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Aquatic Shangri-La

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.

One-Leg Paddlers

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.

Villagers traverse a wooden footbridge at Maing Thauk village

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.

Feline Fun

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.


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.

She Dragons

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.

The former Royal Shan Palace at Nyaung Shwe.

Temple Tours

Historical edifices are the main draw of Indein. An ancient 700-metre long pillared walkway lined with souvenir stalls guided my group as we made our way to the Shwe Inn Dein pagoda complex. Crowding around the main pagoda were hundreds of centuries-old brick stupas in various states of disrepair and restoration, some of them shining bright with fresh coats of white and gold paint, while others crumbling down the verdurous hillside like a dilapidated giant chess set. What the Indein ruins lack in vastness compared to the world-famous temples of Bagan, it makes up uniquely with its historic charm.

The centuries-old stupas of the Shwe Inn Thein Pagoda Complex.

Village Life

Hiring a motorboat for a day is the only way to reach most of the lake attractions, but an independent, non-touristy option to explore the lake and its surrounding villages is on two wheels. On our second day, some of us decided to rent bicycles from our guesthouse for a morning spin around the lakeside communities of Kaung Daing and Maing Thauk. On the western lakeshore south of Nyaung Shwe, we pedaled to the village of Kaung Daing. Wandering around on foot, it was fascinating to watch villagers prepare and cook various delicacies like rice cakes, peanuts and salted beans, which the hospitable residents invited us to sample.

To cross the lake, we hired a motorboat to carry our bikes to the village of Maing Thauk on the opposite bank. There, we docked at a long wooden footbridge that reminded us of U Bein, the longest teak bridge in the world located in Amarapura in Mandalay. Biking back to Nyaung Shwe, we stopped by to admire the beautiful pagoda architecture of the former Royal Shan Palace, which has been converted into a nondescript Buddha Museum by the military.

A brass-necked Kayan Lahwi weaver at Ywama floating market.

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 as it brings together tribal folks, unique village life and rustic religious sites set in the majestic topography of a ‘sea’ wedged between the cool climate midlands of Myanmar’s mysterious north. At the end of our boat tour, we moored at the centre of the lake and watched the sun retreat behind the forbidden Shan hills. At that magical moment when the sun disappeared, the lake was bathed in omnipresent light coalescing with heaven and earth, just as man, myth and nature have for centuries in this awe-inspiring aquatic Shangri-la. 

Getting There

AirAsia flies to Yangon daily from Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok. Visit www.airasia.com for full flight schedule.

• The nearest airport to Inle Lake is in Heho, some 35kms from the Nyaung Shwe town.

• Hire a car or guided tour and do the circuit of Yangon, Inle Lake, Mandalay, Bagan and back to Yangon. Check with a reputable tour agent in Yangon for details.

• Best time to visit is between November and February, during the cooler months.

Where to Stay: Inle Lake is in a rural part of Myanmar and mostly offers small inns and guest houses.

Currency: The Myanmar currency is called Kyat (MMK – pronounced ‘chat’) and is sub-divided into 100 pyas. 1USD gets around MMK6.4 (rates fluctuate). It is advised that you change money at hotels, travel agents and shops for the best rates.

• Myanmar has no ATMs.