Vast and serene Inle Lake is one of the undoubted highlights of most trips to Myanmar. Its attractions are not just in its considerable natural beauty, however, but also in the stilt villages of the Intha (“Sons of the Lake”, descendants of Mon people from the far southeast), for whom it is home.
While the lake is very firmly on the beaten path, it’s big enough that you only really notice how many other foreigners are around when your boat pulls up at one of the stops. Even the markets are aimed more at villagers of the various ethnic groups that live in the area – among them Shan, Pa-O, Kayah and Danu – than they are at tourists.
A typical day-trip, taken in a long, narrow boat with a noisy outboard motor, will stick to the northern reaches of the lake. It will include visits to small workshops in stilt villages, some of the most interesting being cheroot making in Tha Lay and lotus fibre weaving in In Paw Khone, plus one or more pagodas and probably a market. You are also likely to see fishermen using traditional conical nets, propelling their boats using a distinctive leg-rowing technique, and other Intha residents of the lake tending to fruit and vegetables on floating gardens.
The ride west from Ywama to Indein, starting among reed beds before continuing between more solid banks with jungle on both sides, is a striking contrast to the wide open space of the lake. Boats stop at a stretch lined with souvenir stalls, which gets particularly busy on market day.
Just behind the village, at the base of a hill, is Nyaung Ohak, a set of picturesquely overgrown stupas with carvings of Buddhas, chin-thé (guardian lions), devas (female deities) and peacocks. Head uphill along a covered walkway to reach Shwe Inn Thein Paya, a collection of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century stupas which is being slowly and heavy-handedly restored. On the way down, look out for a path on the left which runs through a bamboo forest back to the riverside.
You may be offered the chance to see “long necked” Padaung women, so called because they wear metal rings around their necks (which actually push their collarbones down rather than elongating their necks). These women are often exploited by those within the tourist industry and it’s something you may want to avoid.
Boats converge on the tiered lakeside Phaung Daw Oo Paya, south of Ywama on the western side of the lake, to the extent that you’ll probably need to climb over a log-jam of them in order to reach the shore. The pagoda building is nothing special, but believers visit for the five bulbous Buddha images at the centre. Men (only) crowd around to add gold leaf to figures that are already so coated that they are no longer recognizably human in shape.
For an additional charge, it’s possible to go down to the village of Thaung Tho, which is left off most tourist itineraries. It has a pagoda but is particularly worth visiting on market day. You can also see potters at work in nearby Kyauk Taung village.