Inle Lake in Myanmar is an important body of water not only to the country’s tourism industry but also because it sustains about 150,000 people living in more than 200 villages on or around the lake. Most are called Intha people, which literally means, “Sons of the Lake”. They are descendants of the Mon people from the southeastern part of the country. The Inle Lake is composed of the main lake town, canals, floating gardens and the lake itself.
The lake town is called Nyaun Shwe or Yaunghwe, about a kilometer away from the lake. The main attractions of the town are its traditional open market and an old stilt palace of the Shan people. Although there’s nothing to see inside, the beautifully carved teak wood palace is a sight to behold. Tourists are welcome from Monday to Friday, 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Meanwhile, the network of canals, mostly only 4 meters deep, leads to the lake and are marked by so many railings and mileposts that it almost resembles a flooded racecourse. The canals are usually full of vendors on boats selling authentic arts and crafts hand-made by village artisans. The vendors make up Inle Lake’s famous floating market that often gets crowded with local and foreign buyers. The floating market is open five days a week but with no fixed location.
The lake itself is so picturesque especially when dotted with fishermen and with mountains as backdrop. It bears comparison with India’s equally famous Kashmir’s Dal Lake. Local fishermen have developed a unique fishing method called the “one-legged fisherman”. They use one leg to row while the other balances on the back of their small boats (sampans). This leaves their hands free to drop their cone-shaped nets, catching the passing fish below the shallow lake. Other than being eccentric and creative fishermen, the Intha people are also skilled carpenters, weavers and metalworkers. Hand-woven Inle products are very popular in the country and in some parts around the world.
Another important feature of Inle Lake that is hard to miss are the floating gardens. They are strips of water hyacinth and mud that have been drenched from the lake bed many years ago and have broken down into thick humus. It takes 50 years to produce a meter-thick layer of “garden”. The Intha people have found ways to profit from these gardens by growing tomatoes, beans, eggplants, cauliflowers and codia leaves, which are used to make cheroots and to roll tobacco. The people have anchored their gardens to the bottom of the lake using bamboo poles.
In addition to the floating market and floating gardens, the main attractions in the area are the Phaung Daw U Pagoda and Nga Hpe Chaung Monastery. Phaung Daw U Pagoda was built in the 18th century and improved through the years. Inside are five 12th-century Buddha images that have become almost unrecognizable because of the many gold leaves that have been plastered by devotees as a form of offering and worship. There are also two golden pedestals on which the images are transported on a boat during the Phaung Daw U festival. Four of these images have fallen into the lake when the royal boat capsized during the stormy 1965 festival. They were salvaged and now a statue of a royal bird marks the site where they were found. The festival takes place in October.
When visiting Inle Lake, tourists also get to visit surrounding attractions such as old British Hill Stations called the Taunggyi and Kalaw and the sacred Pindaya Caves with hundreds of old Buddha images inside.