We step off the bus to an unexpextedly chilly February morning. I immediately unload my luggage and ferret out my only jacket for this trip, giving myself a pat on the back for packing it on top. Now more comfortable, my brain swiftly becomes Sherlock-level-perceptive, simultaneously registering the following: it is 4:30 in the morning and is almost completely dark; we are in the middle of what looks like a no man’s land; there is only one physical structure, a derelict building behind us, door ajar but with no other sign of being inhabited. All causes for alarm, Sherlock might conclude, and yet I remain unperturbed. I notice other travelers starting to enter the building, seeking refuge from the cold almost perfunctorily, as if being dropped off in an aphotic, middle-of-nowhere field were an everyday occurrence. Surely they have a plan?
The plan, I soon find out, is to wait. Turns out that somewhere between heeding my survival instinct for a jacket and assessing our situation, a pick-up truck came to bring some passengers to the town center, and has promised to return for the rest. I welcome the wait, as I don’t find knocking on doors at an ungodly hour begging for a room appealing. See, we don’t have a hotel reservation. Not that we need one – we are not actually spending the night at Inle, and will instead be taking the night bus to Mandalay – but we have also just come from an overnight bus and we badly need a shower.
Fast forward to 30 minutes later and we are already in a decent and reasonably-priced hotel (thanks to the shuttle driver’s recommendation), and prepping for the Inle Lake boat trip (can you tell I’m already sleepy, cheating with this shortcut, and itching to have this published? 😀 )
Admission at checkpoint: K10,000
Standard trip: K15,000 per boat up to 5 persons
Including Indein: K20,000
Farther down the lake: K45,000
Lunch at a floating restaurant: K3-6,000
Hotel: Gypsy Inn, K25,000 for two
An Inle Lake visit is a rare opportunity to be introduced to Myanmar’s various tribes – Shan, Pa-O, Taung Yo, Danu, Kayah and Danaw – and their craft within a single space in a remarkably short period of time. And while I wished we had time to actually visit the individual tribes and see them in their natural community, to me the Inle Lake boat trip is the next best thing. We were introduced to silversmiths, weavers, tobacco-makers, and boat builders, among others. What I especially appreciated was that there was no pressure to buy, not even from the boatman who stands to gain commission from sales in these visits, and so it became a pleasant day of learning more about the tribes’ crafts.
I have to say, though, that the most fascinating for me is the Intha tribe. Because it is difficult for the fisherman to see beyond the reeds and floating plants in the lake by merely sitting on the boat, he stands on the stern of his skiff instead, one leg supporting his body while the other is wrapped around the oar, driving the blade through the water in a snake-like motion.
Watching them, I felt like we were intruding an intimate communion between man and lake in this time-honored practice, but I can’t help but request our boatman to come closer, closer… just a little bit closer.
The 22-km long Inle Lake is also sufficiently wide at 11 km, giving every visitor ample space to fully experience the lake – its vastness; its still and silvery water; the misty mountains in the background; houses-on-stilts, floating markets, and seemingly-floating pagodas; the occassional commuter boats; and lush floating gardens that lie on a bed of weeds. If you have a keen eye for birds, even birdwatching is possible, as the area is also a recognized bird sanctuary.
One of the best times to visit is in late September / early October, when they celebrate the Phaung Daa Oo Paya Festival, where the four revered Buddha images are ferried around the lake, and leg-rowing races among villages is held. Strictly speaking, there are five Buddha images, but only four are paraded. And these are different in that they are face-less and look more like lumps of gold, with ever-changing figure as Buddhists offer “gold leaves,” sticking them to the body and continuously adding to the golden Budda images.
I’ll end this post with one of my favorite photos from the trip: Burmese brothers in one of the floating markets. Not the best photo but it reminds me of how happy and playful they were, and how happy I was, witnessing the scene.
– Best to start early. Try to catch the sunrise if you can
– Although sharing a boat can save you money, make sure you have the same expectations and plans from the trip, e.g. how long you intend to stay in the lake, which trip interests you most etc. We were lucky to have shared with two Swedish guys who had a similar plan, so we paid only K3,750 each.
– Boat has no roof but usually has umbrellas provided. Still, put on sunscreen.
– Can be chilly in the morning (depends which month you go), but boat usually has blankets.