Inle Lake: Floating Through Life in Myanmar
I thought I knew what lakes were all about, after all we do have a lot of them in New Zealand. That notion was turned upside down when I visited Inle Lake, because not only do they fish, swim and play in the water, they also live on it. There are whole neighbourhoods on stilts just above the water, and that, coupled with various islands, makes Inle Lake seem more like a city than just a lake. This body of water that is also a home, place of worship, a massive farm and the lifeblood of a whole community makes for a really interesting place to visit, and was probably the most memorable experience I had in Myanmar.
I based myself in Nyaung Shwe, a few kilometres from Inle Lake. From here you charter a boat down one of the canals (or river channels) that lead to the lake. The marina itself is an explosion of colourful boats and treacherous bamboo bridges, one of which I had to carry my bicycle across the next day. I still can’t believe I didn’t fall in the water.
A boat tour on Inle Lake
I managed to hitch a ride on a boat with a nice British couple and a German guy, who was a fan of thrusting his big camera into people’s faces and taking photos without asking. We had a captain who spoke almost no English and his young daughter, wearing what looked like a wedding dress, who was given the task of bailing out the water that came seeping into the boat.
Towards the end of my trip I and fellow passenger (long suffering Leeds United fan Andy), were instructed by our captain to get out and walk along one of the floating farms. This seemed like the worst idea I’d heard all day, but I often do stupid things. We were later informed there might be snakes in there, but probably not the dangerous kind. I was more concerned with trudging over someone’s well tended crops, but no one seemed to care about that. I almost ended up in the water a couple of times and I think the captain and his daughter would have found the hilarious (that could have been his plan all along).
Inle Lake is extremely photogenic, just about everywhere you look there is something interesting going on. The first stop of the day was at a market on the shores of the lake. At first it seemed like the only things of interest there were overpriced souvenirs, but I’m not really a shopper so I decided to have a walk around. There is some nice rural scenery and it’s really peaceful once you get away from the busy market. I didn’t see any other tourists on the outskirts of the market, and some people looked really shocked to see me.
An unfortunate side-effect of a boat trip like this is the inevitable stops at factories and shops. There’s a lot of money to be made, so you can’t blame the boatmen from herding the tourists in and taking their cut. This was one boat trip where I really didn’t mind this, because most of the stops just happened to be in interesting locations. There was a jewellery factory located in a nice old stilted house; I was with a couple so they pretty much left me alone and put the hard sell on them, and I got to walk around and check out the area. There was also a place where they make local cigarettes, which was interesting for a few minutes, but again I did my own thing and had a look around the old wooden houses.
There were a couple of strange stops, including the cat-jumping monastery and a visit to the long-neck women (they put rings around their necks to stretch them out). I haven’t looked into the long-neck tradition, but it does seem strange, and someone told me that they only continue to do it because it’s interesting for tourists, which is unfortunate. The cat jumping monastery is exactly as advertised; Monks have trained cats to jump through hoops. Once again the location beat the attraction it housed, and what might have been a boring stop turned into a chance to explore.
Life on Inle Lake is pulsating and picturesque, calm and calamitous, and is a welcome stop on the Myanmar tourist trail. You can find serenity here, especially while watching the leg rowing fisherman at sunset. You can also find bustling villages, obscure cat-based tourist attractions and a colourful market. Most of all you can find life, a lake that is more lived in and alive than many cities I’ve visited.
Further reading: Find out the challenges that Inle Lake is facing due to tourism.
Have you been to Inle Lake? What did you think?
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