Inle Lake

Best Things to Do: Inle Lake Myanmar

It’s the iconic Myanmar shot: Inle Lake fisherman tiptoeing on the edge of their boat. We’ve all seen it. The round hat, traditional clothing and deadly concentration, all of it dangling delicately over the lake below. It’s true that Inle Lake is the most touristy destination in Myanmar and perhaps the most developed. But don’t let this put you off. ‘Touristy’ in Myanmar isn’t quite the same as in other South East Asian countries, and there’s still plenty to see around Inle Lake.

Yes, the accommodation may be a little more expensive and the locals more eager for the sale. The posing fishermen are now sadly only actors employed by the Myanmar Government, but Inle has still managed to retain some of its charm. For the moment, at least.

It’s a classic stop on many backpacker itineraries, so plan to spend around three days in the town of Nyaungshwe to do Inle justice. Many arrive by trekking from Kalaw, with Inle Lake the final stop their only multi-day hike in Myanmar. The small town centre has enough to keep you occupied and a boat tour of the lake is an essential day trip. Our Guide to the Top Things to Do Around Inle Lake will help you see it all while keeping the costs down.

Getting There

AIR

Inle’s best served airport is Heho Airport (HEH) – around 45 minutes drive from Nyaungshwe.

BUS

Getting to Inle Lake on a budget can be a little confusing. Our bus from Mandalay (Chan Mya Shwe Pyi Station) took us to Shwenyaung at around 3am. We got off here and waited for the connecting bus from Shwenyaung to Nyaungshwe. Surely they could have used two less identical names for neighbouring towns? Regardless, some buses from Mandalay will take you via Shwenyaung, some will go direct to Nyaungshwe. Expect to arrive in to May Gate and take a free transfer on one of the trucks to your accommodation.

TRAIN

It is also possible to get to Inle Lake by train. There are two train stations in the surrounding area: Shwe Nyaung and Taunggyi. From each station, you will need to take a tuk-tuk towards Nyaungshwe/Inle Lake.

A quiet street in Nyaungshwe with trees arching over the road in Myanmar
Myanmar’s answer to the Dark Hedges in Nyaungshwe

WEE TIP: no matter how you arrive to Nyaungshwe, you’re going to have to pay your government entry fee of 15,000MKK. This is a supposed ‘environmental fee’ but the actual workings behind your governmental entry fees around Myanmar are very sketchy. You can read more in our WIT about the ethics of visiting Myanmar here.

Best Things to Do Inle Lake

Inle Lake Boat Tours

This is what everybody comes to Inle Lake for, and it’s definitely achievable on any Myanmar-backpacker-budget. Hiring a boat with a captain, it’s easy to cram a day full of sight-seeing on the lake, including pagodas (you guessed it), temples, silver workshops, lotus flower farms and more.

We’ll be honest with you – our boat tour was pretty disappointing. It rained most of the day and we weren’t particularly interested in most of the places we stopped. By the end of the tour, we were pretty fed up with the locals (fishermen included) jumping in to action like robots, putting on a show, then wrapping up so that you’ll exit through the gift shop. A lot of people we spoke to loved their boat trips; sadly it wasn’t for us.

Boats pass with locals in Inle Lake, Myanmar
Passers-by at a local workshop on Inle
The ‘Fishermen’ on Inle Lake

Ah, the ‘traditional’ fishermen of Inle Lake. Sadly, due to a history of overfishing and non-existent (like much of Myanmar) environmental protection, many of those who used to make their living fishing the lake are no longer able to do so. The water level of Inle Lake is also decreasing rapidly so urgent action is needed to preserve this beautiful place, along with many others in Myanmar.

The fishermen you see posing for all those Instagram shots are now actors. Around a dozen of them will be waiting for the day-trips to arrive, gathering around the head of the river before it converges in to the lake. Your captain will slow his boat nearing the ‘fishermen’ and they’ll raise their basket, holding still so that you can get your shot. You’ll be expected to pay them around 500MKK each to take your photograph.

