On a sunny Thursday morning, the river town of Nyaung Shwe is already brimming with activity. Its quay, the main gateway for locals and tourists alike to visit Inle Lake, is thronged by dozens of colorful slender boats. Our boat, conspicuously painted pink and fitted with two small chairs, is steered by a young local man donning a longyi – a piece of cloth worn around the waist as a substitute for trousers. As soon as James and I take our seats, we set off on a day-long excursion to one of Myanmar’s tourism hotspots.
Popularized in the international community by images of its iconic Intha fishermen – known for their unique foot pedaling technique – it is rather unsurprising to see four such fishermen, each wearing traditional outfits and head caps, once the river opens out into the lake. Curiously, none of them seems to be busy fishing – more like posing really – as our boat glides through. I turn my head away from those four men and the majestic view of Inle Lake is presented before my very eyes. In spite of its relatively modest size compared to other lakes in the region, like Cambodia’s Tonlé Sap and Indonesia’s Lake Toba, Inle Lake seems to stretch as far as the eye can see.
As we go deeper into the lake’s center, bucolic scenes unfold, quite a contrast to Nyaung Shwe’s mildly chaotic streets. Fishermen, precariously seated at the very edge of the bow of their boats, slowly paddle through the calm water. Meanwhile, another boat fully loaded with traditional handicrafts darts across the lake. Tourist boats, like ours, go straight to the settlements at the center of the lake. However, there is one particular scene that piques my curiosity the most. Using long poles, men harvest weeds from the deeper parts of the lake. They fill up their boats with mounds of these weeds for a purpose I have yet to discover.
We arrive at the perimeter of the settlement. If Kevin Costner’s Waterworld provides a post-apocalyptic illustration of what Earth might look like when ice from both the north and south poles melts, this settlement at the heart of Inle Lake reminds me of humankind’s resilience and adaptability to nature. We enter what appears to be a vast garden where rows of crops are spread all over the place. This could have been a scene from any fertile tropical land on the planet, except for the waterways crisscrossing the farmland. The crops in fact grow on floating beds made from the weeds gathered from the lake, which together are all anchored by bamboo poles.
We venture deeper into the settlement where it is apparent how well the locals have adapted to a floating lifestyle. While bicycles are kids’ friends in other parts of the world, in this tranquil corner of Myanmar boats play that same role. Stilt houses and businesses are built well above the water to anticipate the seasonal rise and fall of water level. And as every house needs electricity, electric poles have also been erected parallel to the waterways. Being Myanmar, every now and then we spot gilded Buddhist stupas soaring high above the wooden stilt houses.
Our skipper expertly navigates the small boat through a network of waterways and eventually docks at a big house where other tourist boats take a brief stop. That very moment we learn that apparently a boat ride experience in Inle Lake would almost certainly involve multiple visits to some locally-owned workshops. At one of the stops, we watch how exquisite cloths are made from lotus thread. I had no clue that not only can you use lotus for decorating garden ponds as well as food (the lotus root), but you can also make garments from it. Rarely do I feel the urge to shop when I travel, but if I had brought more cash with me to this workshop, I would have bought one piece of beautiful lotus cloth for my mother.
Several hours later on our way back to Nyaung Shwe, after we are seated and ready to go, two women suddenly hop on our boat and sit cross-legged in front of me. Shocked at first, I then realize this is how life is like in a close-knit society where people are used to sharing resources. After a few minutes down a waterway lined with houses, we make a brief stop at a small pier where the women get off. “Kye soo thim ba deh!” they thank us with a big grin.
We dash toward Nyaung Shwe along with other tourist boats, each seeming to have a curved tail of water thanks to the speed. To the west, the sun is slowly setting behind the mountains, giving the lake an ephemeral golden tint. However, as me move further away from the settlement, we come closer to some fishermen who are still busy with their nets. Probably having noticed our penchant for photography by this time, our skipper slows down the boat to allow us to take some final shots of the fishermen before returning to Nyaung Shwe.
Despite being a very popular place for tourists, Inle Lake still is and hopefully will always be that peaceful and magical place the way people remember it. The multitude of workshops – where one can see how boats are made, as well as lotus thread cloths, traditional umbrellas, wood carvings, and silverware – can be overwhelming. But Inle Lake is also a gateway to the partially crumbling ancient ruins of Indein, where fig trees grow atop centuries-old brick stupas and a gilded Buddha is half-buried under a collapsed sanctum. There is always more than meets the eye, and at Inle Lake, there is more than just the lake.