Our Myanmar journey, inspired by the novel Floating, had thus far been a whirlwind of historic sites, great food, hospitable people, shopping, and visiting unique places. Our group of travelers had taken in the sights and sounds of the bustling Yangon and reveled in the stupendous sensory overload of the temples of Bagan. Now it was the turn of Inle Lake to impress. Floating on the water near a monastery, we would come to our journey’s end at a sanctuary on Inle Lake.
Exploring the Shan State
We flew from Bagan into Nyaung Shwe in the Shan State. From the plane, we could see acres and acres of treetops. Interestingly, Myanmar boasts the highest proportion of forest cover in mainland Southeast Asia. In fact, it has as much as 80% of the world’s teak reserves and the most biodiversity in the Indo-Pacific region.
A former princedom and the largest state in Myanmar with a population of around 5, 8 million, the Shan State is located in the northeast of the country. The expansive, largely rural landscape reminded me of a lot of parts of South Africa. And like home, the climate here is at a much higher altitude, offers lovely warm days, but cooler nights.
It’s also known as the golden triangle, because it borders China to the north, Laos to the east, and Thailand to the south.
Just stepping out of the airport I noticed the people looked different from the other places we had visited. Their features resembled more that of the Thai people.
According to Myanmar Travel Information, “there are a variety of different ethnic peoples in the Shan state.“The ethnic majority call themselves Tai or Dai, the word ‘Shan’ having been derived by the British from Siam. Their close relatives, the Thais, often refer to the Shan as Tai Yai (‘big Thai’), and the Shan calls their land Muang Tai rather than Shan State.”
Until the mid-19th, the present Shan State was divided into the principality. The Shan had a feudal system, with princes and princesses who lived in beautiful teak palaces. Of course, if you dig around the Internet you will find lots of interesting insights, as this is an interesting region from a socio-economic and political perspective.
As our taxi meandered through the town heading for Inle Lake. I saw many travelers cycling and walking. The driver told me it’s very popular to hire a bike and explore the beautiful scenery on the eastern side of the lake. And certainly something worth keeping in mind, but right then it was time for lunch. James was keen to stop and share a restaurant recommendation from his Myanmar friend, Charlotte. So we ventured off the main road west of Nyaungshwe and up a windy long driveway, through a farm to arrive at the Inle Heart View Restaurant.
The setting was charming, Nestling at the end of the drive; we found a traditional style, but a modern-built wooden house with a wide deck and views beyond.
This is a family-run business and everything from the service, to the food, is intimate and exemplary. And if you read the reviews on Trip Advisor you will understand why. I stand by my own personal view that the food here was probably the best we ate in Myanmar. Although I have to admit I may be a little biased. During this visit I spent most of my time in the kitchen, observing the owner, farmer, and chef Than Z prepare our meal.
The produce used is local and organic and mostly selected from his garden, even during the cooking and preparation time. This was the real deal, straight from farm to plate.
With his helpers, they churned out one dish after the next with super efficiency, but all the taste. I will never forget the freshly baked rice cakes served with fresh avocado salad or the layered tomato salad.
The food just kept coming. The tea leaf salad and tofu curry were equally delicious. We also had Shan noodles and chicken and cashew nuts with steamed rice. The meal was completed with freshly baked banana bread. Despite not being a cake person, I ended up with a takeaway box of my own. It was really that good. Inle Heart View also has a great cocktail menu, although we stuck to local beer and homemade lime and mint juice.
I was thrilled Than Z let me video him preparing the food in his kitchen and will be posting soon, a dedicated Myanmar food vlog for Longevity’s food series on #BarefootInTheKitchen
Our group agreed the experience had been captivating. We bid farewell (with the promise to return) and made our way to the boarding area for the longboats located around the bridge at the western end of Yone Gyi Road in Nyaung Shwe. Ahead of us lay a three-and-a-half-hour boat journey to the southernmost part of the lake.
