Inle Lake is south east of Mandalay and is fairly high at 3000 feet above sea level. The lake is large, around 13 miles long with a surface area of around 45 square miles. The lake is fairly shallow, around 7 feet and is long and narrow. There aren’t really defined shores to the lake but lots of marsh and tributary. Most of the hotels at the lake are on the water and there are also numerous villages and monasteries that are set on the lake. Streets and paths are replaced by water and cars are replaced by boats that are parked underneath the houses that are raised on stilts. Even the gardens are floating on masses of floating vegetation, anchored down by bamboo poles and piled high with seaweed for compost.
To get there you usually fly in to HeHo a sleep town whose only attraction is the airstrip you land on. From there you transfer via car a short 20 miles to Inle Lake, but the drive will take over and hour as the “road” is mostly single lane with shoulders of rocks and potholes, cars give way in order of size and you climb up over a series of mountains and then down into the town of Nampan where you have to pay an entrance fee of $5 usd per person for an Inle Zone ticket. Surprisingly for me at least once into town we pulled into a shop where they told us we had to hire a boat to take us to our hotel which was on the lake. We drove down to the dock, while parking and unloading luggage Austin proceed to have the loudest episode of barfing, induced by something he’d ate. I quickly exited and helped load our luggage into to different long boats. Each family of four settled into their cushioned seats and we zipped down the river toward the lake.
Before getting to the lake proper we took a sudden left down a smallish looking side canal and zoomed along until we came to a village, all the houses set up on stilts. We passed by two monasteries set over the water and then past floating gardens until we crossed over a bamboo log laid across the canal and pulled up to a dock. The engine was cut and two young men climbed on and proceeded rowing with their legs across a small lagon where we pulled up to the Inle Princess Resort dock. We were greeted with hot towels and a cool drink and escorted down a garden path to checkin and then to our rooms which overlooked a lilly covered pond. I don’t think I’ll ever have a more dramatic entrance to a hotel.
We arrived mid-day and after settling into our room, which was spacious, we headed over to the lodge for lunch. We sat outside on the deck overlooking the lake. The menu said that if you wanted to join them in the kitchen they’d be happy to help you prepare your food. Sofi decided to take them up on their offer and I accompanied her as we went down to the kitchen where she and a chef prepared her pizza. After lunch Stac, Miles, Sofi and myself headed out with Lesley and her kids on the lake. (Austin went straight to their room and promptly fell asleep). We road down past the village, near the lakes edge there was a huge swath of floating vegetation and with a big push on the motor when pushed through out onto the lake.
The first thing we came to was a series of boats on the water. The fisherman were fishing. They stand on the end of their long narrow skiffs with their nets in both hands, feeding the nets out into the water. WIth both hands occupied, their oar sits tucked under one arm with one leg curled around the end in the water. This way they can paddle along while keeping their hands free. Then they circle their nets and using big long bamboo poles they strike the water, scaring the fish into the nets where they gather then in and put the fish in their boats. From there we zipped down the lake to another small village where we visited a silver smith. Clearly part of the “tourist trap”, we learned how they heated and hammered silver, looked at their wares and left. Next was a quick drive by the floating gardens and then over to the Jumping Cat Monastery, Nga Hpe Kyaung. This is a beautiful old wooden monastery set on the water has amazing wooden statues of Buddha and of course the cats which will in fact jump through hoops. Cats are everywhere at Inle Lake, we saw them on boats, in peoples houses, we even saw one actually swimming across one of the waterways. The cats did jump, but I was much more interested in the decor, architecture and the monks.
Then we zoomed across the lake headed back north towards our hotel. We stopped along the way where the water was a bit deeper and I jumped into the water and swam for a bit before climbing back in the boat. I dried off as we raced north across the water and back to the hotel as the sunset behind the hills and the sky turned dark blue with the outline of orange sky. We enjoyed a delicious dinner at the hotel lodge. Later that night things began to really cool off and around 8 pm they came around with coals and lit the stove in our room to heat things up.
The next morning I woke up at 5:30 and got dressed. I met a local young man at the hotel’s dock and I sat down on a cushion in a small skiff. He put his paddle behind his leg and we set off across the lagoon in the dark. We paddled through the small village, and past the monastery. In the village people were brushing their teeth, and washing dishes in the water on the steps below their house where they reached the water. We paddled out among the gardens and toward the lake. That big bar of vegetation was too much for my oarsman to overcome and while we probably could have gotten over I would have ended up getting wet and with both cameras and my laptop in my backpack (I’d checked my mail before we’d left) I didn’t want to risk it.
