Editor's note: GoKunming first visited Myanmar's Inle Lake in March 2011. Much has changed in the intervening seventeen months. Aung San Suu Kyi was elected to parliament this May after fifteen years of house arrest, the country's long-running civil war escalated and relations with Chinese oil companies grew tense.
Please remember that travel to Myanmar requires careful planning and is beset with logistical issues as well as questions about the impact of tourism on human rights.
If you're interested in going there yourself, Lonely Planet's Myanmar travel guide provides quality travel advice as well as an interesting section about whether one should even travel there at all.
Spread across the land like a swath of crumpled blue silk, Inle Lake is a different world. Fisherman steer slim wooden boats with one leg wrapped around an oar, children in sarongs leap into the water to wash their hair and families live in wooden houses that sit high on stilts.
GoKunming had the pleasure of spending two days exploring the villages, open-air markets and clusters of white and gold stupas surrounding one of Myanmar's most popular tourist destinations.
We took the overnight bus from Yangon to the town of Nyaung Shwe. Even the best of Burmese buses are not luxurious and ours was piled with luggage in the back. The only seats were up front, facing a LCD TV that blared Burmese hip hop and movies for the first four hours of the trip.
We tumbled off the bus at what we were expecting to be our destination, exhausted and ill-tempered. The bus had dropped us off about seven kilometers from the lake at 4:00am. We caught a cab for 8,000 kyat (US$9) per person that took us to the Teakwood Guesthouse.
The charming little inn completely restored our spirits. Run by a local family, it was filled with traditional crafts and furniture. The rooms, a bit expensive at 26,000 kyat (US$30) per night, were bright and spacious.
After a short nap, we rented bikes for 1,500 kyat (US$1.70). Our first stop was Shwe Yan Pyay monastery, a tumbledown wooden building plunked down next to a golden stupa. The ramshackle appearance of the monastery belied a cozy interior where monks gathered around a large tea kettle and cats lazed in patches of sun shining through holes in the walls.
A fabulous golden Buddha on the monastery's center alter gazed benevolently at cats and monks alike. Next door, the interior walls of the golden stupa are lined with tiny niches that contain pocket-sized Buddhas. Mosaics run up and down the walls and added to the splendor of the place.
We emerged from the monastery and hit the road, tracing the outskirts of the lake. Biking was a joy. We were surrounded by lush paddy fields and zoomed passed villages where the houses are built of wood and straw. The landscape was so verdant and green it seemed to glow.
We rose with the sun and clambered into long narrow wooden boats for a tour across Inle Lake. For an hour we drifted lazily while the sun rose, watching the birds and fishermen that dotted the surface of the lake.
We managed to catch the tail end of a morning market, where we purchased souvenirs and clambered up a hill to a temple ringed with stupas.
Our next stop was at a weaving factory located in one of the ubiquitous stilt houses that stand above the lake. Inside men and women ran hand and foot looms to produce silk scarves and some of the most intricately patterned sarongs found in the region.
We also visited a silver shop where men bent over tiny anvils and worked lumps of metal. After a quick lunch stop, we went on to Jumping Cat Monastery which is famous for training its cats to jump through hoops. The feline acrobats we saw were mostly asleep.
At first we were enchanted by our boat tour, but as the day wore on our enthusiasm faded into mild curiosity and finally lapsed into exhaustion.
The stops became more and more touristy and seemed to drag on forever. One particularly jarring stop was a souvenir shop that "displayed" a Kayan woman. The Kayan people are known for their tradition of stretching women's necks to uncanny lengths with silver rings.
Night began to fall and we were lucky enough to still be out on the lake when the sunset came. Rich colors dyed the sky pink and purple and reflected beautifully in the clam water. Whatever tension we had felt melted away as we sat still and silent, awed by the allure of Inle Lake.
Overnight bus tickets form Yangon to Inle Lake can be bought for around 17,000 kyat (US$20) and will drop you, as it did us, approximately seven kilometers outside of Nyaung Shwe. Taxis are easy to find as locals are well aware of bus schedules.
Plane tickets form Yangon cost approximately 87,000 kyat (US$100) and can be arranged in advance on the internet. However, online information is not always up to date. Planes arrive at Heho airport which is thirty minutes away from Inle Lake by taxi.
China Eastern Airlines and Air China offer several flights a week from Kunming to Yangon or Mandalay. Visas can be obtained from the Consulate General of the Union of Myanmar and take three to five days to process.
There are very few ATMs in Myanmar, and they are mostly located in Rangoon. GoKunming recommends bringing US dollars and changing them to kyat when you arrive.