There are so many things to do in Inle Lake that you won’t be able to find anywhere else in Myanmar – nor anywhere else in Asia. Set in the Shan Plateau, Inle Lake is an incredible destination that cannot be missed from your Myanmar itinerary. When talking (or writing) about Inle Lake it is not just the lake itself – the region is divided into three areas: the lake, Nyuangshwe (where most tourists stay) and Tuanggyi.
From the floating villages on stilts to the vibrant floating market, the beautiful Indein pagodas, lotus silk workshops to wine tasting and an unforgettable sunrise boat tour – sightseeing at Inle Lake is unlike anywhere else we’ve ever been! There are so many Inle Lake attractions we wished we had more time but squeezed in as much as we could as well as a few tips to ensure your Inle Lake tour is as epic as possible.
HOW TO GET TO INLE LAKE
Following an epic 3 days in Bagan, we took the overnight bus from Bagan to Inle Lake. As mentioned, the town nearest the lake is Nyaungshwe, where most visitors stay.
We travelled via JJ Express, leaving Bagan at 10pm and arriving in Inle Lake at 6am. Our Bagan to Inle Lake bus ticket cost 47,000 MMK (approx. £25.00) for both of us.
This included a small packed lunch, water, blanket and pillow. The seats were spacious (even by Darren’s 6ft 4 standards) and we did manage to sleep despite the bumpy roads and endless horn beeping.
Eye masks & earplugs are a definite must have for backpacking Myanmar especially if you plan on the overnight bus from Bagan to Inle Lake.
WHERE TO STAY IN INLE LAKE
If you are wondering where to stay in Inle Lake, we’d recommend the Thousand Island Hotel in Nyaungshwe for many reasons. Firstly, following our overnight bus from Bagan to Inle Lake, we were able to arrange an early check in for a small fee.
Secondly, the hotel was rated as a 3 star, but thanks to the striking décor and rooftop bar we’d happily rate it higher. Our room was large and spacious with beautiful views over Nyaungshwe township as well as the canal leading to Lake Inle.
The hotel also sat literally on the water which was ideal for our Inle Lake boat tour as we didn’t need a transfer or have to haggle for a taxi. It was also within walking distance to the bus station and our favourite restaurants in Inle Lake so the location could not be better for all the amazing Inle Lake attractions.
As mentioned, the hotel had a rooftop bar which was the perfect place to relax and enjoy the sunset each evening. We also loved watching the boats with local families and fishermen come and go, the views were truly incredible.
Amazingly, we paid just £21.00 per night for a private ensuite room, which included breakfast. Search the best prices for Thousand Island Hotel here.
WHERE TO EAT IN INLE LAKE
As our Inle Lake itinerary was jam packed, we needed to refuel regularly. To our delight, Nyaung Shwe offered some of the best restaurants we’d visited during our entire Myanmar backpacking trip.
We loved the food here so much, we dedicated an entire post to the restaurants in Inle Lake. There was such a variety of cuisine there should be no issue in finding a restaurant to suit all diets and budgets.
A few of our favourites include:
Paw Paw Restaurant: A social enterprise (that also offered Inle Lake tours & treks) with all profits going towards education fees for local women. The setting is just as amazing as the food – a truly beautiful place to eat!
Live Dim Sum House: Hands down the best dim sum we’ve had in all of Asia. They had also recently banned plastic bottles during our visit.
Pancake Kingdom: Immediately noticeable by the giant “bored of rice?” sign outside which made us giggle. Offering both sweet and savoury pancakes, we recommend the banana & chocolate or lime juice and sugar.
THINGS TO DO IN INLE LAKE
Now you know where to stay in Inle Lake and hopefully have a foodie suggestion or two, you’re ready to begin planning what to do in Inle Lake. We only had 3 days but managed to squeeze in every one of these Inle Lake attractions so we’re sure you’ll manage them all too.
1. Cycle your way round an Inle Lake bike tour
One of the most popular things to do in Inle Lake is hire bikes and do the cycle loop round the lake. Our hotel offered bike rental for 2000MMK (approx. £1.10) for a few hours. However, we rented from a shop on the street called Century Inlay for the entire day for only 1500 MMK and we didn’t have to return the bikes until 6pm.
Do note, helmets are rarely provided with your rental which can prove a tad terrifying when cycling on roads with so many motorbikes (and even cattle at times.)
Given that the lake is 22km long and 10km wide, the Inle Lake cycle loop takes anywhere between 2-4hours, depending on the route you choose. You may also have to take a short ferry ride to the other side. In the 40degree heat this sounded too much like hard work, so we found somewhere far more suitable to cycle to – a winery.
