Inle Lake, A Way of Life
By June Franco
Most travel itineraries for Myanmar start and end with Mandalay, Yangon and Bagan – the top three tourist must-dos of the country. But if you want something a little different to brag about on Instagram, then take a detour to Inle Lake, a journey of about 6 hours from Mandalay. The clear blue water is bound to steal your heart as it is surrounded by mystic mountains home to thousands of species of animals.
About Inle Lake
Inle Lake is home to tens of thousands of people who have created a self-sustaining ecosystem that keeps the lake the centre of all activities. Families have lived, grown, and evolved with the lake, living an exciting and riparian life.
Geographically speaking, Inle Lake is the second largest lake in Myanmar covering an area of 44.9 square miles. The water rises during the rainy season but dips quite low during the dry season. Inle ranks as Myanmar’s first in the World Network of Biosphere Reserves designated by UNESCO. The lake is not overly large, but is home to innumerable endemic species including 9 species of fishes, which are not found anywhere else in the world. There are more than 20 species of snails as well. From November to January, Inle Lake is home to around 20,000 species of migratory seagulls.
Life on the Lake
Inle Lake is home to 70,000 people who live on the banks of the lake. There are mainly four towns and several small villages bordering the lake, containing people that depend on the lake for their livelihood. It is a marvel to watch how they innovative and ambitious the people are using the many resources of the lake to thrive.
There are several floating villages, and these are sights exclusive to Inle Lake. Instead of roads, people use waterways to go around by boat. Hence, there are water pathways between houses where villagers move around in boats to go to the market, fish, do their daily chores and visit relatives or neighbouring villages. The traffic in these water lanes are very high sometimes even leading to ‘boat traffic jams.’ If you do go and see them for yourself, you’ll be amazed by how easily they navigate the water channels despite the number of boats crowding the lake – and there are many!
One can find the best evidence of humanity’s peak of innovation here. As mentioned earlier, the villagers depend on water to survive, so they have created floating farms that are riverside deltas strung together with bamboo and a creative mixture of mud and reeds. The water-level of these farms rise and fall depending on the season. However, these floating farms are not easy to maintain as they require extensive labour for the crops to flourish. The water is rich in minerals needed, which provide fertility to the plants. Several kinds of vegetables are grown in these farms including eggplants, squash and string beans.
Inle Lake is also famous for its floating market where the people both from the land and lake, gather to sell and trade their products. One can find everything here from fresh vegetables to silver jewellery, food ingredients and even compost, which can be manipulated into land fertiliser! The options are many here and you will often see farmers working their lands in the midst of the market commotion.
Apart from the floating market, Inle Lake is also famous for a 5-day market, which is held in turn among 5 villages located beside the lake.
The fishermen of Inle Lake go about fishing using a rowing technique one-legged rowing technique that stands out for the simple reason you won’t find this practised anywhere else. This tradition was started back in the 12th century, when fishermen had to stand while rowing to get a good look for their catch and navigate past reeds. They stand on one leg and lock the other with the paddle, using the same leg to row the boat forward and direct the boat. It is an uncommon rowing custom but has garnered the interest of visitors to the lake.
Discover the unknown
Inle Lake sustains many villages, and these humble huts are where you can be exposed to the lives of the local people, unhindered by modernisation. Indein Village is a famous village, which is also one of the locations of the 5-day market. It is the revered site of ancient pagodas grouped together – Shwe Inn Thein Pagoda and Nyaung Ohak Pagoda. The Shwe Inn Thein pagodas were constructed in the 3rd century BC and consist of hundreds of stupas with a shrine of Inn Thein Buddha in the centre. The Nyaung Ohak Pagodas are ancient structures with historical value and grouped in a surreal-looking jungle village.The place gives an eerie feeling with sculptures of celestial beings and mythological animals engraved in the pagodas, and even the dark corners feel a little spooky in daytime.
If you’re a cat lover, you’ll adore the breeding house of purebred cats of Myanmar. These were facing the threat of extinction until a few years back. The cat village in Inle is currently running a conservation project to preserve the pure breed, so you can drop by and play with the mischievous felines. They love a good exercise now and then, so it’s a complete haven for feline lovers!
The best of nature
Discover the other part of Inle Lake; beautiful hills that offer several trails where one can enjoy a pleasant trek. A hot spring is located only 45 minutes away from the lake and presents a serene landscape, away from the general crowd. A casual walk around the lake will also open your eyes to the best of nature. Some travellers also hire bicycles to ride around and see how far the lake stretches.
Inle Lake is not merely a lake, it is a way of life that leaves you yearning for more. In a mix of creek villages, farmlands, hilly mountains, artisan factories, and the village people, Inle lake exceeds tourist expectations in every way, filling the traveller with a feeling of awe for the native plains and a craving to return for more.