The best way to explore all that Inle Lake has to offer is by boat. At Song of Travel Hostel we offer full day boat tours that will let you see the magic of the area with your own eyes. While we provide these exceptional day trips to our guests, we allow anyone to join our trips, no matter where in Nyaung Shwe you are staying. Simply reserve your spot with our reception no later than the day before your trip. We offer both a sunrise trip and a sunset trip, but highly recommend the sunrise trip for the spectacular light, breakfast, amount of fishermen you will see, and the opportunity to visit the 5 day market.
For Song of Travel Guests the cost is 16,500 kyat. Guests from other hostels pay an extra 1,000 and will be picked up by tuk-tuk from their hostel on the way to the boat. While the price is a bit more than other boat organizers, our trip includes a packed breakfast to be eaten on the lake while watching the sunrise (if on the sunrise trip), as well as a huge family style lunch hosted by a local family in a floating home, where you can also experience canoeing in a small traditional teak canoe. Other boats will take you to restaurants on the lake for lunch where you will pay high tourist prices for food and drink.
On the morning of the boat trip, you will be picked up for the sunrise from the hostel at 5:30 am by a friendly tuk-tuk driver. Don’t worry, we offer wake up calls. You will be driven down to the local jetty where you will board your boat. The group may be split into two boats depending on the number of people participating, but the boats will stay together all day. The boat makes its way along the edge of town, offering a memorable pre-dawn view of pagodas, markets, and monks. It is chilly this time of day, any time of year, so bring a warm layer. The boats also have enough blankets for every passenger.
As you reach the lake you will see only a few other boats out, mostly carrying locals at this hour. You will pass local fishermen, both traditional and more modern. The traditional fishermen you see, with large bamboo conical nets, may not actually be fishing. Most of these traditionally dressed men are actually waiting for groups of tourists to pass by so they can pose for photos. These men are expert models and give photographers great material. They do expect tips for their performances. Our boat drivers don’t stop for these showmen, though you will likely still see some from a distance. You will certainly see actual fishermen out working. They still use their legs to paddle the boat but instead of the large bamboo cone they gently lay down nylon nets. They may or may not be wearing traditional clothing, but they are still interesting and photogenic, and important members of the Inle Lake community.
As the sun begins to illuminate the sky from behind the eastern mountain range your boat will park along the floating gardens. The drivers will serve you Shan tea while they assemble your breakfasts. Breakfast consists of vegetable steamed rice, wrapped in a banana leaf, and vegetable samosas, as well as a banana. As you eat you will see the sky glow in beautiful reds and oranges as the sun dramatically emerges over the mountains. This is likely to be one of your most memorable breakfast experiences.
From the floating gardens at sunrise you will be taken to a local silversmith shop on the lake. A local will great you at the dock and welcome you inside where she will explain the origins of silver in the region and take you through the workshop where you can see silver being melted, purified, shaped and delicately worked into beautiful jewelry the local traditional styles. The shop is almost like a museum of local styles of silver jewelry from the various tribes of Shan State. It also holds a collection of precious stones from all across Myanmar. You can also find local puppets, wooden and brass sculptures, and various other traditional crafts. This is a great place to pick up souvenirs and gifts, but there is no pressure to buy anything.
From the silversmith you will ride through a floating community to arrive at a lotus weaving center in Paw Khon Village. You will see how the local women create strong silken threads from the fibers of a lotus stem. You see how much time and work goes into creating the threads from which local textiles are made. Because the lotus thread takes so much work and so many lotus plants, it is very expensive and locally is generally reserved for making robes for monks. A small scarf requires about 4,000 lotus stems, while a monk’s robe can use more than 220,000 lotus stems. You will see women working large looms, creating scarves and longyis, the cylindrical sheet of cloth worn like a skirt by both Burmese men and women, from silk and cotton. You will pass through a room where the lotus, silk, and cotton fibers are being dyed in natural pigments like tree bark, leaves, seeds, and jackfruit. There is a shop attached to the workshop where you can browse many handmade textiles and clothing. It is impressive to see the final pieces after learning how much work goes into making every strand.
