Inle 360

Exploring Myanmar’s Inle Lake by air, land and water

Text and images by James Pham

Located in the eastern Shan State, Inle Lake is truly ethereal, marrying Nature’s kaleidoscope of pristine mountain-fed waters ringed by rolling hills with spectacularly colorful ethnic groups living both on and around the lake. Myanmar’s first designated entry into the World Network of Biosphere Reserves, Inle is home to some 90 species of wetland birds including herons, warblars, cormorants, and egrets and today, I’m determined to see what they see from a hot air balloon high over Inle Lake.

It’s an ungodly hour when I find myself zipping in the chilly darkness over the lake to the unremarkable town of Nyaungshwe, gateway to Inle. Hazy, pre-dawn images emerge of a deserted school courtyard, and we rub the last vestiges of sleep from our eyes while shoveling down croissants and a blessed cup of coffee. In no time at all, the ground team readies the hot air balloon, and we silently rise into the morning stillness. The nature of hot air balloons puts us at the mercy of the winds, but it’s a favorable morning and we’re soon over colorful stilted houses that resemble a jumble of Legos. For now, the longboats that ply the waters are blissfully quiet, lined up like so many crayons at the jetty. Soon, the first settlements that surround the lake come into view, illuminated in a rosy glow by the sunlight peeking over the hills. Green ribbons of floating gardens inchworm their way across the waterscape, dotted by ramshackle little huts providing shade for the farmers.

We stall somewhere over the edge of the floating gardens and Nic, our British pilot, asks if we’re comfortable gaining altitude in an attempt to change our fortunes. Part art, part science, piloting a hot air balloon requires managing a situational awareness puzzle aided by an app with real-time data on wind conditions and current location to ascend or descend to catch the air currents in just the right direction. While most balloon rides coast somewhere between the treetops and max out at three thousand feet, flying in Inle Lake is spectacularly unique in that balloons are able to ascend to around 10,000 feet, thanks to being in a sparsely populated area with the nearest airport two mountain ranges away and with no early morning flights.

The ride is surprisingly smooth because the balloon moves at the same speed as the wind and as we rise, the lake takes on the visage of a blue mirror, clouds reflected in the glassy water with the surrounding Shan hills reduced to chocolaty mounds of soft-serve ice cream. At one-third the altitude of commercial airplanes, I force myself to lean out of the basket and look straight down onto a watery world of blues, greens and browns. The view is briefly lost  in a haze of clouds, but then we pierce through and find ourselves literally on top of the world, the glassy water replaced by a sea of billowy white clouds. I tweet out a picture and immediately get responses ranging from disbelief (“Photoshopped!”) to amazement (“Looks like a scene from the movie Up!”).  

During the 1.5 hour flight, we travel almost the entire length of the lake, 14 miles long and 7 miles wide, wider at the top end, but more populated towards the southern end, and too soon find ourselves descending back on the town, watched by folks with craned necks and mouths agape as the giant green balloon floats just feet above their homes. Nic heads for a helipad, now filled with kids playing soccer. He’s tried to land there for the last three years with no success, but as it has the whole morning, something in the air feels just right and we touch down, light as a feather, with glasses of champagne to celebrate the perfect flight over Inle.

Children of the Dragon

About 33 ethnic groups call the area around Inle home, including the Shan, Intha and Padaung, known for their long-necked women. During British rule, the highlands were blissfully left largely alone, away from the politics of the plains and thereby preserving much of their culture and traditions. The Shan chiefs enjoyed cordial relationships with the British and it’s said that the stunning glass mosaics at the Nga Hpe Chaung Monastery are made from Venetian glass, a gift from one of the colonial officials. Today, I head up the hills in search of the Highland Pa O, the second largest ethnic group in the state.

Nga Hpe Chaung Monastery

According to legend, the Pa O descended from an inter-species union between a dragon who took the form of a woman and a shaman named Zawgyi. The woman could never sleep less she turn back to a dragon, but tired from laying eggs, she fell into a slumber. Zawgyi returned to find his wife in her real dragon form and fled. Abandoned, the eggs cracked open, revealing the first Pa O people inside (“Pa” the sound of a crack and “O” meaning “eggs”). Even today, the colorful turbans of the Pa O women are said to resemble the head of a dragon. I hear more of the colorful Pa O lore as we hike for almost three hours uphill, passing the odd woman washing clothes by a spring or a farmer working fields so intensely green, I don’t think an adequate adjective has been invented yet to describe it.

A burst of scarlet signals a Flame of the Forest tree with its tiger claw-like flowers, and I hear the tale of the local nats, or guardian spirits ― two brothers who had the ability to tame tigers. Wary of their powers, the kind had them put to death, only for them to return as Lords of the Forest. We pass little rustic shrines in their honor, set under big trees which the nats are believed to inhabit, as we make our way to the tiny town of Loikaw, where homes of woven bamboo walls and tin roofs are neatly laid out next to gardens filled with butterflies and vegetables. Dark black chimneys adorn most of the houses, signaling the roasting of the heart-shaped cheroot leaves used to wrap Burmese cigars that only grow in Shan State. As a reward for our trek, a feast awaits of mostly vegetarian dishes ― an avocado salad plucked from a tree in the yard, a potato and eggplant curry from the garden and various fresh leaves and herbs.

