The picturesque sunset photos of Bagan make the vast historical temple site an irresistible Myanmar attraction for any Southeast Asian traveler.
Yet the graceful fisherman, stunning mountain views, majestic lake, and chance to experience traditional Shan-style living will have you second guessing yourself for skipping out on a visit to Inle Lake.
A grueling ten hour bus ride separates Bagan Town and Nyaung Shwe ( the town closest to Inle Lake).
If you’re on a tight schedule, and time is of the essence, you might find yourself having to make the choice between visiting Bagan or Inle Lake.
So which is it? If you have to pick one, should you go to Bagan or Inle Lake?
In this article, I’ll break down how much time I think is needed to thoroughly enjoy what each location has to offer, and where I think you’ll get the most fun and enjoyment for your time.
Hopefully after this article, you’ll have a better idea of which location will be best for you.
Is it better to go to Bagan or Inle Lake?
The Short Answer
Sigh…:) if you really must have the short answer, all I can say is that for my money it’s Bagan 100%.
Riding an electric bike between the seemingly endless temples that dot the area is an exhilarating pleasure that will have you feeling like you just rolled off the set of an Indiana Jones film.
While the scenery of Nyaung Shwe is truly majestic, and Inle lake is a refreshing treasure to behold, the peaceful authentic vibe of the town has been greatly depreciated by an aggressive focus on tourism.
In no way do I regret my visit to Nyaung Shwe, but in my opinion, Inle Lake is far from what it’s cracked up to be.
Bagan on the other hand, offered amazing temple exploring, sunsets, and even a couple of other spectacular treasures that made me wish for one more day in the archaeological wonderland.
How many days should I stay in Bagan? Inle Lake? Cost?
The short answer is that two full days in each location is plenty to experience everything they have to offer. That being said, it’s important to take into consideration just how rough Myanmar bus travel can be.
The trip from Yangon by bus is about 10 hours, 10 bumpy super uncomfortable hours I should add. While two days is enough for me to recharge and get ready for another bus ride, it’s definitely not ideal for those want to get some relaxation in with their sightseeing.
If you’re planning on visiting both Inle Lake and Bagan, I would budget 5-6 days in your itinerary. The bus ride between Bagan and Nyaung Shwe is over ten hours, and for me, was one of the most uncomfortable bus rides I’ve ever been on.
You will probably want a day or two built into the schedule just to recuperate from travel. I consider myself a pretty willing and determined trekker, but those Myanmar bus trips will really take it out of you. Without a little recharge time you’re likely to be hurting in each location.
Krissy and I spent a day and a half in each city, and this was just not enough time. While we had a lot of fun, the trip felt more like a forward-marching expedition than a vacation.
Two days is plenty enough to see what each town has to offer, but considering Nyaung Shwe and Bagan are both pretty relaxing places to kick it, you might want to schedule in a bit more time to find a tea shop to sit and watch the world go by.
Zone Costs for Bagan & Inle Lake
If you’re a foreigner visiting Bagan or Inle Lake you have to pay a fee to enter each zone. There’s no way around this, but luckily the zone passes won’t break the bank.
Bagan zone cost: $20 USD
Inle Lake zone cost: $10 USD
Flying between Bagan & Inle Lake
If you can fly to each destination then that will obviously save you a lot of time. The closest airport to Bagan is Nyaung U. Nyaung U is about 30 minutes from Bagan.
The closest airport to Inle Lake is Heho airport, which is about 45 minutes from Nyaung Swhe.
The flight time between Heho and Nyaung U is about 1.5 hours.
In general, the cost to fly between Bagan and Inle Lake is between $75-140 USD.
Cost for accommodations in Nyaung Swhe and Bagan.
The cheapest decent hotel you can find in Nyaung Swhe and Bagan is around $30. There is one hostel in Nyaun Swhe, and there are a couple in Bagan, but the prices aren’t too much cheaper.
I stayed at the Inwa Hotel in Bagan, and it was awesome. 30$ a night, and the staff was incredibly helpful, calling taxis, recommending food and setting up day trips. They also didn’t charge us a half-day even though we arrived at 3 AM.
In Nyaung Swhe, we stayed at the Big Drum Compound. It was $25 dollars a night, and was in a really nice location right on the edge of town. I recommend it.
If money is less of an issue, then don’t worry, there are plenty of big budget hotels in both places that offer excellent accommodations for premium prices.
Now that we’ve got all the basics out of the way, let’s talk about some of the specifics of each location.
Inle Lake: A Window into Sustainable, Traditional Shan Village Life.
…Or at least that’s what people tell you, and this idea is one of the major appeals of Inle Lake. While you will experience the traditional Shan lifestyle, where the locals catch all their own fish, grow their own plants, and create their own clothes, tools, art, cigarettes, etc… You will also most likely be hustled the entire time you are there.
Inle Lake Boat Tour: An Inescapable Trap
Taking a boat tour around the lake is the quintessential Inle Lake attraction, and as you enter the massive body of water, it’s impossible not to marvel at the rustic surroundings. Then the fisherman come into view, gracefully wielding their one-footed nets at the edge of their boats, kicking one leg back to shimmer in the light of the sun.