The next destination is the 5 day market. The location of the market changes every day throughout 5 villages of Inle Lake. They are all accessible by boat and will have the same vendors selling the same products. The entrance of the markets usually have stalls selling handicrafts and trinkets geared towards tourists. As you walk further into the market you’ll see the rows of booths crowded with locals. There are stalls selling tea leaves and dried herbs, brightly colored spices, medicines, fruits and vegetables, sewing supplies, chicken, fresh fish, some still flopping around. This is where the locals come for nearly all of their supplies. There are small food stalls and tea houses tucked into the isles of the market, which are a great place to sit and watch all of the activity. Save room for your lunch, though.
From the market you are taken to a nearby cigarette and cigar shop. Here you will see the entire process of cigars, locally called cheroots, and cigarettes being hand rolled. There are usually a few women working at a time, each ones hands moving faster than you can imagine. The average worker rolls 500 each day. One woman who has worked there more than 40 years rolls closer to 1,000 cigars a day. Both cheroots and cigarettes are wrapped in thanat leaves, which are grown in the mountains. Inle Lake is known for its variety of tobacco flavors in their cigarettes. While they do have plain tobacco options, you can also try tobacco flavored with cinnamon, banana, star anise, cloves, or mint. You are welcomed to sample any or all of these flavors at the shop.
By this time you have likely worked up an appetite. You will be taken to the home of a local family where you will be greeted with tea and tealeaf salad while lunch is freshly being assembled. You can speak with the host and ask questions about the community, culture , daily life, etc, or just enjoy the views from the many windows. You will move in to the next room where you will together on the floor around a large table that will be covered in food. The first courses are all vegetarian. You will enjoy a variety of salads, including a tomato salad, cucumber salad, watercress salad, roasted vegetables, and french fries. Each person is given a generous bowl of rice and a fried egg omelette, and a tofu noodle soup. Hopefully you save some room, as the hosts bring out a fish, freshly prepared in the local style, for each non-vegetarian guest. After the meal watermelon is brought out. You are encouraged to try thanaka, the pulp of a local tree bark used on the face of nearly every person you see in Myanmar. It works as a natural sunscreen and you may appreciate it on the rest of your boat trip in the mid day sun. From the home, you are taken on traditional Inle Lake teak canoes, smaller than the boat you arrived in. There is no motor and you can try the traditional foot rowing technique used by the locals. When you return to the local home you have about 20 minutes to rest and let your food settle before returning to the lake.
After lunch you will go for a scenic ride on the lake and down the Inn Thein Creek to reach the Indein pagoda complex. The journey itself is relaxing and you can enjoy quiet corners of the Inle Lake area. You will see farm workers and monks bathing in the creek and buffalo catching a refreshing splash. There are a number of footbridges you will pass under on your way to Indein, often with monks crossing. You’ll get dropped off at the bottom of the hill leading up to Indein. The path uphill is basically a covered market area. Depending on the day there may only be a few souvenir sellers or the entire path may be lively with packed booths. You will see stupas on both sides of the walkway along the way up. Some of the older, more interesting ones can be found towards the bottom of the hill on your left. As you reach the top of the hill you will see mostly new stupas made from white stone and/or concrete with lots of gold decoration.
The last stop of this full day tour of Inle Lake is the Maing Thauk Bridge. This 500 meter teak walking bridge was built to connect two parts of the village and allow quicker access for some to the 5 day market when it is held in the Maing Thauk village. You can walk as far along the bridge as you’d like, or stop in one of the bars along the bridge for an afternoon beer before making your way back to Nyaung Shwe and Song of Travel Hostel.
The ride home is quick. The occasional splashes of water will likely be refreshing in the afternoon sun. Most people are pretty tired at this point, having gotten up so early and filling the day with so many different sights and experiences. You will return to Song of Travel around 4 or 4:30 pm with photos, memories, stories to tell, and hopefully some new friends.
The sunset boat trip around Inle Lake is very similar, but it departs the hostel at 10 am and returns after the sunset, around 6:30 pm. While this trip does not visit the 5 day market, it does visit an old British meeting house from the early 1900s. While we recommend the sunrise tour, you will not be disappointed with either. This is an experience not to miss!