Making Waves in Inle Lake
September 6, 2013
Michelle Baran hotel-hops through a host of new restaurants, spas and even vineyards—yes, vineyards—around Burma’s traditional, tranquil heart.
Published on Sep 6, 2013
Life on Inle Lake begins early, well before the scorching sun crests above the surrounding green mountains, while the air is still cool and fresh. At dawn, Burmese fishermen are gently cutting pathways through the mist still clinging to the lake’s surface, steering their slender wooden boats with long paddles they propel with their legs, leaving their arms free to cast large nets towards thenhope of plentiful catch.
The 117-square-kilometer lake sits smack in the middle of Burma, but it seems decades removed from the hustle and bustle of Rangoon and Mandalay. Its charm is in the timecapsule quality of a simple life quietly unfolding atop the water. Almost everything on Inle Lake is suspended just above the water’s surface: homes, schools, entire villages built on stilts. Gardens too grow atop the lake, bobbing gently as boaters pass.
Here in this restful hamlet, tourists find an escape. Much of their time will be spent traversing the lake on narrow, motored canoes. They come to weave among the floating villages, to watch picturesque boat races among dueling lake communities where dozens of men leg-row in sync, and, if they’re lucky, to witness colorful Buddhist processions that, for instance, mark the end of Buddhist lent.
They come to visit the historical Nga Hpe Kyaung monastery (traditionally famed for its jumping cats), to meander through local produce markets both floating and ashore. They come to see the local Shan style, women in bright orange cloth headdresses, and to try Shan cuisine, known for its piquant salads and unusual chickpea or yellow split pea tofu.
Until recently, they haven’t come expecting much in the way of full-service luxury. In sleepy Inle, it’s difficult to find dinner after 8 p.m. let alone much entertainment beyond observing daily life. While the tranquility is likely to rejuvenate you on its own, in general, modern-relaxation needs are best met by the deluxe hotels. Float from shore to shore with us to the spots that are subtly filling in the tourism gaps, giving guests diverse, high-quality options to eat, drink and spa, without disrupting
the region’s natural rhythms.
The restaurant at Villa Inle Resort & Spa, on the lake’s eastern shore, is a large and airy space with soaring white walls and large paper lanterns hanging from the ceiling. Its locally sourced Burmese and Shan cuisine is a highlight of the stay, incorporating produce from the property’s chemical-free garden. Be sure to order the restaurant’s catch-of-the-day lake fish steamed with local herbs.
This eco-friendly charmer, opened in late 2011, currently features 16 stand-alone, 100-square-meter, stilted villas, though more are planned by year’s end. The villas are stocked with modern amenities and huge bathrooms. Optimal sunset viewing is from your lake-facing king-size bed in the middle of the cottage, or your private deck. The property’s spa is slated for completion early this year and a pool should follow later in 2013. Its green-cred includes landscaping incorporating fruit and teak trees, an extensive composting program and nature activities such as bird-watching. Maing Thauk Village; Nyaung Shwe; +95 1 242 259; hotelininle.com.
A Shan cuisine staple since opening on Inle’s northern canals in 2006, Viewpoint last year added a cool, 20-person French restauran —Lounge-E—to its property, with an international wine list featuring French and Italian labels, and a menu that takes cues from its über-hip sister restaurant in Rangoon, Le Planteur, known for its extensive cheese and dessert selections and entrees including a Southeast Asianinspired bouillabaisse, lamb fillet and duck breast. Also part of the upgrade: an adjoining eco-friendly 20-room hotel, made up of a series of stilted cottages connected by a winding raised walkway that floats above the water. Near Talk Nan Bridge and Canal, Nyaung Shwe; +95 81 209 062; inleviewpoint.com.
