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Love, work and religion on Inle Lake

  • The residents of the villages surrounding this lake in Myanmar have adapted to a unique way of life on the water
  • Inle Lake has 17 villages built on stilts and almost 200,000 people living out their lives on the water

On a longboat on Inle Lake
On a longboat on Inle Lake (Photo: Kalpana Sunder)

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I am looking at a scene that I have previously seen on a postcard. Fishermen in conical hats silhouetted against the setting sun, paddling their boats with one leg wrapped around an oar. At Myanmar’s Inle Lake, this is how fishermen have traditionally paddled. With visibility affected by water vegetation and reeds, this is a practical skill, leaving their hands free to manoeuvre the cage-like fishing nets. Balancing like graceful acrobats at the prow of the boats, the fishermen submerge the billowing nets, holding them against the lake bed.

Surrounded by the green mountains of the Shan state, the lake is a vast, silvery blue sheet of water, reminding me of crumpled silk. Six metres at its deepest, the lake is 22km long and 11km wide. It is an incredible place that has 17 villages built on stilts and almost 200,000 people living out their lives on the water, travelling on waterways instead of roads.

Local delicacies at Nampan village
Local delicacies at Nampan village (Photo: Kalpana Sunder)

My resort in Khaung Daing village has rooms shaped like boats. Even the bathtub is boat-shaped and the four-poster bed is draped in a billowing net. The ceilings and floors are gleaming wood. The balcony opens out on to a small waterway that boats chug through frequently. The group of school friends I am travelling with are in adjoining rooms.

Guided by Tourist—a stylish young man dressed in a traditional longyi, who got his unique name because he was born the day his father got a job in the local tourism department—we climb into longboats that putter through small creeks. Other longboats that cross us have villagers with shopping bags, young monks sheltering from the sun under bright umbrellas, and goods covered with tarpaulin.

Ingenious floating gardens devised by the Intha people spread over thousands of acres. Vegetables, like squash, tomatoes and chillies, and flowers grow in these gardens created by dredging mud and organic material from the bottom of the lake and reinforced with bamboo sticks tied together. The produce is sold in markets at towns and villages along the shores of the lake.

The fishermen have a unique rowing style that leaves their hands free to manoeuvre nets
The fishermen have a unique rowing style that leaves their hands free to manoeuvre nets (Photo: Kalpana Sunder)

Inle Lake is also a wetland wildlife sanctuary and Myanmar’s first Unesco biosphere reserve. Many birdwatchers visit it for the migratory birds that travel there in winter from China and Mongolia. I see flocks of egrets and cormorants, and brown- and black-headed gulls screech overhead, attracted by the aquatic life in the lake. Various types of snails and nine species of endemic fish are found here.

I note that the people of Inle have adapted wonderfully to life on the water. We cross villages with houses of timber, bamboo and corrugated iron standing on stilts along the waterways, dotted with satellite dishes and balconies. Women wash their clothes and hair in the same water; children are ferried to school on boats, and yet other boats become floating markets selling fruits, vegetables, even silver jewellery.

We cruise under little wooden bridges and walkways strung across the waterways and past pagodas gleaming in the afternoon sun. For lunch, we stop at a family-run restaurant with a terrace overlooking the water. The table is laden quickly with small platters of local delicacies—from pennywort and tea leaf salads with crunchy peanuts and chillies to piquant curries, rice and crispy rice crackers with a dip.

A view of the ancient pagodas at Indein village
A view of the ancient pagodas at Indein village (Photo: Kalpana Sunder)

Back in the boat, Tourist tells us about the cottage industries that thrive in the lakeside villages. There is wood carving and textile weaving, and the making of cheroots. At Phaw Kon village, we visit a unit that weaves special silk from lotus fibres. With the soundtrack of the clickety-clack of the looms playing in the background, I watch women of all ages patiently remove sticky fibres from a lotus stem and weave it on wooden handlooms into shawls and scarves in intricate patterns and brilliant colours.

“The Burmese revere the lotus and the weaving of lotus silk began as a way to make clothes for monks,” explains Tourist. In another corner of the building, a group of women make paper from the bark of the mulberry tree. They soak it in water, beat it to pulp, and flatten it into paper embossed with pressed flowers and leaves to make decorative items like umbrellas and lanterns.

A weaver spinning silk from lotus stems at Phaw Kon village
A weaver spinning silk from lotus stems at Phaw Kon village (Photo: Kalpana Sunder)

But the highlight is yet to come. At Indein village, which we reach after travelling through narrow creeks lined by bamboo dams, we visit two ancient pagodas, one near the boat landing and the other a ramshackle cluster of Shan stupas rising up a hill, built between the 17th and 18th centuries. Some are adorned with gold and silver, others are old and dilapidated, with weeds and trees growing through the bricks. We huff and puff our way up the hill, stepping over fallen masonry, dodging overhanging tree branches and vines. I find the dilapidated ruins atmospheric—crumbling brickwork with lichen-covered statues and serene goddesses on the facades, some cracking open with roots twisted through them. Many of the stupas are being cleared and restored, albeit carelessly, with bright white paint and gold leaf.

There is concern that the lake’s fragile ecosystem is threatened by unsustainable farming practices and a surge in new hotels owing to increasing tourism. But tourism is also creating alternative livelihoods and reviving the local economy. As Tourist wonders how long his home will remain the jewel that it is, I count my blessings as I end the day sitting on my balcony, sipping a glass of local red, listening to the gentle lapping of water against the stilts as strains of music from a nearby monastery float in the air.

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