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Published March 2nd 2015
Take to the water to explore one of Burma's top destinations
In the north-east of Myanmar, to the south of the famous old colonial city of Mandalay, lies Inle Lake. This sprawling, shallow lake is 22km in length and should rank highly on anyone's list of "things to do and see in Myanmar".
It has provided livelihoods for local residents for thousands of years; whether this involves fishing on the lake's open water, growing produce in its floating gardens, trading in its lakeside markets, or – more recently – working in the region's burgeoning tourist industry.
The lake itself is stunning, and is definitely worth the lengthy bus ride north from Yangon or east from Bagan. Don't miss this stunning piece of the Burmese landscape on your trip to the country. Here are a few of Inle Lake's highlights.
Most hotels in the region are concentrated in the village of Nyuangshwe – or Golden Banyan Tree – so chances are this is where you will be staying if you visit the area. This neat little town is easily navigable thanks to its grid-system layout, and is packed with tour operators and freelance boat owners who can offer you a trip out on the lake. You can expect to pay up to 15,000 kyat – roughly $15USD – for a full day trip across the water.
Encountering a fisherman at the mouth of the channel
Boats leave from the jetty at the western end of the town. While tourism is thriving at the moment, this place remains a busy, working port, and you will see hundreds of boats being loaded and unloaded as you make your way to your passenger craft.
Once aboard, hold on to your camera, pull the provided blanket tightly around your shoulders (it can get a little chilly when you're zipping out over the water) and settle down for the ride. Nyaungshwe is about three kilometres north of the lake itself, so the first part of your trip will follow the wide channel down to the head of the lake.
Your first encounter with the lake will be at the mouth of the channel, where you will be greeted by an enormous expanse of water stretching out towards the far horizon. As your boat blazes southwards, you will begin to see some of Inle's most iconic sights; the leg-rowing fisherman plying their trade on the water.
These skilled boat-handlers use their legs to steer their craft, leaving their hands free to cast their nets and reel in their catches. The image of a fisherman silhouetted against the mountainous backdrop has become a symbol of Inle's cultural heritage.
Located in the southern part of the lake, Phaungdawoo Pagoda is a spectacular temple which features a large, domed stupa rising above the water. It's a popular tourist spot, but don't let that put you off, as it is definitely worth a look. The temple itself houses five small Buddha images, each of which has been plastered with layer upon layer of gold leaf by visiting pilgrims. The result is that each image now resembles a vague round object, rather than the form of the Buddha himself.
Try to spot the five Buddha images buried beneath gold leaf!
These Buddha images are paraded around the lake by a procession of gilded boats during the temple's annual festival. Unless you've timed your visit to coincide with the festival – taking place in the Burmese month of Thadingyut, between September and October each year – you're unlikely to witness the procession. However, some of the boats are housed beside a nearby jetty, which is easily accessible via a small footbridge leading west from the pagoda. They are magnificent craft and well worth a look.
One of the magnficent ceremonial craft housed near to the pagoda
Once you've dodged the crowds, and maybe purchased a souvenir or two, it's time to return to your boat for the next leg of the journey.
The Floating Gardens
Without a doubt, one of the most charming sites on the lake is Inle's famous Floating Garden area. To the untrained eye, these gardens appear to be small green islands on which a range of fruits and vegetables are cultivated. In fact these are woven mats of weeds which float on the water and are secured on the lake's shallow bed.
The best time to visit this portion of the lake is in the morning or afternoon when the local gardeners tend their floating rows of produce. At all other times, however, an hour spent meandering between the gardens is a beautiful way to view this feat of human ingenuity. Please remember that the Floating Gardens are constantly in use, and represent the livelihood of the locals that call the lake their home, so be as unobtrusive and respectful as possible when visiting.
At the northern end of the Floating Gardens area is the intriguingly named Jumping Cat Monastery – Nga Hpe Chaung in the original Burmese. You might hear conflicting reports about this place back in town: some will tell you the cats jump, others will tell you there are no cats at all, and others will tell you that there are cats but they don't jump. For clarification purposes, I found the latter to be true.
Not a whole lot of jumping going on, but this raised monastery is still well worth a visit.
The story goes that local monks living on this island monastery in the middle of the lake taught the resident feline population tricks to pass the time. As the local tourist industry grew, these monks began to put on little performances for visitors.
While this no longer seems to be the case, Nga Hpe Chaung is a majestic building, rising on stilts out of the water. There is a huge hall in the main building, housing a selection of stunningly crafted and opulently decorated Buddha statues. Mounted on the walls, decorated panels tell the story of the how the Buddha came to be so venerated, and of the wisdom he passed on. Even if you know the story, the artistry of these panels is still definitely worth examining.
Oh, and there are cats to be found, just don't expect them to be jumping all over the place!
From here it's about a 45 minute ride back to town in the boat. While tipping is not customary in Myanmar, there are a few exceptions, and it's polite to offer your driver a few extra thousand kyats to show your appreciation.
Having been whisked around the highlights of Inle Lake, venture back into town and relax with some top-notch local food and a frosty bottle of Dagon Extra Strong from one of Nyaungshwe's many restaurants; a thoroughly pleasant end to a great day on the water.