The Pa O diet doesn’t include much meat on a daily basis, only when they’re able to head down the mountain to the five-day rotating market to trade ginger, garlic and tea for fish and other proteins. Market days are also used for laundry and bathing in the lake water, and visiting the many holy sites around the lake, including Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda, with its five small Buddha images so caked with gold leaf that they now resemble featureless snowmen, and Inthein, a hilltop pagoda with more than 1,000 densely packed stupas from the 17th and 18th centuries. Market day over, the Pa O return to the idyllic peace of their villages high in the hills of Inle.

Children of the Lake

Inle Lake is home to about 150,000 people, many from the Intha ethnic group. Meaning “Children of the Lake”, the Intha are said to be descendants of the Mon people from southern Myanmar, one of the earliest to reside in Southeast Asia. Now mainly fishermen and farmers, the Intha live a fascinating existence almost entirely on the water.

To navigate the clear, shallow waters of the lake with its tangles of lake weed, floating plants and reeds, the Intha fishermen long ago discovered that it would be easier to stand and row. Emulating the sacred egret, they tuck their oar under an arm, balance on the prow and row with one leg, leaving their hands free to fish. Watching for bubbles, they plunge the traditional conical net into the water and use a harpoon-like stick to herd the fish into the sides of the net which bunch up into pockets as the net is lifted up. Using conical nets requires more skill and patience, but in return, they yield bigger catches. More commonly, though, fishermen are turning to long nets, meticulously strung out with little wooden floats. Then, breaking the silence of the lake, the oars make a loud thwap as smack the surface of the water, scaring the fish into the nets.

I spend the day with Naung Sai who grew up on the lake, child to an Intha father and a Shan mother. Even though he now lives in town, he says he really only feels at peace on the water. “The lake is in our blood. Cars and traffic scare us,” he says, explaining why the Intha rarely venture on land, preferring life in their stilted houses, getting around by boat and tending to their floating gardens.

A massive hydroponic project, the floating gardens are made up of layers of lake weed and other plant material piled to a depth of about 3 feet. Silt and earth are added along with compost over a period of six months to create thick, spongy mats, strong enough to hold the weight of a man. The gardens are then arranged in neat rows, pegged to the lake bottom by long bamboo poles. Lasting 20-25 years, the floating gardens supply 60% of all the tomatoes eaten in the country, as well as cucumbers and beans.

We cruise the lake, visiting villages made up of large, clapboard homes, housing multi-generational families with extensive gardens. Some communities specialize in crafts that make use of local products: silver from the surrounding hills, mulberry pulp for paper umbrellas made earthy orange with persimmon juice and even fibers from lotus stems spun into yarn for weaving. Local lore has it that this incredibly rare, time- and labor-intensive practice originated a century ago when a woman used a staggering 220,000 lotus stems to create a full set of monk’s robes, the ultimate gift of devotion. Throughout the villages, waterways replace roads, lake dwellers perched solidly on the most flimsy of canoes showing incredible balance and grip strength.

Life on the lake, however, is a delicate balancing act in more ways than one. Naung holds out the back of his hands to reveal tattoos common to most Intha men ― a garuda, a mythical half-bird, half-man and the eternal enemy of the Naga serpent on one hand, and a dragon, the king of the snakes, on the other. “I don’t really know if it works or not,” says Naung, “but my neighbor got bitten three times by cobras on his floating gardens and didn’t die.” The tattoos are done by the monks, the ink mixed with ash and black widow spider venom, believed to help ward off poisons.

Maintaining the healthy but fragile ecosystem of the lake is also a challenge. More tourists mean more boat traffic, along with the accompanying noise and pollution. More gardens lead to silting, with the 63 square miles of the lake now just half of what it once was. And global warming has led to increased drought and lower water levels in recent years. Nevertheless, with the government pledging USD 40 million towards protecting beautiful Inle Lake, the residents are hopeful that the inevitable wave of tourism and development won’t change the delicate nature of life on Myanmar’s second largest lake.   

This is our home,” says Naung. “We are the children of the lake.”

If you go…

Most accommodation is bunched at the ramshackle town of Nyaungshwe towards the top of the lake. Only a few select properties are around the lake itself, providing a true Inle experience. One of the southernmost properties is the luxe Amata Garden Resort Inle Lake. Accommodations are in the 3-story hotel or in 20 gorgeous villas comprised of a 63 sqm room and 14 sqm outdoor terrace, all set on 18 sprawling acres. An infinity pool overlooks the floating gardens and the lake beyond. I loved staying towards the southern end of the lake as it basically meant a free lake tour coming back from any activities. With how beautiful Inle is, you’ll want to seize any opportunity to be out on the water. Hotel doubles with breakfast start at USD 135 per night.

In Inle Lake, most boat drivers speak no English and basically only offer transportation to the various sites. In contrast, the tour I took with Trails of Indochina shed light on the history of the region and the guide was extremely flexible on what I wanted to see.

Write a response

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

James Pham © Copyright 2023. All rights reserved.