You often hear people say “we live on the lake”. But by on it, we mean on the edge of it, on terra firma, and in America that probably means a house with running water and electricity and a pretty view. Well, in Inle Lake, living on the lake has a whole new meaning. And for those who have read about it, I can personally attest that the descriptions just don’t do justice to this incredible part of the world. The United Nations added Inle lake to its World Network Biosphere Reserves in 2015, the first biosphere reserve to be added for Myanmar.
We were lucky enough to get a first hand glimpse into this 45 square mile freshwater lake set up high in the mountains, at an elevation of 2,900 feet. It is the second largest lake in Myanmar and ranges from 7 feet deep during the dry season to as deep as 17 feet during the rainy season.
Most of the 70,000 Intha people who call Inle Lake their home are devout Buddhists and self-sufficient farmers. The floating farms and gardens they have created are breathtaking. And according to Wikipedia, it has been designated a Ramsar site since 2018, meaning it is a wetland area worthy of international importance in terms of conservation and protection.
And that is all wonderful, but as I move within the peaceful waterways of this civilization by long wooden boat, words like impossible and ingenious come to my mind.
As visitors, we can’t help but fall a little in love as we marvel at the quiet sense of simple certainty and serene being of the Burmese people. Each productive Intha soul, complete with stoic smile, flip flops and a traditional longyi, further enhance our admiration of this kind, beautiful, and hard-working culture.
Our little group absorbs this new take on lake living with our mouths agape. We are speechless at the sight of a whole community perched up high, listing on stilts and growing entire farms hydroponically, tended to by wooden boats. These gardens rise and fall with changes to the water level, which means they are resistant to flooding and yet constantly benefit from such optimal access to the water.
These boats are usually made out of teak and held together with handmade wooden dowels and cat tails mixed together with a type of tar, one that is both flexible and waterproof. And they are an essential part of living, as each home is reachable only by boat, hoisted above the black lake dotted with clumps of water hyacinth and lotus flowers. The magnificent lake reflects so perfectly, gloriously disorienting us, as we search for the true sky.
For a while, I imagine myself into this life, as I gently climb onto precarious wooden planks of primitive walkways and gently cross bridges to reach homes of bamboo thatched walls and windows and tin rooves. I slide out of flip flops at the threshold as I enter. I’m grateful it’s warm, as it can get quite cold here at certain times of the year. And I’m happy that the lake level is not too high and flooding everything, nor too low, threatening the floating market.
To make a living I can see spending my days, my years, operating a loom. The loom has strings, bamboo pedals and a hanging bucket of river rocks to help power it, as my shuttle quickly passes across the warp and weft. Life is hard, raw, straightforward. The complex pattern I use helps me weave a colorful traditional longyi, using threads of silk and lotus. The pay is nominal, the work is hard but my complaining is non-existent. Buddhist beliefs drive my quiet acceptance and surrendering stance. I don’t know any differently.
I smile and my mouth is red from the betel nut I’ve been chewing for years. My teeth are broken or missing. My gums are not healthy, but my smile is still joyful. My face is painted with layers of thanaka today, as it is every day, for both sun protection and to enhance my beauty. The special paste is made in my home each day, by rubbing tree bark on a small circular stone and mixing it with water.
My longyi is a little dusty from sitting cross-legged on the wooden floor where I eat my htamin jin from a tiffin box for lunch every day with the other workers. It has MSG in it. I also love fried crickets. Dogs roam free around the small space that constitutes our weaving factory, appearing to carry the same devout acceptance of their fate. This is life lived in Inle Lake.
Then I come back to reality and remember I am here merely as part of a small group of visiting foreigners. So the sturdy wooden boats that we ride in, which are usually filled with about 15-20 passengers, are just for five of us, plus the driver.
He sits or stands in the stern, operating the outboard motor. It is simple and does not have much of a muffler, but is ingeniously designed to operate in what appears to me to be a mere 6 inches of water at times. The put-put-put noise of the various engines on the lake become hypnotic, lulling us all into silence.
Water hyacinth, bamboo, lotus, palm trees and teak trees are ubiquitous here. The lake air that rests between these mountains is so fresh and clean and the clouds have never been more white, the sky never more blue. And the freshwater lake is a black mirror, serving to duplicate each night’s spectacular sunset.
At night the stars are more than I’ve ever seen, and when the sun comes up lush green, misty mountain folds appear and flank the lake.
I spy a bird, black and motionless, drying its wings while perched on a lake rock and behind that a fisherman squats alone in the stern of his long wooden boat. He is wearing a conical straw hat and the traditional longyi and holding his oar up high for a split second before pounding it down with gravity and might onto the solid dark water. The splash seems like the only sound that has ever been. The ripples seem endless. This is fishing.
Then he stands and wraps his leg around the oar to row the boat forward, leaving his two hands free to work the net. I’m spellbound at the artistry of it. The sight of him standing on the stern of the boat is so breathtakingly beautiful and impossible, defying gravity and physics. And yet there he stands, with a lifetime of practice, casually and with confidence, like a surfer perched on a wave with all ten toes wrapped over the nose of his board.
In this early morning pink light with such pungent stillness and vibrant greens against blackest blacks, I’m transfixed. This is not what I thought Myanmar could ever be, but here it is, in all its delicate majesty- a space on this earth that I’m so grateful to have witnessed and experienced, if only briefly. I cannot recommend it more.