If there is one special place a traveler in Myanmar cannot miss, it is Inle Lake. Some of the loveliest landscapes, ancient temples, wooden monasteries, a number of tribal minorities, unique customs and crafts - Inle packs more attractions than a small country. Boat tours access most sights, but even without leaving terra firma, one can easily fill a few days with new experiences, typically Burmese wonders and serious travel photography. The base for any trips, the town of Nyaungshwe, has become a tourist ghetto, but for a change, this may actually be a good thing. Any required information is readily available, any degree of comfort can be provided, and to immerse oneself in authentic Myanmar at its best, it is enough to stroll half a kilometer.
The town itself consists to a significant portion of guesthouses and cafes, catering to an incessant flow of tourists, but somehow it has managed to avoid corruption. The inner layer, the simple and peaceful Burmese village, still shows through. Markets line little alleys, and their floating versions assemble in a mass of interconnected canals, buffaloes graze on plots of grass, and young monks parade through the streets every morning, collecting alms. The main temple, Yadana Man Aung, houses a small museum of Buddhist religious objects. Another museum, run by the government and also dedicated to Buddhism, occupies the former palace of a deposed Shan lord. Another attraction here is Aung's marionette theater, where shows, abridged for tourists but still sufficiently authentic, take place every evening. Otherwise, merely walking around or following a canal and soaking up the mellow rural vibes is a worthy alternative to boat trips and hikes.
While the scenery is equally good in any direction, three itineraries could be singled out based on the type of attractions: the birdwatching walk, the monastery hike, and tribal village exploration. For birds, both resident and migratory, the best idea would be to stick as close to the lakeshore as possible, wading through marches. An alternative would be to hire a rowboat. The most interesting monasteries accessible by land are north of town. The ultimate gem is Shwe Yaungwe Monastery - an ancient teakwood structure circled by a string of round windows. It is deservedly popular with photographers: the windows create perfect framing for monks and novices when viewed from the outside and produce those cherished beams of light piercing the interior and highlighting the monks. Walk east or west of it through the rice fields, and you will come across other temples, often also old and wooden, as well as photogenic semi-ruined stupas. Of the village treks, the most popular destination is Kaung Daing, a settlement of the Intha tribe, mainly because of its hot springs, good for a dip. Other, longer routes can be hiked, including the classical trail to Kalaw, although officially, this requires a guide.
One special objective for a day hike (or a bicycle ride) is Maing Thauk village. It is often visited from the lake side by boat tours, mostly on the days when it hosts a floating market, but accessing it from the land will give you an excellent elevated vantage point: the village is on stilts, standing over the slightly swampy shallows, and raised wooden walkways play the role of streets. Entering from the road, you will be facing west and get the best sunset views imaginable. This includes the classic silhouettes of Intha fishermen rowing with their legs - a unique method found in Inle and no other place. Few tourists visit Maing Thauk independently, and the village is entirely authentic - Myanmar at its best.
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