Fishermen, shrines and village life on Inle Lake | Myanmar

Like the sheep that we are, we followed all the other tourists to Inle Lake, set in the lush green Shan mountains. The lake isn’t visible from Nyaung Shwe where most people stay so a boat trip is required to visit the lake. We hired a private boat and driver for about $12 for a full day trip, setting off at around 8am. The boat was long and narrow with a couple of seats behind one another. The engine fired up and all tranquility was lost as we loudly zoomed across the glossy surface of a canal-like area which eventually lead to the vast lake. But first we had to navigate through a mat of reeds across the surface of the lake. Machines were used to cut sort of roads through the reeds which were just big enough for the boats to navigate through. It was pretty crazy as there didn’t seem to be enough space for us and there was foliage everywhere like it was trying to swallow us up. But we made it through and cheered our young driver, only to look around and spot another boat with tourists who didn’t have as much luck taking a different route. Their propellor was entangled in the reeds as the boatman tried to wrangle it up and down.

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Now that we were on the main body of water it was nice and clear with reeds swaying below our boat. A fisherman was patiently posing for us as we motored by. He was demonstrating the traditional fishing method using a conical net. The man wore baggy trousers and stood on the tip of his boat with one leg out in the air. His balancing act was tremendous as he held the huge cone in the other hand, I couldn’t do that on land let alone on a wobbly boat. They don’t fish like this anymore though, it’s too labour intensive as they used to work in teams, firstly slapping the surface of the water with their oars to encourage the fish up and then they’d push the cone down to the base of the lake (which is very shallow, only about 2m deep) to collect all the ground fish. Nowadays it’s a one-man job and the fisherman still slap the surface but they just throw a simple net out instead. They stand on the edge of the boat paddling with one leg (yes, using their leg!) so that their hands are free to pull up the net. It was interesting to see them successfully fishing with this usual method. Some men were using a stick to yank up piles of reeds, it looked exhausting and their boats were on the verge of sinking due to the weight of the wet reeds. Every so often they’d stop and spend awhile emptying buckets of water out of their boat.

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Most tourists spend their boat trip being ushered from local workshops where they watch villagers making silver jewellery, silk etc. It just sounded like a terrible way to spend the day being asked to buy things all the time. In fact I read some tourists were silversmiths themselves and when taken to the factory they could blatantly tell that the locals were just tapping the metal and had no idea what they were doing. So we requested to not visit the tourist-trap workshops. Instead we headed up a narrow arm of the lake where partial dams were made and our boatman had to plow over the rushing water in the centre and avoid the sticks hiding under the surface on either side. Locals had built little platforms along the shore which basically became their shower room and mums scooped up bowls of brown water and poured it over the bodies of their naked toddlers. We arrived at the village of Indein where we disembarked the boat and set off on foot to see the stupas of Shwe Inn Dein Pagoda. We were lucky to visit in rainy season as the canal leading here is too dry the rest of the year and it’s only accessible by road. The village was a rustic little place with herds of cows being ushered through the dusty streets. The echoes of excited kids trying to sing in assemblies across the various schools filled the air. A souvenir lined path led up to the pagoda and once again there were dogs everywhere. They were bloody adorable though and so excited to get attention, gently whimpering if we stopped stroking. The shrines were very impressive and were a mix of white, gold and terracotta, all in various sizes and condition. We ended up finding a really weak dog, just skin and bones with a nasty infection on its side. We had some bananas on us so we broke them into pieces for her but before she got a chance to eat any 3 big dogs came running down for the food and she refused to eat with them there. So I ushered the big ones away who were healthy and very happy to get attention while Craig hand fed the pup, I sure hope someone can help her as she was a loner and not accepted into any of the packs.

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A short but sweaty hike up a hill gave us a vantage point across the field of gold shrines, it was stunning. We walked back through the village and saw three little boys who seemed to be running through rain and jumping in puddles. It looked like a mirage but the wall of rain was in fact coming our way. It was quite surreal being under sunshine while watching the rain approach, a bit like in the Truman Show where the directors press buttons to change the weather on-set. Luckily it didn’t last too long and we got back into our unsheltered boat and taken to a stilted restaurant for an overpriced lunch.

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The rest of the day was spent cruising through the floating villages where stilted houses sat atop the water and the only way to get anywhere was by boat. Kids paddled hand carved canoes and the odd house had basic food supplies for sale, just like your average village corner shop. Some houses were massive structures like mansions on stilts while others were very simple affairs only made from woven palm throngs and wood. A few were struggling to stay standing with floors slanted down and collapsing roofs but people were still living in them. It would be cool to make one of the wonky houses into a quirky bar where the barman put the drink at the top of the bar and let it slide down towards the customer.

