The stilted villages and Intha leg-rowers of Inle Lake are used to sell Myanmar all over the world. But Inle is fast becoming a victim of its own celebrity, with hordes of tourists motoring up and down the lake in noisy longboats, pushy souvenir touts and unrelenting calls of “You want boat trip?” turning the serene waters into a kitschy tourist trap.
But who says you have to be in a boat to experience Inle Lake? For well-heeled travellers who want to escape the crowds, there is another way to experience the beauty of Myanmar’s most famous lake: from above.
“Sorry for early!” says our guide with a smile as I trudge wearily down the stairs of the hotel.
I’ve always been of the opinion that nothing good can come from waking up at 4:30am. But as we clamber aboard a wooden boat and speed off under the stars, the dull chug of the motor echoing in the dark, I suspect this is going to be an experience worth getting up early for.
In the dark, it’s impossible to tell where the inky black water of the lake ends and the mountains begin. Their menacing black shapes look flat against the night sky, as if they’ve been stencilled onto a giant grey wall.
As the sun starts to rise, shards of light pierce the dark silhouettes of the mountains, bringing the valley to life. With the dawn light comes the roar of longtail boats, and suddenly we’re surrounded by tourists, hastily snapping photographs of Inle’s famous leg-rowing fisherman.
Tea and croissants are waiting for us when we reach the launch site, spread over a smart emerald green tablecloth. Laid out on the ground nearby, in the same regal shade of green, is the Oriental Ballooning hot air balloon that will fly us over the lake. A crowd of locals has gathered around, excitedly taking photographs on their smartphones as a team of men fills the balloon with hot air – before a sudden burst of gas sends them retreating in fright.
Until now, my only experience of hot air ballooning is the Technicolor scene in The Wizard of Oz, in which the great and powerful Wizard departs the Emerald City in his State Fair balloon. In the absence of colour-changing horses and jaunty, emerald-clad townsfolk, the real thing seems somewhat more daunting, and as I scramble into the small, four-person basket, I suddenly remember my fear of heights.
Any thoughts of climbing out again, however, are swiftly silenced by the thunderous roar of the propane burner as the basket gently lifts off from the ground. As we float upward, it doesn’t feel as if we’re moving at all, but as if the earth is being slowly pulled away from beneath us. We ascend slowly, drifting silently above the glassy water of the lake, ethereal in the early morning mist.
As we climb to 8000 feet above sea level, a breathtaking panorama unfolds around us. The patchwork of floating gardens – which seem so twee from the water – take on new significance when viewed from above, their crisscross lines stretching for miles around the edges of the lake.
By the time our pilot has found a place to land, a large crowd has gathered in the field below, and as we drift down to earth with a gentle bump, we’re greeted by a throng of excited onlookers. They may not have been dancing munchkins, but it’s a surreal experience all the same.
While the crew pack up the balloon, we climb out of the basket and fight our way through the trees to a village on the side of the mountain, where the emerald-green-covered table has magically reappeared – this time with champagne flutes on top of it.
Pouring us a glass, our pilot explains the tradition among balloonists of having a champagne toast upon landing. Legend has it that early French aeronauts the Montgolfier Brothers, who launched the first recorded balloon flight in 1973, carried champagne to appease angry or frightened spectators at the landing site. Today, in memory of their first successful flight, it is a tradition to drink champagne after a balloon ride.
Back in the boat, the angry chug of the motor starts up once again and we set off across the lake, which somehow seems to have lost its Technicolour sparkle. Perhaps it’s just the champagne, but I can’t help feeling that everything seemed a lot more magical from the sky.
IF YOU GO
Oriental Balloons flights over Inle Lake cost US$420 per person. For more information or to book a flight, go to www.orientalballooning.com or visit the Oriental Balloons office on Lanmadaw Street in Nyaung Shwe, or its Yangon sales office, 10 Inya Yeiktha Street, Mayangone township.
WHERE TO STAY
The areas surrounding Inle Lake have changed almost beyond recognition in the past few years, with hotels and luxury resorts springing up as developers race to expand the limited facilities available to tourists. While many of these new developments are environmentally – not to mention aesthetically – dubious, several luxury resorts offer a relaxing escape from the crowds of Nyaung Shwe.
Novotel Inle Lake Myat Min, Mine Thauk Village Inle Lake, 11121 Nyaung Shwe
Rooms: Junior suites, US$150-250. Lakefront villas, $320-500.
There’s also no shortage of budget and mid-range accommodation in Nyaung Shwe, but when it comes to value for money Nawng Kham The Little Inn is one of the best we’ve found. The seven simple rooms have spotless, modern bathrooms and are set in a peaceful garden – perfect for relaxing after a morning in the sky.
Nawng Kham The Little Inn, Phaung Daw Pyan Road, Nyaung Shwe