Lake Inle is not that large of a lake, though it certainly feels like it. Most people live very close to the lake and make their living from it. They fertilize their fields with the nutrient rich black mud they pull up from the bottom and they use the floating plants they gather to create floating gardens of tomatoes. Fish are caught to sell at the floating market that travels around the lake to a different city each day. Life completely revolves around Lake Inle and it’s a unique and beautiful place to see.
I was happy to be out of Bagan thinking that Lake Inle might be a bit cooler. Alas, it was just as hot and there’s the issue of the sun beating down on you all day. I rented a boat for 15000 kyat, about $18, for a day to visit the cities, sites and floating market around the lake. The boats are long, similar to Thailand, and have very loud diesel motors that kick up a great deal of spray from the long props cutting through the water. After hours of the pounding engine, your eardrums are so numb you barely notice the noise.
Leaving early in the morning is best since it gets hot on the lake. There’s a lot of activity on and around Lake Inle, regardless of what time of day it is. Most transportation is by boat and there are people going to the markets and tourists out sightseeing. Farmers are gathering mud and weeds from the lake to fertilize their fields. Perhaps one of the most interesting sights on Lake Inle are the fisherman paddling their boats. The Burmese on Lake Inle have a unique and highly distinct way of rowing their boats with their leg. This form of rowing supposedly started because the fisherman couldn’t see over the float weeds on the lake surface if they were sitting.
Since most activity revolves around Lake Inle in one way or another, it’s not surprising that the markets are on the lake as well. Unfortunately there were no floating markets when I visited. The water level was too low so the floating markets were inland instead of floating on the lake. To be honest, this didn’t make much sense since there was plenty of water for a floating market. Whatever.
The markets turned out to be fairly typical with fruits and vegetables for sale, along with fish and half rotting meat baking in the heat. On the way to walking to the market you have a few vendors trying to sell you souvenirs, but the Burmese are not pushy. They pretty much leave you alone. Nonetheless, it’s clear that tourism is becoming a greater focus for the people on the lake and one of the floating markets is purely a tourist trap.
The typical visit to Lake Inle includes a stop at a silver smith. I completely avoided this—I mean, who cares about some silver earrings? You can visit a hot springs, which are dirty, film covered pools of dank water a few kilometers walk down a winding road with no sidewalks or shoulders (not fun, especially in the heat; and dangerous). There are a few quaint cities to visit around the lake and the floating village of Yawama is quite beautiful to boat around. Nearly everywhere you go people are smiling and waving (kids especially seem to love smiling and waving at the foolish tourists baking in the heat as they swim in the water).
Certainly you’ll visit Phaung Daw Oo pagoda. Boats are everywhere in the canals near the pagoda, either motoring around or parked in massive groups. You’ll have to walk along thin boards strung together with bamboo railing that are supposed to pass for foot bridges if you want to get to the pagoda. There’s a great deal of activity around Phaung Daw Oo, but not much to see. You’ll have to take your shoes off even to walk around it, which means stepping in plenty of bird shit and god knows what else in the plaza around the pagoda. Of course, there is also Nga Phe Kyaung, or “Jumping Cat Monastery,” which is fun to visit only because it is so absurd to see jumping cats (video I took and put on YouTube).
Unfortunately, there is little distinction made between the places to visit around Lake Inle—they’re all treated equally even though they’re not. Nyaung Ohak was one of my favorite places and clearly a top-tier site around the lake, yet it’s only mentioned in passing as another stop on the lake itinerary. I loved Nyaung Ohak so much I’m giving it its own post next. (Correction: I originally thought Nyaung Ohak was Kakku Pagoda.)
Despite all that, Lake Inle is a strikingly beautiful place. There is so much that is unique to the lake that it really is a must see when you visit Burma. The Burmese people remain warm and welcoming even as you snap photos of them working their asses off on the lake so they can fertilize their fields of tomatoes or catch enough fish to sale at the floating market (or non-floating market, as the case may be).