While we did find some very special, and often unique, temples and ruins in Myanmar, Inle Lake opened up a new Myanmar for us, expanding our experience and really making our trip.
We could have flown to Inle Lake from Bagan, but we wanted to see the countryside and experience some local “culture”, so we took an 8 hour VIP bus (a local, not tourist bus) instead. The bus was pretty nice, the roads okay, but not great, and fortunately for Linda, there was a seat back entertainment system featuring old Michael Jackson and Celine Dion videos. The countryside was indeed interesting and even saved us from having to take a very long train trip to see it, but the local culture was nothing to write home about. Just more of the same — dusty villages and shops.
Not knowing much about Inle Lake, it was hard to figure out where to stay. Normally we like to stay in a town, but we took a chance and decided to stay at a resort a few kilometers outside of Nyaung Shwe, assuming we could always take a tuk-tuk or boat into town. It turned out the tuk-tuk ride wasn’t that pleasant, the boat stopped running at dark, and Nyaung Shwe wasn’t that interesting anyway. But the resort was just what we needed.
The people of Inle Lake are mostly Intha, a culture and language specific to Inle — different from the Bamar majority in Myanmar, where, for decades, the Shan State (in which the lake is located) has had an on again off again contentious relationship with the Burmese state (run by a military regime and dominated by the Bamar majority) — and different from the Shan minority group culture, even though Inle Lake is within the Shan State.
Here was another side of Myanmar — different from what we had experienced in Yangon, Mandalay, and Bagan.
The Inle residents, who traditionally have been mostly fisherman and self-sufficient farmers, live in cities and villages bordering the lake, and on the lake itself, in houses made of wood and woven bamboo built on stilts.
But with the increase in tourism, more and more jobs are opening up in the tourist industry. In our travels around the lake we found a nonprofit organization that was training locals for jobs in food service. As we wandered around we met someone who worked there, who took us on a tour and explained their programs and showed us the magnificent organic vegetable gardens that provided some of the food used in the cooking programs.
It is the fisherman that are one of the featured attractions of the lake — the ones you see in the tourist and promotional photos of “the one legged fishermen of Inle Lake.” They stand on one leg on the bows of their magnificently simple boats so they can see down to the lake floor (which averages only seven feet deep), and use their other leg to row through the marshy weeds. They have to stand because the lake is covered by reeds and floating plants and it is difficult to see the fish if they are sitting in the boat. Standing also enables them to keep both hands free to handle the their nets. When they see fish (the lake water is quite clear) or bubbles (air bubbles rising to the surface indicat that there are fish below), they plunge their conical shaped net on top of the fish, and then spear through the small hole in the top of the net. Lately though, more and more of them are using standard nets. While this one legged rowing style grew out of necessity, it has also become part of the “Inle show” for tourists.
Then there are the floating gardens — which have turned into another tourist attraction, but also developed out of necessity and are still a real part of the Inle way of life. These floating gardens are built by harvesting weeds growing in the deeper parts of the lake, and then anchoring the gardens by bamboo poles. These gardens are incredibly fertile, and since they rise and fall with changes in the water level, they are resistant to flooding.
Most transportation on the lake is by the same kinds of boats the fisherman use, or by somewhat larger boats with a single cylinder inboard diesel engines.
Yes, the lake is filled with tourists, and one of the big four places to visit in Myanmar. You’ll see long lines of boats following the same route, snaking their way through the lake, guides pointing out the fishermen and floating gardens, and giving tourists the opportunity to visit workshops (more like Potemkin villages) where presumably the tour guide gets a commission. Yet despite all of that, there was something special about exploring the lake by boat.
So we hired a boat and driver. While we knew had the option to visit a workshop or not, to be good tourists, we decided to see what they were like.
While most were of the tourist trap variety, even some of those were surprisingly interesting We had been to a silk farm in Cambodia where we saw the whole process of turning silk worms into beautifully woven silk, but here we found silk and lotus weaving (lotus root fibers are spun into thread which is used for weaving special robes for Buddha images called kya thingahn (lotus robe)). Cheroot cigar making (with interesting tasting tobacco) was a kick, and the potter that used a wheel she powered with her foot was quite accomplished. Despite being way over priced, as we would later discover, Shan paper and umbrella making was particularly interesting to Linda, who had done some paper making in the past.
