Maintaining a way of life on Inle Lake
I have returned to Inle Lake, a place I visited 30 years ago as a young backpacker. In the mid-eighties, a seven day visa was all the time the Government of the Burmese Republic allowed.
On this visit I have the luxury of spending 17 days and the last three days have been spent glimpsing life of the Shan, Intha, Pau-O, and Padaung cultures who coinhabit the Lake. Our small group of six persons arrived by road to the lakeside town of Nyaungshwe where longtail boats whisked us to our waterside resort.
The lake is approximately 32 kilometers (20 miles) long and in some part three to five kilometers wide. The water levels change, and the channels widen and disappear with the rains or lack thereof. Larger villages have houses on stilts that sit above deeper waters, offering semi permanence and reliability for the traditions of farming, fishing, crafting and trade. Each of these is named Twarma, Indaing, Nam Pan.
After a quick lunch we head back on the water. Welcome to Kayla was the signpost leading into one of the floating gardens maintained by the Intha culture. Dredging the hyacinths and reeds, these islands are kept above water and fertile. Bamboo poles hold them in place. We are in the hot and dry season now and the floating beds showcase an array of ready to pick vegetables and herbs including green and red tomatoes that we have already enjoyed in a spicy salad. Nini, our guide has let us know that 10,000 tons of tomatoes are harvested daily at this time of the year. Over the three days on the lake we will also enjoy gourds, potatoes, long beans, eggplant and cucumbers all harvested from the Intha gardens or from the lakeside fields of the Shan people. The vegetables accompany lake fish, poultry or red meat served at both hotels and guest houses or floating restaurants that are accessed by private piers.
Among the most unique of the practices seen here is that of the one-legged rowers often captured in the iconic images promoting Inle Lake. This technique sees fishermen at the bow of their ten foot teak canoe standing on one leg while the other is wrapped around the oar. The one leg is powerful enough to propel the boat through the shallow waters allowing both navigation, balance and free hands for using conical or blanket nets for fishing.
Each morning we leave the resort and visit the stilted villages each with its own way of sustaining a livelihood. Lotus weavers, silk weaver, silversmiths, goldsmiths, blacksmiths, boat builders, monk robe makers, cheroot cigar rollers, and lacquer polishers. We never tire of watching the process of creativity. For the craftspeople, the days are long and the tasks arduous. Two weeks to weave a longyi (skirt) or to create a gold necklace. And while the children are now on summer holidays, it is quite probable that many of the young artisans are already employed in the family trade.
Buddhism is weaved into weekly or daily rituals. We have arrived just after the water festival and for the following days the practice of travelling to several of the lake’s monasteries is required to remind followers of the three paths of compassion/charity, meditation, and morality. Many young boys are placed in the monastic schools when they are very young. We see two initiation celebrations for two novice monks. There are monasteries in each village as well a few centres of significance. The oldest of these Nga Phe Kyaung has Buddhist statues that are over 250 years old. I recall visiting this place on my first journey and watching the jumping cats trained by one of the master monks. Now that the old monk has passed on, the cats of the monastery remain sedentary. My memory recalls this spot being quiet. My memories of this current visit will recall instead a multitude of families who came to pray and dine, and a large congregation of visiting monks also praying and dining.
The entire lake is more colourful and lively than my introduction to this spot. I wonder though – with 1,000 hotels rooms, an ever-growing lakeside population, intensive farming and water use, and some rebellion of youth against the arduous lifestyle – what the future holds for this unique place.