This is a blog so I’m going to make a few opinion-as-fact statements real quick. No sources, no data. Just anecdotes. Come at me.
If you are making a list of the top five destinations in Myanmar, Bagan is number one. We’ve already written about it – it is amazing. Solid number one material. Number two on this list of top attractions is Inle Lake. Specifically, number two is TrekToInleLake. You see, part of the experience of visiting Inle Lake is the trek to get there. 61 kilometers. 3 days. Unlimited memories. It is an integral part of the Inle Lake experience. Seriously, Google “Trek from Kalaw to Inle Lake” and scroll through the results. Here are some of the phrases that caught my eye:
- “LIFE CHANGING”
- “Highlight of our trip”
- “I loved it!”
- “One of the world’s best….treks”
So what did we think of the trek? No idea. We took the train.
We arrived in Kalaw (the starting point of the trek) and went through the motions of meeting with a few trekking companies to get quotes and a timeline but our hearts weren’t in it. We were looking for any and all excuses not to go. “Did you see there is a 10% chance of rain for the next 3 days?…Yeah, I don’t know about that.” We were also a little trekked out. Trekking in SE Asia is not the same as hiking in the US. I should probably state here that Danielle and I are not big hikers. We live in Colorado, one of the best places to hike in the US, and we rarely hike. Trail running? Sure! Hiking? Not really our cup of tea. During our Sapa trek, most of our ‘trekking’ time felt like we were walking around a farm with backpacks on. Which, hey, that’s all fine and good, but when you can end the trek at any time by calling a taxi, it diminishes the value a little bit. More than anything, the Inle Lake trek sounds like a terrific cultural experience, and I’m sure it is, but after our Sapa trek, we felt cultured enough. And we were lazy and didn’t want to walk 60 kilometers just because of #FOMO.
So no trek for us, but we did spend quality time in both Kalaw and Inle Lake.
Kalaw was the least memorable place for us in Myanamar. More of a waypoint for the journey to Inle Lake than a destination in its own right. Good food though.
Inle Lake is (wait for it) a big lake. The difference between Inle Lake and other large lakes throughout the world is that at some point, many many years ago, a bunch of people were like, “You know what, let’s live on this lake.” I imagine there was a least one person who came back with something along the lines of, “Nah, man. I think solid land is probably an easier way to go.” But these enterprising lake settlers were not to be stopped. Houses were built. Gardens were tended. Businesses were started. All on a lake. And I am not talking about reclaiming the lake. Nope, this is not normal life brought to a lake. This is life dictated by the lake. If you want to visit your neighbor, you have to take a boat. If you want to walk around the garden…bring your swimsuit. Inle Lake is one of the most unique places I have ever visited. I should also mention the main access point to Inle Lake is a village just north of the lake called Nyaung Shwe. There are some accommodations ON the lake, but most people stay in Nyaung Shwe and then take boat tours to the lake during the day. Some operators offer packages where you stay on the lake for a night or two, but we ended up staying in Nyaung Shwe each night.
Bus. We took a bus from Bagan to Kalaw.
Train. Train from Kalaw to Nyaung Shwe. For those folks who decide not to trek, the train really is quite the experience. Some highlights:
- Fear of derailment as the train reached its top speed of nearly 20 MPH.
- Cows in the middle of the track.
- Incessant horn blowing (to get said cows to move).
- Sacks of potatoes in the seat across from me.
- Three hour delay.
- Tuk tuk drivers hopping on the moving train to ‘claim’ the few tourists on-board once we arrived in Inle Lake. I wasn’t even mad about it.
Golden Kalaw Inn (Kalaw). Meh. It didn’t help that the power was out most of the time we there. Regardless, I would probably look for different accommodation next time.
Zawgi Inn (Nyaung Shwe). This place was awesome. Bungalow style rooms with small front porches. Nice staff. Decent location. Turtles passing by said front porch. Recommend.
Waiting on the rain at Zawgi Inn
Sam’s Family Restaurant (Kalaw). This place was amazing. Like most establishments in Kalaw, it doubles as a trekking outfit, but Sam’s serves up some tasty eats as well. Tomato Salad: Bomb. Pretty sure we ate here three times in two days.
Everest Nepali Restaurant (Kalaw). Across the street from Sam’s. Food wasn’t as good as Sam’s, but the milk tea was solid.
The French Touch (Nyaung Shwe). Cool little French café. Good food and coffee.
One Owl Grill (Nyaung Shwe). We had a nightcap here. At the time we were confused why their wine list did not include anything from the winery in town. We later solved this mystery….