2. Wine Tasting at Red Mountain State Vineyards
When searching for things to do in Inle Lake, we were not expecting a winery to be one of them. Better yet, it was close enough that even we would manage to cycle there. From Nyaungshwe to Red Mountain Estate Winery is around 5km – you could walk it in less than an hour, however we found it far more fun cycling.
You will cycle past a few small villages, farms and friendly locals all whilst on smooth, tarmac roads so the cycle is safe and pleasant. The entire route from Nyaungshwe to the winery is flat until the very last few minutes where there is a super steep hill to the winery itself.
We parked our bikes at the bottom (there is a shelter for them) and decided to walk up the hill. There was also a beautiful sunflower field here where the bike shelter is, so we couldn’t resist a photo or two before tackling the hill.
On arrival at the winery the views were incredible and we were gasping for wine (as per usual) after our tough 20 minutes of exercise. It was 4500mMMK (only £2.50) per person to do the tasting, but to our horror it was cash only and we only had our bank card.
We searched frantically in our pockets to summon up any change and fell a whole 30p short. The kind staff at the winery even offered to take us back into Nyaungshwe on their motorbike to pick up cash but having never been on a motorbike before we were nervous to hop on the back.
Instead we used our change to purchase just one glass of wine – between us. At least our 5km cycle wasn’t a total waste of time even if we did only have a few mouthfuls of chardonnay each.
The wine was pleasant (we’ve been spoiled with New Zealand wine) but the views made the experience so worthwhile. Whether you’re a wine fan or not, a visit to Red Mountain winery is one of the best things to do in Inle Lake to relax in the sunshine and absorb the views of the valley. Just remember to take cash to make the most of the experience!
3. Hop Aboard an Inle Lake Boat Tour
Without a doubt one of the most popular things to do in Inle Lake is explore the lake itself and the best way to do this is via a boat tour. An Inle Lake boat tour is incredibly easy to book – we’d been in Nyaungshwe less than 5 minutes and had already been offered at least 4 tours from guides outside our hotel. We simply took a stroll up the street and compared prices and booked ours at Century Inlay for 20,000 MMK for both of us.
When booking an Inle Lake boat tour, there are a few tips to be aware of:
IS IT A REAL TOUR? It may feel like every boat owner and his granny can offer boat tours of Inle Lake. Most are indeed legit tour companies, and others are enterprising locals attempting to make a quick buck. Although we cannot fault our tour (we loved every minute) do not expect a full blown tour guide with historical facts and legends who will be able to answer every question. Our guide had little English and made very little conversation, but he was incredibly friendly and we felt safe the entire time.
DEPARTURE TIME: We specifically wanted to see the sunrise and fishermen at Inle Lake – make sure your tour leaves early as we found some which didn’t leave until 8am, ours left at 5:30am. You can also book a sunset boat tour instead.
ENTRY FEES: Your Inle Lake boat tour will include many stops, all of which are free to enter/are included in the boat tour fee. At the majority of these stops you are encouraged to make a purchase however there is no obligation. Double check with your guide that there will be no extra entry or ticket fees expected once you have paid for the tour. We recommend taking cash just in case (especially if you plan on seeing the performing fishermen – more on that later).
HOTEL PICK UP: Depending on where you decide to stay in Inle Lake you may require a transfer from your hotel to the boat. Luckily ours was within walking distance, yet someone from the tour company still came to our hotel at 5:30am to take us to our boat. Check when booking your Inle Lake boat tour that the transfer is included and if not, how much a local taxi would cost.
DRESS APPROPRIATELY: Myanmar is hot (especially if you’re backpacking Myanmar in dry season) but an Inle Lake boat tour can be incredibly chilly especially as you’re on the water, wind in your hair before the sun is even up. You may also stop at pagodas or monasteries during your tour where your shoulders and knees should be covered so bring a shawl or trousers to keep warm and cover up if needed. Our boat also provided us with blankets to snuggle up at sunrise.
Although each Inle Lake tour varies, the following items are the main things to do in Inle Lake that nearly all boat tours will take you to.
4. Photograph the Fishermen at Sunrise on Inle Lake
We need to let you in on a little secret. Of all the things to do in Inle Lake, witnessing the famous “one legged” fishermen at sunrise was high up on our list. It was the only reason I agreed to get out my bed at 5:30am and we were delighted to be one of the first tourist boats on the lake.
Little did we know (thanks to no other travel blogs spilling the beans) that these fishermen are indeed actors. It is very rare to see the traditional fishermen on Inle Lake, as it’s sadly a dying art. To entice the tourists (and fools like us with cameras in hand) enterprising locals dress up and literally dance around on one leg for you to photograph.
You will then be asked for a donation by the farce fishermen for taking a photo. We paid 1000MMK (and luckily had cash, unlike the winery.) To our shock the fisherman said our donation wasn’t enough and demanded more money. Thankfully, a boat with far more tourists started coming our direction so the fisherman made his way to them, likely knowing us Scots don’t hand over cash easily.
