Sitting 250 km south of Mandalay, Inle Lake is a must-see in almost every traveller’s itinerary. Easily reached from Mandalay by air, the lake lures visitors with beautiful glimpses of hill tribe people leading their traditional lifestyle on the water. You can travel to Inle Lake from Mandalay by bus and train, too, though both need much more to bring you to the destination. Trains are the slowest means of transport but the route they follow is incredibly scenic. Buses take about 8 hours but have to use one of the worst stretches of the road in the whole country.
Flights from Mandalay to Inle Lake
The airport for Inle lake is located in Heho, a small town about 30 km northwest of Nyaungshwe off the highway to Kalaw.
The flight itself lasts 30 minutes only and after landing you then need around one hour to get from Heho to Nyaungshwe, the main area with plenty of accommodation choices around Inle Lake. As it is always the case with airport taxis, rates are hefty. To get to Nyaungshwe, you will have to pay the fixed price of MMK25,000/USD19 what is actually from two to three times more than you will pay for getting the whole way from Mandalay to Nyaungshwe by bus!
To cut the expenses on taxi, try to book one before you arrive with one of the agencies in Nyaungshwe – ask in Mandalay as many tour agencies have their partners in all the main destinations throughout the country and can you help with this. Provided you have already booked you stay in Nyaungshwe, you can also try to check with your host whether they can organize a cheaper transfer for you – and many indeed can. MMK15,000/USD12 is a reasonable price for the ride.
There are over half a dozen daily flights between Mandalay and Heho operated by at least 6 companies, all offering more or less similarly priced tickets: expect to pay between USD75 and USD90 one-way.
If you are not on a shoestring, flying this stretch is not a bad idea as road conditions remain very poor and there is no direct railway line between Mandalay and Shwenyaung.
From Mandalay to Inle Lake by train
The train station for Inle Lake sits in the town of Shwenyaung, 13 km north of Nyaungshwe. There is no direct rail service between Mandalay and Shwenyaung, but you still can reach it by train connecting via Thazi.
Note With the current train schedule, it is impossible to reach Shwenyaung the same day you leave Mandalay. You will have to spend the night in Thazi and then continue your journey early the next morning.
The first leg from Mandalay to Thazi is easily covered by one of the Yangon-bound express trains – the morning train #12 at 6am and any of the two afternoon trains, #6 at 3pm or #4 at 5pm. All of them reach Thazi three hours later leaving you either with the whole day and night to while away or with the night ahead to have a tight sleep before you continue your travel east.
All the three trains offer both ordinary class and upper class seats (USD2-USD5, depending on where you buy tickets) and train #4 has sleepers, too, but as it does not take long to reach Thazi, there is not much sense in paying more for a sleeper.
Tip If you opt for a train ride between Mandalay and Inle Lake, it is worth taking the morning train from Mandalay to Thazi in order to spend the day exploring Meiktila. This historical town sits 20 km east of Thazi, and instead of spending the whole day travelling to Meiktila from Mandalay, you can jump on the opportunity to reach if from Thazi.
You have not so many options on where to stay for the night in Thazi; just head to the Moonlight Guesthouse (USD10-USD15) with their Red Star restaurant attached and enjoy warm hospitality of the owners.
Continuing by railroad from Thazi you have the only option at present – to take train #141 at 7am which reaches Shwenyaung by 5pm the same day robbing you thus off 10 hours of daytime. There used to be another train – #143 – leaving 2 hours prior to #141 at 5am and travelling at the same speed, but is has been cancelled until further note so rely on #141 instead.
At first sight it may look unreasonable to take a train from Mandalay to Inle Lake, but note that Thazi–Shwenyaung leg is quite scenic, and travelling by a slow train allows you to mingle with locals and experience ‘real Burma’ to a certain extend. Upper class seats tickets from Thazi to Shwenyaung cost between USD3 and USD6.
If at Thazi you realize that you have had enough of the train journey, you can always hop onto a bus from Thazi to Shwenyaung, Nyaungshwe or Taunggyi – it takes 5 hours only – but remember that the most picturesque part of the train ride is from Kalaw to Shwenyaung, and it is a real pity to miss it as far you find yourself half the way.
Note: There is more than one Shwenyaung in Myanmar. There is actually at least one more, located 45km south of Thazi in Mandalay region. To get to Inle Lake, you need to head to Shwenyaung in the southern Shan State.
At the Shwenyaung train station you will be met by enthusiastic tuk-tuk drivers ready to deliver you to any abode in Nyaungshwe for MMK8,000/USD8. You can as well walk about one km down the main road to the official tuk-tuk stand for Nyaungshwe – it can save you a couple of bucks.
