Ten things you will do on Inle Lake, Myanmar

We hiked for two days to Inle lake – through farms, over hill and dale. So we arrive ready to relax. Sitting in one of the long boats being whisked across the large, serenely blue (sometimes brown) lake to tonight’s accommodation (and showers) is a good start.  

Leg Rowing at Inle Lake, Myanmar
Our boat for the day is being leg-rowed

We all arrive in Inle Lake knowing we are going to explore the lake and its communities by one of these boats, but what you probably don’t know yet is that there is an established tourist trail across the lake, and you will probably do the following ten things in one day, even if you don’t explicitly request them. I am not normally a fan of enforced tourist trails, but being whisked from one spot to another by local boat makes it way more fun than a bus tour. So sit back and enjoy:

  1. Your boat driver will automatically look out for fisherman on the lake, take you in close and slow down so you can get good shots. He literally eased off the throttle every time I picked up my camera. They know how fascinated we are by the fishing styles and large cone nets.
    spooling the lotus silk
    spooling the lotus silk
  2. You will visit Phaung Daw Oo, a large pagoda housing five buddhas which we nicknamed the ‘golden balls’. Originally five normal small buddha statues, they are now unrecognisable large round blobs, due to decades of being rubbed with gold leaf for good luck. The Phaung Daw Oo festival runs for 16 days every spring, and the five golden buddhas are taken out on the royal barge around the 14 lake communities. A few years ago the barge tipped in rough water and one of the five buddhas was lost to the bottom of the lake. However when they got the other four buddhas back to the Pagoda, the fifth lost one had mysteriously reappeared in its spot in the pagoda. Since then they only take the other four buddhas out for the ceremony every year, the fifth one is left permanently on dry land.
  3. The Lotus Silk workshop is fascinating, seeing lotus plants being turned into silk fabric, beautifully soft and colourful. It is also tourist ‘grand central station’,  the shop is very expensive and it stocks more cheap synthetic fabric than real silk and lotus silk, so buyer beware! Then again you will struggle to find lotus silk anywhere else in the country, so if you want it, this is the place to get it.
  4. Your boat will dock at an ordinary stilt house in a small village, you’ll enter the front room and you will find that you are in a Cheroot factory. There will be burmese women sitting on the floor hand-making the cheroots, they are so skilled at it that they never need to look at their hands, they can look at each other and chat instead. They will be surrounded by a circle of stools for the tourists to sit on and watch them. Off all the touristy things I did in Myanmar, this seemed the most uncomfortably like a zoo, and I made a quick exit. 
    delicious shared lunch
    delicious shared lunch
  5. You will stop at one of the dozens of stilt restaurants for lunch. Because boats only travel on the lake in daylight, they only get lunch business, as no-one can get to them for dinner. Instead of the feast of a number of shared curries that was our usual enjoyable daily meal in Burma, here we had a meal of other local delicacies – stuffed whole lake fish, green and red tomato salad, chicken and peanuts, and bokchoy. All washed down with a good Beer Myanmar of course.
  6. There is nothing quite like the procession which accompanies a young boy on his way to the monastery to become a novice. It’s a boat procession of course, with boatloads of family members celebrating, loads of noise, and the novice dressed all in pink with gold jewellery and sitting on a throne, like a barbie doll, shaded by gold umbrellas. 
    novice monk in parade to the monastery
    novice monk in parade to the monastery
  7. Shwe Nin Thein pagoda is renowned for its hundreds of stupas, dating from the 14th to 16th centuries, mostly in a state of decay and disrepair. It’s a nice change to see stupas that are old brick and plaster, not just shiny gold. I really hope they stop restoring them, their charm is in how they show their age. There is a long covered arcade running hundreds of metres gently up the hill to the pagoda, lined with market stalls of both sides, but it seems to get little business, most of the stalls are empty. At least they have expansion capacity here as tourism grows. We were lucky enough to find a volleyball competition underway in the local village, it is a very popular sport in Myanmar. 
    ruined stupa at Shwe Nin Thein
    ruined stupa at Shwe Nin Thein
  8. You’ll see how the local communities have created agriculture on the lake with their floating fruit and verge gardens, established on floating platform made out of lake weed. The combination of fishing and floating agriculture on the lake makes for an impressive supply of fresh food for the local population and the visitors here.
  9. Nga Hpe Chaung monastery is famous for its jumping cats. Except when we visited in December, as one of the head monks had died three months previously, and since then the cats had refused to jump. I wonder if they have started jumping again. There’s not much to see here if the cats aren’t jumping, although they did have a large number of impressively clean toilets for tourists.
  10. You will shop at markets. It might be the market stalls at Phaung Daw Oo, it might be a market stall on the boat coming alongside your boat on the rivers and channels between communities, or it might be the “farmers market” which revolves daily around five sites around the lake. If you’re really lucky, you’ll get the one day out of five when it is a floating market, rather than in a village on the land. Bargain hard, it is expected and respected here.

The Unique Fisherpeople of Inle Lake, Myanmar

The man stands on one leg on the flat stern of his small wood boat, wraps the other leg around his upright rowing oar, and starts paddling in a circular motion with his leg. It is a unique and oddly graceful sight to see the unique rowing style of the fishermen of Inle Lake.

Traditional fishing on Inle Lake
Traditional fishing on Inle Lake

Because the boats are so low to the waterline, they need to stand up to see where they are going, and also to spot all the weeds just under the water line. This rowing style also leaves their hands free for fishing. Apparantly only the men do this, the women sit on the stern and paddle with their single oar.

Traditional fishing on Inle Lake
Traditional fishing on Inle Lake

The fishing also involves hand nets, and large conical wooden framed nets, about 2 metres in length. Other than the fishing boats, the main form of transport on the lake are larger longer boats with a motor on the back – similar to long tails in Thailand, without such a long tail! These are used by locals and tourists alike, although the tourist boats are easy to spot as they have seats in them and rugs to keep off the cold and/or the water spray, while the local boats were more basic. All boat transport stops at night, as none of the boats have lights.

Traditional fishing on Inle Lake
Traditional fishing on Inle Lake

The freshwater lake is the second largest in Myanmar, at about 116 sqm, with floating garden agriculture on the western side of the lake taking up about half as much space again. The floating water agriculture has developed over the last century in particular. The local people harvest lots of seaweed from the lake, and then tie the seaweed all together to make floating platforms on which fruit and vegetables are grown, particularly tomatoes.

floating agriculture on Inle Lake
floating agriculture on Inle Lake

The platforms are so robust that the farmers can stand on them to tend to their crops. The combination of water and lake weed makes a very nutrient rich environment, supporting intensive agriculture. In other words, it’s not difficult to eat well around Inle Lake.