World of Water: Discovering Inle Lake
Inle Lake … a vast expanse of shimmering blue, spanning 22 km long by 10 km wide, garnished with floating gardens, agile fishermen and villages on stilts, home to a rare and ancient way of life.
There’s an unforgettable way to experience the charm and traditions of this unique place, unobtrusively, without disturbing its rhythm.
It involves biking on secret trails along the lake’s edge, through bamboo forests, past water buffalo lazing in the sun, past family farms and fields of cabbage and garlic and sunflowers, past sheets of bright yellow peanuts and golden tofu drying in the sun. You’ll stop occasionally to discover a sugarcane distillery, a woman making rice crackers and then to sample some incredible local Shan food – along with some refreshing rice wine. Then you’ll continue your exploration by boat and kayak, gliding gracefully across the water to discover daily life in these villages perched above the lake.
This was the itinerary of a full day bike/boat/kayak tour I did with Grasshopper Tours , a company who impressed me with their good-natured professionalism, seamless organization and knowledge of wonderful local spots I never would have found on my own.
The tour begins at 7:45am at their office in the town of Nyaungshwe.
There, you’re greeted by your friendly and professional guide (in my case, by the charming Sam, a guy with a great smile and excellent English who doesn’t look a day over 25 but is actually 36.) Once everyone has arrived, he explains the nuances of the mountain bikes (the nicest mountain bikes I’ve seen in a very long time) and explains our itinerary for the day, pointing out on a poster sized map where we’ll be heading.
After the brief intro, we set out on a ride through town at a leisurely pace, stopping at Nyaungshwe’s photogenic bridge for photos, then following the road as it winds out of town along a paved road shaded by a canopy of leafy branches. Our group is 7 riders plus Sam, so a mechanic also rides along at the rear, ready to make any emergency repairs needed and making sure no one gets left behind.
The road continues along the northern edge of the lake, with a forest of tall trees on the right. On the left, water buffalo laze near the water next to small bamboo shacks. In the distance, hazy mountains mark the border between the sky and plains of grass. In the rainy season, the grass is lush and green, but now it’s dry and parched.
We leave the paved road and turn on to a dirt path that leads us into a bamboo forest. We pause in one shaded area for a water break, and Sam shares with us some interesting facts on Myanmar. In terms of land mass, it’s the second largest country in Southeast Asia after Indonesia. Officially the population is about 41 million, but in fact it’s home to an estimated 50 million residents, since during the last census, agents weren’t able to access certain conflict zones. Southern Shan state and its people exude such a vibe of peace, it’s hard to comprehend that even now there are still conflict zones in Myanmar, where fighting continues between the Burmese military and some of Myanmar’s ethnic groups in their ongoing quest for independence. There’s no danger of us stumbling across any of the violence; entrance to those zones are barred to foreigners and locals alike for security reasons.
After this informative break we continue on our way. The path leads us deeper into the tranquil forest. We pass a few houses and small farms with groups of people working in the fields. We stop at a sugarcane distillery, where sugarcane juice bubbles in large vats over fires fed by stalks of dry bamboo. At the moment they’re making large sheets of a kind of sugarcane fudge – they offer us a taste. It’s delicious.
20 minutes or so later in our journey we come to a village, and arrive at a small home where a woman is in the backyard making rice crackers by hand. She ladles a batter of ground rice onto a griddle that consists of a piece of cotton fabric stretched over a pot of steaming water. The batter cooks into a crepe which is then placed in the sun to dry into a large cracker. We get to try both the crepe and the cracker; they’re both good but I actually prefer the soft crepe.
Our next stop is at the back of a small restaurant. It’s simple, with no walls and a roof that shelters wooden tables on a dirt floor. We seat ourselves at one. They serve us Shan tea, followed by a colorful spread of Burmese salads served with huge round crispy rice crackers. The crackers melt in your mouth when they reach your tongue. The salads are the most delicious Burmese food I’ve tasted in 6 months in Myanmar. I’m astonished. They’re not too oily, not too salty, not too spicy – just a perfect blend of flavor, spice, texture and freshness. There’s tea leaf salad and green papaya salad and lemon salad and ginger salad. As the 4th salad is served Sam tells us, this isn’t lunch, by the way. This is just a morning snack. It’s too much food for us to finish everything.
