As our long tailed motorboat powered down the centre of Inle Lake first thing in the morning it was so misty that all we could see were the bulky dark shapes of the Shan Plateau mountains and the outlines of wooden houses on stilts at the edge of the huge lake.
It all felt rather mystical, but as the day unfolded we started to see a glimpse of what it’s like to live your life in and around Inle. And what we saw were lots of hard working people fishing, farming and making a whole range of products almost all by hand.
The selling of many of the fruits of their labours happens at a rotating five day market which pops up in different towns around Inle Lake on a five day cycle. The day we visited, the market was in Nam Pan and as our driver rapidly overtook other boats and the ubiquitous stupas started to appear in the distance, it felt like we were in a race to get there before it all sold out.
There was no danger of that though as the market is absolutely huge. It starts alongside the boat dock so you can shop the minute you get off, but that’s mostly souvenirs that are aimed at tourists. It’s the main market where things get interesting as it’s literally teaming with stalls and people. Though when I say stalls it’s generally people sitting with their wares on the floor, or maybe a raised platform at best.
Not surprisingly there’s plenty of fish freshly caught from Inle Lake and piles of fresh fruit and veg. But there’s all sorts of other foods too, including huge rice poppadoms, savoury snacks and sweet treats made from molasses. We had a guide which was brilliant for knowing what was what. She grew up in the area and said as a child she was always very happy when her parents went to the market as they came home with lots of treats.
As well as produce from the fishermen and farmers of the Inle Lake villages, there are also plenty from tribes folk who come down from the mountains. That includes the Pa-o tribe who live 1000m above sea level and are distinctive because they wear heavy colourful turbans to protect them from the sun. They are amongst about 1000 people buying and selling from each other at the market so it’s difficult to see how they’ll sell it all, but most seem to be doing some trade. And of course the tourists are there to buy up the jewellery, purses, scarves and traditional lonyis made from colourful fabrics. There were even lacquerware pots and trays that had been brought across from Bagan, where we’d seen them made. Check out my Bagan post for more about longyis and lacquerware.
Back on the lake your boat can take a meander through the floating gardens which is where much of the fresh produce comes from. A quarter of the lake is covered by these extraordinary gardens that literally float on its surface anchored by long bamboo poles so they don’t drift away. Products include cucumber, squash and flowers, but it’s tomatoes that are really big here. Inle supplies the whole of Myanmar with them. We’d unfortunately missed the last of this year’s harvest but their were new tomato plantings appearing in some of the gardens.
Each garden is separated by a narrow channel of water and every farmer has a hut or two on stilts which are basically their sheds. If you spot the occasional blue hut its the Department of Irrigation checking the farmers don’t encroach further into lake. The beds occur naturally but farmers prepare them over a period of time joining strips together to make a sort of floating ‘field’ and can use them for 20-25 years. Seaweed is also regularly collected from the lake and piled onto boats to take to the gardens and use for fertiliser.
The other main activity on the lake is fishing and there are plenty of fishermen going about their business, though some do it overnight when it’s quieter. They use an interesting net with a bamboo pole in the middle. They watch for bubbles, poke around with the pole to check a fish is there and if it is drop the net and push the fish into the edge of it. Our guide tried to demonstrate but it’s clearly a skilled job. They are also famous for rowing with their legs instead of arms and that looks pretty tricky to do too.
At Pauk Pauk, one of the the fisherman villages you can see that their catch is held for a couple of days in blue nets under their houses before they take it to sell at the markets. The houses are all on stilts, as are the post office and primary school. Primary education is compulsory in Myanmar so there’s a school in every village, but in this case the kids go to school by boat. There’s no sanitation system so the houses don’t have toilets, but there are plenty of power lines bringing electricity and satellite dishes for tv.
To see more local life you can head along one of the numerous canals that run into Inle Lake. We did this to get to Indein and passed fields where farmers were busy growing crops including rice and garlic and had constructed weirs to keep the water level high and help with irrigation. By now we’d tuned out the boat’s outboard motor and it felt almost serenely quiet as we passed women washing clothes standing on small wooden platforms jutting into the canal and kids washing themselves using a metal bowl to scoop up the water.
At Indein it was much busier with lots of boats and families living in and around the dock. We walked up to the village temple passing various stalls and bought some mini couples, a traditional hot snack known as the husband and wife. It’s a bit like a dumpling with spring onion and peas inside and very tasty. Other stalls were mostly selling the usual souvenir stuff, but I succumbed to a small oil painting of monks as the young female artist was sitting behind the stall working hard on the next one.
