A member of the Myanmar Big Four club, Inle Lake is well served by flights, trains and buses from Yangon and from the two other most popular destination in the country, Bagan and Mandalay. At closer inspection though you will find out that the choices you are left with are not so bright as they may seem at the beginning: train from Yangon travels the eternity reaching Shwe Nyaung in 30 hours after its departure; while flights are numerous there is no competition between the government controlled airlines resulting in inflated rates. Buses may prove the best choice but these ones are also hit and miss: you have to choose your operator wisely enough not to find yourself in a cramped and worn-out vehicle which could have served the travel needs of your grandpa.
Flights from Yangon to Inle Lake
The main airport for the Inle Lake area is Heho, 30 km northeast from Nyaungshwe.
Flying from Yangon to Heho is by far the most popular way to reach the amazing hill tribe minorities of Inle Lake – in many cases, the elevated air-ticket price does not scare off even the most price-sensitive travellers – and when you look at the train schedule for Inle Lake you understand why.
At least six domestic airlines serve the route between Yangon and Heho but it does not influence the price tag anyhow: expect to pay MMK200,000/USD150 for a one-way ticket, no matter whether bought well in advance or a couple of days before your flight (provided there are any tickets left).
A direct flight takes one hour 10 minutes and there is a decent choice of departures throughout the day.
In Yangon, Yangon International airport lies 17 km north from the Central Railway Station. It is not served by public transport – to get there you have to take a taxi (MMK8,000/USD8). You still can cover the major part of the distance between the city and the airport by public bus – look for any bus heading to Sel Maing Kone or Maha Si (ask locals, otherwise you are unlikely to figure out which bus is ok for you) and then walk up Yangon Airport Road – it is 2.5 km to the terminal building. A taxi from the stop should cost you about USD1.
It takes about an hour to get from the Heho airport further to Nyaungshwe, where the majority of accommodation options for those who come to see the iconic fishermen of Inle Lake are located. If you take a taxi from the airport, the rate is fixed – MMK25,000/USD18. Getting out of the airport and flagging down a car along the main road can bring the price tag down to MMK15,000/11USD.
From Yangon to Inle Lake by train
The closest to Inle Lake train station is located in the town of Shwenyaung, 13 km north of the town Nyaungshwe,
It takes devastating 30 hours to get from Yangon to Shwenyaung by direct train. There is only one direct train #141, which leaves Yangon at 11am and reaches Shwenyaung by 5pm the next afternoon.
There are two types of carriages in train #141: upper class seats and ordinary seats. Needless to say that spending 30 hours in ordinary seats is an ordeal, which is not for everyone. Upper class seats, though much more comfortable, are not a first-class cabin, either. Frankly speaking, we cannot imagine the reason which would make you jump on a train to cover 600-something km stretch between Yangon and Inle Lake, but if you do, let us know about your experience!
Train from Yangon travels via Bago and Naypyitaw reaching the interchange station at Thazi 16 hours later, by 3.30am.
Note: Trains in Myanmar are slow, and to make the trip from Yangon to Shwenyaung even longer, train #141 makes a 3½-hour stop at Thazi!
After Thazi the train turns southeast and menders among the mountains before making its final rise to Kalaw, which is a great destination in itself and is a starting point for treks to Inle Lake which many travellers rave about considering it their main highlight of the whole journey to Maynmar. From Kalaw the train passes quite a scenic stretch of the route, travelling via Aungban and Heho, where the airport serving Inle Lake is located, and finally reaches Shwenyaung train station.
Though there is only one direct train from Yangon to Shwenyaung, as mentioned above, you can use two separate trains and connect via Thazi. Actually there is not much sense in staying in Thazi as it is just another junction town with absolutely nothing worth a separate trip, but take a note that beside train #141 there are two other trains from Yangon to Thazi, train #5, which leaves Yangon at 3pm and reaches Thazi at a small hour of 2am, and train #3, leaving at 5pm and arriving by 5am. The latter has sleeping carriages, which means 12 hours in a berth, not in a seat.
Connecting via Thazi using two separate trains, train #3 and train #141 saves you 6 hours of the travel time. Take train #3 from Yangon at 5pm, change onto train #141 at Thazi at 7am the next morning and get to Shwenyaung by 5pm the same day. Yes, a 24-hour journey is not what everybody dreams of but anyway it is better than 30 hours spent in a seat.
Tip: Meiktila lies only 20 km west of Thazi and thus is easier reached from Thazi than from Mandalay itself. If you decide to spend a night in Thazi, Moon Light guesthouse (USD10-USD15) and Red Star restaurant are your best friends.
Note Train #11 heading from Yangon to Mandalay passes via Thazi, too, taking the same 12 hours (it departs Yangon at 6am and arrives to Thazi at 6pm). It offers ordinary and upper class seats only. In Thazi you can then change onto train #141 at 7am after a hearty sleep at Moon Light’s. But if you want a connecting ride by all means, consider one of the above-mentioned options: either for a quicker transfer between Yangon and Inle Lake or for a chance to make a detour to Meiktila.
If you buy tickets in Yangon, the Yangon–Shwenyaung direct ride in upper class seats should cost you about USD11. Online purchase from abroad is likely to set you back about twice the price.
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 instead.
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 Yangon to Inle Lake by bus
Buses are a compromise between the high price of the flights and the length of the rail journey. It takes 12 hours to get from Yangon to Nyaungshwe by bus and costs between USD14 and USD22 depending on the type of the bus and the company you travel with. In this case a couple of dollars more can mean a far more comfortable journey in soft reclining seats, so do not try to save them.
One more important thing about taking a bus to Inle Lake is that there are direct buses from Yangon to Nyaungshwe bus station from where it is an easy walk to many guesthouses – no need to pay for a taxi.
Tip: Always check with your bus company where exactly your are going to be dropped off. ‘A bus to Inle Lake’ can bring you to Nyaungshwe, Shwenyaung highway junction or Taunggyi. You will need to take a taxi from the two latter to get to Nyaungshwe (from 30 minutes to one hour).
To hop onto a bus to Inle Lake in Yangon, head to Aung Mingalar Bus Terminal (Highway Bus Station). It is located north of the city centre further up from the airport. Local bus #43 can bring you from Sule Paya to Highway Bus Station in an hour and for MMK200 only. If going by taxi, expect to pay from MMK10,000 to MMK15,000.
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
The majority of first-time visitors to Myanmar prefer travelling clock-wise: getting initiated with Burmese culture in Yangon and then proceeding to ancient temples heavyweight Bagan, moving on to surrounded by a string of historical towns of Mingun, Inwa, Sagaing and Amarapura Mandalay leaving Inle Lake with its meditative vibe and dreamy landscapes for dessert to give the sweet aftertaste to the whole journey.
While this may look the best scenario, the reverse order is also possible. There are buses from Taunggyi, 30 km northeast from Nyaungshwe, to Bagan and flights from Heho airport to Nyaung U airport. The same options plus train are available for travel from Inle Lake area to Mandalay. If heading to the Golden Mount, skip Yangon and ask to drop you off the bus at Bago junction.