For many, Inle Lake is the light at the end of an exhausting exhilarating tunnel. After a two or three day hike from Kalaw reaching a haven of luxury in comparison, where beer and massages are a plenty. For others, Inle Lake is a picturesque town in which they can observe local life from afar and in lavish and plush hotels settled on the lake.
For me; it was a tourist hotspot, where backpackers, flash packers and holiday makers all merge to celebrate the beauty of Inle lake, whilst being jostled for attention from boatmen, restaurant owners and taxi drivers.
Being dropped off by the night bus at the neighbouring town of Shwen Yaung (confusingly called as the town near to Inle Lake is called Nyaung Shwe) I stepped off the 15 hour night bus dazed and confused, whilst the bus driver began to already plot with awaiting taxi drivers for a commission filled ride for me, as if a vulture tantalising other predators with a piece of fresh meat. Dismissing the becks and cries for a taxi and exclamations of it being “very far!” I asked local passers-by where exactly I was on the helpful offline app, mapsme.
Unfortunately for me, the map wasn’t as helpful as I thought as my GPS location wasn’t installed in my settings and after being told by a polite local I was “on the right road”, I calmly walked on, unaware of the far-flung distance I was, and the treacherous trek to arrive there. Sweat began to form at the top of my sticky forehead, my back and backpack merged together in a sweet marriage of sweat, and as the midday sun continued to beat down on my tired aching body and my 15 kg luggage, I soon quickly realised just how far I had to travel. I laughed at my stubbornness at refusing a taxi driver and began to wearily plod along the path ahead debating whether to hitchhike once again in Myanmar or not.
Luckily, good fortune was bestowed upon me and an angel appeared from the heavens, (a local donned in army uniform balancing a bouncing baby on a passing scooter). He took pity on me and pulled over, asking if I would like a lift. A bit wary, I looked at my overflowing luggage and his curious child on the front of his motorbike, but he reassured me that it was fine. Taking me to the tourist checkpoint, (all tourists have to pay 12,500 kyat when entering Inle Lake), I soon found out that he worked for the ministry, his baby was two years old, and that heading into Inle Lake was an 11km journey from where I had started. After dropping me off to pay at the checkpoint, I began to walk reluctantly again, rapidly finding myself on the back of another motorbike heading into town by another local. Turning him down to be my personal bodyguard “in case of troubles”, I told him I was strong enough and headed to my hostel. Thanking my blessings, I arrived relieved that I’d managed to hitchhike from helpful locals and slightly windswept.
The town is larger to Hpa An, luxurious hotels and numerous restaurants embedded into a sprawl of local life and businesses, where tourism is beginning to make its mark, infecting the simplicity of local life that lives here. The similar looking tour companies and neighbouring massage parlours line the streets, turning the town as if into a hall of mirrors with commercialism as its terror. Of course, a boat trip around Inle lake is why tourists flock to this town, wanting to be whisked away on water, embracing the natural scenes of fisherman casting their nets in hope for a enormous haul to feed their family.
Wait and head down to the river before bartering with a boat man, to ensure you get a fair price- as the main business are boat trips, so there are a number of boatmen who will approach you whilst walking down the street. When arranging a boat trip confirm where you want to go on the boat trip; popular places are the floating market, lotus making and the long necked tribal women, as well as stating that if you do or don’t want to visit any shops.
I had previously booked an all-day cycle, kayak and boat trip with Grasshopper Adventures. The cycle was a 25 kilometre route around Inle lake, whizzing through local villages on dusty tracks alongside beaming school children playing absent mildly outside, watching wondrous women at work, plucking tea leaves in the solicitude and silence of still rice fields, passing towering crop plantations and lonely dogs, only stopping for a snack of freshly made local salads or an explanation of a certain crop. As cycling really isn’t my forte, I struggled at times, balancing along a narrow edge alongside paddy fields or up dry paths cracked and withered in the sun.
