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The ins and outs of Burma’s Inle Lake

Burma’s eastern Shan state is home to more than 35 of the country’s 135 ethnic minorities. Its Inle Lake region is replete with natural beauty and abundant natural resources. Three thousand feet above sea level, Inle Lake is 13 miles long and 7 miles wide.

Home to the Intha people, Inle Lake is a peaceful setting encircled by mountains and known for their fishermen’s unusual one-legged rowing technique, floating gardens, stilt houses and traditional hand loom silk weaving.

My room, aptly called the Sanctuary, at Sanctum Inle Resort.
(Julie L. Kessler/Special to S.F. Examiner)


While there are several hotels around the lake, without doubt, the best is Sanctum Inle Lake Resort. Just two years old, this joint Burmese and French venture has grand architecture resembling an enormous monastery. Interiors designed with locally sourced bells and whistles are so lovely even the most enlightened monk would have a hard time dreaming up such a place.

With just 94 rooms on 10 acres of verdant grounds, there are bicycles to explore, an infinity pool strategically placed to seemingly feed into the lake, a well-equipped gym and the Chapter House with books and board games. To become Zen, the soothing Sanctuary Spa has a full menu, including my favorite: a four-handed massage where two talented masseuses put me into a personal state of near Nirvana. When done, seemingly by divine intervention, a golf cart appeared in the darkness to whisk me back to my room.

In keeping with the monastic theme, guest rooms are aptly named Cloister, Provost, Abbey and Sanctuary. While the underlying concept may be minimalist, guests want for nothing in these oversized teak decorated rooms with plush bedding, enormous marble bathrooms and plush separate seating area with earth tone velveteen cushions. Large terraces with loungers present an Eden-like location to enjoy wine or espresso while viewing glorious sunsets over the lake.

A vendor selling snake fish at Inle Lake’s roving five-day market. (Julie L. Kessler/Special to S.F. Examiner)


Meals at Sanctum are taken in the Refectory. With sustenance like this, I could have had a future as a nun. Against unobstructed lake views, its breakfast buffet of fresh fruits, French pastries, charcuterie, cheeses and a la carte menu made dieting a sin.

At lunch and dinner, both western and Burmese choices were available. Teriyaki chicken burgers on black sesame brioche buns with fresh Inle tomatoes and Shan tomato avocado tartare with basil ice cream glazed with balsamic were winners. Piquant vegetarian Shan noodle dishes with bean paste, pickles and spring onions were so satisfying, it had me contemplating my inner carnivore. Other favorites included the green eggplant curry with a spicy tomato salad and green beef curry.

With abundant locally sourced produce coupled with the Sanctum’s talented culinary team, dining was nearly a religious experience.

When hunger struck during the day, our long boat captain Jojo would stop at one of the open-air, mid-lake eateries, such as the Golden Kite. Here I grazed on lentil soup with rice crackers and chicken curry, while others nearby had homemade pizzas and pastas that looked good.

Three related Padaung women, known for their elongated necks caused by years of adorning heavy brass neckpieces which increase in weight over the years and are not removed once placed. (Julie L. Kessler/Special to S.F. Examiner)


The mode of transportation once one enters the lake region at Nyaung Shwe, near the northern most entrance of the reserve area, is by long boat. These are narrow, single-engine wooden boats deftly maneuvered by local captains through marshes and villages on the lake. This permits a bird’s eye view of stilt homes in the villages of Inpawkhone and Kaylar, where the traditional way of life on the lake hasn’t changed much in several decades. Along the river I stopped at various trade shops — knife makers, silversmiths, silk and lotus blossom weavers — where unique local products can be purchased. Perhaps most remarkable is the opportunity to see up close how lone fishermen, like graceful ballet dancers pirouette, balance the river’s currents with one leg wrapped around long poles while catching their daily take.

Gliding through the marshes of the western side of the lake are floating gardens. Here farmers grow tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplants and flowers on floating trellises in a traditional prelude to hydroponics.

Nearby is the Ngaphe Chaung Monastery, also known as the Jumping Cat Monastery. In the past, monks taught cats to jump through hoops between scripture readings. While plenty of cats are still present, most spend their time snoozing.

Inle Lake also has a roving five-day market — except on full moon days — where minorities come down from the hills to sell or trade produce, fish, fabrics, housewares, clothing and trinkets. My second day at Sanctum, the market came to an area just a 10-minute walk away. Here colorful, traditionally dressed hall tribe women and some men sell their items including snake fish, resembling something even Darwin may not have been able to imagine.

At the Indein Pagoda complex, hundreds of centuries’ old stupas, many with vines and tree branches growing through and around them, give off an Indiana Jones like appearance. While several stupas have been restored, many are in varying states of ruin. Despite the many souvenir stalls and stray dogs that line the long path to the hilltop, several leaning stupas are remarkable as many appear to defy physics.


My expert longboat captain glides me through the marshes of Inle Lake. (Julie L. Kessler/Special to S.F. Examiner)


Remnants of days past are everywhere in Burma’s Shan State’s Inle Lake region. And staying at Sanctum Inle Lake Resort will a blessed marriage of what’s best about the past, coupled with all that’s great about the present.

Julie L. Kessler
Published by
Julie L. Kessler

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