As we traveled around the lake, there were, of course, a few pagodas along the way, but also some ancient ruins that were quite intriguing, and located in a beautiful setting. Indein is up a picturesque river tributary and home to the Shwe Inn Thein Pagoda. It’s on a hill overlooking Inle Lake and located at the end of Inn Thein Creek. As we explored, we discovered a magnificent bamboo forest that we walked through to get o the pagoda. Shwe Inn Thein Pagoda is part of an ancient Shan-style stupa complex of 1054 ancient stupas. There are apparently no records of when the stupas were built or who built them, but some of the stupas are said to date from the 11th century, and there were some beautiful stone carvings on them. It was stepping back into time.
Maybe it was the boat, or maybe it was the scenery, but we loved being typical tourists for a while. Nevertheless, what made our time on Inle Lake special was day trips to places near the lake — still on the tourist trail, but much less dense with tourists.
The manager of our hotel, a Frenchman from Cameroon who had lived in Myanmar for 18 years, was a real help in guiding us to the more interesting places. While I was pretty “pagodaed” out by then, and somewhat hesitant to go, he said we had to go to Pindaya to see the Shwe Oo Min Natural Cave Pagoda. And he was right. So just when the Buddhist temples and pagodas all began to look the same, Myanmar delightfully surprised me.
Shwe Oo Min is housed in a natural cave complex, which has had little engineering done to widen or modify the passages beyond what is needed for safety and lighting. Inside the cave we found the cavern walls and passages full of (8,094+ ) golden Buddha statues, most of which have been donated through the years. We were amazed (the hotel manager told us he even donated one himself).
Delightfully, at the entrance to the caves is a rather Disneyesque sculpture (which for some reason I loved anyway) that is based on a legend. There was once a large spider which resided in the caves and it had captured a local princess. The princess was rescued when the giant spider was slain by a prince using a bow and arrow.
Being in Pindaya, we also visited another Shan paper making and umbrella workshop. But this one, outside of the usual tourist flow, was far better and appeared much more authentic (and far less expensive) than the one we visited on the lake.
His second recommendation was the high point of our trip, at least for me. On my birthday we took a boat trip down to Samkar, a second lake. At first the river was reasonably wide and we passed by villages, just as we had done on the Mekong in Laos, and saw people living their normal (not a performance for tourists) lives — bathing, washing clothes and dishes on the docks in front of their homes using the river water, and traveling in those beautiful canoes. We were surprised by a herd of water buffalo washing in the lake right before we entered the river, and later a herd of cows crossing the river. There were lush green gardens on the river banks, and the hills were covered with tropical forests. We were outside the theme park atmosphere that you can feel at Inle Lake. Here (and on the more secluded parts of the lake) were real people living their day-to-day lives without pretending to put on a show for the tourists or trying to extract money from them. This is what, up until then, was largely missing from our trip in Myanmar.
As we got closer to Samkar, the river, now a channel became more and more plant infested, and we felt as if we were on some unexplored jungle cruise, until the channel opened up onto another lake. While it is not hidden, there were relatively few other tourists there since it is a two and a half hour trip each way, and takes a significant chunk of your time if you are only at Inle Lake for a day or two.
Given my newly found infatuation with river boats, the trip on the river was the best part, although at Samkar, an old Shan temple settlement, we did explore the ancient ruins. What was more delightful were the children at the school there. It was the last day of school, and they were all excited.
Across from Samkar is Tai Arkong and the Tharkong Pagoda site. The people there were delightful, (mostly Pa O) and as we were one of the (very) few tourists at this point, we were a novelty. The children handed us flowers as we walked through the village on the way to the Pagoda.
Like almost every other beautiful place in the world, Inle Lake is facing some challenges. As we found in Laos along the Mekong, logging and slash and burn farming (the cutting and burning of plants in forests to create fields) on the hills surrounding the lake are causing silt to run off into the rivers that feed the lake. While this does add nutrients to the lake, it can be too much of a good thing since it is also great for the weeds, algae, and especially the water hyacinth, a plant not native to the lake, which grows rapidly and fills up the smaller streams feeding the lake (and the river to Samkar) as well as large expanses of the lake. Ironically, the same floating gardens which feed the Intha are also decreasing the size of the lake, since, over time, the floating beds become solid ground. Because of untreated sewage and waste water flowing into the lake, it is not a good idea to drink the water, although most people who live there still do.
And the boats that I find so appealing can also be a problem, with the noise from the diesel engines distracting from the tranquility of the lake.
But we loved it anyway.