Above: Salads and rice crackers, rice wine and the chef/owner
The woman preparing the food behind a low counter is one of the owners. A big genuine smile lights up her face constantly as she cooks and chats with customers.
At the end of the meal, they serve us a generous taste of rice wine. It’s different than the sweet rice wine of Kayah state. This is light, effervescent, refreshing and not too sweet.
After the meal, I walk out the front to check out the name of where we are. The sign is only in Burmese, and they have a hard time translating it directly. They tell me it says the owners’ names and rice wine shop, followed by words that sound like “Akow Miew” and mean something along the lines of “opens your appetite.”
Nourished and satisfied by this generous tea, we get back on our bikes. About 30 minutes later, we arrive at the lake’s edge. Two long, slim boats are waiting to take us and our bikes farther south. The boat ride across the enormous expanse of still water is idyllic. We pass fishing boats and floating gardens and other boats like ours and pagodas on stilts, with the hazy Blue Mountains in the distance. As their name implies, they do appear blue – a very pretty zen grayish blue.
30 minutes or so later the boats deposit us back on dry land. We get back on our bikes for a ride down another dirt path, which takes us through a tropical forest and past a stunning ordination hall on stilts, where monks are ordained at age 19.
After this short ride, we reach another set of boats, which transports us across the water to a village on stilts, home of the Inthar people – people of the lake, as they’re known. We glide past houses, monasteries, a post office, a school, volleyball courts full of kids playing and a water purification center, among other structures. There are 17 of these aquatic villages around the lake.
We arrive at our destination: Grandma’s Kitchen. It’s a quiet two story building with clean Western toilets (hurrah!). We are served another beautiful, generous, delicious meal. This time it’s hinn toke, traditional Burmese curry packs wrapped in banana leaves, made of rice flour and garlic and spring onions, along with banana flower salad, Burmese tomato salad, spring onion fritters and a delicious green salad of snow pea leaves. At the end of the meal we’re offered coffee and refreshing juicy watermelon.
Homes decorated with underwater potted plants.
After this feast, we fight off the tempting desire for a nap and instead settle ourselves into kayaks to paddle through the village for a closer look. Two competitive members of our group get into an impromptu boat race with a couple villagers. Such a different way of life, this world on the water, where the only way you can get anywhere is by boat. Or swim, in case of emergency.
It’s late afternoon by the time we return to Grandma’s Kitchen. We transfer into motorboats for the return journey to Nyaung Shwe. With the sun low in the sky, a soothing, surreal atmosphere pervades the lake. We pass fishermen on their boats, balancing on one leg and maneuvering their nets with the other in the iconic Intha style.
Once back in Nyaung Shwe, a 10 minute bike ride returns us to Grasshopper’s office, wrapping up the tour.
It was an enjoyable and unforgettable day. It felt genuine and non-touristic, like being taken under the wing by local friends who show you the best spots around their hometown – plus the bonus of the mechanic, who your friends probably wouldn’t think to bring along. A little glimpse of a unique, extraordinary world.
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While you’re in Nyaung Shwe, some other great places to check out are:
Live Dim Sum House – fantastic dim sum and great service.
A Little Treehouse - a quiet, gorgeous bamboo treehouse on the property of A Little Eco Lodge, a short ride or walk out of town. Beautiful for lunch or dinner, just avoid mosquito hour, call for reservations (+95 9 42664 9846), and try the Kayah rice wine.
The French Touch – wonderful breakfasts and atmosphere. Reportedly also great for dinner although I didn’t personally try it.
The rooftop restaurant at Nyaung Shwe City Hotel – great view along with delicious Nepali/Indian food and wonderful masala chai.
The rooftop at Ostello Bello: fabulous evening view and nice chill place for a drink, casual dinner or small bites (During high season may not be so chill, nonetheless worth checking out.)
The lakeside restaurant at Inle Princess: Excellent food with a stunning, serene view – ideal just before and during sunset. Try the banana blossom salad.
Aqua Lilies Spa – Luxurious but very affordable, and the traditional Burmese massage here is one of the best you’ll find anywhere.
Mid-Range - A Little Eco Lodge : A short ride or walk from town, quiet, elegantly simple, surrounded by nature, with a delicious Shan breakfast.
High End - Inle Princess Hotel : If this is in your budget, go for it. Simply sensational. And if you’re there, don’t leave without visiting the spa.
Been to Nyaung Shwe / Inle Lake and have some tips of your own? Feel free to leave a comment below!