To reach most of the lakeside accommodation you need to transfer to a long-tail boat in Nyaung Shwe for a ride first down a wide canal, and then across Inle Lake itself. We were pleased to find that boats for tourists had padded seats, umbrellas and lifejackets.
Along the way, you may encounter one of the leg rowers – men standing in the stern of their boats with one leg wrapped around a single oar moving it steadily back and forth in an easy rhythmic practiced motion. If you don’t see one here you will undoubtedly see some later.
The people of Inle Lake are predominantly Intha. They are mainly self-sufficient farmers, devout Buddhists and they live simple lives in houses of wood and woven bamboo. Villages are in the lake itself, on the shores of the lake, and by the many canals that run out from the lake.
Around 100,000 Intha live in the towns and scattered villages clustered on the shores of the lake. They appear to be happy with all the visitors roaming around, no doubt partly because of the extra income it brings to the area. The lake itself is a nice body of water approximately 20km long and 5km wide. In June 2015, it became Myanmar’s first designated place in the World Network of Biosphere Reserves.
For the next few days, we criss-crossed the lake in our high-powered boat visiting villages and other attractions as we saw fit. One of the most interesting things is the floating gardens or kyunpaw. These are created by collecting weeds from the surface and lashing them together to form meter-thick floating strips.
These are then anchored to the bed of the lake with bamboo poles, and heaped with mud scooped from the bottom. This means that they can be used regardless of fluctuating water levels. Crops – including cauliflower, tomatoes, cucumbers, cabbage, peas, beans and aubergine – are grown year-round.
We’d seen some of the small wooden boats so piled up with weeds from the lake that they were sitting barely above the water and we’d seen groups of people in their boats working together to collect these weeds and now we knew why.
Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda
We visited the Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda in Ywama Village which has been constructed in the traditional and elaborate Myanmar style of architecture even though it is over the water. At the center of the monastery building is a golden stupa topped with an ornamental umbrella-shape. The interior walls of the temple are decorated with murals depicting Buddhist stories.
In the central shrine in the main hall, there are five small lumpy gold objects that were once recognized as Buddhas. Devotees have been placing so much gold leaf on them for so long, that the original forms are no longer recognizable.
Old photographs hanging on the monastery walls show some of the images in a more pristine form. They are in a splendid setting complete with whirling lights and beautiful altar offerings. It is believed that these images were brought to Inle Lake by the Bagan King Alaungsithu, in the 12th century.
Annually, during the September to October period, an 18-day pagoda festival is held, during which four of the Buddha images are placed on a replica of a royal barge and taken to the various villages around the lake. The elaborately decorated barge is towed by many boats with leg-rowers in colorful costumes, and there are other accompanying boats, making an impressive procession.
If you plan to visit, remember you are not allowed to enter the pagoda in tank tops, short skirts or short trousers. Surrounding the Pagoda, and in the basement are shops selling traditional Shan and Burmese merchandise.
Near the pagoda is the boat shelter where the Karaweik boat is stored that carries four out of the five images in a procession across the lake during the festival. The monastery opens daily from 8 a.m. until 6 p.m. Admission is free.
Close to the pagoda, we saw our first one-leg rowers. The smooth lake, the blue sky, the small wooden boats with their huge basket nets, the rowers standing tall, leg and oar moving as one, made for a thrilling encounter.
Theories as to why this method of rowing evolved range from it providing both hands free for handling the fishing nets, to needing to stand to be able to see the reeds and weeds in the water ahead. Whatever the reason, we were thrilled by the sight and lingered for longer than we planned.
Understand that some one-leg rowers pose for photographs and ask for money as fishing is no longer their occupation.
Most of the fishers are men but quite a few women are also employed elsewhere. We saw this when we visited a hand-made cheroot factory. There were about a dozen women sitting cross- legged on the floor, their tray of supplies in front of them and their hands moving with the grace and precision that comes from years of practice.
Each seemed to roll a perfect cheroot every time and then they tied them into bundles. They are commonly smoked by both men and women and we saw this at the markets.
The markets in the Inle Lake area move each day from one of five locations to the next, ranging from Nyaung Shwe at the north end of the lake to Nam Pan towards the south end. One morning we left our hotel early so that we could enjoy cutting through the morning mist that hovers over the lake on the way to the market. Even so there were already dozens of boats at the market when we arrived.
The market was huge. Farmers come from all around to sell their produce, traders come to buy in bulk, and families come to do their regular household shopping. It was colorful and there was a strong sense of community but it rapidly started to get crowded – mainly with tourists.
