Romping on the Fertile Waters: The Bounties of Inle Lake, Myanmar

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Rivers and lakes are living systems, both above and below the waters. The lives and livelihoods of creatures above and creatures below are deeply intertwined in large lake/river systems, and such is the case with Inle Lake, the connected chain of waterways and water bodies—small and large—in Myanmar

Romping on the Fertile Waters: The Bounties of Inle Lake, Myanmar

I had the pleasure of spending a couple of days jaunting through the channels and into the villages and historic sites surrounding the lake, part of Trafalgar’s immersive “Hidden Journeys” tour. Though some secrets of the lake undoubtedly remain hidden, I saw enough of them to be dazzled and amazed.

Romping on the Fertile Waters: The Bounties of Inle Lake, Myanmar

Inle Lake is in the Shan state, southeast of Mandalay, and it’s no pipsqueak: it’s about 14 miles long and almost 7 wide, though it’s peppered with many inlets and marshy channels where the lake seems more like a narrow river. It’s also at a fairly high elevation, surrounded by hills and low mountains, where some tribes have practiced nomadic slash-and-burn farming for centuries. Speaking of the various ethnicities of Myanmar, Inle Lake has many, like the ancient Intha peoples, and the Shan, and a number of other groups, all with varying dialects and diets. We were told by our endlessly charming guide, Nyein Moe, that there are 200,000 people living in and around the lake area.

Romping on the Fertile Waters: The Bounties of Inle Lake, Myanmar

Gathering lake weeds for the floating gardens

Fisherman That Have to Get a Leg Up

We zoomed all over the lake in “long-tail” boats with very expressive outboard motors. The lake at times was like an old country road, with only a few farmers passing by; other times it was a bit like a turnpike, albeit a colorful, intriguing one. Speaking of farmers, the lake is known for its unusual “floating gardens”—the farmers gather weeds from the lake’s bottom in their boats and using bamboo poles, they anchor the gardens in the lake itself. There are extensive fertile patches like that in many places, growing tomatoes, eggplant, onions, and other fruits and vegetables, many of which you see in the local village markets.

A ripening tomato patch in a floating garden. Romping on the Fertile Waters: The Bounties of Inle Lake, Myanmar

A ripening tomato patch in a floating garden

But weeds aren’t the only things caught in the lake: one of the most picturesque sights on the lake is that of the famed “leg-rowing” fishermen, who propel their boats through the lake by tucking an oar behind one of their legs and dragging it through the water with a pulling, churning motion. That standing posture lets them go around the many reed patches in the lake, and helps to spot fish. 

Leg rowing fisherman in Inle Lake. From Romping on the Fertile Waters: The Bounties of Inle Lake, Myanmar

A dapper leg-rower getting in some strokes

The funny thing for me was that I never saw any of these leg-rowers catching fish—I was worried that maybe they were actors hired by a tourist bureau to enliven the landscape. But there were fish about, to be sure: we ate a dandy one at the Golden Kite restaurant on the lakeshore.

Fresh fish dinner at the Golden Kite restaurant, Inle Lake. From Romping on the Fertile Waters: The Bounties of Inle Lake, Myanmarr

Steamed fish with chili-tomato dressing, Golden Kite restaurant

Pagodas Here, Pagodas There, Pagodas Everywhere

Full of fish, stomach happy, we next had to please our eyes, and that was done in a mighty fashion at Shwe Inn Dein, which has to be the country’s biggest retirement home for pagodas and stupas. Pagodas, many of them magnificent, massive and breathtaking structures attesting to the country’s age-old Buddhist roots, are everywhere in Myanmar. But at Shwe Inn Dein, they are everywhere too, but densely packed.

Centuries old, some are encrusted ruins, and some are carefully restored, but all are fascinating, particularly since they are so tightly clustered. Many are ornamented with animal statuary and architectural flourishes, and many still have small statues of Buddha in stone alcoves. 

tightly clustered pagodas and stupas. From Romping on the Fertile Waters: The Bounties of Inle Lake, Myanmar

Shwe Inn Dein pagodas, shrines, and stupas

We spent time at another pagoda complex with much more active expressions of the sacred: Phaung Daw Oo, the holiest temple in Shan state. Seeing the pilgrims lovingly press the paper-thin squares of gold on the Buddha images was amazing. The original shape of the Buddha statuary has been transformed by the endless application of gold so that the Buddhas now resemble golden balls. 

