Most travellers to Myanmar already plan their journey from Yangon to Bagan, and possibly even Bagan to Mandalay, and then Mandalay back to Yangon. That is the traditional cultural triangle of must-see spots in Myanmar. But recently the beauty of Inle Lake has been on the tourist radar, too. Yet it is not always easy to add to the existing triangle – and the slow speed of the trains in this part of Myanmar make it a somewhat restless experience.
The first thing you must decide is if you want to visit Inle Lake direct from Yangon, or from other parts of the country. There is no direct train service from Mandalay that takes you to the region of Inle Lake (you must stop overnight then change trains for the second leg), so getting to Inle from Yangon is certainly a better option. This is the option I chose when I was most recently travelling in Myanmar.
From Yangon station, buy tickets for Train number 3 (overnight train), which will depart at 17.00hrs, passing through Bago and Naypyitaw, before arriving in Thazi at 04.55hrs the next morning. Train number 3 from Yangon has Upper Class Sleeper cabins, as well as Upper Class seats.
The train from Thazi to Shwe Nyaung (Train number 141) departs at 07.00hrs, and is scheduled to reach Kalaw at 13.15, Aungban at 14.05, Heho (for the airport) at 15.30, and Shwe Nyaung at 17.00hrs. This is a 10hr daytime train ride in either Upper Class seats or “ordinary” seats.
Remember that when you arrive in Thazi, you only have around 2 hours before your next train departs, so don’t leave the train station!
The Main Line between Yangon and Mandalay branches off about half way through the journey at a town called Thazi. This branch line continues to Kalaw and Shwe Nyaung (this is the stop you want for Inle Lake) and all the way up to the capital of Shan State, Taunggyi. The line from Thazi to Shwe Nyaung winds its way for around 10 hours up and down beautiful mountain scenery, but the journey is hideously SLOW! The bus is much quicker between the two destinations, but you would miss out on the mountainous views.
The Upper Class sleeper cabin between Yangon and Thazi costs 10,000 Kyat (£11), whereas the Upper Class seat is typically around 7,350 Kyat (£8). “Ordinary” seats cost 3,700 Kyat (£3.50).
Upper Class seats between Thazi and Shwe Nyaung cost 3,000 Kyat (£3), whereas “ordinary” class seats cost 1,500 Kyat (around £1.50).
I was fortunate enough to take Upper Class seats on both journeys (payable in whole as one ticket at Yangon Train Station), and this was more than adequate for my journey as a solo traveller. The scenery from the window was amazing (just as nice as train travel in Sri Lanka or Indonesia) and the quality of cleanliness onboard the train was good. The one thing I didn’t enjoy was a lack of air-conditioning; I don’t know if all trains are like that or if it was a problem with the air-con unit in my carriage. Whatever, the heat and humidity became a slight problem in the second half of the journey, from Thazi to Shwe Nyaung.
The town of Nyaung Shwe (the town has reversed pronunciation from its train station name) is about 5km north of Inle Lake and be prepared to pay the 12,500 Kyat entry fee to the area when you go through the ‘toll booths’. As usual in this part of the world, I experienced a few scammers who were pretending to the ‘money collectors’ but fortunately all the travellers in my carriage (yes, including more tourists!) had our wits about us and just ignored the scammers’ demands.
Inle Lake is a freshwater lake and the second largest lake in Myanmar. During the dry season, the average water depth is 7ft, but during the rainy season this depth can increase by to over 12ft. Inle Lake is a major tourist attraction, and this has led to some development of tourist infrastructure. Many privately owned hotels and tour operators have appeared over the past few years but this has also led to some overcrowding in the area. That said, Inle Lake remains one of the most beautiful regions of Myanmar and as long as you can brave the train from Yangon (or Mandalay) then it should always be on your itinerary!