Although Myanmar only recently opened her doors, tourism is flourishing. With just over 2 million visitors in 2013, Myanmar is hotter than ever. However, Myanmar is still a little baby sister, compared to neighbors like Thailand with over 26 million tourists that same year. But does that mean Myanmar is unspoiled? No. Unfortunately not. At the main tourist attractions like Bagan and Inle Lake, one can already leave with a ‘bitter taste in the mouth’. So, what if you want to visit and enjoy these places, but avoid the crowds? Grietje took a few days at Inle Lake for some proper ‘Loves and Hates’ investigation. Just take along our tips and tricks and you’ll enjoy your visit to Inle to the fullest!
Written by Grietje Evenwel.
*Based on experiences while traveling in february 2014.
Visit to Inle Lake
There are multiple places in Myanmar where you can do a trekking and most people will find themselves walking from Kalaw to Inle Lake. But that’s not the only path you can walk! For ‘more mountains and less tourists’ as our trekking guide called it, go to the mountains east of Inle Lake. Here you can meet the friendly Pa-O people and enjoy nature while walking on small trails. On these trails you will mostly encounter local pedestrians and no bikes or motors. If you’re lucky you may see the yearly celebration around a pagoda in one of the villages. You may also end up in an on-the-spot arranged homestay when the monastery is full.
Yes it’s true. The boat ride on Inle Lake is beautiful! The houses on stilts form villages and here, the only roads in the village exists of water. The traditional fishermen floating around in their boats on the lake give you the feeling of going back in time. In the morning the sunrise welcomes you and wakes up the lake after a cold night. Shortly said: the boat ride is more than worth it! However, there are some downsides: the souvenir venders at the Five Day Market are quite annoying and pushy, boat drivers bring you to shops just to get commission and the motor on the boat is very loud. But, as you already have guessed the lake should not miss in your itinerary!
Tip 1: Skip Sankar
Sankar, the most distant village, is not that special. It used to be a village without many tourists but since you don’t need permission for the south lake anymore and the village was known as a ‘village without many tourists’ – a lot of tourists -came. Except for some small pagoda’s in the water, there is nothing there. So instead of going to Sankar, we would recommend you visit the Tharkong Pagoda (on the other side of the lake). This is a nice small complex with buddha’s and stupa-like buildings and, for some reason, lots of children hanging around. Skip Sankar and go immediately to Tharkong Pagoda, to see it before your fellow tourists hop on.
Tip 2: Skip the jumping cat monastery.
Further north lays the jumping cat monastery. That sounds great, but the cats have stopped jumping a long time ago. Don’t need to be a genius to figure out what you’re left with.
Tip 3: Make sure you and your boat driver are on the same page.
It’s also good to know that it is unlikely your boat driver will speak English. If you don’t want to end up in some shops (so your boat driver will get a commission), make sure you discuss before – with either a tour operator or someone else that speaks English – what it is you wish. ‘Which villages would you like to see, and what is to be expected there? Will it just be one shop or really some showing around?’ You preferably arrange all of this the day before you do the actual boat ride. This also bring us to our last tip.
Tip 4: Go very early morning!
You’ll be one of the few to see the beautiful sunrise over the lake and you’ll be the first to arrive at the Five Day Market. The souvenir venders have not put up their stands yet and you won’t see other tourists. At this time it’s just you and the locals. Another welcome side effect is that you’ll also be able to avoid the heat. With the sun burning and reflecting on the water during mid-day, it’s much better to stay at the friendly shadows of a restaurant during these hours. If you leave early in the morning you’ll have plenty of time for a nice, big lunch break.
Tip 5: Bring some sun protection.
During your visit to Inle lake don’t forget to bring a hat or an umbrella. Even in the morning the sun is pretty strong.
Tip 6: Don’t forget earplugs for the motor!
As mentioned previously, the motor of the boat is pretty loud. So, you may want to bring some ear plugs.
Naung Shwe is the town where most people stay while visiting Inle Lake. It is full of restaurants and hotels providing you some luxury and comfort. However, there is also an obvious downside: because of these the town’s charm has lessened. If you’re looking for an authentic and relaxed village: this is not the place to be!
Tip 1: Do a cooking class!
So, what to do in Naung Shwe while your wait for your boat trip the next morning? Take a cooking class! Remember, you’re still in Shan state which is Birmafamous for food! Tasty Shan noodles are even better if you made them yourself. And then I’m not even talking about all those other great dishes like tealeaf salad and curries.
Tip 2: Stay at May Guesthouse!
And if you’re looking for a ‘stay nice for a good price’ hotel after your cooking class, go for the ‘May Guesthouse’. A double room here will cost you 30 dollar which is not expensive for Myanmar standards (also read this review of Goats on the Road about the May Guesthouse). With a good bed and lots of beautiful wood, bamboo and plants around you, it’s one of the better hotels in town and the finishing touch for a memorable stay at Inle Lake!
These are some tips to improve your visit to Inle Lake! Remember that despite the recent tourist developments it’s still an amazing place to visit with friendly locals, gorgeous views and adventurous treks :)!
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Have you been to Inle Lake? What were your experiences with the ‘touristy’ side?
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I don’t think I’d be able to convince my wife to skip the jumping cat monastery, regardless of any lack of jumping. The food looks delicious – a cooking class would be such a fun way to learn more about a new place.
It seems as if now must be the best time to visit Myanmar, before it becomes too touristy. And the cooking class sounds good!
The pictures you show are just fabulous. I can’t stop looking at the youngsters racing around the pagoda. These seem like such happy people and waht an amazing place to visit. Thanks so much for the tips.
Great post. We visited Myanmar back in 2010 and it sounds like so many has changed and is changing every day. Your tips are excellent. When we visited, tourists were very few, but there were still many restrictions. We were followed several times and even kicked off a bus for questioning. I guess now is the time to go!
A few good tips for any new place, touristy or not: take a cooking class and get up and out early. No matter how busy a place you’ll never be disappointed if you get out early.
I hope they have a decent sustainable plan in place here and are not only out to get the quick tourist buck.
True Bob! Big fan of getting out early :)!
My personal tip when heading to Inle Lake: Head away from the crowd by venturing further south as it’s less touristy! The villages further south are poorer and more run-down, but much more authentic and natural. It allows for a ‘truer’ experience on the lifestyles of the villagers.
On a side note, I really love Shan noodles as well. Should have signed up for that cooking class :)
Hi Yidian! Thanks for your tip! Can you also arrange boattrips from there?
I went to see the jumping cats, it was pretty weird to see like a hundred people crowding round to see a few cats jumping through hoops – the actual monastery was quite nice though.
Hi Jon! Good to know! So you would recommend visiting the monastery?