Floating life of Inle Lake

Mark Levitin | Live the World

November 23, 2022

Inle Lake is probably the most popular attraction in Myanmar, and deservedly so. This is where all life goes aquatic. Tours are conducted by boat, houses stand on high stilts over the placid water, gardens float, fishermen row with their feet, and Buddhist monks train cats to jump through hoops, possibly to improve the feline karma. In addition to that, the shoreline is packed with ancient stupas, monasteries and craft villages. 


© Mark Levitin

Indein usually is reachable by water, and in fact, included in most boat tours. The main attraction here is a jumble of ancient stupas in various stages of dilapidation. There is also a functioning monastery nearby, and young monks in saffron robes passing back and forth between the crumbling, darkened brick spires make for some high-contrast shots. The main population here are the Pa-O, one of the many Burmese tribes whose women sometimes still wear traditional costumes or at least the characteristic headscarves. The village itself has been partly marred by souvenir stalls and touristy cafes, but most of it so far consists of classical tribal bamboo dwellings. A walk through the village and on along the river might also be rewarding to a photographer, especially in the afternoon when sunlight comes in blasts of radiating beams through tree canopies overhanging the river. Boat tours to Indein usually also stop at Nga Pe Taung, "the jumping cat monastery". This monastery stands in the middle of the lake, and Buddhist novices here used to train cats to jump through hoops. This was more about the careful positioning of the cat, the hoop, and a small fish than about developing reflexes, but it still looked cute (like anything involving a cat). Unfortunately, the tradition has been abandoned, but you can still pet a few kittens. 

Floating villages

© Istock/lkunl

Halfway to Indein is the floating village of Ywama, one out of many settlements standing high over the lake's waters. "Floating" is technically a misnomer: the villages are constructed on tall stilts driven into the bottom. On a calm day, a boat ride between the houses will guarantee a splendid view: rickety structures perched like cranes over the still water, doubled from below by a perfect reflection. Wooden walkways connect such houses in place of streets, and a stroll on one of those will provide a different perspective: slightly elevated, with motorboats rushing underneath in every direction. But the views are not the end of it. As it is common in Asia, many of the villagers specialize in traditional crafts. Weaving is the most common, with one unique local variety being lotus fabric. Cloths are woven out of lotus fiber and are typically used to produce robes for monks and Buddha statues. Blacksmiths are worth visiting, too - many of them still use typical Burmese bamboo bellows. Other crafts include jewelry, lacquerware, parasol making, and cheroot (Burmese cigar) rolling. A lot of village workshops have lately become tourist traps, with souvenir shops attached, and that is where the boatmen are likely to steer you hoping for commission. A bit of walking around, however, will uncover more authentic craftsmen.

Floating markets

© Mark Levitin

Another local custom, also quite typical for tribal areas in Asia, is regular farmers' markets - pretty much like the county fairs of old times. The Inle Lake version is obviously floating. People come from afar in throngs of boats loaded with vegetables, goods, and even cattle. The markets rotate on a five-day basis, but since there are more than five locations, a few coincide. The one in Ywama lives up to its name, taking place mainly on water, but it is also the most corrupted by mass tourism. Maing Thauk and Nam Pan are another two sites where trading boats pass through stilt villages, but commerce happens on the shore. The market in Phaung Daw Oo, also on dry land, has the famous pagoda as a backdrop. Generally, the further south, the more authentic the markets get because the further they are from the town of Nyaungshwe. However, even the touristy ones provide a good glimpse into the daily lives of Intha, Pa-O, Shan, and a number of other tribes inhabiting Inle lake.

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