One of the interesting aspects of the market is seeing women of the Pa-0 ethnic group, the second most numerous tribe in the region. These women wear dark plain colored lungyis with long sleeveless shirts and cropped long-sleeved black jackets. They also wear distinctive brightly colored turbans, often in a red check weave. They are mostly farmers who come down from their villages on market days to sell their produce.
Nga Hpe Chaung monastery
On the way back from the market we stopped at the Nga Hpe Chaung monastery. It was built in the 1850‘s on teak columns in the middle of the lake. It is a handsome building housing many beautiful Buddhist artifacts, and quite a few monks.
Awhile back the head abbot and some of the monks trained several cats to jump through hoops, so it became known as the ‘jumping cat’ monastery to foreign backpackers. The trained cats are no more so you will just have to put up with the idyllic setting, its collection of old Buddhas from around Myanmar, and its peace and tranquility.
On another occasion, we visited In Dein. A narrow canal wound its way from the lake, initially through reed beds but later through dense jungle until finally the village emerged around a bend. It was a perfect rural scene with water buffaloes wallowing while women from the local village washed clothes nearby.
We alighted at a small jetty and were immediately besieged by the locals who peddle their bamboo hats, “Welcome to Inle” T-shirts and Shan- style bags from little stalls. The highlight in town is a breathtaking complex of 1,094 16th century stupas, the main In Dein pagoda and the surrounding ruins which cover the dome of a hill.
You reach here up a long roof-covered passage where there are hundreds of vendors. The top provides a sweeping view of the lake and surrounding farmlands.
While a few of the stupas have been renovated, I found the old, overgrown ruins featuring detailed stone carvings to be more interesting. There is an undiscovered, mysterious quality about this place despite it being well and truly on the tourist circuit. The history of Shwe In Dein Pagoda is still mysterious as experts say there are no records of its construction.
As we entered the small village of Paw Khon, the rhythmic clacking sounds of handlooms resonated from the bamboo and wooden workshops and homes perched on stilts above the water. In this serene enclave, a community produces one of the rarest fabrics in the world.
Lotus weaving was conceived nearly a century ago. Over time, lotus weaving caught on around Inle Lake, and the creation and offering of lotus robes to eminent Buddhist monks and pagoda statues became an act of Buddhist devotion and merit-making.
Today it has become an industry and we are fascinated when we visit one of the many small factories. Once a stem is picked, its fibers are extracted while still fresh. On a small wooden table, a handful of about five stems are simultaneously cut, and their spongy fibers are pulled out, twisted and hand rolled together with water. Then, the fibers are spun, washed and woven.
Raw lotus threads are a neutral creamy color, and natural dyes are often used to color the fabric. The whole process is extremely labor intensive, making lotus cloth one of the most expensive textiles in the world. Lotus and silk blend scarves, silk ikat fabrics in various colors and patterns, and traditional Shan clothing, including longyis and fisherman pants are all available.
In the back of the store, we found an unexpected sight – members of a local tribe who seek to stretch their necks with golden hoops. There were three women of different ages sitting at basic weaving machines. The elderly lady did indeed have a very long neck, but her purpose in life mainly seemed to be as a curiosity for tourists.
The other two had less rings but it was clear that they too were being groomed and stretched. While it is true that this has been a tradition for a long time with this ethnic group, I have problems with the women becoming tourist attractions even though it may be a good way to earn some money. No doubt there will be those who disagree.
There is little wrong with Inle Lake in the early morning. As the sky brightens, the mist is pealed back to reveal a lake already busy with activity. This is a place to be at peace with nature yet there are plenty of things to do. If you let it, time floats by gently in this region and it is easy to forget what mobile phones and alarm clocks look like.
Inle Lake is magical at the moment but there are more and more tourists visiting here and already some places are feeling a little crowded at times. We looked to the hills and saw the devastation that is occurring in what is called a new ‘tourist zone’ where it is envisaged that many new hotels will be established. When that happens, most of the magic of the rest of the lake will be gone. A visit in the next few years is highly recommended.
Inle Lake is suffering from the environmental effects of increased population and rapid growth in both agriculture and tourism. Timber removal and unsustainable cultivation practices on the hills surrounding the lake are causing ever-increasing amounts of silt and nutrients to run off into the rivers that feed the lake.
Sanitation in the villages around the lake is an ongoing concern due to untreated sewage and waste water flowing into the lake. Some studies of the lake’s surface water quality indicate that the water is not safe for consumption.