Magical World Afloat:A Journey Through Inle LakeText & Photographs by Debbie Jefkin-Elnekave
From pristine waters, to mist-shrouded mountains, to lush floating gardens, Inle Lake is astunning narration of Myanmar's diverse natural beauty. Combine the breathtaking vistas withcharming villages, timelesstraditions and ever-presentBuddhist spirituality, and Inlegives the impression of a magicalworld afloat. Time passes ever sogently in this enchanting place,which is contentedly shelteredfrom the rush of contemporarylife. To say that Inle is a treasuretrove of serenity might soundtrite, but to visit here is to glimpsea profound truth behind theclich.
The lake is inhabited by Inthapeople, who take their name from the word meaning sons of the lake. Their villages of bambooand wooden dwellings are situated in the midst of the lake, perched on stilts, in total harmonywith the environment. This is the only place in the world where flower and vegetable gardensfloat, created by joining beds of water hyacinth and flotsam. When secured to the bottom of the
shallow lake with bamboo poles,they form rich, fertile plots forcultivating a wide variety of marketand subsistence crops, includingbeans, cabbage, tomatoes,cauliflower, melons and papayas.The abundance of these crops isbest seen in the vast open-airmarkets that operate on a five-dayrotation.
The lake lays claim to severalthriving cottages industries, none soresplendent as silk and cotton
weaving. Visiting the workshops, it is easy to see why Inle's weavers are celebrated for thebeauty and delicacy of their textiles. Like every region of Myanmar, Inle has its own unique,readily recognizable designs. The warm earth tones and intricate patterns denote and manifest therichness of their creative imagination. The textiles, which are used primarily for the traditional
longyi, or sarong, differentiate the community and serve as a source of immense local pride.Similarly, small enclaves of cheroot factories, silversmiths and gold-leaf making can be foundalong the raised wooden walkways that serve as streets.
Every village in Myanmar, no matter how small orremote, has a monastery. Inle Lake has several. Oneof the most noteworthy is Nga Phe Kyaung. Like allMyanamar monasteries it is oblong in shape and theinhabited portion is raised on eight-foot pillars. Inkeeping with tradition, it is only one story high, as itwould be an indignity for a holy monk to haveanyone over his head. Young boys who enter themonastery in a state of shin, or probation, hope toempower their natural capacity for spiritualenlightenment and compassion. But Nga PheKyaung is perhaps better known as the Jumping CatsMonastery, so called because monks on break fromtheir spiritual endeavors train cats to jump throughhoops. It is typical to observe these learned monksdiscussing matters of Buddhist philosophy whilecoaxing cats through a ring.
If there is one aspect of Inle Lake that fully capturesits spirit, it is the legendary fishermen. They are bestknown for their standing, one-legged rowing technique. The origin of the technique is uncertain,but it is believed that the practice began in the 12th century to enable the fishermen to navigatetheir flat-bottom wooden boats above the floating gardens.
Our friend, Sai Woon Sone, tells usthat to fully appreciate the lifestyle ofthe Intha fishermen, we must beginwell before dawn. And so we set outin a canoe, bundled up against theearly morning chill, and await thesunrise. The lake lies silent,motionless, and the encircling Shanmountains are visible only as ashadowy, serrated rim through theearly morning mist. An hour passesin absolute, tranquil, meditativesolitude. Then gradually, almostimperceptibly at first, the sunrisebegins to transform the reverie, and a
magical sight slowly unfolds. The mountains assume a distinct form. Sunlight reflects like jewelsoff the shimmering water. The mist lifts to reveal dozens of fishermen on the horizon, eachstanding poised at the end of his boat, clad in the traditional Shan-style trousers, mandarinjackets and woven bamboo hats. The immensely tall, conical-shaped traps rising from the boats
are evidence of the unique fishing tradition that the Intha have invented and perfected. Now justpast dawn, it is time for the fishermen to leave the cold solitude of the lake and return to theirvillages with last night's catch. With one leg firmly planted on the stern and the other legextended to power the oar, they make their way toward the lacy network of canals that will leadthem home. They row with such mesmerizing grace that they appear to dance to a timeless tune.
