Inle Lake, Myanmar – Trip Notes
Nestled in the Shan Mountains, Inle Lake (also Inlay lake) is a shallow lake in the middle of Myanmar, south-east of Mandalay.
It took us about eight hair-raising hours to get to the Lake from Bagan, with a driver who made the journey unnecessarily stressful.
It could have been a fun drive.
When we entered the Shan Mountains, the summer heat dropped to pleasant temperatures and the mountains were green and lush.
There are many lovely resorts servicing the many tourists who come to enjoy the Lake.
We chose to stay at the Novotel Inle Lake Hotel, which is almost brand new development.
They have done an amazing job in designing luxurious villas on the Lake, surrounded by lotus flowers and water gardens.
Our villa was fabulous, with a dreamy bed covered with jasmine flowers and crisp white sheets with a romantic mosquito netting, which we did not need, since the villa had great air conditioning and no bugs.
We had a lovely living room with modern furnishings and two big screen TVs, as well as a floating bathtub, his and hers walk-in closets and muted earth tones that feel like we were no longer in Myanmar, but in some luxury resort in the sky, floating on a fluffy cloud…
To get to our room, we were driven in golf carts on charming bridges and walkways decorated with potted plants.
The next two days of our stay, we hired a wooden long boat to take us on tours of Inle Lake.
Our boat was a narrow wooden canoe, and came equipped with wooden chairs, placed one behind the other, for Jules and myself.
Each chair had cushions on it, and they also gave us big bottles of water, wet towels, umbrellas to shield us from the sun, and raincoats, just in case it rained.
The locals who ride these longboats sit on wooden floorboards, one behind the other, with their legs crossed.
Two local men were manning our boat, alternating between the position of navigator at the fore and engine man at the stern.
Inle Lake is the second largest lake in Myanmar, with an estimated surface area of 45 square miles (116 km2), and it’s also one of the highest, at an elevation of 2,900 feet (880 m).
The lake is not very deep.
During the dry season it is about 7 feet (2.1 m) to 12 feet (3.7 m) deep, but during the monsoon season, it can reach 17 feet in depth.
The lake has many channels and canals, and it is densely inhabited by many different tribes.
The people around Inle Lake are called the Intha, but there are also the Shan people, the Taungyo, the Taungthu, the Danu, The Kayah, The Danaw and the Bamar tribes.
Each tribe has its own colorful, traditional clothing and head gear, and its own unique food and traditions, although they are all devout Buddhists, and you can see many beautiful temples and pagodas dotting the lake and glistening in the surrounding mountains.
The people live in numerous small villages along the lake, many with no road access.
There are newly made signs indicating which village you are entering when you arrive by boat.
The people live in simple houses of wood, woven bamboo and corrugated iron which are situated high on stilts.
72 percent of these houses have no toilets, and the human waste as well as the grey water go straight into the lake.
This does not deter the people from bathing in the lake and washing their children, drinking the lake water and cooking their food in it.
Many are fishermen and farmers, but quite a few cottage industries have developed on the lake over the years.
One of the most wonderful practices that is done around Inle Lake is Lotus Weaving.
It starts by gathering the stems of lotus flowers that grow abundantly along the shallow edges of the lake during the summer months, between June and November.
Young girls sit and cut small pieces of the stems to extract the fiber in the middle of the lotus plant.
They then roll it on a hard surface while it is still wet, and the pieces adhere to one another to create a long thread.
The thread is strong and fibrous, and it is either woven in its natural color, or is dyed using Mango tree bark, Jackfruit tree bark or Inle Lake Tree bark.
This unique fabric from lotus plant fibers is produced only at Inle lake and is used for weaving special robes for the Buddha images, called “Padonma Kyathingan” (Lotus Robe).
It takes six thousands lotus stems to create one single scarf, after more than weeks of preparations.
Because the lotus fabric is not very soft, it is often blended with silk, to create softer feeling scarves and clothing.
Silk-weaving is another important industry at Inle Lake, using silk that comes from Mandalay. Many houses around the lake engage in producing high-quality hand-woven silk fabrics, used for clothing with a distinctive design called “Inle Longyi.”
At “Inn Paw Khon village,” we were fascinated by the process of lotus weaving and even though we do not need any more scarves, we bought two of the lotus blended with silk scarves, to support these hard working wonderful people who do such soulful handicraft.
Most transportation on the lake is traditionally by small boats, or by somewhat larger boats fitted with single cylinder outboard Diesel engines.
The local fishermen are known for practicing a distinctive rowing style which involves standing at the very stern of the canoe on one leg and wrapping the other leg around the wooden oar.
This unique style of rowing evolved because the lake is covered by reeds, lotus and floating plants, which make it difficult to see above them while sitting.
Standing provides the rower with a clearer view beyond the reeds.
The engagement of the leg allows them to row easier through muddy water, or water thick with water plants.
Another reason for the “leg rowing,” is because the fishermen often need their hands free to cast the nets or pull the lines.
Leg rowing is a style practiced only by men, while women row in the customary style, holding the oar with their hands, sitting cross legged at the stern.
We saw many very young school kids in white and green uniforms row to school by themselves in shorter canoes.
Of course none of the kids wore life vests, they are capable strong kids who are raised to become self sufficient, coordinated and fit adults.
Even the old people are strong and capable, rowing for hours sitting crossed legged on the edge of their canoes.
In a large portion of the lake, they have created an island on which they grow sweet tomato plants.
This floating tomato garden is a successful initiative to provide these self sufficient farmers with land for their crops.
The farmers gather up soil and weeds from the deeper parts of the lake, bring them back in boats and make them into floating garden beds, anchored by bamboo poles.
These gardens rise and fall with changes in the water level, and so are resistant to flooding.
