Inle Lake is a peaceful yet bustling community of locals and travellers alike.
I’m standing by the side of a canal in the pitch dark. I’ve just hopped off the back of a motorcycle that picked me up at my hostel at the charming hour of 5am.
The short ride there, the icy air on my face, I’ve never been more grateful for the kindness of a stranger.
I didn’t imagine I would need winter gear when visiting Myanmar, but visiting Inle Lake proved me wrong. The evenings there get cold, and if you are planning on doing a sunrise boat ride, you will definitely need some warm fuzzies.
Luckily, a couple of lovely Danish travellers that I met in Bagan urged me to take one of their jackets and I couldn’t have been more grateful as I got into the long, skinny boat, wearing most of the clothing I brought, with a North Face jacket on top.
As every second person in Nyaungshwe (just a few kilometers from the lake) will offer you a boat ride, it’s no problem to book something. I booked through my hotel a day in advance for a full day tour, which worked out to $22 USD for 2 people.
Staying in Nyaungshwe is what most travllers opt to do, as it is more affordable than staying at one of the resorts right on the lake, and there are lots of options for hostels as well as restaurants.
It does mean about a 45 minute boat ride to get to where the actual lake begins, and hence, the 5am pick up.
As we rode down the canal, it was just light enough to see the outlines of trees and buildings on the shore, the rumbling hum of the motor at the back of the boat cut through the serene morning.
I was wrapped in a fleece blanket, wondering why I decided to do this at sunrise, freezing my buns off despite my borrowed jacket, toque and wool socks. As we reached the point where the canal opens up into Inle Lake, I had my answer.
Mountains on either side, the morning light against the misty water was absolutely breathtaking. We sat in the boat, motor now off, and watched as the sun peaked out behind the mountains to our left.
The infamous fishermen on Inle Lake were ready for us as we sat in peace, to put on a show: balancing his large, wire net on one leg, his other teetering on the edge of his own boat, one fisherman gave us a large grin.
I suspect there wasn’t any actual fishing going on in this instance, rather these men have become a necessary photo op at Lake Inle and probably make a living doing such acrobatics.
Once the sun was in the sky, we carried on and I prayed the sun would begin to heat my frozen bones.
We stopped at an outdoor market, just as the stalls were opening around 7am. We were lucky that there weren’t too many people there, and certainly no other tourists yet at this time of day.
The locals were having their morning tea sitting on plastic chairs at plastic tables, so I had a seat and pointed to the churro looking breads that the men at the table next to me were eating.
When the woman at the restaurant brought me hot, sweet tea and fresh, fried bread I couldn’t have been happier. I was finally warming up and watching the locals get set up for their day was like watching live breakfast theatre.
In general, boat drivers will take you on a route that includes many tourists shops, standing on stilts in different little water villages. I wasn’t so interested in stopping at most of these, so I just told my boat driver (who had a typed out list of places to stop) which places I wanted to stop at and which I didn’t.
The lake communes are really quite unique in themselves. There are “roads” laid out by “lawns” on either side and people have two boat garages and gardens, all floating on the surface of the lake.
I had heard about a Cat Monastery, where apparently at one time, cats roamed free around the monastery and the monks there had trained them to do tricks. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case any longer, even though everyone knows it still as the Cat Monastery.
The only cats found were all in a clan, eating treats on an outside dock, no tricks to be seen.
After 8 hours out on the water, I was finally warmed up and heading back to our starting location.
Despite the cold and the early wake up, I would encourage anyone visiting Inle Lake to do a sunrise ride. As the day goes on, more and more boats flood the waterways and the trip becomes less enjoyable.
My favourite part of the day was by far the first few hours, so I would definitely say that a half day tour would be more than sufficient.
There is beautiful country side around Nyaungshwe and renting a bike and exploring is another wonderful way to spend the day. If you stop at the Red Mountain Estate Vineyard, beware the never-ending uphill battle (if you’re on a bicycle, that is).
The wine wasn’t anything to write home about (but at $3 USD for a flight, who can argue?) and the view was outstanding.
As much as Nyaungshwe and Inle Lake are tourist hot spots, I’m really glad I decided to visit. As many visitors as there are, this meant I met some very cool travellers. And those first few hours in the early morning light made me feel like the whole lake was mine.