Inle Lake is a shallow lake in the middle of Myanmar, south-east of Mandalay. The lake is 22km long, and is densely inhabited by many different tribes.
If you stay in Nyaung Shwe, you can walk around town easily. Many bike rentals are also available for 1000-1500 Kyats per day, great for also touring the surroundings.
If you stay on the lake, getting around can be less convenient, but you can still rent bicycles 1,000-2,000 kyat a day or hire a motor-cycle taxi to get around by road, or a water-taxi on the lake.
WHAT TO SEE
Aung's Marionette Puppet Show - Don't miss this unique cultural experience. Aung performs a charming, clever, and fun 30 minute show with traditional Burmese music and marionettes. Nightly shows start at 7 & 8:30pm. His small theatre is a few blocks east of the Golden Kite. Beautiful handmade marionettes are also for sale.
WHAT TO DO
The Lake - a boat trip on the lake is a must do. Unfortunately, it is also one of the biggest tourist traps in Myanmar, because you may visit up to 6 workshops (i.e. shops) on a half-day tour (only increasing when your tour is longer). Most of the workshops are only set up for tourists. However, if you inform your boatman that you do not want to visit any one in particular, they will skip it.
One that is you may consider worth a purchase is where they make handmade cigars "cheroot" (from tobacco, honey, rice flour, tamarind, banana, and anise). You will be paying mostly for the cigar box (~10,000 kyat) but is a good way to bring back a nice souvenir of 30 handmade cigars, if you are into that sort of thing. If you are just after cheroot, you can buy a pack at any convenience shop along the lake or in Nyaung Shwe for <800 kyat.
Day tours (8 hours) can buy from tour agents or hotels and guesthouses around the town. A boat can hold up to 5 passengers; you can request to ride with others. To hire the boat at the pier may cheaper and more flexible, only the top half of the lake or including the south of the lake (recommended!).
Note that in comparison to other boat trips, this is cheap, because the boat drivers get good commissions for anything you buy at the many shops you visit. Typical shops are clothing (about twice as expensive for the same item compared to elsewhere in the country), silverware and jewellery, lacquerware & tobacco. If you want to spend more time on the lake and less time shopping, be sure to tell the boat driver clearly.
Bird Migration - Another worthwhile experience that most tourists miss is to see some of the thousands of waterbirds that use Inle Lake either as a breeding site or on migration. Some are rare species difficult to see anywhere else. December and January are the best times, although some birds, like the spectacular Pheasant-tailed Jacana, are best seen in their breeding plumage during the rainy season. The Lake is a wildlife sanctuary and the local warden can arrange a knowledgeable guide who knows the English names and can show you where the birds are for a reasonable fee. This fee goes to support the staff of the cash-strapped sanctuary. Bring your own binoculars and get out early when the birds are most active. Ask at your lodging to make arrangements, or better still, phone the Forestry service directly and arrange for a guide.
Bike Ride - take a day to ride through surrounding villages. Just check your rental bike carefully before leaving.
Hike - day hikes in the surrounding hills, or 3 day hikes to Kalaw are available, and are highly recommended. A typical day hike usually costs about 10,000 Kyats per person and starts at 8 AM and ends at 4-6 PM. Be warned that the hikes can be very exhausting because it involves a lot of walking (typically 20 km, but you can ask the guide to shorten the trip if you are tired), walking up steep paths and the heat (especially in April) can make it quite tiring too. Bring plenty of water (2-3 litres per person) as it can be difficult to buy clean water since you won't pass any shops, and of course good hiking shoes or boots. On a typical trip one will walk through mountains, forests and many villages inhabited by hill tribes (but don't expect to see them dressed in fancy hill tribe costumes. This is real life and not set up for the tourists). Even if a hike is tiring, it gives the opportunity to get a glimpse of real life around Inle Lake and see some nice scenery too. It's usually not a tourist trap like the boat trip on the lake often is.
Hot Springs - Rent a bike and cycle the bumpy road for 45 minutes towards the mountains to visit the hot springs for a relaxing afternoon. $5 person for a common pool $8 per person for access to the 3 private pools and includes a towel. The Hot Springs are actually 4 swimming pools in a big concrete spa centre, so you do not go there for the natural surroundings. The bike ride to the spa however is very scenic, though the tree-lined dirt road westward is rather wobbly. There is a full bar available.
Red Mountain Winery - Rent a bike and cycle about 3 km outside of town to visit the Red Mountain Winery. This site is great for sunset views. There is free WiFi available as well as a full restaurant menu of local and Western specialties. Wine tasting is 2,000 kyats to try 4 different types of wines, which aren't bad.
Stand Up Paddling (SUP) - Learn to Stand Up Paddle Inle-Style. Try your hand (or feet!) at learning to paddle a boat like the locals. They teach the stroke, balance and navigation required to paddle your own boat. The fishermen on the lake make stand up paddling by foot look simple. It's definitely not, but it sure is fun trying.
Shan Cooking classes with Sue at Bamboo Princess 6/261 Aung Chan Thar Quarter Nyaungshwe. Learn to prepare and cook a series of Shan dishes during the course of a morning followed by eating the results for lunch. Absolutely delicious (and plenty of it). Dishes prepared can cater for customer choices including those with allergies, e.g. vegetarian, coeliac/ celiac, but the default range is based on seasonally available ingredients from local markets. Leslie (Sue's husband) also helped with creating gluten free and egg free options - make sure to advise when booking and also at the start of the course prior to visiting the market. Great fun and interesting conversation with Sue about how things are in Ngaungshwe. A lovely garden setting. Be prepared for plenty of children around as Sue's own children, her brother's child plus many of the neighbouring children are found playing around the house. Arrangements are easily made via your accommodation reception.
Htat Eian Caves: These caves are nice to explore. Bring a torch. There are Buddha statues inside of course and people praying, meditating and sleeping. Also a monastery nearby and you can chat with the monks. You can bike here over a hill from Nyaung Shwe. A good place to spend the hotter hours of the day.