Inle lake is one of the main tourist attractions in Nyaung Shwe, a small township in Shan State.
When you enter the area near the lake, your driver (if you’ve taken the bus) will stop, and someone will hop on and collect an entrance fee from tourists of 13500 Kyats, or around 10 USD each.
The people who live on and around the lake are mainly from the Intha ethnic group and live in small wooden stilt houses on and around the lake.
They harvest the lake’s resources and live mostly self-sufficient lives, farming, fishing, and catering to tourists.
Undoubtedly, one of the best things to do in Inle Lake and see how the local people live is to take a boat for the day and have someone show you around.
Boat hire is usually 20,000 Kyats for the whole boat with a Government enforced maximum of 5 people allowed. You could hire a private boat, or find some boat mates to share with and pay 5000 Kyats each.
We stayed at Ostello Bello Nyaung Shwe, they have lots on offer for guests including nightly activities on the rooftop and is a very sociable hostel. Check out their latest prices here.
While fishing techniques have changed on the lake over the years, fishermen are still willing to demonstrate the techniques of the past.
Your captain will slow down so you can take some photos of them and a small donation is expected, we gave our fisherman 1000 Kyats.
Your captain will most likely take you to some shops where they demonstrate how they make things and then usher you into the shop to buy something.
We visited a silversmith and lotus weaving. We are not big shoppers so we opted out after that and asked him not to stop at anymore, but we wish we had visited the cigar-making demonstration.
Off then to Indein Village which was our furthest destination on the tour. Some people say you can’t do this in the hot season due to low water levels, but this may be old information as there are a series of half-dams raising the water level, and we visited in the middle of the hot season with no problem.
Check with your captain or the hostel/hotel for some local knowledge.
You will see the ruins of Nyaung Ohak Pagodas as you get off the boat. As you walk towards the town you will come to the entrance of Shwe Inn Thein pagodas which are at the top of a covered walkway lined with vendors selling souvenirs. There is a small camera fee to pay here.
While the Shwe Inn Thein pagodas are beautiful we hopped off the walkway to explore the old, crumbling ruins being reclaimed by the jungle, and these were definitely a highlight.
Time for lunch! We were dropped off for lunch somewhere before heading off toward a shop where we were told we could see some Kayan people, known also as long neck women.
We were a little conflicted seeing them as they are sitting in a souvenir shop gracefully waiting for someone to take a photo with them and perhaps, in turn, you would buy something from the shop.
It felt a little… wrong, as though they were on display as though in a zoo. I would have preferred to visit an actual village where they live if it was possible.
We then headed to the floating gardens. These were amazing and the vegetables, mainly tomatoes and zucchinis at the time of our visit, were massive. The captain navigated his way through the narrow canals and the other boats, and we ended up at our last stop of the day, the jumping cat monastery (Nga Hpe Kyaun monastery).
The names’ promises were false; the cats were trained to jump through hoops by a monk who is no longer alive and now the cats prefer to sleep all day!
As you walk around, check out the collection of images showing the story of the Buddha.
You can arrange the boat tour to end at sunset, but we left at 8 am and got back at 3 or 4 pm. Perhaps if we had done some more of the handicraft stops we would have seen sunset also.
There are some other really cool things to do while staying in town. You can hire a bike and ride the circuit through town towards a local winery and stop for a tasting before heading off on your bike again toward the monastery.
You then take the boat across the river with your bike.
They may try and charge you more than you should pay and tell you it takes longer than it really does, but it should cost around 5000 Kyats for the boat. Our bargaining wasn’t the best and we paid 7000 Kyats.
Once you cross the river there are hot springs where you can stop for a soak.
Then turn right back into town, down the bumpy road. The whole trip will take 2-4 hours depending on how fast you ride and how many stops you make.
The five-day rotating market is mainly for the locals selling vegetables and everyday items, and the name suggests is in a different location on each of the five days it’s on each week.
Hot air ballooning is popular and another way to see the lake and its surroundings. It is expensive however and doesn’t operate during the hot season.
A favorite with many travelers is doing the hike either from or to Kalaw, a small hillside town in the Shan State about 50 km from Inle Lake.
The hike takes either two or three days depending on your preference and if starting from Kalaw will take you through local villages, to a monastery, and then finally towards Inle Lake itself where you’ll need to pay the tourist tax before heading to your travel destination.
While a boat ride is definitely high up on the list of the best things to do in Inle Lake, the town itself has some charm and plenty to discover. We wouldn’t miss the boat ride, but we’d strongly suggest travelers hire some bikes to explore the other parts of the region as well.