IN THE EARLY morning the Inle Lake
is a watercolour of silvery grey, the Inla fishermen and their delicate nets are like ink-drawn silhouettes against the sky. Off in the distance are brushstrokes of misty mountains. The fishermen and with their one-legged paddling stance and conical bamboo traps have become icons of Inle. We watch one fisherman perch precariously then dip his net swiftly to gather up a fish, it’s a water ballet of balance and skill.
The fishermen are just one of the wonders of Inle Lake, in the Shan province in the north of Myanmar
. This hundred-plus square kilometres of mirror-like water has impossible floating gardens, submerged stupas, colourful markets and stilted villages which look like flocks of paddling cranes. it is an extraordinary place which In June 2015 was officially designated as Myanmar’s first biosphere reserve by UNESCO to help preserve both its delicate environment (there are nine species of fish found nowhere else on earth) and the traditional way of life.
Our brightly coloured boat has comfortably chairs softened with woven cushions and a driver ready to show us what his home has to offer. We’re not alone. Behind the fisherman more long boats with diesel engines shoot across the still lake like coloured arrows. Fountains of spray jetting up behind them.
There’s a revolving system of markets around the lake where people from the surrounding tribes come to sell their wares, often from boats pulled up along the shoreline but today the market is at Inn Thein on the far west of the lake. To get there we navigate primitive weirs and a maze of watery channels between green paddy fields ploughed by water buffalo and under matchstick thin bridges. Market day is busy and the canal is jammed with coloured boats tethered together like floating petals.
An old lady stands on the bridge puffing on a thin cheroot, smoke curling round her head like a turban. The cheroots are locally rolled and seem to be permanently attached to the lips of every walnut-faced lady in the marketplace. There are stall holders selling sacks of grain, wild flowers and fruit and veg. There are also a lot of offerings aimed at tourists. Myanmar is known for its puppet shows and I particularly like the puppet monk hanging in silent meditation on one stall and the glossy lacquerware on another.
We head up the hill to Shwe Inn Thein Paya temple past vendors selling jewel-bright scarves flapping like flags in the breeze. The temple is an astounding place surrounded by over a thousand stupas. Some crumbing and tipped at jaunty angles, others standing to attention and glimmering gold in the sunshine - a forest of pagodas.
Most of the local industries have remained unchanged for generations: whether it is rolling those cheroot cigars, silverwork or weaving. Around the lake villages are dedicated to one craft. At Ywama village a Venice-like system of canals and bridges takes you past coloured signs advertising the work of silversmiths. We tie-up at one workshop with bright green shutters and geranium plants where a smith creates delicate fish scales from molten metal.
In the lakeside village of In Phaw Khone you’ll hear the ‘clack, clack’ of bamboo looms and spinning wheels. This is where they make the shan-bags that you’ll see slung across many a Burmese shoulder and a unique fabric from the lotus plants- produced only at Inle Lake - that is used for weaving special robes for Buddha images as scarves and traditional longyhi.
It’s an enchanted day; we stop at the” 'jumping cat monastery' where one solitary cat is dozing in the sun, not looking inclined to leap anywhere but in the cool interior golden pillars and ancient Buddha images glisten and see many more temples and stupas dotted around the lake.
Most impressive of all are the hectares of floating gardens where the ingenious lake people have created a fertile paradise by packing together weeds and water hyacinth to create a living ‘raft 'for crops, secured from floating way by bamboo poles. Farmers harvest tomatoes and maize from the security of bobbing boats.
One of my favourite villages is Maing Thauk, the nearest village to the elegant lakeside Sanctum Inle Resort where we are staying. The village’s watery ‘main street’ is lined with traditional stilted houses that rise above the water on spindly, spidery legs. We stop in a traditional bar for a late afternoon Myanmar beer. As our boatman docks we clamber up rickety plank steps and sit cross-legged at a low table decorated with a plastic cloth gaily painted flowers. Opposite us a long delicate teak bridge is like a wooden centipede supported by hundreds of poles. Below us is the gentle splash of oars as villagers return from working in the water gardens.
It is such peaceful scene we stay until the sun begins to set.
See our review of Sanctum Inle Lake HERE
Hilary Doling 7/3/16