After lunching at a guesthouse in a local village on the river, where my guide bombarded me with information about Inle Lake and the cook fattened me up with course after course, we came to the highlight of the tour- the kayaking on Inle Lake. Paddling through a local village, we raced pristine schoolchildren in their boats, paddling courageously on their own and floated past houses on stilts where children happily splashed in the river for an afternoon swim, and mothers washed their laundry in the murky waters.
I felt that I had gained a glimpse into the private life of locals, far away from the tourist eye. But I also felt like I was intruding, invading this calm sphere of life, with my garish life jacket and bright kayak. I felt awkward. The active day was an exhausting one but the rigorous routine of the bicycle was broken up by a local boatman taking me and my guide to various other areas of the lake to continue cycling in different villages and environments around the lake. My highlight of the day was speeding over the smooth serene waters, where mountains towered in the distance and local fisherman fished in such a way it seemed as if they were a dancing an intimate river dance, embracing the waters and hoping to be rewarded with by a fruitful bounty.
Although incredibly expensive for a backpacker (80 dollars for the full day), if you are not on a budget and are travelling in a group or pair and want to catch a glimpse of what local life is like around Inle Lake whilst getting fit, this is the tour for you.
Another popular thing to do in Inle Lake is to hire a slightly rusty (and ever so creaky) bicycle from many of the tour operators in town and head around the lake, cycling one half and getting a boat across and cycling the rest of the way around the lake, a total of 6 hours. After quite a sore bum from a 7 hour cycling trip already, my friend and I decided to cycle half of the lake and then head back, heading as far as we could before having to cross the lake.
Passing corn swaying in the wind and noisy motorbikes that gracefully overtook us, we whizzed past noodle stops and local convenience stores (open spaces with hanging goods for sale). Whilst en route to some Pagoda Ruins, the Red Mountain Wine Estate is a wonderful place to admire the view over Inle lake (after a steep cycle up a hill). If you can afford to, give yourself a treat and rest your weary feet with a glass of wine, and even a plate of cheese.
Saving our kyat for local beer, we left the winery behind us and headed to the Forest Monastery, another tough and steep hill to ascend. Visiting the pagoda at the top was not as astonishing as other temples you will visit, but the monastery hiding under the loft boughs of the nearby forest, really is a gem. Trying not to disturb the chanting monks, we observed what their days were filled with: meditation and concentration.
Heading to the Natural Hot Springs was next on our agenda but with no obvious signposting and clambering through forgotten trials in the forest, we had no such luck of finding it.
Delicious restaurants are in abundance in Inle lake, but of course the price differs quite drastically from Hpa An. Nepalese food with warm masala chai satisfied my two yearlong craving at Everest 2 (second one to Kalaw).
Everlight is a tantalising Indian restaurant (where they take your picture and add it to the wall- so cute!) and Sin Yaw restaurant has an incredible selection of Shan food- get the Shan special and you’ll receive a mixture of Shan dishes in return, mostly vegetable dishes all cooked in varying styles and flavour, a real delight.
Watering hole’s glammed up for tourists can be found here too, but I mainly drank at my hostel (happy hour cocktails were two thousand kyat) or beer from local eateries for 800 kyat (quite the difference than the 1,500 kyat beers in the hostel).
My hostel was Ostello Bello– the hostel chain that is also present in Bagan and Mandalay. A dorm bed in an 8 bed mixed dorm with AC and a bathroom is 10 dollars, which is a little steep in comparison to other dorm beds in South East Asia. There are cheaper guest houses that have private rooms with fans and shared bathrooms for as little as 5 dollars like Joy Inn or Gypsy Inn but Ostello Bello is a very sociable hostel. Although a flash packer price; it’s free breakfast, tea and coffee, pasta tasting 3 times a day, happy hour, WIFI and fun activities attracts a vast majority of backpackers. Ostello Bello has everything you need in a hostel-it’s just definitely not an authentic guesthouse, that’s for sure.