Inle Lake is one of the real highlights of any trip to Myanmar with a laid back and relaxed atmosphere and plenty to see or do, regardless of your interests or budget.
It’s located in the west of Shan state and offers a look into a unique way of life on the lake where the local Intha community continues to reside. Surrounded by mountains and nestled in a stunningly picturesque valley, it’s a huge contrast to the cities of Mandalay and Yangon and completely different to Bagan and its landscape of the plains of Myanmar. Here you can expect to see lush greenery and a traditional way of life, with small villages dotted around the lakeside.
In terms of the ecological importance of the area, it was recently declared a place of the World Network of Biosphere Reserves, and is an area of outstanding natural beauty. It is one of the more popular destinations in Myanmar, but this has resulted in the development of many great bars, cafes and restaurants that make Inle Lake an even more charming place to spend a few days. It’s certainly a marked contrast from the hustle and bustle of Yangon and Mandalay.
There are many activities on offer to occupy your time in Inle Lake. Some of the best day trips include trekking expeditions from Kalaw village where 1 to 3 day routes are available at an average cost of USD15 per day; cookery courses where you can shop at the local market for ingredients and learn to cook traditional Shan food for around USD15 and of course a day trip by boat on the lake.
When it comes to exploring the lake there are many different options of routes and prices, but you can expect to pay around USD10 for a private boat that takes a more standard trip around or up to USD15 to avoid some of the markets and shopping stop offs and includes destinations like In Dein village with its hundreds of incredible pagodas. If you do anything during your time in Inle Lake, be sure to take a boat trip on the lake, it’s truly a fascinating experience.
Some other highlights include a visit to the Red Mountain Estate winery which offers stunning views of the valley and wine tastings for under USD4 per person, and Aung’s puppet show which takes place nightly and showcases a traditional Myanmar marionette performance and costs just USD3.50.
Getting in and out
There are plenty of transport options to get into Inle Lake from other destinations in Myanmar. If cost isn’t too much of a consideration and you’re looking for comfort as a priority for your journey then an internal flight will be by far the best option.
Heho is the local airport, around an hour away from the lake, and is approximately a 1 hour journey from Yangon, just 30 minutes from Mandalay and 40 minutes from Bagan. Many of these journeys are run multiple times per day and costs are relatively low with a number of providers running the service.
A more commonly used option, especially by locals, is to take the bus, usually from either Yangon or Mandalay. It’s definitely not the most comfortable option but it’s great if you’re on a budget – costing around USD12 from Mandalay and taking approximately 8 hours, or up to USD20 for the 12 hour journey from Yangon.
As with all buses in Myanmar they are heavily air conditioned, so do be sure to bring plenty of layers if you decide to take the bus. An eye mask and ear plugs are also recommended as often the buses play music throughout the night and the lights aren’t always dimmed.
The main argument against getting the bus to Inle Lake is the condition of the road between Mandalay and Nyaung Shwe (the local town to Inle). Whilst they are trying to improve it, the road is very bumpy and extremely winding in places – if you suffer with motion sickness or are a nervous passenger then this option probably isn’t for you.
If you’re on a really tight budget or want to take an alternative journey, there’s also a train that runs to Inle Lake from Yangon, but it does take around 30 hours.
Most people choose Nyaung Shwe as a base from which to explore Inle Lake. It’s a smallish town where most of the accommodation and eating options are located, and isn’t far from the lake itself. There are many guest houses and hotels to choose from, with a double room typically costing more than it would in Yangon or Mandalay but providing better value for money than Bagan.
We found the standard of accommodation to be higher, with many guesthouses relatively recently built. A typical cost would be around USD25-USD30 for bed and breakfast. If you’re looking for a more unique stay, there are also luxury hotels located directly on the lake itself.
The town is small and easy to get around on foot or by bicycle, and there are many eating and drinking options offering Western and traditional Myanmar cuisine. The food can be more expensive than other places due to it being such a popular destination for tourists, but there is street food available with the night food market in the town centre a popular option.
Based in Shan state, the food is similar to that of Northern Thailand, and Shan noodle soup or salad are local meals that must be tried on your visit to Inle and can be found from as little as USD2-USD3.
Monsoon season is between May and September and produces heavy rain so be sure to avoid visiting during these months. However, do be aware that the climate of Inle Lake differs to much of the rest of Myanmar, meaning that even in the high season of January and February it can get very cold in the mornings and evenings and does rain occasionally.
It’s generally a very safe place to travel; just take normal precautions when booking tours to ensure that you’re using a reputable agency and take care of your personal belongings. Many choose to take anti malarials in this area as mosquitos can be an issue – be sure to check with your doctor before travelling.