It’s one of ‘the big four’ backpackers often refer to when talking about travelling around Myanmar: Yangon, Bagan, Mandalay and Inle Lake. But does Inle Lake really deserve to be on that list?
In my opinion, yes. But there’s more to Inle than just a body of water. It’s surrounded by over 80,000 people and home to two of Myanmar’s most fascinating hill tribes, the Intha and the Pa’O. I want to show you what Inle Lake is really like, explain a bit about the famous fishermen and tell some harsh truths about the floating markets and the Long Neck ladies of the lake. But first, the fishermen…
Why do they row with their feet?
Most of these extremely talented fishermen are from the Intha hill tribe. If you’ve ever googled ‘Myanmar’ you’re bound to have stumbled upon this image, a man in a straw hat rowing his boat with one oar and his feet. But why have they developed this unique technique? The shores of Inle Lake are crowded with floating gardens and a canal-type system has developed, therefore it’s easier for them to stand to see what’s coming around the corner and to steer. It’s also more efficient because Inle Lake is full of reeds and standing on the edge rather than sitting makes it easier for them to spot big patches of water plants to avoid. Having their hands free to collect the nets as they sail by is also pretty handy.
Should I buy from the floating markets?
If you see something you like, yes. While many people will warn against it as it only serves to encourage the further degradation of a traditional way of life, many of the locals rely on tourist trade to survive, so buy a souvenir if you find one by all means. However, do so conscious of the fact that you’re not buying an ‘authentic experience’ – although you will see a few local canoes touting groceries and everyday essentials, rest assured they won’t be bothering your boat.
Who are the Long Neck women?
If you go on a tour around Inle Lake they’ll undoubtedly take you to a fabric shop or weving workshop, where, amongst the beautifully crafted, brightly coloured traditional garments, you might just bump into some of the infamous ‘long-necked ladies’. These women are from the Paduang tribe, which are, via a very complicated route, related to the Karens. Traditionally from the Kayah State, near the border with Thailand, some have resettled in Inle Lake to capitalise on the tourism boom.
Why do they wear rings around their neck?
There are various different reasons. The one the women themselves usually give is because they are are a traditional sign of beauty. Another more unusual one is that they protect them from tiger attacks… There’s some question as to whether or not these women have a choice to wear the rings or not. They are just little girls when the first rings are fitted, so it depends if you think they would be able to protest against such a cultural tradition at such a tender age. I think not. The government actually frowns upon the practice, and the women do remove the rings (yes it is possible without their necks snapping) when necessary, for example if they have to travel to Yangon or another big city. Then there’s the dubious practice of setting them up in those fabric shops for tourists to stare at, like living exhibitions in some odd anthropology museum. Personally, I found this very uncomfortable and I would recommend not taking photographs or giving them money – but if you must, please engage them in conversation first, often they speak some English, and ask for their permission before shoving your camera the their face.
What else is there to see and do in Inle Lake that doesn’t involve being on a boat?
A lot. For starters, they have a vineyard…
Red Mountain Estate
Headed by a French sommelier, that produces some fantastic wines – it’s also the best spot to watch the sunset here.
Hire a bike
Cycle around the lake. You’ll find a thermal spring (closed when I was there), tiny villages, plus plenty of crumbling temples and monasteries not absolutely swamped with tourists. Check out Shwe Yaunghwe Kyaung Monastery, the one you see in the photos of young men clad in bright orange sitting in round windows. It’s very peaceful and one of the first stops if you’re cycling east out of Nyaungshwe, the main access point and traveller hub to the lake. Another main attraction (accessed by boats, sorry!) is the ‘Jumping Cat Monastery’, where, once upon a time, the cats used to be trained to jump through hoops, but nowadays the cats mainly laze around in the shade under the watchful gaze of the monasteries many wooden Buddhas. It’s a peaceful pitstop, but not worth the notoriety.
Visit one of the many craft shops
Ok, so this another one that requires you to get on a boat, but it’s not about how you get there right? Around Inle Lake you’ll find various different craft workshops, like the silversmiths, the lotus flower weavers and the cheroot factories – cheroots are hand rolled, sweet cigars made from the leaves that grow in the region.
So does Inle Lake deserve to be in ‘the big four’? Yes would be my answer, if you to take time to explore the area by foot or bike, as well as boat, and avoid falling into the trap of thinking that the lake is anything but massively geared up for tourists. Saying that, it was one of my favourite places in Myanmar, worth more than a day if you’re really going to appreciate the place beyond it’s shimmering waters and stilt houses.