And it’s that sight that makes your heart swell with beauty, and makes you feel like you’re really experiencing a deep and rich cultural practice in a truly unique area.
Then the fisherman quickly row over to your boat. They flank both sides, so that there are about 6 fisherman holding onto the side of your canoe (in the middle of a lake mind you), and they grunt “Money, Money, Money” you at rudely, refusing to leave until you cough up the dough.
Well we refused to give them any money, not because we don’t want to support the locals, but simply because we honestly felt slightly victimized. Eventually the fisherman left, but they left with mean expressions and they let us know that they were not happy.
While you’re bound to have these types of pandering and scams happen to you while traveling, this particular instance left the sourest of tastes lingering in my mouth. Krissy was immediately disgusted by the near-assault, and I was trying my hardest to remain optimistic.
The views of Inle Lake were incredible, but overshadowed by the rude and unexpected ambush on our boat.
It took us a couple of minutes, but eventually we got over the experience with the fisherman. Although, to be honest, it really tarnished that whole image for me.
But it didn’t stop there. Most canoe tours will take you around to the different villages and shops that are strewn around the lake.
It’s at these different waterside shops where you can see people hard at work making nice cloths, tools, ceramics, jewelry, and all kinds of other goods.
Throughout the tour, you stop at around 10 different shops. Most of the people at the shops will do a short tour, and then after the tour, most of the shops will immediately start the hustle, trying to sell you a million different types of souvenirs.
The entire tour has a very rustic, authentic feel to it. But while seeing such a traditional way of life is truly a unique eye opening opportunity, the authenticity dies a bit when every shop has a top of the line credit card processing machine hooked up to an advanced transaction server.
The worst part is that you’re stuck on the canoe. There is literally no escape.
It was exhausting to say the least, and I honestly wanted off the boat after the second or third shop, but I had already paid for the tour and felt silly asking to go back.
The tour guide also offered to take us to a long neck village, where we could stare at the long-neck locals there like a human zoo.
No idea could have possibly disgusted me more. No offense to anyone who visited a long-neck village, I pass no judgement, but to me it just felt like another big tourist trap.
The whole boat tour around Inle Lake was honestly a major disappointment for me.
There are some other really fun things to do around Inle Lake, but the whole experience lost a lot of points for me because of the constant feeling of being locked in a big tourist trap.
This is one of the main reasons that I would recommend going to Bagan over Inle lake if you have to choose one.
Now let’s take a look at Bagan.
Bagan: Sunsets, Temples & So much More
Bagan has a lot to offer. Both the old town and the new town are a blast to take one of the electric bikes through. There are loads of tea shops, restaurants of all kinds, and even a couple night cap pubs.
The temples are the obvious attraction here, and they don’t disappoint. Similar to Angkor Wat, and the pyramids of Mexico, there’s an overwhelming amount of sites to see, and many of them are fully climbable.
The thing that I really loved about Bagan though was that it had even more to offer.
One of the my favorite things we did was camp out at a restaurant along the banks of the Irrawaddy river. The mountainous backdrop, and the slow creep of the boats down the wide river was a tranquil sight to behold that went perfect with a cold bottle of Myanmar beer.
The impressive views at the banks of the Irrawaddy were every bit as impressive as the many temples throughout the city.
As if that weren’t enough though, only 40 minutes away from Bagan is the famous Mt. Poppa— A gorgeous temple that sits high atop an extinct volcano.
Supposedly home to one of the most prominent Nats (old-Myanmar religious spirits), and one of the most famous Buddhist pilgrimage sites in the country, Mt. Poppa is an illustrious golden temple that offers sweeping panoramic views of the surrounding valleys.
A trip to Mt. Poppa can be set up anywhere in Bagan. It’s the perfect day-trip out of Bagan.
Conclusion: Bagan or Inle Lake?
While the lake views and old-time charm of Nyaung Shwe are a great window into a nearly ancient way of life, the aggressive focus on tourism left a really sour taste in my mouth and cast a shadow over my experience there.
The amazing temples, beautiful river bank views, and stunning Mt. Poppa excursion makes Bagan the sure winner in my book.
So if you can only pick one of these amazing spots to go to, 100% choose Bagan. I really think you will have a much better time there.
If you have 5-6 days, then you can probably do both locations with an adequate level of comfort. Flying would be the best for seeing both locations.
If you are taking the bus, be ready for some seriously long and tough bus rides. Make sure to book JJ Bus Company for all of your bus travel. Their transportation is safe, reliable, and pretty comfortable. They really are a step-above any of the other companies in Myanmar right now.
JJ Bus Company was sold out for the trip from Nyaung Shwe to Bagan, and we had to use another company. That bus ride ended up being the absolute bus ride from hell.
Just trust me when I say that JJ Bus Company is the way to go.
No matter which itinerary you decide on, I hope you have a great time. Myanmar is truly a memorizing country. Feel free to drop me a comment if you have any questions.
By the way, what do you think of Inle Lake and Bagan?
Which one did you like best? Comment below and let me know! Let’s talk about it:)
Happy Trail Blazing