Words: Len Rutledge Pictures: Phensri Rutledge
Everyone visiting Inle Lake in Myanmar’s hilly north-east has an image in their mind of an Intha fisherman rowing with one leg at the stern of a flat-bottomed canoe, past a backdrop of mist-shrouded mountains. Fortunately most leave having seen their dream. With its stilted villages built over the water, ancient stupa complexes and a backdrop of green hills, Inle is the top attraction of Shan State and it has become one of Myanmar’s most visited tourist areas. There are flights from Yangon, Mandalay and Bagan to little Heho airport which at times seems overwhelmed by the volume of travellers.
This is the largest town near the lake but many visitors prefer to stay at one of the small hotels, guest houses or resorts around the lake. Even if you do this, don’t overlook the town. The busy Mingalar Market is in the northern part of the town and this sells a range of goods, mainly in the morning.
A little way outside the town, is the teakwood Shwe Yawnghwe Monastery. The monastery has an ordination hall with unique oval windows and this has become a tourist attraction because of the opportunity to photograph young monks standing behind these.
To reach most of the lakeside accommodation you need to transfer to a long-tail boat in Nyaung Shwe for a ride first down a wide canal, and then across Inle Lake itself. You will be pleased to find that the high-powered boats for tourists have padded seats, umbrellas and life jackets. The locals are not so lucky and we saw many boats that seemed well overloaded.
These are created by collecting weeds from the surface and lashing them together to form metre-thick floating strips. These are then anchored to the bed of the lake with bamboo poles, and heaped with mud scooped from the bottom. This means that they can be used regardless of fluctuating water levels. Crops – including cauliflower, tomatoes, cucumbers, cabbage, peas, beans and aubergine – are grown year-round.
We’d seen some of the small wooden boats so piled up with weeds from the lake that they were sitting barely above the water and we’d seen groups of people in their boats working together to collect these weeds and now we knew why.
Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda
The pagoda has been constructed in the traditional and elaborate Myanmar style of architecture even though it is over the water. At the centre of the monastery building is a golden stupa topped with an ornamental umbrella-shape. The interior walls of the temple are decorated with murals depicting Buddhist stories. In the central shrine in the main hall there are five small lumpy gold objects that were once recognised as Buddhas. Devotees have been placing so much gold leaf on them for so long, that the original forms are no longer recognizable.
The smooth lake, the blue sky, the small wooden boats with their huge basket nets, the rowers standing tall, leg and oar moving as one, make for a thrilling encounter. The rowers are men who stand in the stern of their boats with one leg wrapped around a single oar moving it steadily back and forth in an easy rhythmic practiced motion. Theories as to why this method of rowing evolved range from it providing both hands free for handling the fishing nets, to needing to stand to be able to see the reeds and weeds in the water ahead.
The markets in the Inle Lake area move each day from one of five locations to the next, ranging from Nyaung Shwe at the north end of the lake to Nam Pan towards the south end. Farmers come from all around to sell their produce, traders come to buy in bulk, and families come to do their regular household shopping. It is colourful and there is a strong sense of community but it rapidly gets crowded – mainly with tourists.
One of the interesting aspects of the market is seeing women of the Pa-O ethnic group, the second most numerous tribe in the region. These women wear dark plain coloured skirts (lungyis) with long sleeveless shirts, cropped long-sleeved black jacketsand distinctive brightly coloured turbans.
Nga Hpe Chaung monastery
It was built in the 1850’s on teak columns in the middle of the lake. It is a handsome building housing many beautiful Buddhist artifacts, and quite a few monks. Awhile back the head abbot and some of the monks trained several cats to jump through hoops, so it became known as the ‘jumping cat’ monastery to foreign backpackers. The trained cats are no more so you will just have to put up with the idyllic setting, its collection of old Buddhas from around Myanmar, and its peace and tranquillity.
A narrow canal wound its way from the lake, initially through reed beds but later through dense jungle until finally the village emerged around a bend. It was a perfect rural scene with water buffaloes wallowing while women from the local village washed clothes nearby.
We alighted at a small jetty and were immediately besieged by the locals who peddle their bamboo hats, “Welcome to Inle” T-shirts and Shan-style bags from little stalls. The highlight in town is a breathtaking complex of 1,094 16th century stupas, the main In Dein pagoda and the surrounding ruins which cover the dome of a hill. You reach here up a long roof-covered passage where there are hundreds of vendors. The top provides a sweeping view of the lake and surrounding farmlands.
Len Rutledge is the author of Experience Myanmar available as an e-book at http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00HPQHC5I
He has worked with Pelican Publishing, Viking Penguin, Berlitz, the Rough Guide, and the Nile Guide amongst others.
Along the way, he has started a newspaper, a travel magazine, a Visitor and TV Guide, and completed a PhD in tourism. His travels have taken him to more than 100 countries and his writings have collected a PATA award, an ASEAN award, an IgoUgo Hall of Fame award, and other recognition.
He is the author of the Experience Guidebook series which currently includes Experience Thailand, Experience Norway, Experience Northern Italy, Experience Myanmar, Experience Istanbul, Experience Singapore, Experience Melbourne, and Experience Ireland. They are available as ebooks or paperbacks from amazon.com