You might not immediately understand the comparison, but Myanmar, and Inle Lake specifically, reminds me very much of Guatemala. Beautiful Guatemala – one of my favorite countries in the world because of its simple, shy but welcoming people. A people often living a subsistence lifestyle, happily and faithfully like their ancestors before them. This is how I see the remarkable people of Inle Lake Myanmar.
We are blessed with two full weeks in Inle, about eleven days longer than most people stay. Our slow travel style has us enjoying the peace and quiet here, from our stilt house over Inle at the Myanmar Treasure Resort – a splurge hotel from our normally simple Airbnbs. From this vantage point we are swept away by the lovely people of the region, the remarkable people of Inle Lake Myanmar, whose lives are intricately connected to the lake.
Of course the lake provides so much to the people – it is highway, bathtub, garden and washing machine. But mostly it is a food source. Watching the unique fishing style of the fishermen, it’s a bit like a ballet. The men have developed this system of standing at the stern of their boat, using one leg to maneuver the paddle while using both hands to manipulate their nets or baskets. This system came about because the water is clear, and it’s easier for the men to see the fish in the shallow lake if they are standing.
Lake Fact – Inle Lake is the second largest lake in Myanmar (45 square miles) but only 12 feet at its deepest point most of the year. During the rainy season the lake can rise about 5 feet.
Many people still living in the old ways have little need for cash money. They live a subsistence life, with fishing, farming and gathering providing their daily needs. Gatherers can be seen collecting betel leaves, foraging for wild plants such as pennywort and morning glory, and pulling lotus stems from the lake to create thread for weaving (more on this below). In the forests, teak and bamboo are taken for many uses.
Lake Fact – Inle Lake was designated a UNESCO World Network of Biosphere Reserve – a protected area that demonstrates a balanced relationship between people and nature and encourages sustainable development.
The remarkable people of Inle Lake Myanmar have created an ingenious farming method. Using weeds gathered from the bottom of the lake and bamboo poles for support, the people have built floating gardens. The gardens are tended from a dugout canoe, and due to the rich and abundant mineral lake water, the crops flourish.
Additionally, farming of fruit, beans and nuts, rice, corn and sugar cane is abundant in the region. Yellow tofu made from chickpeas is a regional specialty and exported to other regions.
Lake Fact – daily markets take place around the lake, moving daily to five different locations. Here the people sell homegrown produce, fresh caught fish, eels and snails, as well as baskets, weavings and tofu.
As people will do everywhere in the world, the remarkable people of Inle Lake Myanmar have created income from their ability to create beautiful things from local resources.
The mountains that circle the lake are a source of silver, and silver making of jewelry and other ornamental items is big business particularly for the tourist trade.
Weaving is traditional and several styles of weaving are important to the region. Silk, cotton and lotus thread weaving occupies many women.
Unique to Inle, gathering of the lotus stems and creating thread from the fine spiderweb-like interior creates a unique and beautiful style of weaving. Most of the robes the monks wear are made from this lotus thread cloth. It is very expensive because of how delicate it is and the time-consuming work. Lotus cloth or silk cloth is usually reserved for special occasions for the average person, who dress daily in cloth skirts known as longhi.
Cigar making is also an important industry. Most women of the older generation smoke handmade cigars while men lean to chewing betel leaves. The cigars are all hand rolled and it’s quite remarkable to watch the process. Several styles of cigars and smaller cigarette-like cigars are made using tobacco, tobacco mixed with spices or honey, and also some filled with cornhusks. Some have filters, others do not.
Lake Fact – their are four cities on the lake, but dozens of smaller villages, many built on stilts out over the water and accessible only by boat. The remarkable people of Inle Lake Myanmar are mostly of the Intha tribe, with a mix of Shan, Taungyo, Pa-O, Danu, Kayak, Danaw and Bamar.
To live effectively and have any kind of a life on this lake, people need to either own or have access to a boat. The boats that ply these waters are all very similar in style, and are usually built from teak.
The boats used for fishing are the smallest, 7m, some have a motor while others do not. A family boat is about 10m and the largest boat used for transportation, similar to a taxi or ferry service on the lake is about 18m.
Boat manufacturing is a specialized craft all done by hand, usually in a family owned business handed down over generations. Even the teak trees are cut by hand and hewn by hand into the beautifully shaped vessel. The boats are designed to maneuver through the narrow passage ways on the lake and are low to the water. A mixture of shredded teak and tar is used to fill the gaps in the boat. Lacquer is used to paint the boat. A boat well cared for will last about 20 years.
Transporting people and goods is a business into itself. People who grow vegetables and other items in the hills around the lake need to transport the items to the people on the lake and vice versa. Of course transporting tourists is big business today as well.
Lake Fact – the teak trees grown around Inle Lake are known as the finest teak in the world.
Nearly all of the population of Myanmar is Buddhist, and temples and pagodas dot the Inle Lake area, just like the rest of Myanmar. Monks are revered and the people make a practice to visit the temples and worship regularly.
Most monks live a simple and quiet life at monasteries scattered around the area. While some children are apprenticed as monks very early, not all remain throughout their life. It’s a difficult life. Monks often walk the street each morning and the people come out to provide food to them (known as alms) and often this is their only meal of the day.
Monks infrequently engage with tourists but occasionally receiving a blessing from a monk will occur. It is important to never touch a monk’s robe.
Lake Fact – there are several monasteries and temples (also called Pyay) accessible by water on the lake and visitors are welcome. You must always remove your shoes, and sometimes women must cover their heads. In addition Pyay and temples are also scattered around the hills and can often be illuminated by the rising sun in the morning. A beautiful sight.
Our time in Myanmar has been memorable, and it isn’t over yet. Looking forward to learning more about the remarkable people of Inle Lake Myanmar over the next week, before we move on to Yangoon.
Next Friday’s blog – the food of Myanmar!
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