The rowers are best seen in alltheir agile splendor at the PhaungDaw Oo Pagoda festival.According to legend, KingAlaungsithu proferred five sacredBuddha statues to the pagoda inthe 12th century. The pricelesstreasures disappeared from thepagoda, then inexplicablyreappeared in the 17th century.The relics were placed on a bargeand taken out for processionaround the lake. They were lost atsea during a storm and only fourwere recovered. After conducting an exhaustive, fruitless search for the fifth, the disconsolateworshippers returned to the pagoda. Miraculously, the missing statue was there, covered in mud& seaweed. Henceforth, only four Buddhas can be removed for procession, while one mustremain in the pagoda. They must always be astrologically aligned, in the same relative positionto each other, to prevent natural disaster from occurring. Today the Buddhas are completely
misshapen from gold leaf offerings that worshippershave burnished onto the bodies. Every October,beginning on the fifth waxing moon day, pilgrimsflock to the pagoda for its annual three-week festival.During this time the venerated images are carried upand down the lake on a lavishly decorated barge inorder for worshippers to pay homage. The festivitiesinclude processions of dozens of canoes, eachcontaining no fewer than twenty perfectly aligned,perfectly balanced leg rowers. They propel themselvesforward in unison with such steady, graceful, fluidrhythm, that they might be performing an exotic,highly stylized ballet.
Just beyond the shores of the lake, nestled in thesurrounding hills, members of the Pao tribe dwell intidy little villages of bamboo huts. The only way toexplore these hills is on foot, so we set off on a six-hour trek. Time has been kind to these villages, wherecustoms built up over so long a period of time havehad the good fortune to escape history's traumatic
events. We pass through several charming communities, and eventually happen into Moe Kong,an Eden-like hamlet surrounded by fields of garlic, tangerines and cheroot leaves. There issomething distinctly captivating about this particular village, so we wander around trying to putour finger on it. Before long, Daw Tan Shwe comes out to greet us wearing the traditional Paocostume. Her bright orange headdress argues against her somber black tunic, both elegantlystriking counterpoints to broad planes of her noble face. Fortunately, our unexpected arrival isnot considered an intrusion. On the contrary, her attitude is one of warm welcome. She offers ustea & sugar cane candy. She is amazed that we can make this rigorous six-hour trek, which shegestures to us in improvised sign language, for we don't speak Pao and she doesn't speak English."Don't worry," I gesture back to her, "I run marathons, so Iam accustomed to such physical trials." She is impressed."But take care in this intense sun," she cautions me, "lestyour fair skin will turn dark like mine." We admire herbronze complexion and assure her that it is a cherishedelement of beauty in our culture. She admires my fair skinand we agree that if possible, we would gladly exchangecomplexions. We visit as long as possible before sayinggoodbye. We continue on reluctantly from this enchantingvillage because we don't want to break the spell of theserenity we feel here. We have been in Inle only threedays and already it seems as if the world has slowed to thegentle pace of the graceful leg rowers.
The reward for a day of trekking is our arrival at Kakku, acomplex of 1500 pagodas dating to King Alaungsithu'sreign in the 12th century. The stupas of this architecturaland spiritual masterpiece are magnificently preserved,built to last and to defend themselves against the ravagesof time. They stand with imposing grandeur as a lavish affirmation of Myanmar's ever-presentBuddhist spirituality. The perfect composition and sculpture make it one of the finest sites wehave ever seen. Strolling among the stupas, we can almost imagine the supplicants who onceworshipped here. Kneeling, heads bowed in devotion, the vanished figures seem to develop andfade, develop and fade, like ghosts of Kakku's ancient disciples amidst the hallowed shrines.
The physical attractions of Inle Lake captivate, but like any place that holds special regard, it islargely about intangibles. Incredible is this lake, a world in itself, where every custom holds itsmeaning and importance, where every life way is defined by ancient practices, religious beliefs& local traditions. Inle is a world of pagodas, picturesque villages, floating gardens and legrowers. But still more, it is a society of gentle graciousness, a reflection of the Intha and Pao,their joys and faith, wisdom and values. Indeed, the beauty of the setting and the immensity ofthe cultures come together and stand as one in this exotic land, this refuge of dreamers, thisjourney through the very soul of Myanmar.
This travel essay was published in theJuly-September 2004 issue of Tourism ASEAN