I t’s 7am and the sun’s rays are pouring into our wooden stilt bungalow. I open the windows and hypnotic sounds of prayers flood in from the near distance. Every morning at exactly this hour, the Inthas recite their sermons in the Buddhist temple nearby. It’s become a daily ritual for me to rise to this beautiful wake-up call.
The water around us is as still as glass, with nothing but small clusters of purple and green hyacinth plants bobbing on its surface. A lonesome fishermen rows past in the distance, sending ripples in the water. He smiles and waves at me, before slowing disappearing into the horizon.
Inle Lake is a magical watery world of floating gardens, stilted villages and Buddhist stupas. The lake is hemmed in by the beautiful Shan hills of central Myanmar, creating a poetic setting for this heaven on earth. Clusters of beautiful stilt houses are scattered all over the lake, built by villages and communities who rely on the water for a livelihood. At just 22km long and 11km wide, Inle supports a substantial population of 70,000 in and around the lake. The Inthas are a resilient bunch of people who call this place home.
Entering Their World
That morning, we head out on a small wooden boat to explore more of the lake. Our young boatman leads us into the open water, past floating hyacinth and purple water lilies. Seaweeds sway underneath us through the brackish water while coconut trees dance in the distance. I watch as dragonflies flutter in the air and pond skaters slide on the water surface. Our boat slices through the water, its engine drumming along like the sound of a helicopter. I ask the boatman to turn off the engine, and immediately we slip back into a world of tranquility.
As we head out towards the villages, we see boatfuls of friendly locals who all wave and shout “Mingalabar!”. Wooden boats zip past us, with groups of young monks and students all squeezed into them. Many of them wear thick thanaka makeup on their faces, while those chewing betel nut have blood red liquid dripping off their mouths. Young and old happily flash us wide grins, even seventy-year-old ladies are equally welcoming.
Out in the open water, a few fishermen are fishing with hand-woven rattan baskets and using the traditional method of leg-rowing to move their boats. It’s a unique tradition that has been passed down from one generation to the next: fishermen literally use their hands for fishing, one leg to balance and another to row the boat with the oar. When we ask for permission to photograph one of the fishermen, he giggles coyly and nods his head. He doesn’t smile, but his gentle eyes show his kindness.
It’s market day at the village of In Dein. Our boatman leads us through a long, narrow water channel to get there. Along the way, we see a boy scrubbing down his water buffalo, looking shy as we wave and say hello. Young boys are taking a morning bath in the lake, while women do their laundry by the shore. There is plenty of life on the banks of Inle Lake, and we’re thrilled to be in the midst of it.
We hop onto shore at In Dein to wander around the village. On our way to the market, we talk to local vendors, watch as children jump in and out of the water, and ladies do their grocery shopping. Many tribal folks from the nearby village of Pa-O have come to sell their wares, products and spices. Rows of antiques and Buddhist relics are on display, with vendors pushing hard to sell us their collection. We linger around the handicraft store, happy to nab some meaningful souvenirs for family back at home.
Inle’s Water World
As we continue our boat ride around more communities, we stop over at several weaving workshops and silk stands. Here, we find some Padaung ladies spotting thick, brass rings around their neck. Beauty for them is represented by the elongation of their necks: the longer their necks are, the more beautiful they are. The Padaung tribes do not live in the area, but many of them have moved here to make a living from tourism. While it is an unfortunate truth, tourism has after all created jobs for these people who otherwise would not be able to survive.
We end our journey at the Kela floating garden, an agricultural area where locals grow tomatoes, spinach and many other produce. In the thick of this greenery are farmers sporting conical straw hats and ladies bent over their backs, working hard at farming fresh fruit and vegetables. As we float amidst the lush green vegetation, this garden almost reminds us of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Like Inle Lake itself, this garden feels surreal, magical and too beautiful to be true.
Where to Stay
Shwe Inn Tha Floating Resort is a gorgeous water hotel made up of several wooden bungalows, built on stilts, in the middle of the lake. All of its bungalows are stylished furnished with teak wood furniture, hand crafted by local carpenters. The rustic hotel features a swimming pool and restaurant as well as comfy sundecks to laze on after a day of explorations. The hotel also organizes half and full-day boat trips around the lake. Every morning, we awake to the million-dollar view of the peaceful lake and mountains in the backdrop.
How to Get There/Around
Travel in Myanmar can be difficult due to the lack of tourism infrastructure and political concerns. Generally, the easiest and fastest way to get from Yangon to Inle Lake (Heho airport) is by plane (around US$150). The public bus takes around 16-20 hours and costs approximately 15,000 kyats (US$15). In Nyaung Shwe, you can hire a boat and explore with a tour guide.
Note: Special thanks to Myanmar Travel who hosted our hotel stay and provided plenty of valuable advice. Myanmar Travel is not in anyway associated with the military government. All opinions expressed above are my own.