Inle Lake has become an iconic location to visit simply because of the juxtaposition of the floating gardens of reeds, silt, and bamboo in the backdrop of the Shan State’s breathtaking mountains. Famous for their one-legged boat rowers, Inle Lake is also perfect for relaxing boat rides, ambling walks, or long trekking trips into the surrounding Shan villages of the Pa-O, Intha, and Danu ethnic minority groups.
Also an official bird sanctuary, the lake lies at an altitude of 3,000 feet, surrounded by tall grasses and reed beds, densely forested hills, and, depending on the season, can be wreathed in mist. Overall the lake is about 13 miles long with calm, clear water. Surrounding the lake are villages on stilts inhabited by the Intha people, one of the many hardworking and resourceful ethnic groups in the area.
A major attraction for the lake is the leg rowers, fishermen who artfully steer their boat around the lake while standing. They keep one leg wrapped around an oar, which pivots on their hip, and uses their other leg to balance atop of their boat while simultaneously ready to submerge a fish trap into the waters below. Beyond their fishing prowess, the Intha people are also talented gardeners, cultivating flowers and vegetables over a floating tangle of water hyacinth, anchored to the lakebed by bamboo.
The main body of the lake is accessed by a narrow waterway north of the lake, which leads to the town of Nyaungshwe. The boat ride from the town to Inle Lake will take visitors past waterside temples and villages as well as the patient, quiet herons in the quiet, less populated areas. Within the lake itself, there are islands to visit as well.
Going further down the waterways branching off the lake, are also opportunities to see and visit the friendly locals. South of the lake is another long and narrow waterway which leads to the 17th century ruins of Sankar where Shan and Pao-O villagers live harmoniously. Also in that area is the ancient Tharkong Pagoda, where legend states that an early Burmese king founded it.
The mountainous area around the lake offers many opportunities for trekking and walks that the more adventurous travelers will enjoy. From Nyaungshwe at the lake’s northern end going into the Shan hills to the east will take you to Pa-O villages and breathtaking views of the lake along the journey. Walks through rice paddies around the lake will also bring you to the numerous Shan stupa ruins that are dotted around the countryside.
One area that is only accessible by canoe is tied to the Myanmar belief of nats, or spirits. A large nat shrine is located in a grove of banyan trees by the lake’s shore. The surrounding growth of trees and vegetation has been allowed to grow into a dense jungle because no one has dared to cut it down for fear of angering the spirit.
A large nat shrine located in a grave of banyan trees by the lake shore is accessible only by canoe. The trees that surround the shrine have been allowed to grow into a swampy jungle as no one dares to cut them down for fear of attracting the spirit’s wrath.
Festivals near Inle Lake
Phaung Daw U Pagoda Festival
In October Inle Lake hosts the famous Phaung Daw U festival, when rowing races are held throughout the eighteen day festival. Around hundred leg rowers balance on one foot and synchronize their movements paddle and to showcase skills against competing teams.
Main activities of the festival revolve around processions held for four revered Buddha images which are transported from Phaung Daw U pagoda on festive royal barge to villages where ceremonies take place.
The fifth Buddha image is nowadays kept in Phaung Daw U pagoda.
According to local legend centuries ago all Buddha statues were lost in the lake with sunken boat. Only 4 out of 5 could be found. The fifth Buddha had miraculously returned to its place at the Phaung Daw Oo pagoda.
Taunggyi Balloon Festival
Tauggyi Balloon Festival is one of the biggest festivals in Myanmar. Tens of thousands of people gather to celebrate during the full moon late October or early November each year. The festival’s origins come from the practice of floating one’s sins and bad deeds away via lanterns during this time of the year.
All the balloons are made of bamboo and Shan paper. During the day you can see animal shaped balloons being launched and in the evening larger regular hot air balloons with small lanterns attached to them flying high above the crowds before starting to release fireworks.
Destinations in Inle Lake
Inn Thein is a temple complex of over 1,000 structures on the shores of one of the villages near Inle Lake, accessed by a boat journey through the gentle currents of a river tributary. Crumbling in places and slightly derelict, the temples give visitors a sense of stepping back into time, having endured hundreds of years of weathering.
Kakku is a temple complex of nearly 2,500 stupas on roughly a square kilometer of land in the heart of the Pa-O territories. When counting the surrounding area, the number doubles to over 5,000 stupas. The reason for the dense proliferation remains a mystery, but the sight of the stupas, which date as far back as the 11th century, rising above the plains is quietly wondrous.