Inle Lake Entrance Fee
There is a MMK13,000/USD10 entrance fee for foreign visitors to Inle Lake area now – in theory – payable only in local currency. In fact, US dollars are still accepted but you have to present a brand-new beautiful banknote, otherwise it will be refused with disgust. The entrance fee is collected at the toll post on the road to Shwenyaung – you should not miss it whether you are heading to the town from the train station, Heho airport or trekking from Kalaw. If you do miss the toll post by some reason, you will either be asked to pay at your guesthouse or hotel – or enjoy Inle Lake for free as normally nobody checks the receipt.
From Mandalay to Inle Lake by bus
If not for really bad road conditions between Mandalay and Inle Lake, buses would have been probably the best way to travel between the two, and that is why:
- There is a choice of departures throughout the day;
- There are different types of buses on offer with even the cheapest USD6 express buses, though rather worn-out, offering soft reclining seats; and more expensive USD10 ‘VIP’ buses providing extra space for legs and elbows with their 3-per-row seat scheme
But already at the point when you find out that buses need from 8 to 9 hours to cover 250 km from Mandalay to Inle Lake, you can figure out that you are not going to have the smoothest bus trip in your life. Buses travel slowly, the ride is bumpy, but the two ‘pros’ mentioned above still count.
An important thing to take note of while buying your bus ticket from Mandalay to Inle Lake is where exactly the bus is heading. ‘Inle Lake’ may refer to Nyaungshwe which is the best variant for you, but also to Shwenyaung and Taunggyi, both less preferable as you will need to organize an onward transport to Nyaungshwe as Nyaungshwe is the place where all the Inle Lake guesthouses and hotels are located.
From Mandalay to Inle Lake via Kalaw
The little town of Kalaw does not have much to boast of – a couple of dusty streets, a couple of simple guesthouses, mouthwatering one-dollar Shan curries and no ‘attractions’ in the full sense of the word. Yet if you have a couple of days in your pocket, put Kalaw into your travel bucket as a starting point for a two-day hiking adventure to Inle Lake.
Several local guides offer two-day programs with an overnight stay at a forest monastery and lunch and dinner at local houses. The path itself is not difficult though be ready to do a lot of walking under the sun. Not only will you enjoy the beautiful countryside but also have an insight into the daily life of hill tribes – not the kind aimed at pumping money out of tourists which is on sale all over at the lake.
You will see how bamboo baskets are produced, how traditional local cloths are woven and you will meet hill tribe ladies wearing their traditional costumes – either black or coloured. You will come across young 5-year-old water buffalo shepherds and will be able to make your contribution to support tribal people – they are in need of medications so a couple of blisters of paracetamol handed out to your guide will be appreciated.
Many travellers say that hiking from Kalaw to Inle Lake is one of the highlights of their trip to Myanmar overshadowing even the famous pagodas of Bagan.
Kalaw can be reached from Mandalay by bus or by train with a layover in Thazi. If you travel to Thazi by train and plan to spend a day in Meiktila then, do not go back to Thazi but hop onto a minibus from Meiktila to Kalaw instead.
Why go to Inle Lake
The iconic image of fisherman against the downing sun hauling in nets while balancing on one foot on their cockleshells lure hordes of travellers to visit Inle Lake. Arguably one of the most stunning attractions in Myanmar, Inle Lake does not offer classic guidebook sights. It is all about atmosphere, nature and culture. The 22-km long lake is inhabited by a variety of hill tribes who keep the lifestyle of their ancestors, building stilt houses and supporting their lives by fishing and fresh produce from floating gardens. Traditional handicraft products are sold at the colourful local markets, rolling hills around the lake hide hot springs and are a great destination for an afternoon bicycle ride and the amazing spires of the In Dein temples give the whole picture the necessary glitter.
Onward travel from Inle Lake
After visiting Mandalay and Inle Lake the two remaining ‘Big Four’ members you may want to check are Bagan and Yangon.
There are daily flights between Inle Lake’s Heho airport and Nyaung U, serving Bagan, or you can catch a bus from Inle Lake to Bagan – buses run west from Nyaungshwe, Shwenyaung and Taunggyi.
Yangon can be reached by plane, bus or train – depending on the way of travel you can spend from one hour to the devastating 30 hours to reach it from Inle Lake. If travelling by bus, it is a good idea to get off the bus at Bago to make a detour to the Golden Mount.
For destinations southeast of Yangon, including Thaton, Mawlamyine, Hpa-An and Myawaddy (for Thailand) connect via Yangon. There are direct buses from Shwenyaung to these destinations, too, but they hardly save you any time and money.