bagan. 6 hours of exploring around by longboat and I had pretty much had my fill of Inle Lake.
As Oon began pulling away from the dock, a nearby local woman frantically began paddling her longboat towards us. Gripping the side of our boat with one hand, she presented a couple of shiny ornaments.
“You want to buy?”
I politely shook my head and she immediately began digging around in her boat again, pulling out another cheap looking trinket.
“You want to buy this?”
After another head shake, she released our boat and began to paddle away, leaving us to begin the journey back to Nyaung Shwe.