The constant availability of nutrient-laden fertilizers from the lake, results in these gardens being incredibly fertile.
Our boatmen stopped at “Nam Pan Cheroot manufacturing” where they make cheroots, the Burmese sweet cigars made from rolling star anise, honey and tobacco in a cheroot leaf.
They use the husk of corn plants as the cigar’s filter.
There are many homes which operate as shops selling goods for local use, and many convenience stores selling candy, dry goods, snacks and food.
There are also services like boat engine repair, and home shops selling tools, carvings and other ornamental objects.
Most of the shopping is done in the city of Nyaung Shwe, where there is a large local market that serves most of the major shopping needs of the restaurants and hotels on the lake.
There is also a daily floating market, but its location changes daily among five different sites around the lake area, thus each of them hosts this itinerant market every fifth day.
When the market is held on the lake itself, trading is conducted from small boats.
The Inle lake area is renowned for its weaving industry.
When we walked around the big market in Nyaung Shwe, we saw a large selection of “Shan bags,” which are made from woven fabric that is sewed into a square bag, with a long shoulder strap.
These Shan Bags are used daily by many Burmese men and women as a tote-bag, and are produced in large quantities here.
While we were on the lake, we saw fishermen fishing from their canoes.
They threw in the nets and with their wooden oar, they smacked the water a few times, to try to scare fish into their nets.
The local fish which the fishermen catch is called “Nga Hpein,” and it is a staple of the local diet.
An introduction of the fresh water carp has been too successful, and the proliferation of the carp has meant that the local fish is often eaten by the carp.
After using the toilets and seeing the waste run directly into the lake, we had no intentions of trying the local fish, but we did eat “Hnapyan Gyaw,” which is twice fried Shan tofu that tastes like crisps.
We also tried a popular local dish that is made form fermented rice kneaded with potato.
We visited the “Taung To Temple Complex,” and marveled at the beautiful old pagodas.
The caretaker and his wife were having lunch sitting on the temple floor.
We answered the usual: “Hello, where you from? Mangallawa! (Welcome!)”
I bought from the smiling couple an old and much used monk’s handheld “Toddy Palm Fan.”
Toddy palm or cloth is used to make fans for the monks.
The color is usually dark maroon, to match the color of the robes of the monks.
It is used to shade the bare-shaved heads of the monks, who go barefoot, when they go around the villages under the hot morning sun to accept offerings of food and alms.
The fan is big enough to offer protection from a drizzle, and the name of donors are usually printed on one side of the fan.
These Buddhist monks’ fans are also used by monks during temple rituals of chanting and giving blessings.
The monk usually holds the circular fan in front of his face to shield himself from losing his attention by focusing on people’s faces, and to symbolize that the words that he speaks, come from the wisdom of the teaching, and not from his ego self.
We visited the oldest monastery on the lake, called “Nga Hpae Chaung” which is commonly known as the “Jumping cat monastery.”
In the old days, the monks trained this temple’s cats to jump through hoops, giving the old temple its name.
But nowadays nobody trains the cats to jump, and as I scratched the head of one of the cats who sat on the temple’s window, there were no signs of any inherited hoop-jumping-genetic-ability in it….
We took a long boat ride south of the lake to the Kyauk Daing pottery village.
It is a small village, with many houses and a population of about a hundred families.
Eighty of the families have engaged in making pottery for hundreds of years.
They process the yellow-red clay soil in their area using water buffaloes, who grind the soil into a fine clay.
In the lower level of each house, we saw women making pots on hand operated pottery wheels made of stone.
They all seemed so friendly and happy to see visitors.
I have heard that during the high season, when the lake gets loads of tourists, the whole experience that we were having with almost nobody else around, would be very different…
At “Yawama village,” we visited shops where they make silver jewelry from locally found silver, and we saw two long neck ladies weaving fabric that is used for scarves and the local Shan Bags.
At “Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda” we encountered our first lake traffic jam, with so many boats parked in front of the temple complex, that we had to climb from boat to boat in order to reach the shore.
The temple was having a major celebration with visiting dignitaries, and we stood among many school kids and army personnel and listened to the local music played on handmade instruments, including a very long drum that is carried by two people.
Inside the temple on the main altar stood five golden rocks.
They were once five Buddha images, but the public, who keeps on adding gold leaf to the statues, has made them unrecognizable as human figures.
Around the main hall, there is a market selling traditional clothing and fabric.
At that market, we bought the local fisherman pants, which are designed to have the room to row with one leg extended sideways.
They look like yoga pants, but are very cool.
I loved the days we spent on the lake.
I loved seeing the people bathing in the lake and washing their kids and their dishes…Collecting lotus stems or dying the yarn that they have spun on makeshift bicycle wheels, and drying the yarn under their houses.
Inle lake reminded me of the floating village that we visited in Cambodia years ago, but in many ways the two are not at all alike.
In Cambodia the people were from the same tribe, but here at Inle lake, many tribes have gathered to live on the lake, creating an amazing mixture of cultures and different skills, making this place a fascinating one.
In Nyaung Shwe we ate a wood oven fired pizza in a Burmese family restaurant.
Despite the fact that the family and staff were eating Burmese food, we ordered the vegetable pizza because we needed a break from the green vegetable curries that we had been eating every night at our hotel.
It wasn’t great, and so for dinner, we collected at the market some huge dragon fruit, a delicious mango and some sweet bananas.
A walk in the central market of Nyaung Shwe was a feast for the eyes, seeing people of different ethnicities selling flowers, fruit, or handmade bags, or just shopping, walking around in their colorful woven clothing and beautiful hats.
It is hard for me to believe that anyone can prefer to be surrounded with people who think, look and act like them.
To me, there is real harmony in diversity….