Floating Gardens for the Soul
By Stuart Danker
I’m at Inle Lake, where a thick mist is settling over the water, and the cool season’s breeze is grazing against my skin. Having lived my entire life in a tropical country, simple things like this are a luxury to me. It’s barely 20 degrees Celsius this morning, and the desire to sleep in with a hot cup of tea is tempting.
Not today, however. I’ve come all this way just to get within arm’s reach of the floating gardens, another one of Inle Lake’s biggest draws apart from the leg-rowing fishermen who have almost become this district’s mascots due to their iconic appearance.
Why the floating gardens? I’ve always marvelled at their beauty from pictures seen on the internet, and as a city dweller, I’ve longed to get away from the weekday rush hours that turn 10-minute trips into hours on the road, to get a dose of fresh air and be alone somewhere, surrounded by nature’s comforts. So here I am at the shores of the lake, my boat ride waiting to take me to a place I’ve waited for years to visit.
A Graceful Locale
Don’t get me wrong, everything else about Inle Lake is pretty too. The locals are friendly, the idyllic pace of life is soothing to the soul, and the stupas in Shwe Indein Pagoda give the ones in Bagan and Yangon a run for their money. As a first-time visitor, there’s much to explore. One could even visit the traditional textile workshop or head up to the Jumping Cat Monastery, where monks defy common logic by training cats (yes, cats!) to jump through hoops. I can’t even get my dog to fetch the newspapers.
However, the floating gardens seem to call to me the most. There’s just something so alluring about people who live their lives so differently from mine. I picture a farmer and automatically think tractors and mills. The locals here (called the Intha, who make up a population of over 70,000 people around and on Inle Lake itself) tend to their crops on boats. Like pieces of Lego blocks, these pieces of crops can be dismantled and moved around with ease, and we’re talking about moving hundreds of square metres of crops at a time.
It’s ultimate proof that we as humans are adaptable and can truly thrive in any environment. Our ingenuity never ceases to amaze me. Think about it; here you have tomatoes and flowers on a lake. Do you know how hard it is to cultivate anything even with proper soil? My withering garden at home can surely attest to that.
I’m so entranced by the sights that I totally overlook the fact that I’ve actually arrived. I whip out my notebook and jot down some notes for recall at a later time. But how do you translate something you’ve never described before into words? I juggle the information my guide’s telling me, as well as the scenery I’m seeing with my own eyes, and what comes out is a pile of garble better suited as fertiliser for these crops.
Down to Earth
How do these patches of floating crops work? While they seem like clumps of vegetation naturally growing out of water, there’s actually a lot of work involved in preparing just one patch. And here there are many.
First, water hyacinths, floating plants that grow naturally in the area, are lumped and tied together to bamboo poles, which are then staked into the bottom of the lake. These islands are then left to produce grass, a boon to the entire process as it is cut and burnt into ashes, mixed with chicken droppings and mud from the lake, then topped off on the islands to create a thriving planting ground.
Typical farmers are often subject to the demands of nature, with floods being one of the main threats to their crops. But at the floating gardens, since these hydroponic marvels float atop the water, there’s no need to fear heavy downpour or overflowing riverbanks.
Inle Lake’s livelihood mainly rests on these little patches of life. While tourism does help boost the economy, it’s these floating gardens, along with fishing, that allow the Inthas to be self-sustainable.
The locals have truly made this place their home, evident by the stilted houses and other remarkable landmarks built around Inle Lake. As we cruise through the still waters, I watch the daily lives of the locals unfold. It’s really not that different from home after all, besides the better views and tranquil peace here. We all still want to sustain ourselves and lead happy lives, and we spend our days in pursuit of that.
I trade waves and smiles with the farmers, myself probably more grateful for their welcome than they are about yet another outsider in their midst. Here I am, thousands of miles away from home, learning about different cultures and customs, only to realise that we’re not so different after all.