Inle is a freshwater lake in Myanmar’s Shan state (whose eponymous noodles are also worth a try here). It’s the second largest lake in the country at a size of 116 km2, with a population in the neighbouring area of approximately 70,000 people, known as the Intha.
We arrived here by night bus from Bagan as a last minute decision, shortening our stay in Yangon. With only two days to spend in the Inle Lake area, we opted to hire a boat to guide us around on our first, which turned out to be an effective way to see the lake in a short amount of time.
The day started off with a visit to a cheroot factory. The word “cheroot” originates from French and Tamil, referring to a cigar where both ends have been clipped off in the making. Inside a Burmese cheroot is tobacco flavoured typically with star anise, tamarind, pineapple and honey. After watching a woman at the factory roll cigars effortlessly, we asked to try our hand. Only then did we discover the skill required to tightly roll the cigars, with the woman informing us that she had been making cheroots for 11 years now.
Despite not being a smoker, I did take a puff of the star anise cheroot I had rolled and found the taste surprisingly pleasant.
Lake Inle is world-renowned for its lotus cloth, bearing qualities of both linen and silk. To make such a fabric, the process is extremely laborious and resource intensive – as many as 32,000 lotus stems are required for a single square meter. The versatility of such cloth has not gone unnoticed, with fashion houses in Europe and Japan beginning to adopt the material in their designs and charging prices in the thousands of dollars for each piece.
Outside the workshop, our boat was waiting amidst others to take us to the next destination, the overall display colourful.
We were then taken to have lunch in a local home, built on stilts and accessed by rickety bamboo bridges. We ate in the family’s living room where they had set their table for the two of us, but prepared enough food to feed an entire family. Lunch featured local ingredients including fish from the lake, local tamarind leaves for salad, tomatoes from the floating gardens, as well as other leafy vegetables grown on the waters. The food was delicious, but despite my best efforts, I was unable to finish the quantity served and felt a little sentimental, knowing that the family likely did not afford themselves to what they had offered us often.
In the afternoon, we were brought to a local shop where a few Padaung (long neck) women from the Kayan tribe were weaving and posing for photos with visitors—a tourist attraction in themselves. By wearing traditional brass coils, the necks of these women aren’t actually elongated, but rather their collarbones are pushed downward and ribcages compressed, giving them the illusion of a longer neck. It was said that initially, these rings were donned to prevent the enslavement of Kayan women to neighbouring tribes by rendering them less attractive. Despite harbouring a few ethical reservations having done some reading online, I snapped a few quick photos of the women and left them a tip in the jar set out, hoping that the proceeds would go to them.
Finally, the sun was starting to set and we began to make our way back to shore with the journey in and of itself taking almost an hour. I’ll admit, at this point I was a bit disappointed about having not seen any of the Intha fishermen so prominently featured on Inle Lake postcards, but it had memorable day nonetheless.
Then, in the distance we saw a fisherman checking on his daily catch. The tip of a submerged bamboo stick indicated the location of each net he had placed earlier in the day.
At the entrance to the lake, at the very end of our tour, we finally encountered the long awaited Intha fisherman. These fishermen are known for rowing in the standing position, using a leg to tend to the oar and for the traditional conical nets that they use to catch fish. These days, despite such techniques still being used, many of the fishermen encountered by tourists at the lake are posing for tips like ours, cheesy maybe, but still undeniably skilled, with their poses making for some great shots.
The next day, we took advantage of the free bikes available where we were staying and rode along their recommended loop. Highlights included views of canals, rice farms and a visit to a winery. We topped it all off with a drink on their rooftop bar.
We stopped at Red Mountain Winery to do a wine tasting in the afternoon, after a brutal bike ride up a mountain to get there, as advertised by the name of the place. I didn’t see any lush vineyards or even any vines for that matter, probably because it was the wrong season (dry). The wine was nothing to write home about (too hot to grow good grapes), but the experience itself was worth repeating—trying out different types of wine outdoors and soaking in this view.
Albeit touristic, Lake Inle is a refreshing and scenic detour away from the buzz of Mandalay and Yangon, recommended on any trip to Myanmar.