Located in Shan State, this beautiful highland lake is based at about 900m above sea level. 22km long, 10km across, and inhabited by many different ethnic nationals of the area. Inlay Lake (also sometimes spelled Inlay and Inle) is famous for the unique way of life of the local tribes, for their villages on stilts, floating gardens, fresh produce markets, and well-preserved traditions. In many places, the authentic life on the lake shines through. Functioning communities – largely based entirely on the water – are fascinating to observe and interact with. Every experience of Inlay will leave an indelible mark on your soul.
The lake itself is dotted with many interesting villages and sights worth visiting but there is, even more, to explore in the surrounding areas. Nyaung Shwe, a tourist hub for visiting both Inlay Lake and Inlay Lake Wetland Sanctuary, also serves as a marina for the numerous longboats ferrying visitors into the lake. Taunggyi, the capital of Shan State, is a cultural melting pot with vineyards nearby offering views of the picturesque Ayethaya Valley. Ramblers will delight in Kalaw, a colonial hill station, also known as Myanmar’s trekking mecca. For cave lovers, there is Pindaya (45km from Kalaw) and Hten San Cave (42km from Taunggyi).
Rich in ethnic customs and rituals, the tribes inhabiting the lake have preserved much of their traditional existence. Many of them have a self-sufficient way of life, farming the floating gardens on the lake and fishing using long-established methods. The lake is well known for its locally produced woven textiles especially the lotus, and hand-rolled cheroot cigars. It is also home to plenty of craftsmen who produce handicrafts in time-honored traditions such as silver wares, bronze wares, and wooden sculptures. The same is true of the surrounding villages where, for example, naturally beautiful, handmade Shan paper decorated with fresh flowers.
Key ethnic groups such as the Intha (literally meaning “sons of the lake”) and the Pa-O make up the colorful social and cultural fabric of Inlay Lake. Most are devout Buddhists and live in simple houses made of wood and woven bamboo. The Intha fisherman, known for their impressive single, leg-rowing techniques, have become icons of the scenic lake and are much photographed by amazed visitors. The so-called “Five-Day Market” offers a good opportunity to meet many different local tribes.
This is where everyone comes to tout their wares, from jewelry, longhis, and the distinctive Shan trousers and bags, to Buddha statues. Fresh produce grown by the Intha people on floating islands can also be found in the market. Those fascinated by this method of cultivation, a unique aspect of life on the lake, can visit floating gardens in the villages of Kaylar, Inchan, and Zayatgyi, to see a variety of vegetables and flowers being grown, both for local and countrywide consumption.
The lake’s serenity and spectacular scenery are often so beguiling that visitors may forget how Inlay is home to a plethora of busy communities. An excellent example of a traditional Inlay village is Nampan where you find small enterprises produce handmade cheroot (traditional local cigars) and the lake’s oldest pagoda, Alodaw Pauk, a large gem-encrusted golden shrine.
Most famous for its floating market, Ywama village also has various handicraft workshops, a monastery, and a pagoda. Numerous other villages are worth visiting, many of which are accessible from the lake via narrow canals, sometimes nestled among impressive bamboo groves with small lagoons where children play.
This pagoda is one of the holiest sites in Shan State. The shrine itself is huge and features five ancient golden Buddhas. Next to it is the large golden barge, a replica of the one said to have been used by King Alaung Sithu to travel around the country, which makes an annual tour during the Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda Festival to over 20 villages towed by over 50-long boats, each with around 40 leg-rowers, dancers and music performers.
Meaning “shallow lake”, Inthein (also spelled Indein) is some distance from the main circuit of Inlay Lake and can be reached (water level permitting) by boat on a narrow canal to the west of Ywama. It is most famous for atmospheric clusters of hundreds of densely packed stupas and ancient pagodas (some ruined, some restored) waiting to be explored. The village has a vibrant market and wonderful views across the lake can be enjoyed from Shwe Inthein Paya.