We didn’t turn straight into the walkway to the temple, Shwe Inn Thein, but meandered a bit more around the village cutting into it further up. Thank goodness we did as it must have been the longest temple corridor yet and was lined with dozens of stalls. Not long after we ducked out of it again and were almost immediately rewarded with the sight of dozens of ruined stupas tightly packed together. By now we’d seen many a stupa in Myanmar but nothing quite like this.
There were originally over a thousand, but much less now as many have been ruined by trees uprooting them and treasure hunters taking jewels and sometimes the heads off the Buddhas inside. It really makes for an amazing spectacle. On one side of the temple are mostly ruined crumbling stupas while on the other side many have been restored. A sight not to be missed at Inle and much less busy when we went in the morning as it’s often the last stop for boatman taking people on tours.
Our next stop was Ywama and the very nice Golden Moon restaurant. It had a balcony with a lake view, delicious tofu crackers that look like poppadoms and we tried local dishes including Shan rice with fish. Ywama is the largest village at Inle Lake and was famous for having a floating market, but the water is too shallow now so it’s moved onto land.
What is does have is lots of cottage industries. We went to the umbrella workshop where they make what we would call parasols from Shan paper. It’s a fascinating labour intensive process using bark from a mulberry tree which is boiled and mashed into pulp and then spread onto a fabric frame and mixed with water. It’s left to dry and then the pattern is added, pressed flowers for example, then stripped off the frame. The finished paper moves inside where a woman is painstakingly attaching it to the bamboo spokes that have also been made at the workshop. She skilfully cuts the paper to shape keeping off cuts to add decoration to the top of the umbrella.
We also popped into the silver workshop which was a bit full on and heavy on sales and a weaving workshop where they employ women from the Kayan Lahwi tribe. They are known as the long necked woman as wear brass rings on their necks starting at five years old with five rings. Every three years five more are added until they have 25. The tradition started to protect them from tigers in their original homes but many, like the ones we met, have relocated and few of the new generation are doing it. Not surprising as we held just a few rings and they weigh a tonne.
The final workshop we visited was boat building Nam Pan village. This is hard graft, all done by hand and taking a month to make a boat like the one we were travelling in. They sell for $1300 plus the boatman needs $500 for the engine, but considering how tourism is likely to grow in Myanmar its seems a good investment.
As well as people to meet, there were also places to see at Inle Lake and Nga Hpe Kyaung is one that’s worth hopping off the boat for. It was known as the jumping cat monastery as when not meditating the monks trained their cats to jump. That doesn’t happen now, there are just 10 cats and 8 monks living quietly in the teak building though novices do come in the summer. What’s most interesting is all of the different styles of ancient Buddha images displayed on pedestals in the meditation hall.
Another good stop is the Phaung Daw Oo Paya where there are five Buddhas that look like blobs because of all the gold leaf that’s been stuck on them. That happens when they are taken by golden barge on a procession around Inle Lake to 20+ towns and villages for 18 weeks in September and October every year. Though there is one that doesn’t go now. It went missing once and superstition is that it’s bad luck to take it out. So while the others all get bigger that one stays just the same.
We did all of this on boat trips from Nyaungshwe the nearest town to access Inle Lake. You can stay in hotels on stilts on the lake which look lovely, but they are a bit isolated and in the path of noisy boats, so we opted for the town where we could walk out for meals and drinks. We stayed at the Princess Garden Hotel which is on the edge of town, extremely cheap ($45 a night for a room) and is the only hotel with a swimming pool. It was great for sitting and relaxing by after a trip on the lake, but you’d need to be braver than us to go in as the nights are cold so the water is pretty chilly.
Nyaungshwe has plenty of shops, a market and lots of places to stay, eat and drink and its growing. We liked Green Chilli for Thai food, Pancake Kingdom for toasties as well pancakes and One Owl Grill for some very interesting tofu burgers and great desserts.The owners of this had also just opened Asiatica, a big and very coolly designed bar with a pool table that serves decent cocktails and what looked like good pizzas. It was pretty much the only actual bar in town but we felt it was probably a sign of things to come.
So my advice is to get to Inle Lake (and Myanmar generally) before the change really starts to take shape. It’s probably also a good idea as Inle Lake is shrinking. The water from this and two man-made lakes further south are being used for hydro power, supplying electricity to many parts of the country. If that carries on there there’ll be a lot less lake to explore in the future.
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