Inle Lake is like no other place we have been in Myanmar. The freshwater lake, located in central Myanmar, covers 45 Sq. miles of surface area, and is a designated protected area recognized as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, an ASIAN Heritage Site and both a Wildlife and Wetland Sanctuary. It contains a myriad of endemic species, some of which are found nowhere else in the world. This list includes 20 species of snails and nine species of fish. The lake is also a short-term home to a variety of migrating birds. The Shan mountains surround the lake, providing a stunning backdrops for the spectacular sunrise and sunset.
The lake is also home to over 900,000 people of various tribes and traditions. The people of Inle Lake, numbering 70,000, are called Intha. They live in four main towns near the lake, on the lake in stilt houses, or in the small villages on the lake shore. Some other tribes represented in this region called the Shan State, are Pa-O, Danu, Kayak and Bamar. There is also a small number of Paudang (the women that wear the heavy metal coils around their necks to give their necks an elongated look) here, but they are not indigenous to this region.
The life for the people here revolves around the lake. They live on it, fish on it and farm on it. Transportation is largely by boat. Local Intha fisherman are known for their distinct rowing style, where they balance on one leg at the stern of the boat and wrap their other leg around the oar to row. This leaves them with both hands to pull in the fishing nets and enables them to have a clear vision to the bottom of the lake because they are standing.
In addition to fishing, the people grow vegetables in floating gardens right on the lake. Farmers gather seaweed and weeds and dirt from the bottom of the lake and haul it by boat where they use it as a base for the floating garden areas anchored by bamboo poles. The gardens rise and fall with the water levels, so they don’t flood, and the gardens have a constant source of nutrient rich water in which to grow. The floating gardens cover 20% of the lake’s surface. The gardens’ main crop is tomatoes, and Inle Lake supplies 20% of Myanmar tomatoes.
There are also numerous craftsmen on the lake. We visited a shop to learn about weaving clothing, scarves and other products from thread taken from the Lotus plant. Inle Lake is the only place in Myanmar where this tradition is practiced. We also went to a shop where they hand craft umbrellas, using bamboo for the base, paper made from the Mulberry tree for the umbrella, and flowers and leaves for décor. They also handprint patterns on the umbrellas.
There is a market for fresh vegetables, fruit and spices, that takes place once a week. It rotates each week to a different area. It is a meeting place for the people to gather, gossip, eat and sell their wares. There are food and fresh produce stalls with Shan style noodle soup, fried tofu, fermented soybean, fresh fish from the lake and vegetables grown in the floating gardens. There is a pharmacy with a nurse. You tell her your symptoms and she tells you what medicine to buy from the medicines (both traditional and non-traditional) scattered on a blanket in front of her. There is even a make shift barbershop! People of various tribes gathered here from all over the region, wearing their traditional clothing. Before cell phones, the market was the place where people gathered to receive the latest news and neighborhood gossip. The market is still a vibrant meeting place for the people of Inle Lake, and of all the markets I have visited over the past five weeks, this was my favorite.
The market this week was located in the town of Inndein. After the market, we walked through the stupas, some dating back to the 14th century. There are a total of 1,054 stupas there, in various stages of restoration and disrepair. When the military was in charge of the country, they allowed the forest to grow over these stupas. There was a total disregard for the importance of the stupas, and most are in various stages of deterioration.. The government built brand new stupas next to the old and the integrity of the ancient stupas was desecrated. Today, the forest has been cleared, but the site is littered with Buddha heads and bricks. Many of the stupas were looted for any valuables. There are agencies working with the local people now to repair the stupas. However, this will be a long and arduous process. What remains is still very beautiful and worth a visit.
We walked through the village which was next to a tributary of the lake. We passed villagers bathing and washing their clothes in the river. The river banks were sprayed with the color of their longyis drying in the sun. Children were swimming and fishing. Stray dogs were wandering looking for food. One particular puppy with eyes like my dog Zorro, held my attention. He was a very talented beggar. I fed him some fresh fish and potatoes. Several villagers were gathering firewood ahead of the rainy season as they have no electricity. The people here are cheerful and kind. Although they have a simple life, they are happy. They made us feel so welcome. We did not meet another American our entire trip in Myanmar. Most tourists are from Great Britain, as Myanmar was a British colony for some time. The French tourists come here as well.
We leave Myanmar today with a heavy heart. I feel like I left a part of my heart here. I have a feeling I will be back. This country is still relatively unspoiled by tourism and the people here are filled with optimism about their future under the new government. I have great hope for them as well. Thank you to the beautiful people of Myanmar for making us feel so welcome in your country.