Floating on Inle Lake
For most of our boat ride, the sky was burgeoned by dark storm clouds, threatening to release a torrent of rain upon us. We were being chased by a storm and it added to the excitement and exhilaration of the journey. From time to time, the sun would peek out from behind the clouds and warm our backs and our boats, although open, came well equipped with blankets and waterproof jackets. So with the fresh wind in my face, I sat back and took in the spectacular nature, which Inle Lake is so renowned for and which I had read all about in the book Floating.
The lake is about 22 km long by 10 km wide. It sits in a valley between two mountain ranges. Famous for its floating villages and gardens and the unique way of life of the local Intha people, who live on the water, in wooden homes built on stilts.
As we passed these villages I could not help but feel like a voyeur. I was able to catch intimate glimpses of life on the water. I looked at the rice cakes and fish drying on racks outside homes and marveled at the hydroponic tomato farming. I could hear children playing in their living rooms; the doors wide open onto the water and watched mothers taking down their washing before the storm blew in. All the while their lives continued, no matter the curiosity of foreigners who sped past them.
It felt as though I had been suspended in a time gone by.
And selfishly I hoped that this would never change. That I would always be able to go back and visit the simple almost serenely perfect ideal of this life on the water, protected from the advance of our modern over-complicated lifestyles.
I am not alone in this. While modernization can bring many positive improvements to communities, I was pleased to read later there are moves afoot to protect the area from man-made damage including UNESCO designating Inle Lake as a biosphere reserve.
Mindful of being caught up in a rainstorm, our boat captains were keen to keep us moving. However, we managed to stop in at the most spectacular temple along the way. I recall the place so vividly, that even now when I close my eyes, I can hear the sound of hundreds of small bells hanging from the rafters playing in the wind.
We passed many other travelers along the way. Tourists holding onto their fancy hats in the wind, local fishermen and traders, villagers moving from one place to the next. And to my delight young novices and old monks in longboats, journeying across the water, their bright tunics starkly contrasted against the dark skies.
This part of Myanmar has special significance in the book Floating. It was here that James Boyce Snr., would spend the last few days of his life. We too reached that point in the lake, which was captured in a photograph of him leaning back on the boat and looking healthy and happy with life.
A place called Inle Sanctuary, Phayartaung
Incredulously, we managed to escape the storm and had only been patted down by a few smatterings of rain along the way. As we approached our destination we were greeted with calm waters and the sight of a spectacular double rainbow. It was a fitting start to our journey’s end.
At a place called Inle Sanctuary a unique sustainable eco-lodge.
Six wooden luxury houses built on stilts and located in the largely unexplored lake south of Inle Lake. As yet untouched by mainstream tourism.
Standing on the pier to meet us was our friendly host.
“Hi! I’m Aung Min. I’m your host at the Inle Sanctuary. Please feel welcome and at home.”
The boat ride had been exhilarating, but given the weather, a little taxing, so it was a relief to get into our rooms and take a hot shower in a modern, well-appointed bathroom and rest a little before dinner. Inle Lake is 100% solar-powered. I would like to think I am a conscious active traveler, so this was a pleasing aspect of our stay. The rooms are very comfortable, with cool, natural linen, and good mosquito nets, each with its own private balcony overlooking the lake.
Over the coming days, we would also get to know Aung Min and his family. He is from the Pa-O ethnic group, one of the many from this region. I was again lucky enough again to be allowed to spend time in the kitchen watching Aung Min’s wife along with her helpers, youngsters from the local village. It reaffirmed my love for the simplicity, but also the richness of Myanmar cuisine.
Food market fantasy
Phayartaung is a small, very rural market and fishing village that holds one of the region’s famous five-day markets. It is also home to a very special monastic school where children from surrounding villages come to learn.
We spent four days at Inle Lake and on one of those mornings, I went to the village market with James to source lunch. The lodge sources all its food locally from these markets.
James is somewhat of a fascination to the Myanmar people. Perhaps it’s his towering height and distinctive white hair, or the fact he is an American who can speak the language, but our excursion to the market was not without some surprise and even amusement.