Although sunrise on the lake was spectacular (one of the best we’ve ever seen) the whole fishermen farce tainted the experience slightly, so we hope sharing the truth will let other travellers know not to believe all the photos you see on Instagram.
5. Purchase some Jewellery at a Silverware Workshop
Our next stop on our Inle Lake tour was a silverware workshop, located in one of the many floating villages that sit on stilts above the lake. It was such an incredible experience entering the endless canal-like streets and witnessing local life on the lake – it reminded us of Venice in some ways, but with walkways, houses and bridges made of bamboo instead of brick.
Alongside the numerous floating villages there was large stages set up for Thingyan Water Festival – the Burmese New Year which was taken place the following week, when we were in Yangon.
Needless to say we were at the silverware workshop SUPER early (around 7am) so the sleepy silverware staff were understandably quiet and begrudgingly demonstrated traditional methods for carving and creating jewellery in silver. They kindly also offered us a cup of tea before it was time to head back on the boat for next Inle Lake attraction.
6. Souvenir Shop at the 5 Day Rotating Market
Of all the things to do in Inle Lake this was the one I was most excited for. Known as the “5 day market” the rotating market is where the local craftspeople such as silversmiths from the Ywama village sell their wares. The market appears in a different location on the lake each day hence the name, but during our visit it took place in the Ywama village within a pagoda complex. (You can check the market schedule here.)
Farmers and fishermen had stalls within the complex, with the remaining villagers selling their produce from their boats. The majority of produce is grown in “floating gardens” on the lake itself. The locals have engineered bamboo grids which sit on top of the lake which the vegetables grow on – a unique scene to witness during your Inle Lake boat tour.
It was an exciting atmosphere to listen and observe the endless stalls of vegetables, jewellery and artisan gifts at the 5 day market. We purchased an anklet and a hand painted book but could’ve spent hours wandering the market and chatting with the friendly locals – especially as we were the only tourist.
7. Have a chat with the Paduang Long Neck Women
Of all Inle Lake attractions, we felt quite uneasy about visiting the Padaung “long neck” women and had decided not to visit when offered the chance in Pai, Thailand. We understand it is one of the most popular things to do in Inle Lake but we felt uncomfortable that these women were a tourist attraction – like a people zoo.
Our opinions changed as soon as we met them however and they were so welcoming and encouraged us to ask questions about their culture and this unique tradition. There is no uncomfortable fanfare or crowds wanting selfies like a circus, instead you just pop into their workshop and sit down with them for a chat as they’re weaving.
We completely understand this is not something every traveller would agree with, but we felt we learned a lot by chatting with the ladies and are glad we decided to visit as part of our Inle Lake boat tour. You can read more about the controversial history and exploitation of Padaung women here before deciding if you want to make a visit part of your trip.
8. Be Amazed at the Lotus Weaving Workshop
From the many workshops and myriad of craft shops, the Lotus weaving was one of the most fascinating things to do in Inle Lake. We were mesmerised by this traditional technique and the resourcefulness of the locals, using the lotus flowers to create silk which was then woven into garments and scarves.
The entire process was explained from plant to product – workshop to showroom, with the opportunity to buy a lotus silk scarf or shawl at the end.
In a country where Buddhism prevails, it makes sense as unlike ordinary silk, no creatures need to be killed to make it. Lotus weaving was once popular throughout Southeast Asia, but now Inle Lake is one of the only places where you can witness this ancient technique. There are numerous lotus weaving workshops on Inle Lake however, particularly in the floating village of Paw Khon.
We didn’t purchase from the gift shop as we sadly couldn’t afford it on our backpacking budget. To produce just 1kg of lotus thread can take up to 2 months which is reflected in the price – lotus silk scarves can cost $400+ with the fabric reminding us more of a linen than a shiny silk, but exquisite non the less.
9. Visit the Floating Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda
Visiting The Phaung Daw Oo pagoda is one of the most popular things to do in Inle Lake because it is the most highly revered monastery in the area. Like the floating villages, the pagoda is also built on stilts and the boat will drop you right at the entrance.
Following a few steps up from the water you will be met with the golden splendour of Phaung Daw Oo, instantly recognised by the vibrant golden stupa topped with an ornamental hti.
The reason for the Phaung Daw Oo’s popularity is due to the ornate shrine which sits in the centre. It is home to 5 Buddha images which are over 800 years old. They are believed to have been brought to Inle Lake by Alaungsithu, the King of the Bagan empire in the 12th century. He was a devout Buddhist responsible for building of most Bagan pagodas until he was gruesomely murdered by his own son.
