When we were deciding where to go on our first trip to Burma, I kept seeing photos of places with unusual Buddhist iconography and every one of them was at Inle. That was enough to convince me it had to be on our itinerary for our first trip.
We found Inle to be just magical. Out every morning at dawn on the lake, the mist softened everything and photos looked as if they were taken in black and white. With the mist softening the sounds and obscuring things, it felt like we were the only boat on the lake – until we came upon a fisherman setting a bamboo fish trap.
I was surprised to hear Inle described by some at Lonely Planet’s Thorntree Forum as “touristy.” I couldn’t imagine what they were talking about. Then I learned that many people hire a boat for 4-6 people at a low per person price and are taken on the “tourist circuit” on the lake. Climb into a boat with a bunch of people for a “standard” tour of Inle and you will get the impression it is touristy, as most of the stops are workshops – basically shopping opportunities. But start early in the morning and go to places you want to see, and you will see very few tourists and will have a glimpse of a unique way of life as it has been for centuries there.
I don’t recommend doing the tourist circuit, so what do I recommend you see at Inle?
- If you can, take the full day trip to the southern lake, Sankar. This lake is in Pa-O country, so you will have to pay a fee to the Pa-O and also hire a Pa-O guide. It’s a nice, long ride to the southern part of the lake. I loved all of our time on the water. The boats are pretty comfortable; you sit low and have armrests. I loves watching the fishermen, seeing the children going to school via boat, and seeing goods transported from village to village. Sankar, with its partially submerged stupas is incredibly atmospheric. There is another pagoda with stupas on the southern lake, Takhaung Mwetaw Pagoda that is also well worth a visit.
- In a village on the main part of the lake, there is a pagoda and a stupa forest at InDien. You walk though the village, and then up the covered stairs to the pagoda. The stupas lower on the hill are in a picturesque state of decay, the ones higher up have been rebuilt and painted. Along the walkway, vendors set up their stall, with the nest array of quality crafts we saw at Inle.
- The 5 day market – unless it is at the floating market. The 5-day market rotates among sites. It’s a wonderful opportunity to mingle with the locals, to see the beautiful array of local produce. I find the floating market – even on an off day – to be an absolute circus.
- Phaung Daw Oo Paya – also known as the Golden Boat is a pagoda in the lake that holds the holiest Buddha images in the area. The images are taken out on the beautiful golden boats during festival time. The boats themselves are works of art.
- The Jumping Cat Monastery is on the tourist circuit. We went, not for the cats, but for the lovely collection of old Buddha images. We also had the opportunity to talk at length with a monk about politics. If you arrive early, you can miss the groups of visitors.
- One place we didn’t know about, but would love to visit next time is http://intharheritagehouse.com/catcafe.html This is a project to re-introduce the Burmese cat to Burma. There is also a café at the cattery, and it gets good reviews.
- The one workshop we visited is the silk and lotus-weaving workshop at In Phaw Khone. I am very interested in indigenous textiles. This is the only place in SE Asia where I have seen the extraction and weaving of lotus fiber.
No doubt there are worthwhile stops we missed. But these are the stops we made. We seldom ran into other visitors, both because of the choices we made and because we started each morning about 6:30 am.