Back at the hotel I went back to the lobby to check my mail again. Since leaving Yangon the wireless had become less and less. Inle was a satellite dial up and I could practically watch an email download over the course of a minute, bit by bit. The problem was we were running low on cash. I hadn’t really taken that “No ATM” thing serious enough and I hadn’t really brought a significant stash with me. We weren’t spending crazy but taking boat taxi’s and buggys and tour guides and eating at the hotel was starting to add up, we were running low. Luckily I was able to get ahold of a friend who lived in Singapore who could easily transfer money to our travel agent’s bank and they in turn had a group coming into Inle and would deliver me cash.
After grabbing Sofi and a quick break for breakfast we headed out again on the boats, this time with all the Sheppards Austin in tow, recovered from a day of rest. Miles had the “squirts” and stayed behind with Stac in the hotel. Our first stop was a small village nearby to see a morning market. We pulled up along side a long bridge. A young boy of five saw us zooming alongside and decided to race us down the bridge. He ran as fast as his little legs would go and beat us to the end. We walked the half mile into the market and saw folks selling everything from flowers to curved machetes they were making right there with bamboo bellows. I bought a few trinkets and we walked back to the boat.
We headed south on the boat again. This time our destination was a small building where they wove silk, wool and lotus plants into cloth. The building had two floors where they over a half dozen looms. All of them were run by foot power, with the shuttles whipping back and forth between the strings in various fashion, some by pulling a string back and forth others by flipping them by hand. The most complicated one we saw had a man that was throwing three different shuttles back and forth in various fashions to make a beautiful pattern of material. It was fascinating to watch them work, amazing that we as a civilization mastered this intricacy pre-industrial age and that people still keep the art alive, though here in Myanmar its because its the most economical way to do it not because they have a choice.
Afterwards we went to a restaurant that was run by the same people that owned the Inle Princess Resort, they had an organic garden next door where they grew all the fresh vegetables and in the lower level they had a cat house with 48 burmese cats with their own island. They were reintroducing the burmese cats to Myanmar and had plans to begin breeding them for sale. After a lovely lunch of fresh Inle Fish and coconut chicken noodle soup we got back in the boat and headed for Inthein. This involved a long boat ride up a tributary side river. Every once in a while there were short small bamboo dams that covered 80% of the river. The boat sped up and “jumped” up the 2 feet or so where the water poured through. Along the way we saw children walking home from school, men bathing in the river and several folks washing their water buffalo. Along the way we also passed several men riding down big clumps of bamboo that had been cut in the mountains and was being transported down to the lake.
We arrived in Inthein around 4:30 we were late in the day and most tourists had left, there were only a couple of boats at the doc. We walked through town, across the bridge and past the large bamboo forests toward Shwe Inn Thein Paya, a compound with over 1400 small zedi stupa that dotted the hillside. To get there though you had to first walk along a very very long covered corridor entrance way, it must have been well over half a kilometer, entirely flanked on either side by vendors. Sofi and I walked quick up the the walkway while the Sheppards moseyed near the entrance. Finally near the top we entered the actual temple, which was quite small and then walked out the back through the crumbling zedi, they were everywhere. Some were decaying and crumbling with spider-web covered buddha and others had been recently restored and gleamed in setting sun in their fresh coat of gilded paint. After exploring around for a while we found the temple closed, our shoes waiting for us outside the front gate. Skipping back down the walkway, most of the vendors had closed up for the night and had covered their wares or were carting them away.
We rejoined the Sheppards near the bottom and walked back out to the river, passing a ox carrying bamboo to the river, 5 little puppies curled in the dust sleeping and a couple of restaurants; one where we saw a monk playing pool with the local crew. Back on the boat we sped down the river and across the lake as the sun again set. I’d been on the water from sun up to sundown and was dead tired. I slept soundly that night.
Sadly the next day was our departure from Inle in the afternoon. We loved our time on this gorgeous lake where the light shines low and the people row with one leg. It felt ages away from anything I’d ever seen and I wish we could have stayed a week and I’ll dream of this place until we return.