Pressing gold onto Buddha statues at Phaung Daw Oo. From Romping on the Fertile Waters: The Bounties of Inle Lake, Myanmar

Applying the gold leaf at Phaung Daw Oo

 

Pagoda at Shwe Inn Dein, Myanmar

Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda

Food vendor, Phaung Daw Oo. From Romping on the Fertile Waters: The Bounties of Inle Lake, Myanmar

Food vendor, Phaung Daw Oo

Inle Heritage House Cooks Up a Fine Time

One of the highlights for me during our lakeside excursions was visiting Inle (or Inthar) Heritage House. A Burmese cat sanctuary, cooking school, extensive organic garden, hotel, restaurant and free youth vocational training center and conservation project center, all in one block? No, that’s all in one complex, and it’s a hive of happy activity: our group spent time touring, picking items in the garden, cooking them in a fun, vibrant cooking class (and eating them with gusto), petting Burmese cats and chatting with the genial administrators of the organization. The entire complex is practicing sustainable waste management and wastewater treatment procedures to keep Inle Lake clean, and they are advocates to other local businesses on those issues.

At Inle Heritage House, which includes a Burmese cat sanctuary

Amanda with a feline friend

Built of recycled materials, its vocational training center hosts a 9-month boarding program for poor students to become high-level workers in the hospitality industry. All fees are paid for by the center itself. The beautiful high-ceilinged restaurant (fed by that great garden) serves “grandma’s” traditional food in high style. (And a compliment to the cooking-class chefs: I have never eaten my own prepared food—especially the fish soup—with such delight. I only wish they’d made me an honorary grandma.)

The head chef at Inle Heritage House. From Romping on the Fertile Waters: The Bounties of Inle Lake, Myanmar

Head Chef, Inle Heritage House

And while we’re discussing houses, the ones we went back to, to lay our weary heads to rest weren’t bad: the individual “cabins” at the Novotel Inle Lake Hotel. Set on stilts in the water, the rooms were modern and polished, as were the amenities throughout. There’s a dandy lakeside bar where you can watch Buddha-golden sunsets while sipping your favorite tea (note: my teas all contain gin).

Deep-water tub, Novotel Inle Lake. From Romping on the Fertile Waters: The Bounties of Inle Lake, Myanmar

Deep-water tub, Novotel Inle Lake

It felt a bit odd to be in such a lavish environment after spending time in the modest villages around the lake, but man, did I appreciate that fine bed and sculpted bath. On the village note: the hotel has free bicycles that some of us took into a nearby village, where all kinds of vehicles, from ox carts to motorbikes to delivery trucks were bustling about. (Oh, the vehicles all had drivers—they weren’t bustling on their own.) 

one form of transportation. From Romping on the Fertile Waters: The Bounties of Inle Lake, Myanmar

Farmer with a bovine in tow (or the other way around)

Going to Market, On the Water and Not

If bustling (and shopping) is your thing, going to the Ywama market will satisfy. It used to be a floating market, like the gardens, but apparently the lake dried up in that area. But there was plenty of floating commerce from where we moored our long-tails even before we got out of the boats. It’s amazing to see the vendors glide up with their boats laden with woven goods, Buddha images, carvings and jewelry. Sometimes the Myanmar vendors, land or lake, get a little too enthusiastic about promoting their wares, but a smile and a “no” did suffice.

Fresh greens and flowers, Myanmar. From Romping on the Fertile Waters: The Bounties of Inle Lake, Myanmar

Flower-arranging monk, Ywama village shops

Since I exercised my right to sweat freely in the voluptuous humidity of Myanmar, my purchase of a white cotton Burmese shirt was both tactical and economical. And I had good fun comparing my Mark Twain tattoo with the roaring tiger tattoos of one of the vendors, who tried to convince me to buy what looked like a medieval tattooing wand. I declined; I never could draw.

A roaring tiger tattoo at the floating Ywama market. From Romping on the Fertile Waters: The Bounties of Inle Lake, Myanmar

Tiger-tailed (well, legged) vendor, Ywama village shops

Another big day, another push across the long lake while egrets egretted and fishermen leg-rowed and long-tail boats high-tailed it. And another plush evening in that beckoning bed, and then off to other parts of this captivating country. Gratifying it was to see the always fascinating and sometimes jarring mix of new and old in Myanmar. Our tour was immersive and engaging, but it’s a big country, with lots to see and do. More of Myanmar would be a fine thing.

Nyein Moe and Ben, our guides, who spread smiles far and wide. From Romping on the Fertile Waters: The Bounties of Inle Lake, Myanmarr

Nyein Moe and Ben, our guides, who spread smiles far and wide

 

Tom Bentley is still trying to figure out what flavor of writer he is, but so far he’s a short story writer, novelist, essayist, travel writer, journalist, and business copywriter. He edits all that stuff too. His singing has been known to frighten the horses. See his lurid website confessions and blog at www.tombentley.com. His latest book, Think Like a Writer: How to Write the Stories You See is available on Amazon.

 

All photos courtesy and copyright Tom Bentley

 

 

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