It was my first day in Nyaungshwe, Myanmar, a bustling town that sits on Inle Lake, and already I was in awe.
“Wow, how in the world can they fish like that?” I exclaimed while watching local fishermen bring in the day’s catch. Standing on the stern of a wooden canoe, each fisherman used one leg to balance and one leg to propel a small oar in a snakelike pattern, all while holding onto a conical-shaped net bumbling with fresh fish. If it sounds difficult, that’s because it is. In fact, the rhythmic movements and steadfast balancing skills that comprise the fishermen’s unique rowing style are one of Inle Lake’s most well recognized characteristics.
After watching the skilled fishermen for an hour or two, I set out to explore the rest of the Inle Lake scene. The placid lake and surrounding rolling mountains set the stage for a myriad of fun activities; from hiking and cycling to vineyard visiting and sweets tasting options abound.
1. Boat trip
With the wind at your back, a cloudless blue sky above (hopefully) and lush, mountainous scenery to the left and right, few experiences can top a boat tour on the shimmering Inle Lake. Highlights include visits to teeny-tiny stilt-house villages, local craft shops, and filling up on scrumptious seafood.
Though before a day on the water can happen, you’ll need to decide on the length of your tour and the type of boat. A full day tour tends to include lunch and/or dinner stops on the lake and visits to lesser known sights and local markets, whereas a half-day tour sticks to the main attractions without a meal break. As for the type of boat, many tourists opt for motorized canoes (with a guide) over traditional non-motorized boats to cover more ground. Motorized canoes are a bit more comfy too—the extra breeze feels mighty fine on sweltering hot days!
Accessible only by boat, Inle Lake’s stilt house villages are one of the primary reasons to hop on a boat tour. Located sporadically throughout the lake, the villages are a testament to people’s ability to adapt to their surroundings. Life here is similar to anywhere else in the world, with families working, playing, and relaxing together, except for one major difference—villages are completely surrounded by water. All of the homes are on stilts, and the only way to travel is by swimming or boat.
Another standout while touring the villages are the floating gardens, where clever locals have built grassy patches that are chock-full of nutritious, colorful produce. Meandering through the villages’ floating gardens was my favorite part of the day—be sure to have your cameras ready.
There are a series of craft shops within the Lake too, where locals skillfully whittle logs into canoes, craft tapestries out of homespun thread, and create all kinds of tourist knick-knacks. Decide which craft shops are most interesting and hop out of the canoe and into a stilt shop to learn about local crafts and perhaps purchase a gift or two to bring home.
What else? The lake is home to several monasteries (some very crowded with tourists!), rotating markets and lakeside restaurants serving fresh seafood. With so many options, be sure to chat with your guide to discuss your preferences, thus guaranteeing a fun-filled day on the lake.
2. Cycle around the Lake
Bike enthusiasts will revel in the region’s dramatic scenery. Shimmering like glass and surrounded by picturesque countryside and tiny villages, Inle Lake’s landscape is sure to impress. Buy a map and rent either a cruiser or mountain bike at one of the numerous shops in town to see the scenery up close. Guides are helpful too.
One particularly scenic half-day ride is from Nyaungshwe to Maing Thauk, a quaint traditional village on the Eastern side of the lake that begins on dry land and spills into the water. A long wooden bridge connects the two portions of town. There’s a forest monastery nearby that affords stunning views of the Lake, and a couple of tourist shops too. The ride itself is approximately an hour-and-a-half long alongside pretty, rural countryside. Roads are mostly paved, but be prepared for bumps. And, of course bring sunscreen and water—by mid-afternoon the sun is sweltering.
3. Learn to make local treats
Visit any of the markets around Inle Lake and you’ll surely come across unique homemade treats. From crunchy noodle-like snacks to sweet chewy candies, locals know how to satisfy a sweet tooth! To watch and learn how the sweets are made, visit Kaung Daing, a picturesque Intha village that is located approximately 8km from Nyaungshwe. Here you’ll see villagers pull, mold, fry, bake and dry their edible crafts in the hot sun. With a guide that translates the local language into English, you can take down notes to recreate some of the yummy treats at home too.
Bikers can reach Kaung Daing on two wheels; though do expect a bumpy ride. There’s an unavoidable unpaved road for part of the way.
4. Plan a hiking getaway in nearby Kalaw
Approximately a three-hour car or bus ride from Inle Lake, Kalaw is a hiking Mecca where trekkers can access strikingly beautiful mountains that are dotted with tiny villages and colorful flora. During a moderately paced guided full-day hike, trekkers should expect to amble along well-trodden dirt paths through the mountain scenery, visit a village or two, and have a simple, but scrumptious local lunch.
For something more demanding, consider trekking from Kalaw to Inle Lake on a popular three day, two night hike with a guide. Make sure your fitness level is up to the task, and come fully prepared with sunscreen, water and healthy snacks.
5. Vineyard Visit
End a fun-filled day wine tasting at Red Mountain Vineyard, located approximately 3 kilometers from Nyaungshwe. The hilltop tasting room looks down upon rows of colorful grapes and leafy countryside, while Inle Lake gleams in the distance. Make a beeline to an outdoor patio table to take in the views. The wine is surprisingly tasty, particularly the chilled whites and there’s a small plates menu too.
Red Mountain Vineyard is reachable by bike, though be prepared to push your bike up a tall hill to access the vineyard.