You will be forgiven for not being able to find these famous Buddha images as they have been covered in so much gold leaf over the years that to us, the appeared like small gold lumps and were completely unrecognisable. (As shown in this photo)
Of all the temples in Bagan and temples throughout Asia we had visited, Phaung Daw Oo was the first where no women were allowed near the centre shrine. Only men were permitted to attach the gold leaf.
When we left Phaung Daw Oo, our boat driver gave us each a thin bamboo stick. He explained they were a traditional snack and inside contained a sweet porridge like substance. Unfortunately we cannot remember the name (despite lots of Googling) but appreciated the kind gesture.
10. Cheroot Smoking & Boat Building
Never did we imagine listing smoking as a fun thing to do in Inle Lake, however we were brought to a Cheroot workshop and found it a fascinating tradition. Cheroots are essentially cigars made from a blend of tobacco, bark, roots and sundry leaves. Super cheap to produce (and purchase) some are even sweetened with honey and banana. They are wrapped in a corn husk and sometimes tied with a red silk thread.
The Cheroot “factory” has around a dozen women hand rolling as they sat on the floor, they explained each “flavour” and allowed us to sample for free. In return they asked for a donation, but oddly wouldn’t let us put it into the donation box as they said their boss keeps all the donations from the box, instead she put the donation in her pocket.
Outside the Cheroot workshop/factory there was a boat builder who was more than happy to explain the technique of traditional boat building. He was repairing two boats – one which was 15 years old and this was the first time it needed repairs, the second was 28 years old and this was the third time in for repair. He explained the longevity of the boats used for life on the lake are due to the traditional boat building techniques which have been passed down from generations.
11. Be Mesmerised by the Indein Village & Pagodas
After our experience with the Kawasan Falls in Cebu, Philippines, we refuse to believe anything we see on Instagram. However, Shwe Inn Dein pagodas were even more spectacular in real life than the photos that inspired us to go. They were undoubtedly a highlight from our 10 days in Myanmar.
Indein is a small village to the West of Inle Lake and not all Inle Lake boat tours will take you there as it’s an 8km detour. In the Summer months it’s also hard to reach as the water level is too low. Although we were visiting in peak hot season, we had specifically asked our boat tour if a visit to Shwe Inn Dein (aka Indein pagodas) was possible and he promised it was. Although our boat did get stuck in the silt for a minute or two, our kind guide got out and waded through the mud to dislodge it.
Of all the things to do in Inle Lake, this was by far our favourite, from the scenic journey through Inn Thein creek to the pagodas and beautiful market the entire experience was epic and we’re so glad we asked if it could be part of our Inle Lake boat tour.
When your boat arrives in Indein village, head over the bridge as this leads to two groups of ancient pagodas – Nyaung Ohak and Shwe Inn Thein. Nyaung Ohak means “group of banyan trees” and in many ways they do appear like a forest as they are tightly packed together in various states of repair.
Shwe Inn Thein on the other hand was nothing short of magical and in far better condition. There is a 700m walkway lined with market stalls before reaching the pagodas. As we were visiting in peak hot season (and low tourist season) there weren’t many stall holders in the famous market. However, the market stalls that were there offered crafts and souvenirs that was insanely beautiful from hand beaded artwork to puppets there was so much we wanted to buy.
You’ll immediately notice the noise at Shwe Inn Thein is as enchanting as the beautiful stupas themselves. Thanks to the endless tinkling from hti umbrellas that top the stupas, the noise here made us feel as if we’d entered a fairy tale. Better yet, there was only us and one other family so we had the freedom to explore crowd-free. It was a definite highlight from our time backpacking Myanmar and we were sad to leave. If you’re wondering what to do in Inle Lake, ensure Shwe Inn Thein pagodas are top of your list.
12. Visit Nga Phe Kyaung – The “Jumping Cat Monastery”
The Nga Phe Kyaung monastery is one of the most popular things to do in Inle Lake because it is both the biggest and oldest monastery in the area. It is referred to as the “jumping cat monastery” because monks had trained the resident cats there to jump through little hoops.
This quickly made Nga Phe Kyaung one of the most popular Inle Lake attractions, but you won’t be able to see these performing pussy-cats on your Inle Lake boat tour. This is because it was banned a few years ago. We believed this was due to the animals being used as entertainment however once at the monastery we were told this was because people would visit just to see the cats instead of practising religion which upset the monks.
Regardless, the monastery is an interesting visit and worthy of including to any Inle Lake tour. Again, we were the only tourists on our visit and could not believe how many local people waved us off as we left on our boat. There was even monks asking for our photo, which made us feel like fake celebs and was the perfect end to an epic Inle Lake tour.
Let us know in the comments what you get up to during your visit or if we have missed your favourite things to do in Inle Lake. It was definitely a highlight from our time in Myanmar and writing this post has made us want to return even more!