The produce was stupendous. We bought over a kilo of fresh chickpea tofu and accompanying fresh vegetables. Everything in this market is locally produced and sold. We were offered the freshest of fish and also found an informal pop-up butchery. I have never seen so much healthy-looking meat, fruit, and vegetables in a long time. I marveled at the local mushrooms – they looked so gorgeous, I insisted we buy some, only to discover later they are not for cooking but used for medicinal purposes.
Back at the lodge, we met a new guest, Raj Gyawali, an eco-tourism entrepreneur based in Nepal. Raj is developing eco-tours in Myanmar and is interested particularly in the area. He offered to take Carmen and Mik with Aung Min for a motorcycle tour, from village to village. They had a roaring time, eating local and exploring the countryside.
Inle Lake Sanctuary doesn’t just provide jobs for local people, 10% of the income from the lodge also goes to the local Phayartaung monastery. Guests are welcome to visit the monastery and home and, if they wish, help with teaching and other jobs.
So later that day Paul and I visited the lodge. Paul is an Oncologist and founder of a med-tech company based in Seattle. He enjoyed sitting in on one of the volunteer medical group review sessions. The monastery is funded by the Inle Lake Trust based out of the United Kingdom. The trust was set up to help relieve poverty and improve health through the provision of water, sanitation, hygiene, and education. It’s a great initiative and they are helping the remote monastery orphanage and school with 1200 children to be self-sustaining.
We would have another interesting excursion into the hills when Aung Min took us to visit the site near Lwe Nwe Phayartaung Yay Seik Village, where an ancient Buddha’s foot is imprinted on a rock. Locals hike up the hill regularly to pay homage at this holy site. Aung Min also took us to the hot springs around the lake where we came across three little boys, laughing and playing in the muddy water. I was sorry I was not appropriately dressed to jump in with them. It looked that enticing, hot mud and all!
During those few days, I was recumbent. I ate, read, explored, and talked. And I slept deeply, waking to the sounds of the monks’ chanting each morning. The harmony of their voices wafted gently across the water filling my head with joyful thoughts of the day ahead.
It had been an extraordinary, peaceful experience and I was personally reluctant to leave. On my last morning at the lodge in the kitchen, Aung Min and I shared stories of our family. I told him how much I was missing my own back home. He and his wife also have a young daughter at school and an older son at university in Singapore. “Let’s get your son together with my daughter”, he joked with me. “We are family now. Stay with us. Just for one year.”
Perhaps it was the calming effect the lake and the generosity of the people at Inle Sanctuary had on me, but I have to admit for a moment I felt really tempted to drop my bags and stay.
Things to do
On our way back the weather was perfect and we spent more time exploring the floating villages. Along with fishing, traditional handicrafts are an important part of the local economy. We stopped in to see silk weavers and silversmiths plying their trade on the lake. Although we found it very tourist-oriented, it was nevertheless interesting. Myanmar is the only place to make lotus fabric—and Inle Lake is the perfect place for this, as its shallow waters create ideal growing conditions for the flowering plant.
You will find over 200 monasteries around the lake, including Nga Hpe Kyaung, more commonly known as Jumping Cat monastery thanks to the dozens of resident cats trained by monks to “jump” through hoops. There are also hundreds of beautiful ancient stupas dotted in the hills to visit, although many are not restored as in Bagan.
And of course, there is no shortage of good local cuisine. However, we were smitten with Inle Heart View Restaurant and decided to return. And so as we left the lake and our good memories of the past days behind and found ourselves weaving up that road to food heaven. And again, it did not disappoint.
When to go
October to February is the peak time to visit, as temperatures abate after the monsoon season. Water levels are at their highest in October and November and flowers abound. October is the time for the annual Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda Festival, when four gleaming Buddhas from the Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda are paraded around the lake on a royal barge.
What To pack
We traveled in November, which is considered a cooler time of the year. During our days it was lovely and temperate and at night the temperature dropped. Mosquito repellent and sunblock are your best friends.
No matter where you stay, it is important to respect the community and to dress appropriately at all times, particularly when visiting communal areas and of course sacred places. Women should always be respectfully dressed.
You can swim in the lake. And at Inle Sanctuary where we stayed, the water was unpolluted, cool, and clear, however, this may not be true of other parts of the Lake, so check first.