Time stands still at Inle Lake in central Myanmar’s Shan Hills. KATIE ROBERTS explains why this stunning region deserves a place on your bucket list.
For years, my plan to visit Myanmar was thwarted by unforeseen events. So when I finally found myself standing on the tarmac at tiny Heho Airport with hubby Sean (and the kids safely with their grandparents), I was feeling very pleased with myself. Door-to-door, the journey took almost a day. But leaving urban Singapore at 8am and arriving at this rural lake by 4pm was utterly worth it. And the best bit? You can visit any time of the year – summer and winter are equally appealing.
Things to see
Inle Lake is home to tens of thousands of residents who follow a traditional lifestyle. (Apart from having adopted boat engines and mobile phones, that is!) Being 22km from north to south and 12km from east to west, the lake can really only be explored by boat, and preferably one with a motor rather than oars, although the latter is of course more relaxing – for the passenger, anyway. Life on the lake is mellow and uncontrived.
There’s much to see on a one-day trip around Inle Lake. Highlights include the Intha fishermen who traditionally row their wooden canoes with one leg wrapped around the oar to leave their hands free for fishing and managing their conical fishing nets. The image of one of these men, backlit by a glorious sunrise, is justifiably famous. And it’s just as impressive to see in person.
Our itinerary included a look at the floating gardens, a term that fails to evoke the huge scale of the thousands of acres of tomatoes, chillies and flowers that seemingly float on the lake surface. These gardens are an important source of food and income; mud is dredged from the bottom of the lake and piled onto bamboo sticks that are lashed together to form a bed thick enough to support trellises. While the long-term sustainability of this agricultural practice is in question, it’s an impressive sight, especially when villagers row in and out between the lines of plants to harvest their crops.
Inle’s “five-day market” is held in five different locations over five days. No matter where you visit (we caught the action at Nam Pan), it’s a haven for souvenir hunters and photographers seeking to snap local people doing their shopping. The market stocks everything from locally made cigarettes to food, clothes, boat parts and household supplies; villagers pack their purchases securely into long-tail boats before motoring home to their stilt houses.
Cottage industries abound on and around the lake, and opportunities to observe craftsmen at work are included in many tours. It’s impossible not to admire the skill and patience that goes into lotus-silk weaving, bamboo crafts, umbrella-making, cigarette-making, metalworking (knives), boat-making, and silver-smithing – and there are numerous opportunities to purchase souvenirs.
Temples and pagodas
Cultural and religious sites abound. They include Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda, a massive Buddhist temple. There’s also Nga Phe Chaung Monastery, famed for its jumping cats; and Inthar Heritage House, renowned for its art gallery, hotel training school and Burmese cat breeding centre (unfortunately closed on the day we tried to visit).
If there’s a must-visit, it’s the Indein Pagoda. This ramshackle complex of a thousand Shan stupas (14th-18th century) rises higgledy-piggledy up a hill. Those at the top are adorned in gold and silver, with hundreds of tiny bells that chime in the wind. There were few tourists the day we visited, and it felt otherworldly – like Buddha himself was blowing the breeze. We spent a good hour scrambling amongst the older, more dilapidated stupas. And we braved the weeds to snap some Indiana Jones-worthy photos.
We managed to fit all that in with a leisurely stop for lunch before motoring back to Sanctum by 3pm. The fascinating tour was arranged by the hotel and at US$35 was absolutely value for money. If we’d had another day, we could have headed further south and explored more of the lake.
Where to stay
I was coming down with flu when we arrived at Inle. Illness can change how you feel about your accommodation. Sometimes when you make a booking, it’s with the idea of being out touring all day – “We just need a room to sleep in.” At other times, you think: “We’ll want to chill out at the hotel and relax.” Thankfully, I’d opted for the latter. And I’d also added an extra day to our itinerary, giving us three full nights and days at Inle Lake’s Sanctum Inle Resort. It proved perfect for laying low with a lurgy. A couple of quiet walks on the lake’s edge and some lovely meals were more than satisfying.
This 90-room resort has been designed in Spanish monastery style, complete with cloistered arches and lashings of beautiful teak and raintree wood. Rooms range in size from 40 to 150 square metres. They feature lofty ceilings, natural wood floors, plush beds, air-conditioning, Wi-Fi and cable TV. There are four different room types and inter-connecting rooms for families and groups, plus larger free-standing villas. The monastic-style windows and doors open to wide verandahs perfect for contemplating the lake.
The in-house spa features a wide range of treatments. I opted for the signature tamarind full-body scrub, which saw me lathered in a chunky brown paste of fresh tamarind, herbs and salt. I felt very clean and fragrant afterwards.
There’s a swimming pool to cool off in, but the climate is mild and pleasant year-round owing to Inle Lake’s location on a plateau 800 metres above sea level. Peak season is November to February, and I’m assured it’s something akin to an English winter. They light a fire in the cosy bar, and that’s when the beautiful Scottish wool blankets will be needed as you snuggle up in the sublime lounge with a good book, and possibly a whisky.
Beyond Inle Lake
- Grab one of the hotel’s free bikes and explore Red Mountain Winery
- Visit Nyaung Shwe town
- Head off to Kalaw, to the Green Valley Elephant Camp
- Visit Pindaya, a cave of 9,000 Buddha statues, a 2.5-hour drive away
- Take a hot-air balloon ride over Inle Lake
The delicate local cuisine is unique, though influenced by Myanmar’s Thai and Indian neighbours. Mohinga is a popular dish all over the country. It consists of a fishy broth of ground chickpeas and vermicelli noodles, topped with a squeeze of lime juice and a sprinkle of chilli flakes. Like Chef Lin (pictured), I could eat it every day of the week! One of 11 in the kitchen at Sanctum Inle Resort, he worked abroad in Doha in the Middle East, and also in the Maldives, before returning to Myanmar.
The resort is self-sustaining, with a vegetable garden for salad, herbs and fruit; it also bakes its own bread. Popular restaurant items include fish in banana leaf, Shan noodles and tea leaf salad. With a terrace overlooking the lake and indoor and outdoor dining options, this is a divine spot to enjoy any meal.
Getting to know the locals
Sanctum’s Resident Manager Nyo Nyo lived away from Myanmar for 15 years while working in hospitality at the Shangri-La in Dubai and Muscat. She decided to return home to be part of the opening team at this luxurious resort. Nyo Nyo speaks perfect English – all Sanctum staff learn English in school, and a teacher visits the resort to conduct additional in-house training. As for touring the area, she recommends a visit to the Indein Pagoda. “I love travelling up the weirs by boat, watching as the water level gets higher and higher. It’s an exciting trip,” she says.
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