From Bagan, Nick and I took the bus to Nyaungshwe to visit Inle Lake. The drive was spectacular and the landscape was our favorite we’ve seen in Southeast Asia. The view was dynamic, both dry and mountainous. Desert plants in red sandy soil and water buffalo lined the side of the road. The mountains in the distance reminded us of the foothills in Colorado as we zigzagged down passes.
The next day we arranged a tour on the lake with boatman, Ko Lay. We were on the lake by 5:45 am and it was extremely chilly. As we reached the middle of the 45 sq mile lake, the motor shut off and we waited for the sun to pop over the mountains. The haze began to lift and the water reflected the sky. As we soaked in our surroundings we saw a dancing fishermen in the distance. Inle Lake is known for fishermen that paddle with their feet. It seemed too early to fish. As the boat came closer to ours we noticed he wasn’t actually fishing. Ko Lay soon told us that this man was not fishing for fish but for tourists to photograph him for money. We soon saw another tourist boat with a single middle-aged man with serious camera equipment. His boatman called over 2 fishermen and the tourist directed them as he snapped away. The photo shoot lasted a few minutes and the tourist proceeded to pay both fishermen.
This left me puzzled. Fake fisherman? At first I thought, tourist trap! And, of course, Inle Lake is an extremely touristed area, however for a good reason. From a photography perspective, sure, this was cheating. From a tourist’s perspective, this was not an authentic experience. However, from an economic and opportunity point of view of the locals, what was wrong with this? Tourists get their photos, the fishermen aren’t bothered when they are fishing, the local culture is preserved and locals make money. Later in the day, Nick and I passed real fishermen. However, what we couldn’t figure out was if the tourist fishermen and real fishermen were one of the same. Did fishermen pose for photos to make some extra money in the morning when they weren’t catching fish? We also couldn’t figure out if it was still the norm to fish with the cone shape baskets. We passed by a handful of fisherman fishing this way, however we also passed fishermen using nets. Although some things were left unclear, the way that fisherman and local boys paddled with their feet was elegant and unlike anything I have seen.
Ko Lay proceeded to take us to a local market where an ethnic minority group sold a variety of produce and Intha’s sold fried breakfast goods. Nick and I walked up a hilltop to Inthein where we viewed pagodas overlooking the lake. We visited the Nga Phe Kyaung Monastery and various floating villages. The homes were made of bamboo, however newer houses were built with wood. Neighbors all helped in the construction of new homes and an outhouse was attached to the exterior (some homes even have attached pig pens.)
We visited a weaving facility, where we watched woman spin and weave cotton, silk and lotus fibers. It takes 1 month to make a 6-inch x 3-foot lotus scarf. Ko Lay mentioned that 30 years ago there was only 1 weaving shop, however now that there is so much money in Inle (from tourism) there are 7. There are also a variety of black smith, jewelry and wood working shops located on the lake. Nick and I ended our 12-hour tour by visiting the floating gardens. These gardens take up 25% of the lake. Intha farmers grow flowers, cucumbers, gourds, tomatoes, cabbage, cauliflower, other fruits and vegetables and it is all sold at local markets. Although fascinating, we learned that the chemical fertilizers used were damaging the lake’s ecosystem.
Nick and I stayed in Nyaungshwe, the closest town to Inle Lake. Nick biked me around and we visited the night market, The French Touch (beautiful photography) and found the best ice cream in asia at a small bakery. We celebrated my birthday with a nice dinner and had a candle to blow out!
Anyone interested in an excellent boatman at Inle Lake, contact:
Ko lay, Boat driver