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Around the villages were floating gardens which were quite fascinating. Vines of tomatoes were lined up neatly and held up with bamboo sticks like any normal garden yet they were growing on top of a layer of reeds and with every passing boat the water would rise and move the reeds, along with the tomatoes, up and down. A huge menacing cloud brewed behind us which we tried to outrun. It eventually caught up with us and we glided along the water with our ponchos flapping in the wind. As we returned to the reed area a conical net fisherman pointed the best route for our driver to take, I guess the reeds are constantly shuffling around and we made it through without any issues again. It was a nice trip but not wow, I think many people had the same opinion as we saw a few tourist were just browsing their iPhones on the journey back.

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We had hoped to visit a market on our trip but they alternate around five different villages and on our day it was due to be too far away. Our compromise was a bike ride the following day. The market was in a village close to the shores and we could see what life around the lake was like. The road didn’t really get close to the lake though and all we seemed to see were schools. School after school after school. The kids were waving like mad at us and looked adorable in their mini green longji’s. We arrived at the bustling market where the first few rows of tables consisted of the usual tourist tat. The rest was for the locals though with freshly caught fish being bartered for, veggies weighed and meat chopped. The Shan region of Myanmar is home to the Pa-O people who are an ethnic group and we saw lots of them shopping for goods. They were quite obvious as they wrapped colourful shawls or hand towels around their heads.

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We wanted to make the bike ride worthwhile so we opted for a loop trip which involved crossing the lake. We negotiated a price with a local boatman and two men lifted our bikes onto the narrow boat while we sat on the floor next to them. The boats were piled into a jetty area while everyone went shopping so it took a bit of boat-nudging to get out. Then we sped off through what felt like a maze of water-roads surrounded by more floating gardens. As our boatman veered around a bend the rear of the boat hit a mound and our boat quickly swerved sideways crashing straight into the vines of tomatoes. The engine was cut and with a tail between his legs, our boatman ran along the edge of the boat which was only a couple of inches wide. He pushed us back and just as he did the boat behind us hit the same mound and crashed into some other tomato plants. It was quite funny as it felt like we were in a comic sketch but I felt sorry for the people who planted these tomatoes and worked hard to keep the gardens so neat. As we reversed out it became evident that this was a major crash spot and there were broken bamboo sticks all around the bend.


We made it across the lake in one piece though and were greeted by the most adorable puppy who we couldn’t resist temporarily stealing and popping into our bike basket. The ride back was also rather uneventful with the highlight being a steep hill with rough tarmac. We just had basic vintage bikes so we must have looked like absolute hooligans as we plowed down like we were motor-cross drivers with my bingo wings flapping from the vibrations. The final section actually passed some nice mountain views with bright green rice paddies below but then the heavens opened and the final slog back to town was a battle to beat the rain.


That evening we were catching our first night bus in Myanmar down to Yangon. We were drowned rats by the time we got back from the bike ride and the kind workers rushed out with towels for us. We sat around waiting and a man came in, chatted to the ladies at reception and then came and talked to us. I didn’t like him, I don’t know why, I just got a bad vibe so I left Craig to chat away with him. The guy said he had had a few drinks and liked to talk afterwards and he asked lots of questions about freedom of speech in the UK vs in Myanmar. Craig said it exactly how it is, we have freedom of speech so if we don’t like someone or something we can say it out loud. Craig follows the news unlike me so he was aware of the strictness in Myanmar, and that two journalists were recently imprisoned for trying to share documents which would implicate the government. The man finally headed off, saying he was catching a flight to Yangon as he was here for work. It was only after he left though that Craig realised the man was only asking questions about politics etc and then we realised the first thing he said was he was friends with the owners of our hotel who weren’t around at the time. Weirdly as soon as the man left the owners appeared and had a staff meeting. It all seemed a bit odd and made me uncomfortable, even though Craig didn’t say anything bad I still felt like it was a bizarre case of entrapment. But it was fine as our paths had separated, he was on a plane to Yangon and us on a bus so we went our separate ways or so I thought. When our bus pulled up at a huge service station for a toilet break at around 2am we walked across to the loos and at a little food stall I saw the man. Our eyes locked but in my sleepy state I didn’t realise who it was until I looked away. It was so creepy, I barely slept a wink afterwards, worried that we were being followed. Thankfully we didn’t have anymore encounters with him in Yangon.

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