Even before Myanmar opened up to the outside world, Inle Lake's natural gifts have been a quiet tourist draw for decades, making it one of the hottest destinations in this southeast Asian country. Fortunately, though, even popular Inle Lake feel off-the-beaten-path for first-time visitors to the country. Beyond the famous one-legged rowing fishermen and the lake waters that seem to go on forever—particularly when riding a speedboat out of Nyaungshwe, the gateway to Inle Lake—you'll find plenty of adventures waiting for you once you get to shore.
Meet the Cats of Myanmar
The ordinary house cat is an important part of Burmese culture, and almost every house on Inle Lake has one. If you're missing your own house cat while traveling abroad, Inle Lake offers two unique ways to get your fill of feline companionship during your trip.
To see fun cat tricks, visit the Nga Phe Kyaung Monastery, which is popularly known as the "Jumping Cat Monastery" thanks to the resident monks that once trained the cats to jump through hoops. Unfortunately, when the last head monk died in 2014, the practice of training cats was retired by the new head of the monastery. Although the number of cat shows has dwindled to near non-existence in recent years as a result, you can still see these acrobatic felines when visiting Nga Phe Kyaung.
Comparatively speaking, the Burmese Cat Sanctuary at the Inthar Heritage House is a better place to see the cats of Myanmar these days. Set up to reintroduce the Burmese Cat to its country of origin (where they were practically extinct) in 2008, the Burmese Cat Sanctuary now takes care of 40 purebred Burmese Cats in three out of the four recognized colors. Combine a visit to the sanctuary with lunch at the attached restaurant at the Inthar Heritage House to make a visit a whole-day affair.
Immerse Yourself in Buddhist Culture
Although the pagodas of Inle Lake don't feature nearly as many stupas—dome-shaped structures erected as Buddhist shrines—as the city of Bagan, Inle Lake allows you to experience Myanmar's Buddhist culture in its own unique way: touring the many religious sites along the shores of the lake.
Begin your pagoda-hopping adventure with Inle Lake's most-visited house of worship, the Hpaung Daw U Pagoda. This temple in Ywama village houses five golden Buddhas, each rendered unrecognizable from layers upon layers of gold leaf.
Afterward, travel to the Shwe Indein Pagoda, which is made up of two groups of stupas in Shwe Indein village that date back as far as the 8th century. Both are readily accessible from the single 2,300-foot covered walkway that stretches from a jetty on Indein Creek to Shwe Indein temple. However, the group of stupas known as Nyaung Ohak that is closer to the creek is a little more run-down than the Shwe Inn Thein group. In fact, some of Nyaung Ohak's stupas have trees growing out of their crumbling infrastructure while many of the stupas in Shwe Inn Thein have been completely restored.
The town of Sagar at the extreme south of Inle Lake takes almost forever to reach by boat—two hours if coming from Inpawkhon Village at Inle's midsection and even more if coming from Nyaungshwe at the extreme north. In fact, most people from the area only recommend making the trip if you're staying at the lake for three or more nights.
If you do decide to make the trip, you'll be rewarded with a unique and ancient attraction: Sagar, the ruined former capital of Myanmar's Shan state that served as the seat of the local king (Saopha) before he moved to the new capital in Nyaungshwe. A hundred "sunken stupas" is almost all that remains of this city of Sagar, which is now submerged in the lake's waters. However, nearby villages inhabited by Pa-O tribespeople—Sae Khaung and Tar Kaung—are famous for their rice wine and pottery cottage industries, respectively, and both places allow visitors to watch the production process using traditional methods.
Ride a Bike to Myanmar's Wine Country
Active travelers can hit one of the many biking and hiking trails that wind out from Nyaungshwe, passing by pleasant countryside and bucolic Burmese villages. The bike trail from Nyaungshwe to the Red Mountain Winery is one of the most pleasant and easy to navigate—a quick, two-mile jaunt leading gradually uphill until you reach a winery set amidst Inle Lake's surrounding hills. Once you arrive, you can book a wine tasting session that lets you sample the fruit of the local vineyard: a sweet Sauvignon Blanc, a Shiraz-Tempranillo blend, and a white wine blended from Sauvignon Blanc and Muscat Petit Grain.
Go People-Watching in the Villages
Don't discount the fun of simply canoeing through Inle Lake's village waterways and watching the people going about their daily routines. Since most important places are built right over the water, either on stilts or on the shore, you'll be able to see a wide breadth of Burmese culture by paddling at a leisurely pace along the shores of Inle Lake. While most tourists opt to take the quicker speedboats, Inle villages prefer to use canoes for shorter distances such as paddling from markets or schools to their homes at a leisurely pace.
If you want to go shopping for souvenirs in the local villages, your boatman will be happy to oblige: you'll be taken to crafts villages like Ywama for silver-crafted goods, In-phaw-kon for a linen-like cloth made from lotus fibers, and Nam-Pan for cigars, knives, and wooden handicrafts.
For a more authentic shopping experience, ask your hostel, hotel, or resort about the local market day in a nearby town. Each town usually holds market day once every five days: in Ywama, for example, the market sets up at a field just outside Hpaung Daw U Pagoda. They have everything from souvenirs for the tourists to meat and vegetables for the housewives, DVDs for movie fans and even cheap electronics.
However, before you set out for a day of shopping, be sure you understand how to use the local currency, kyat, which is worth significantly less than U.S. dollars. Villagers won't accept U.S. currency, so make sure you exchange your money for kyat before you depart.
The Inthar make the most out of the lake—even creating new farmland where none existed. In Inle villages like Kayla, locals grow crops like squash and tomatoes on man-made floating gardens built out of lake-bottom weeds and other organic materials. Boats can navigate at low speed through passageways between gardens, giving you an up-close look at how farm life works in this part of the world.
During the monsoon season floods, these gardens simply rise above the high waters because bamboo poles that were driven into the lakebed keep the gardens secured in one place while permitting the islands to move up and down based on the water level. Constant replenishment of organic matter from the lakebed keeps the crops healthy, and the constant irrigation of the crops help the grow even more easily.