From the owners of the upscale Inle Princess—acollection of 45 high-ceilinged, glass-fronted, chimney-topped chalets that was a luxe pioneer on the eastern shore—comes the new Inthar Heritage House, a beautifully restored colonial-style house set up as a midday retreat in the middle of the lake. The extensive lunch menu features a wealth of produce from the Heritage House’s own organic garden in such dishes as the popular tea-leaf and green-tomato salad. Other menu highlights include gourd tempura with tamarind sauce, Intharstyle snake-fish curry, and pumpkin with pork ribs. For company, visit the somewhat peculiar menagerie of Burmese cats calling the House home—Inthar’s attempt to reintroduce the coveted pedigree felines to their native country. Resort: Magyizin Village; +95 81 209 055; inlepreincessresort.net. Restaurant: Inpawkhon Village; +95 9 525 1232; intharheritagehouse.com.
Padonma Lotus Spa, the centerpiece of Pristine Lotus Spa Resort Inle, is a sprawling complex complete with natural hot spring baths, a trademark of its home village, Khaung Daingge. In addition to an extensive selection of massages, the spa offers several body treatments including a frangipani and pomelo scrub with jojoba beads, a Bali coffee body scrub, and an anti-cellulite salt scrub that incorporates Burmese sea salt and a combination of pepper, ginger and grapefruit essential oils that the spa claims will break down fatty deposits under the skin. Guests can also receive spa treatments in their villas. After all, there’s plenty of space in these brand-new rooms: 49 are two-story, large and airy 100-square-meter bungalows; one is a sprawling 115-square-meter suite residence. The villas all have second-floor loft space that can be prepared as an extra bedroom, as well as balconies off both levels—the better to admire your eastward-facing view of Inle Lake, Pristine’s lush gardens and the rolling creek that winds through the property.Khuang Ding Village, Nyaung Shwe; +95 81 209 317; pristinelotus.com.
Gorustic-luxe at Aureum Palace Resort Inle’s nature Spa, a series of white, tented buildings that extend out over the water via a wooden walkway. International treatments include a Swedish massage; a thorough, two-therapist “Four Hands” massage; and a Thai massage. Or opt for a traditional Burmese massage, a dry treatment that can incorporate local musclehealing medicines upon request. There are also several foot massages available.
The Auruem Palace opened a year ago on the east side of the lake and has 65 standalone villas, either stilted above the water or on shore, all featuring a separate living room, private terrace and a lotus pond. Like its sister hotel in Bagan, you’ll find a dramatic outdoor pool with a view over the vast lake (in Bagan, the Aureum Palace infinity pool overlooks the region’s famous temple-dotted landscape). The hotel also has an indoor/outdoor 90-person dining room, a bar and an optimistically conceived nightclub. Mine Thauk Village, Nyaung Shwe; +95 81 209 866; aureumpalacehotel.com.
You’re not heading to Inle for the nightlife, but a civilized tipple? That can most definitely be had. Two of the country’s largest and best-known wine producers—Red Mountain estate and Myanmar Vineyard—are found in this region. And driving up from Inle Lake towards these hillside wineries, it’s easy to forget you’re in Burma at all. Red Mountain produces several varietals, including Sauvignon Blanc, Rose D’Inle, Shiraz-Tempranillo, Pinot Noir, Syrah and a Muscat. The vintner also offers lunch in its scenic hilltop restaurant with sprawling views of the vines and of the lake region. Myanmar Vineyard’s Aythaya brand keeps it simple with a few reds, including a Syrah-Cabernet Sauvignon, a Dornfelder and a Tempranillo; a rosé made from Moscato grapes; a couple of whites, including a Sauvignon Blanc and a Chenin Blanc; and Grappa. After tasting a few, you might do well to avoid the 40-minute drive back to Inle and instead stay at one of the property’s on-site apartments. The pre-fab bungalows, together called Monte DiVino in the Vineyard, were designed by Rangoon-based Spine Architects and, pending the arrival of their operating permit, are expected to open in October. Red Mountain: No. 39A Pyay Rd., Mayangone, Rangoon; +95 1 664 970; redmountain-estate.com. Myanmar Vineyard: 38G Myitzu St., Mayangone, Rangoon; +95 664 386; myanmar-vineyard.com.