A local fisherman pulling in his net on Inle Lake, Myanmar
Some of the more genuine fishermen on the lake

Sure, they’re just guys trying to make a living, but we saw locals fishing turtles and fish from the waters in Hpa-an and keeping them in plastic bags on baking hot days so that tourists would buy the individual fish and release them back in to the water. They’d be caught again shortly afterwards and the process would repeat endlessly. These people are just trying to make a living too, does that make it right? We’ll leave the decision up to you.

For what it’s worth, there are still some local fishermen on the Lake using traditional methods – these skilled workers are fascinating to watch, and will barely even notice that you’re there.

Inle Lake Boat Tour Itineraries

A typical day of sightseeing on Inle Lake should include some of the following:

  • Stopping to take pictures of the traditional fishermen actors;
  • Stopping to take pictures of the real fishermen (if you ask nicely);
  • Inn paw (lotus flower weaving and cheroot workshops)
  • Silver workshops
  • Floating gardens in Maing Touk
  • Shwe Inn Dein Pagodas (Indein)
  • Phaung Daw Oo Paya (the golden rock)
  • Nga Phe Kyaung (the floating monastery)
A map showing a typical itinerary of a boat trip on Line, Myanmar
A typical itinerary of a boat trip

WEE TIP: you also have the option to add a visit to the famous long-necked women. We personally did not do this – it’s just not for us, and we’d heard about the women being exploited by local tourism agencies. However, it is one of the most popular things to do around Inle Lake.

Rolls of flavoured cheroots (cigars) handmade in Myanmar
Banana and mint cheroots were our favourites

A day trip organised through your hostel should cost around 15,000MKK per person. Since we wanted to skip a few of the sites without hanging around at ones we weren’t interested in, we got a private tour for a half-day for 23,000MKK. If you can organise a group of 4-6 other budget travellers to take a private tour we would highly recommend this. Otherwise, it can end up being death by tourist attraction, especially if you start at sunrise on Inle Lake itself.

Girl with her back to the camera amongst pagodas in Indein, Myanmar
Emma practising her IG poses in beautiful Indein

Regardless, Inle Lake is still one of the prettiest places in Myanmar (high praise coming from a pair of Scots spoiled with over 3000+ spectacular lochs back home). The mountains surrounding it create a perfect backdrop for every photo taking in the cold, dark waters, the vibrant green hills. We much preferred the time we spent in the surrounding attractions of Inle Lake, and probably won’t rush to do any sort of budget boat-trip when we return.

Get On Your Bike

Fancy some exercise? The cycle path around the Inle Lake is what you’re looking for, and you’ll tick off some of the sites in the surrounding area. You can’t cycle all the way around the lake, you cycle to Tofu Palace and take a boat from there across to the other side.

A map of the typical cycling route around Inle in Myanmar
A map of the cycle route in Inle

Just a warning – it’s not the easiest or flattest cycle, and your (admittedly free) bike for the day may just happen to be a rusted piece of shit. Make sure you’ve chosen some sturdy bikes (we didn’t and learned this the hard way) and set off.

Bikes on a boat crossing Inle Lake, Myanmar
Bikes came on the boat with us across the lake
The East Side

The route to Tofu Palace, initially heading east along the base of the Lake before turning and aiming north, should take around an hour. You’ll pass two sets of natural hot springs (with entry fees) and a pagoda with a viewpoint over the lake.

Tofu Palace offer free 45-minute tours of their workshop, with a whopping 23 different foods made from the tofu farmed and processed in the area. The staff here will also organise the boat you’ll have to take across the lake, bikes and all, (4,000MKK) to Maing Thauk teak bridge on the western side of Inle Lake. There are a few restaurants and bars here, and it was actually a pretty cool bridge to walk along, watching daily life come and go in the water villages.

