Getting the ultimate boat tour experience on Inle Lake
It’s impossible to say that you’ve been to Inle lake without taking a boat tour. Plenty of options are available if you waltz into downtown Nyaungshwe, from the overpriced private boats with fancy little stools and umbrellas to the humble small boats that don’t go as fast, it pays to wander around to get a gist of the different quotations and tour types before deciding on one.
The usual boat trips take a tourist route that brings people to the “factories” which are a total tourist trap, selling overpriced handicrafts and tobacco etc. one of the “highlights” was also the jumping cat monastery, where apparently the cats jump as the name suggests. But this was long ago when a monk trained cats to jump through hoops. That monk has passed on and so have the cats, but the name stuck and that really seems like a scam to trick tourists into thinking they’re going to witness miraculous jumping cats.
Prior to this, we all received a piece of advice in in Kalaw from a great man Sam, who told us that in genuine boat tours, we’d be able to pick vegetables like tomatoes off the lake, meet a real fisherman (not one that is casually posing for photos and asking for money) and purchase freshly caught fish, to be cooked for us in the comfort of a local’s home. And without his tips we wouldn’t have experienced the Burmese boat trip of a lifetime.
Since I was there during a religious festival on full moon, a rare procession ceremony was about to take place! We booked a tour from one of the many agencies in Nyuangshwe and our tour started as early as 600am in the morning. The boat took us an hour into the middle of the lake and we arrived to massive rafts of boats made up by hundreds of people eagerly awaiting the start of the ceremony. Little wooden store boats came up to try sell local crafts and precious jade figurines in the meantime.
The faint sound of drums and bells boom and ring in the distance; everybody – tourists and locals alike stand up on their rocking parked boats, getting ready for the procession. Soon, floats with different themes, symbolisms and umbrellas sail down the lake. Every boat had big groups of people dressed in loud flashy costumes, some dancing, some waving, some rowing the long boats in unison. Local men wearing traditional longyis paddle through with strength and determination, chanting a cheer while local spectators hold up offerings of fresh flowers, rice and food that they’ve prepared on the front of their boats.
And then everyone started looking in anticipation. Through the tall grass, I saw something shimmery float by… A spectacular golden bird on a float appears, followed by an enormous golden pagoda housing a Buddha. The whole thing was all very grand. To think that the locals have waited all morning in the marshes to witness this holy procession, this must hold a great deal of significance for them.
Once the procession was over, we started the “tour” which basically took us to the regular tourist route – something none of us wanted to do. This included a visit to the silk factory, tobacco factory, that stupid cat monastery, silversmith factory and other crap. The tour agency basically told us what we wanted to hear and put us on a regular tour anyway! (So it seems Myanmar cannot escape the SE Asian bluff even if it has only recently opened up in the past years)
Our boat tour guide, who we were told could speak English knew nothing but a few phrases that proved to be unhelpful. We expressed our lack of interest in these “factories” and “souvenir shops” midway through the tour and asked if we could experience a more local tour. By a huge chance of luck, we had the best boat driver ever. He lived on a stilt house by the lake and was a humble man who could see a struggle during a discussion that was about to turn very unhappy between all of us and the tour guide.
Despite the language barrier in the way, he understood exactly what we were seeking. And after the tobacco factory, he took us to the tomato farms in an attempt to pick our own vegetables ! Unfortunately it wasn’t in season so there weren’t much to pick, but we got to see it awns also found out that 80% of the tomatoes in Myanmar come from Inle Lake. Fun fact for you right thurrr~
He then manoeuvred the boat through narrow marshes and soon, other boats were completely out of sight. None of us knew what has coming next, all we were certain of was that we were now legitimately off the tourist track. Mr. Au Mong continued making countless left turns and right turns through more narrow lanes, it was almost as if there were invisible road signs and traffic lights that we couldn’t see. He knew the place like it was at the back of his head but to us, passing every marsh just looked the same.
We sailed for a long time in the noon heat and stopped when we found a fisherman. With some short exchange he purchased some fishes and threw them in our boat, all still flopping about! At this point no one knew what was going on but we went with the flow.
We continued sailing and eventually arrived at a quiet stilt house. “Welcome, my home” he says and all of our faces lit up. He had taken the initiative to bring us to his humble abode! I was absolutely overjoyed!! Inside, it was as real as it could get.
There were no fancy racks of souvenirs on display, or a neatly packed home meant for the eyes of a tourist. It was unorganized; a kind of beautiful mess. Piles of tomatoes from the previous harvest were everywhere, clothes left on the ground and untidy cups stack on the low table. He was certainly not expecting guests but all of us had the widest grin on our faces.
Our guide Au Au had lifted spirits as well, and while he and Au Mong retreat into the kitchen after offering us little bowls of tea leaf salad and peanuts, we took a good rest and relaxed on his porch after exploring his home a little.
News must have travelled because Au Mong’s friends and family showed up shortly after to meet us! Through our language barrier, Rami showed everyone photos of his daughter and there was so much merry conversation made with hand gestures and body language about where we were all from.
In a nutshell, we skipped the rest of the “tour” to hang out at our boat driver’s home and meet his family. we even paid him extra for the wonderful hospitality and for cooking us a feast. And that is what I’d consider an authentic experience when I think back about my boat trip along Inle lake!
So I hope for travellers who have plans of taking a boat tour along Inle lake, to seek this authentic experience with the right tour agencies and avoid spending your day sailing down a beautiful river from one tourist trap to another. Because if done right, this boat trip could pretty much end up being a highlight of your travels. It certainly was for me!