Leaving: Revisiting Inle Lake

editor’s note: GoKunming first visited Inle Lake in Myanmar in March 2011. In the intervening 17 months, much has changed. Aung San Suu Kyi was elected to parliament in May after 15 years under house arrest as the country’s long-running civil war escalated and relations with Chinese oil companies became strained.

Keep in mind that traveling to Myanmar requires careful planning and can be fraught with logistical issues as well as questions about the impact of tourism on human rights.

If you’re interested in going there yourself, Lonely Planet’s Myanmar travel guide has good travel advice and an interesting section on whether you should travel there.

first day

Inle Lake spreads across the land like a wrinkled blue silk, which is another world. Fishermen steer slender wooden boats with one leg wrapped around an oar, children in aprons jump into the water to wash their hair, and families live in tall wooden huts.

GoKunming had the pleasure of spending two days exploring the villages, souks and clusters of white and gold stupas surrounding one of Myanmar’s most popular tourist destinations.

We traveled from Yangon to Nyaung Shwe town by night bus. Even the best Myanmar buses are not luxurious and the back of our bus was full of luggage. The only seat was at the front, facing an LCD TV that played Burmese hip-hop music and movies for the first four hours of the journey.

We fell off the bus at our intended destination, exhausted and grumpy. At 4:00 in the morning, the bus dropped us off about 7 kilometers from the lake. We hail a taxi for 8,000 kyat ($9) each, which takes us to Teakwood Guesthouse.

The charming little inn completely refreshed us. Run by local families, it is filled with traditional crafts and furniture. The rooms are bright and spacious, and at 26,000 kyat ($30) a night, it’s a bit pricey.

After a short nap, we rented bicycles for 1,500 kyat ($1.70). Our first stop was the Shwe Yan Pyay Temple, a crumbling wooden structure next to a golden stupa. The monastery’s crumbling exterior belies its cozy interior, where monks gather around a large teapot and cats lounge in the sunlight that streams in through holes in the wall.

On the central altar of the monastery is a fabulous golden Buddha statue, gazing benevolently at the cat and the monks. Next door, the inner walls of the golden stupa are lined with small niches containing miniature Buddha images. The mosaics run up and down the walls and add to the splendor of the place.

We came out of the monastery and hit the road, driving along the lake. Cycling is a joy. We were surrounded by lush rice fields, and we flew past villages with houses made of wood and straw. The scenery is so verdant it seems to be glowing.

the next day

As the sun rose, we boarded a narrow wooden boat and visited Inle Lake. We lazily drifted for an hour as the sun rose, watching the birds and fishermen that dotted the lake.

We managed to catch the tail end of a morning market where we bought souvenirs and climbed a hill to a temple surrounded by stupas.

Our next stop is a weaving factory located in one of the ubiquitous stilt houses on the lake. Inside, men and women work hand and foot looms to produce silk scarves and some of the most intricately patterned sarongs found in the region.

We also visited a silver shop where workers bent over small anvils to work metal blocks. After a quick lunch, we continue to Leaping Cat Abbey, famous for training cats to jump through hoops. Most of the feline acrobats we see are asleep.

At first we were fascinated by the boat tour, but over time our enthusiasm faded into mild curiosity and eventually exhaustion.

The stops become more and more touristy, dragging on for what seems like forever. A particularly poignant stop is a souvenir shop that “displays” a Kayan woman. The Kayan people are known for their tradition of elongating women’s necks to incredible lengths with silver rings.

As night fell, we were lucky to still be by the lake at sunset. The rich colors dye the sky pink and purple, which are reflected beautifully in the clam water. Whatever tension we were feeling melted away as we sat quietly, overwhelmed by the charm of Inle Lake.

reach there

Night bus tickets from Yangon to Inle Lake cost around 17,000 kyat (20 USD) and you will be dropped off about 7 km outside Nyaung Shwe as we did. Locals are well aware of bus schedules, so finding taxis is easy.

Airfare from Yangon costs about 87,000 kyats (US$100) and can be booked in advance on the Internet. However, online information is not always up to date. The plane arrives at Heho Airport which is 30 minutes away from Inle Lake.

China Eastern Airlines and Air China offer multiple weekly flights from Kunming to Yangon or Mandalay. Visas can be obtained from the Consulate General of the Union of Myanmar and take three to five days to process.

There are very few ATMs in Myanmar and most of them are located in Yangon. GoKunming recommends bringing US dollars and changing them to Myanmar Kyat when you arrive.

GoKunming thanks Shalene Gupta for his contributions. If you would like to submit a travel story or other contribution to GoKunming, please get in touch via our contact form.

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