A long teak bridge in Maing Touk Village, Inle, Myanmar
Emma walks the bike along Inle’s answer to U-Bein Bridge in Maing Touk

WEE TIP: Tofu Palace has optional tours for a donation. We were fed some admittedly delicious passion fruit, green tea and corn snacks while we waited on them to organise our boat across the lake. When we (politely) declined a place on their ‘free’ tour, they actually turned pretty sour. I guess we weren’t as interested in tofu as they’d hoped we might be.

The West Side

Leaving the bridge you’re almost directly at the entry to the second viewpoint up at Maing Thauk Monastery (referred to as Forest Monastery on the above map). We were completely underwhelmed with the view here, and considering it was a 15-minute cycle and a 30-minute walk uphill, we’d probably recommend just skipping it.

The road on this side of the lake has fewer potholes, less incline and passes a real hidden gem in Bamboo Hut where we’d recommend stopping for lunch. It’s hard to believe they weren’t charging more for the delicious food on offer. The final stop on your long day of cycling is Red Mountain Estate Vineyards & Winery – yep, a Burmese winery. A glass of red is the least your tired body deserves!

WEE TIP: On the first section of the cycle, we stumbled across this amazing sunflower field. Look out for it on your right just before you reach the hot springs – perfect photo spot.

A girl walks through a field of sunflowers in Inle, Myanmar
Emma couldn’t help herself when we happened upon a field of sunflowers
Day Trip to Kakku

Hidden in the hills East of Inle Lake, Kakku is easily reachable on a day trip from Inle Lake, although it may stretch your budget if you don’t find a group to go with. We didn’t find a group to go with, so ehm, we didn’t go. Songs of Travel offer tours (sign up at reception) however these only go once or twice a week, which isn’t ideal if you’re limited on time. It’s around a 2 hour drive there and the same back, and if you’re not completely over pagodas and temples by now, the views look absolutely great.

Nosey at the Farmer’s Market

Once a week there’s a farmers market in the centre of Nyaungshwe. There are all sorts of goods on offer and plenty of bargains to be had, as well as some tasty local food being cooked up.

A man stretches a lotus flower to reveal the thread within, Inle, Myanmar
It takes a month and 400 plants to weave a scarf with lotus thread. A year to weave a monk’s robes

Where to Stay

You’ve got two choices for Inle Lake: the budget option of staying in Nyaungshwe or splashing out and stay on Inle Lake itself. For backpackers like us, staying in Nyaungshwe was an easy decision. Accommodation on the lake itself looks beautiful, but you can expect to pay from $100+ a night.

Song of Travel our choice

Don’t let the façade of this hostel put you off (your tired eyes aren’t deceiving you after the night bus – it really is a massive ‘boom box’ shaped building): this hostel was the best one we stayed at in Myanmar. The staff are beyond friendly, dorms are spacious and the pods are really comfortable.

There’s free bicycle hire available and they even have a room dedicated to early check ins so that you can sleep after your night bus until check-in is ready. The staff genuinely make an effort to remember your name, and have every sort of map prepared for whatever you want to do that day, along with bags of local knowledge to pass on. There are daily group tours, and the generous (included) breakfast is changed up and delicious every single day. For those of us travelling on a budget in Inle Lake, it really doesn’t get much better.

There’s free tea and filter coffee available during the day, and plenty of snacks to accompany them too. Don’t miss out on the family dinner (extra) that takes place on the rooftop every Monday, where you’ll be able to sink happy-hour mojitos from 1,500MKK, dine with the volunteers, local staff and other guests, each of you munching your way through a never-ending buffet.

As you can tell, we enjoyed our time here. Song of Travel was probably the best hostel we stayed at during our whole South East Asian trip. We don’t make that statement lightly, promise!