Established in 1995 this wetland sanctuary covers 1,664 sq km in the townships of Nyaung Shwe, Pin Laung and Peh Kon and aims to conserve and protect natural vegetation, wetland birds, and freshwater fish. Inlay Lake, though not large, contains over twenty endemic species of snails and nine endemic species of fish that are found nowhere in the world. In 2015 Inlay Lake became the first site in Myanmar to be added to the UNESCO-backed “World Network of Biosphere Reserves”.
Beyond Inya Lake lie bustling towns Taunggyi and Nyaung Shwe, and laidback hill station, Kalaw, from where many treks to immerse themselves in nature and local tribal communities. Rural idylls abound in Shan, as do sacred cave systems bedecked with Buddhist icons, for example, Pindaya Cave and Hten San Cave.
Worth visiting any time, Kakku is an enchanting place with thousands of closely-packed, tinkling stupas. It is also the impressive setting for Kakku Pagoda Festival in March when the Pa-O people, for whom Kokku is an important center of worship, pay homage in their finest ethnic attire and by decorating their prize bullocks.
Perched atop a mountain, the Shan capital, Taunggyi is home to numerous ethnic tribes and some important sights. Shwe Phone Pwint Pagoda affords panoramic views of the city and across the plains to Inlay Lake. Sulamani Pagoda, Taunggyi’s most prominent religious monument, a huge white stupa built-in 1994 to commemorate the town’s centenary, is modeled on Ananda Pagoda in Bagan. The nearby golf course and vineyards provide scenic outings. In November throngs of visitors gather for the spectacular Taunggyi Fire Balloon Festival.
Simple attractions are what Pindaya has become famous for including its rolling farmland, hills, and limestone caves filled with thousands of Buddha images (some dating back to the 11th century) and meditation chambers. The caves are a short distance from Pindaya town center which is located on the placid picturesque lake of Pone Taloke. They are reachable by horse and cart, jeep, or a pleasant 45-min walk. The colorful countryside can also be explored on foot or even by a hot air balloon.
Often the arrival point for visitors going to explore Inlay Lake, Nyanung Shwe acts as a “marina” for the many boats ferrying tourists and has a bustling market. The town features Yadana Man Aung Pagoda, built-in 1866, which is famous for its elements of traditional Shan architecture. Equally fascinating is a lovely wooden Shwe Yan Pyay Monastery, built in the early 19th century and located just outside Nyaung Shwe. Enjoy stunning sunset views across the lake at local vineyards near Maing Thauk.
No visit to Inlay Lake (or Shan State) is complete without exploring at least a few of its ethnic and tribal customs. There is a wealth of indigenous traditions in the area that have been developed and upheld with great passion. Some like Shan cuisine are found all over the region and even elsewhere in the country. Mostly made from natural, locally-grown produce, be sure to try dishes like Shan Khao Swe, htamin jin, lahpet, mala hin, and myae oh meeshay. Tasting the authentic charm of Inlay Lake is by no means limited to food.
An inlay is a feast for all the senses and perhaps the most memorable sight is watching in that fishermen single-foot paddling and retrieving their catches in their conical nets. Taking home a souvenir or two from this unique place is a must. Certain villages on and around Inlay Lake specialize in particular handicrafts such as Phaw Kone Village (silk and lotus weaving), Kyaut Taing (pottery), Se-Khong (blacksmiths) to explore, admire and purchase to help sustain these genuine practices.
Considered to be a highlight of any trip to Myanmar, the “Land of Festivals”, the cultural diversity of Shan State, as well as its breadth, means that it is a hot spot for both ethnic and Buddhist celebrations, many of which are intertwined. Most notable are, Shan State Day in January, Kakku Pagoda Festival and Pindaya Cave Festival in March, the impressive Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda Festival, and food offering ceremonies in Inthein in October, and Taunggyi’s stunning Hot Air Balloon Festival in November.
The Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda Festival is Inlay Lake’s most prominent celebration, during which four out of the five Buddha Images from the pagoda are conveyed around 14 villages on the lake by a royal barge towed by the boats of leg-rowers. A spectacular sight as hundreds of boats follow the procession, the 18-day long event also includes boat races that are fascinating due to the unique style of leg-rowing. Most festivals are determined by the lunar calendar so dates change yearly.