Located in the Shan Plateau, around 660 kilometres from Yangon, the Inle Lake is renowned for its ‘sons of the lake’ – the Intha fishermen who row fishing boats with their legs.
Words & Photography: Edgar Alan Zeta-Yap
Mrs. Soe, the motherly owner of Queen Inn, sent us off on a day tour – as with most Burmese we encountered in our journey – with the warmest congeniality matched with a warm smile at the wooden dock along the river canal that led away from the township of Nyaung Shwe. My friends and I were on a week-long backpacking trip, racing around Myanmar’s so-called ‘Big Four: The tourist hotspots of Yangon, Bagan, Mandalay and, our last leg, the watery world of Inle Lake, located 880 metres above sea level at one of the few areas in the insurgent Shan State open to tourists.
Early morning, past the busy villages with men loading goods and produce onto canoes, the motorised longboat slid through a field of water hyacinths. This waterway soon yielded to a large inland body of water – stretching 22kms long and 10kms at its widest – a lake vast enough that one could easily mistake it for the ocean. At that moment, the black-and-white photograph on the cover of my copy of George Orwell’s Burmese Days sprung to life.
Not far away, I could make out silhouettes of the lake’s famous Intha fishermen who row with their paddles using one leg, while keeping the other planted at one end of their slender wooden canoes. A unique rowing style practised only by Intha men, this gravity-defying yet graceful stance keeps both their hands free to cast their fishing nets over the water while they deftly manoeuvre the boat and hit the water’s surface to scare fish into their traps.
Also known as ‘sons of the lake’, the Intha people are a Tibeto-Burman ethnic group who have adapted skillfully to living in the lake region. Numbering around 70,000, they are the ethnic majority, and live in simple stilted houses made from hardwood and bamboo. More fascinatingly, they are masters of hydroponic farming, tending to scenic floating gardens of tomatoes, gourds and other vegetables grown on large patches of compost and water hyacinth anchored to the lakebed by bamboo poles.
While there are over a hundred Buddhist monasteries and shrines in and around the lake, a particular one, our first stop on the tour, draws the most visitors with charming stunts. Challenging the leg-rowers of Inle Lake are the furry tenants of Nga Phe Kyaung, a stilted, teak Buddhist structure more popularly known as the Jumping Cat Monastery. The resident monks and caretakers have taught their feline pets with gentle coaxing and some ‘cat whispering’ to jump through looped arms and wire hoops. Donations of any amount from amused tourists help in the upkeep of the monastery and their little performers.
“WHETHER BY BOAT OR BICYCLE, INLE LAKE IS THE IDEAL SETTING TO IMMERSE ONESELF IN THE CULTURAL DIVERSITY, RICH TRADITIONS AND NATURAL BEAUTY OF MYANMAR…”
Up to their Necks
From Nga Phe Kyaung, we traversed further down the elongated lake to Ywama, a floating village with workshops selling hand-woven textiles, silver jewellery, woodwork and other indigenous handicrafts. Local women peddled their goods in small canoes alongside our motorboat. In one workshop, we came across three young weavers from another ethnic group, the Kayan Lahwi. The female members of this tribal group wear stacks of body-altering brass neck coils primarily as an expression of aesthetic preference and cultural identity. Although originally from the neighboring Kayah State, many tribes people have sought refuge in more peaceful areas in Myanmar to as far as northern Thailand due to decades of ethno-political conflict.
Looking forward to a change of scenery, I asked boatman, “Where are we going next? To Indein?” He replied with nothing more than a nod paired with a betel-stained smile, apparently having little command of English. Our boat swiftly detoured into a stream that shrank into a creek leading to the village of Indein, where we encountered yet another ethnic group, the Pa-O tribe, loading a motorboat with their harvest of vegetables. According to the Pa-O creation story, their people were born from a dragon mother, and Pa-O women are distinguished by their red-and-orange turbans fashioned like a dragon’s head.