Pods from 15,000MKK/$10

Mountains around Inle Lake make for great views in every direction, Myanmar
Mountains surround the lake and make for great views in every direction
Ostello Bello

The fail-safe, ever-reliable hostel option in Myanmar, we again heard great reviews about the Inle Lake branch from other budget-travellers. With an extremely central location close to the Night Market, this is a great option for solo travellers looking to join a group lake tour, which the hostel will arrange for a good price joining in with fellow guests…and since it’s an Ostello Bello you’ll be treated to the usual free spaghetti a few times a day.

Dorm from 18,000MKK/$12

WEE TIP: hostel prices rise during the annual festival every November in Taunggyi, and most hostels are pretty honest about it. They’ll arrange mini vans to take you to and from Taunggyi each night, at a cost. For this reason, staying in Inle Lake during the festival would have really stretched our budget.

Where to Eat

NIGHT MARKET

The first question for every budget traveller to Inle Lake: is there a night market? Rejoice! There is, and you’ll find all sorts of seafood, soups, noodles and rice dishes. Make sure and check out the busier one near the start – we ate here two nights in a row and were really happy with our huge noodle portions for dirt cheap prices.

BAMBOO HUT

As mentioned above, Bamboo Hut had to be our favourite restaurant during our time in Inle Lake. Delicious home-cooked food at extremely reasonable prices overlooking a field of dragon fruits; what’s not to love?

PUB ASIATICO

This modern & western venue is popular amongst tourists, especially those craving some home comforts. It may not be the most budget-friendly spot in Inle Lake but aim for happy hour where you can chill out with a beer, pizza and a game of pool.

CAFE CCM

For those in need of a coffee fix, head straight to this surprisingly hipster cafe located a little out of town on Yonegyi Street. It’s small, so best to take-away.

And there you have it, our Guide to Inle Lake on a Budget. Please get in touch using the Comments section below if you have anything to add. Heading to Mandalay next? Read our WIT here. If you’re heading to Hpa-an instead, find our WIT here too.

Inle Lake Summary

Example Plan:

Day 1:

  • Check in early
  • NAP, then grab a coffee from CCM
  • Hire some bikes and cycle around the lake
  • Enjoy a late lunch at Bamboo Hut
  • Have the family dinner if you’re staying at Song of Travel (on Monday only)

Day 2:

  • Take a boat tour around Inle Lake
  • Dine at the foot market

Day 3 (optional):

  • If you can organise a trip, enjoy Kakku. If not, head to your next destination
Accommodation:
  • Song of Travel
  • Ostello Bello Inle Lake
Restaurants:
  • Bamboo Hut
  • Pub Asiatico
  • Café CCM

Inle Lake Budget Breakdown

Getting There:
  • Mandalay (Chan Mya Shwe Pyi) Station – Shwe Nyaung Station
  • 20:30 – 04:00 with SNT Express
  • VIP 2+1
  • 12,500MKK

Total: 25,000MKK ($16)

Accommodation:

Song of Travel

  • 14-bed mixed dorm (breakfast included)
  • 15,00MKK ($10) pp pn x 2 night

Total: 60,000MKK ($39)

Entry:
  • Inle Lake Entry 15,000MKK x2

Total: 30,000MKK ($19.50)

Attractions:
  • Bike hire (free)
  • Tofu Palace transfer 4,000MKK
  • Inle Lake half-day private tour 23,000MKK
  • Entry to hot springs (optional)
  • Kakku tour (optional)

Total: 27,000MKK ($17.50)

Moving On:
  • Nyaung Shwe (May Gate) – Hpa-an (Clock Tower)
  • 16:00 – 08:30 with Shwe Loon
  • Normal 2+2
  • 40,000MKK

Total: 80,000MKK ($52)

Total for 2D/2N: 222,000MKK/$143

The above budget is for x2 people. Food and drink is not included.

This budget breakdown isn’t meant to be an exact record of what we spent, but should give you a rough idea of what you’re likely to spend.

*all currencies accurate at the time of writing*

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