Inle Lake Boat Tour. This was the highlight of our visit. Since it is THE activity to do in town, there are many options for lake tours. You can walk down to the river pier and hire a guide directly. Super easy. Step one – walk down to the pier. Step two – find somebody next to a boat and ask them if they provide river tours (they will). Step three – pick your itinerary. Step four – choose a time and agree on a price. You can also likely book a tour directly through your lodging (which is what we did because #lazy). Keep in mind, your boat guide will likely want to take you places where he receives a kick back. It didn’t really bother us, but it might bother you. Our itinerary was as follows:
- Silversmith. Meh. There are a bunch of these places. The one we visited was underwhelming.
- Pagoda one. Cool pagoda. I forget the name.
- Pagoda two. Cooler pagoda. I also forgot the name of this one.
- Lunch. Restaurant on the lake.
- Cigar shop. I wasn’t expecting much, but this was super cool. We bought some banana cigarettes made out of tobacco, banana syrup, leaves for the roll, paper for the filter, and sealed up with palm sugar. That’s basically like an organic cigarette, right?
- Weaving shop. Also cool.
- Monastery. Kittens. There were a bunch of kittens here.
- Floating Gardens. FLOATING GARDENS. I saw this on the itinerary and thought it must be embellished. But nope. These were incredible.
Bike Day. Nyaung Shwe is a pretty small town, so you can explore most of it by bike in one day. There is a big loop you can do, but we just did a few out and backs.
Red Mountain Winery. Danielle likes wine. Wine is not a thing in most of SE Asia. So when we saw there was a winery close to Inle Lake we immediately added it to our list. We read some reviews that said the wine wasn’t great, but we were like, “How bad can it really be?” The answer – terrible. Just terrible. Danielle ordered a tasting flight and I ordered a glass of something. I honestly can’t remember what I ordered (something red), but I will forever remember how bad it tasted. Danielle’s wine was not good. My wine was undrinkable. I debated whether or not I should go to the counter to tell them that maybe whatever bottle they used to pour my glass was spoiled. But then I looked around the room and everybody else seemed to be drinking their glasses so I let it go. But dang. At the same time, the views at the winery are incredible! And I’m sure, over time, their winemaking capabilities will improve. In the mean time, maybe hold your nose while drinking.
Marionette Show. There is a guy who does nightly marionette shows in Nyaung Shwe. Fun show.
Two runs in Nyaung Shwe. There are some decent running options on the roads south of town. There was one pack of dogs that wanted to kill me (near the winery) but, once again, a handful of rocks did the trick.
Inle Lake Boat Tour. Such a great experience.
Red Mountain Winery. [Swirls cup. Sniffs.] I’m getting hints of red sharpie with rubbing alcohol undertones. [Takes a sip. Pause.] Ah yes, this has a distinctive, watery mouthfeel with an aftertaste of gasoline. Unleaded. Pour me another!
Journal Thoughts. Throughout our trip we kept a daily journal. More of a bullet list of the things we did each day. Looking back at the daily entries is hilarious now because it provides a great glimpse into our moods at the time. For example, here are a few direct quotes from our daily journal in Kalaw and Inle Lake. Sorry in advance for the profanity.
- Bus from Bagan to Kalaw. Big bus. Lots of room. Cool enough. BUT FUCKING HORN HONKING IS OUT OF CONTROL.
- We half-assed exploring town. Quit. Rain. Back to hotel. Read. Eat. Repeat.
- Spots on Sam’s feet. He’s dying of Zikgayaria. He’s feeling a bit better though. (Sidebar: Zikgayaria is a combination of Zika, Malaria, and Dengue.)
- Decided not to trek because we are lazy shits.
- Young couple next to us kept on using us as scouts. D wasn’t having it. One of them was a useless turd on a log. Just watched movies on his computer. (Sidebar: This in regards to our delay at the Kalaw train station. Either Danielle or I would ask the station attendant every 30 minutes or so for an update on the status of the train since the trains weren’t marked and the tracking system was a whiteboard (and the dude was getting super annoyed with us, but we weren’t missing that train, yo!). Each time we did this, the couple next to us would then ask us what the attendant said. We would tell them what we had heard but internally we thought “WHY DON’T YOU GO ASK NEXT TIME?!” )
- Arrived in Inle Lake. Dude was on the train offering us a tuk tuk ride before the train had even stopped. He got our business.
- Went to French themed coffee shop. Kind of expensive, but their pastries were decent. Also they had a dog with HUGE balls. Biggest dog balls ever.