To witness this festival you need to get out on the lake. With the excpetion of if your visit falls on the 3 days the royal barge stops in the main town Nyaung Shwe). Knowing which village is hosting the barge each day and the timings is also a necessity. Inle Lake is 22km long, so unless you're lucky you could miss the main event. Most of the hotels, guesthouses and tour agencies in town should be able to help you with this though. I managed to find the entire schedule online here, which is great and is showing the 2017 itinerary already.
A motorised canoe and boatman are needed to get out on Inle Lake. This can be arranged through your accommodation, a tour agency in town or with one of the boatmen who will approach you in town or around the main jetty.
Be aware that on key days during the festival the price for a day canoe trip is hiked drastically. We ended up paying around 50,000 kyat (£31GBP), earlier on in the week it was only 30,000 kyat (£18GBP). Also make sure that your boatman understands that you want to see the festival. If you're not firm, he'll take you round the sites, markets, handicraft stalls and workshops where he'll receive commission. These are interesting but you may miss the festivities, so best to do these on the way back or another day. Few of the boatmen speak any English at all so I think it's worth paying a little extra to book through a tour agency. This ensures you'll see and do exactly what you want to, to your own schedule.
We took a boat trip on Inle Lake early on in our stay, in the hope of catching that days procession. The boat driver was asked to take us to Ma Kyee Sake, from where the royal barge would depart.
Unfortunately we'd not timed it quite right and were way too early to catch the procession. We briefly saw the barge and some of the food and drink stalls. Apart from that it was mainly people waiting around for the procession to the next village to start. We wanted to see the rest of the sites of Inle Lake and so decided not to stay that day.
Last Day of the Festival
Disappointed at not getting the full experience we gave it another go at the end of our stay. We chose the last day of the festival as it's meant to be the most spectacular. It also features the biggest and best boat race of the festival.
The Royal Karaweik barge was due to leave Ye Tha at 8am, to be towed to the Paung Daw Oo Pagoda, the last stop of the festival. Once there the Buddha effigies would be returned to their rightful place. We weren't sure when the actual boat race was going to be but had our fingers crossed we'd at least catch a glimpse of it.
We got an early start at about 6:30am in the hope we'd get to a good spot to watch the procession and the races. Typically the boatman decided to take us to some of his 'mates' workshops in the hope of some commission. We'd visited these on our first trip so quickly turned him back from the lotus weaving, silversmiths and boat builders.