The showmen of Inle Lake

The simplicity of certain places in the world makes you feel special in a way that no five-star luxury resort ever could. Sitting in a wooden armchair, on a thin pillow – I can still feel the wooden slats through it – in a longboat and puttering down the low canals of Inle Lake, is one such place. It may be simple, but I feel like a queen on a throne.

Boats are docked along the way, people are going about their daily routine in their homes on stilts on the shore, bicycles look abandoned as fishermen have taken to the lake for the day’s catch, and the sun is slowly rising from the east promising to warm up the land. The only sounds are the engine at the back, the water against the boat as we slice lazily through it, and the breeze brushing my hair. To the left and right are green fields with the odd village popping up every so often, and in the distance are the blue/grey mountains, covered in dry brown vegetation.

Stupas at the abandoned monastery on the edge of Inle Lake, Myanmar

A day on Inle Lake

We’re in for a busy day. We putter past the floating gardens where tomatoes are grown on a bed of seaweed and our first stop is the market. Colourful and bustling, it’s on the 5-day rotating schedule, where it moves to different parts of the lake giving everyone a chance to do their weekly shop without having to travel too far.

Next up is the cigarette factory, where we watch ladies expertly roll cigarettes in green tobacco leaves, their fingers never missing a beat. Tobacco. Filter. Leaves. Roll. Stick down with sticky rice. Cut. Fold. Done. Over in a few seconds and on to the next one as naturally as drawing their next breath. Flavours include banana, mint, fruit juice, and plain old tobacco.

We move on to the lotus weaving. A lady as old as the hills is cutting lotus flower stems at 3-4cm intervals and carefully drawing out the fibre which she then rolls on to what she’s already pulled out, before discarding the stem.

In a day during the dry season she can create 15m of thread and in the wet season that can go up to 50m. This will then be spun and woven on a loom into scarves and longyis (sarongs). Only pink lotus flowers are used, and Inle Lake is the only place in the world where this is done. It is little surprise then that it is 7 times more expensive than silk, and a small scarf will set you back US $200!

From here, we go for lunch. This is in one of the large lake houses on stilts, and it is a feast. Grilled fish, soup, cauliflower, rice, banana chips, rice crackers, and a few other things that are a bit too spicy for me. After lunch we’re invited to go for a paddle, so we jump into smaller wooden boats. Steered and managed by the ladies of the village, we see their floating from the water at our own pace.

Our next stop is the old monastery with the dozens of pagodas. It looks abandoned, but we find two men older than time at the top who look after it. One is sweeping and the other man the ‘shop stall’ selling water and candles for the Buddha.

Two young boys, one a novice monk around 10 years old, approach and demand the camera fee and flashes a ticket at me. I pay up and ask them for a photo in exchange and they’re happy to oblige. The young monk, fiercely protective of his younger friend (or brother?) makes sure he’s sitting comfortably. Only then does he nod that it’s ok to proceed.

As the little boy kicks his shoes off, in a fluid well-practised motion, I notice that he has club feet. It doesn’t seem to bother him, and I assume it’s a birth defect, but my heart hurts to see him. In a place as remote and rural as this, what chance do either of these boys have for a better life? Yet they are happy. They’re smiling and laughing. They jostle with each other and they love interacting with the foreigners.

From here, we decide to extend our stay on the water to see the sunset, so we add a quick stop at the silversmith’s workshop. Here, we learn that they produce 98.5% silver jewellery from local stone deposits.

The stars of Inle Lake

We putter on leisurely, slowing time before the sunset. Along the way we come across traditional fishermen go about their work. They row with their feet, using their hands to drop or reel in their fishing nets. It is a very labour-intensive process for little return, and they catch enough to make it worthwhile. But it’s getting harder and harder each season.

We kill the engine and silence envelops us. The lake’s fishermen-showmen arrive to give us a skilful demonstration of how they use their feet to manage their boats, paddles, and fishing baskets. With little fish left in the lake and no other land or skills with which to make a living, they have become graceful dancers on water. All they ask for in return is a few dollars. They elegantly manoeuvre themselves and their boats to hold standing splits poses in front of the setting sun. Their silhouettes are dark against the orange sky.

The water ripples are blue and pink, and the seaweed gently bounces up and down. It feels otherworldly. Serene. Surreal. We wrap up in blankets warmed by the sun to ward off the twilight chill, and watch the sun go to bed. I could sit here day after day doing this. It never gets boring.

Where to stay, eat and drink around Inle Lake

Arriving full of the cold, I wasn’t in the mood to do too much exploring. I stayed at the Ostello Bello which was excellent, as always – clean, comfortable, and with good WiFi. Nyaung Shwe is another big tourist pull because of the lake, so there are plenty of food and accommodation options.

While I had many of my meals here too, there are plenty of small, local restaurants a stone’s throw from the hostel. Once I recovered, I did eventually manage to get out and try a few.

There is also a supermarket with a good selection snacks and drinks one block away. 

Things to know about and do at Inle Lake

Entry fee. The town that sits on the shores of the lake is called Nyaung Shwe. To enter you must pay a fee of around MMK 15,000 (US$10). You pay on arrival, either at the airport or on the drive into town. As well as lake tours, you can also hire bicycles and ride up to the Red Mountain Estate Vineyards and Winery for some wine tasting with a view of the lake below. It’s pretty good wine too!