Time stands still on Inle Lake in the Shan State in Myanmar. This is the type of place you want to visit at the end of a very wearying tour. Here you need not move from the verandah of your stilt cabin. Just sit, in the evening it is quiet except for the birds on the water, and soon the sun drops behind the mountains on the other side of the lake, showering you with a variety of colors! Dinner will be served in the Main Dining Room, but before then, there will be time for a drink on the Outside Deck.
Shan State borders China to the north, Laos to the east, and Thailand to the south, and five administrative divisions of Burma in the west. Largest of the 14 divisions by land area, the Shan State covers almost a quarter of the total area of Burma. The Shan are descendents of the Tai-Shan people who are believed to have migrated from Yunnan in China and who have inhabited the Plateau and other parts of modern-day Burma as far back as the 10th century. Most of the Shan State is a hilly plateau, which together with the higher mountains in the north and south, form the Shan Hills System. The Gorge of the Salween River cuts across the state. The famous Inle Lake, where the leg-rowing Intha people live in floating villages, is the second largest natural expanse of water in Burma.
We landed at Heho Airport early in the morning, after a short flight from Mandalay and were going to take the back roads to the Resort so we could get an overview of the area. This would be a 6 hour, spine breaking ride in a MiniBus, over roads that could do with a little maintenance, but in the long run, well worth the agony!
After leaving the airport, we climbed the hills and were soon in a place that reminded me very much of ranch country in Canada. We stopped to talk with women working in the fields. We asked why there were no men around and were told that they were working in places like Dubai leaving the fieldwork for the women and older men.
Bumping and bouncing along the road, we saw a road maintenance crew working and realized why the roads were in the condition they were. Most tasks were done with a pick and shovel.
We continued our drive to Pindaya, where we visited the 11th century Shwe U Min Cave Temple, a huge complex of limestone grottos with around 9000 images of the Buddha. The caves honeycomb the hillside above the Botoloke Lake. Most of the statutes have been painted gold. In March of each year, Pindaya hosts the Pindaya Cave Festival, a five-day festival of music, dance, food and fun for the entire family. Even the army attends and just look at the footwear!!! It must be Watermelon Season as I have never seen so many large, luscious watermelon!
We arrived at Nyaung Shwe oldest of the Intha settlements around the lake, late in the afternoon and boarded our boat for the 30 minute ride to the resort. This was the little piece of heaven I was talking about. We each had an individual cabin on stilts that overlooked the lake. A unique feature was the outside shower where you could watch the sunset as you refreshed yourself. One thing I would highly recommend is, that even if you are on a tour, try to arrange to stay in the area for several days, to fully explore the area and all it has to offer.
The Intha People are likely the first ethnic group that you will come across. They are members of a Tibeto-Burman group and are believed to have come from Dawei area farther south. They support themselves through agriculture and fishing. You will encounter their one-legged rowers on the way to your hotel. This distinctive rowing style, which involves standing at the stern and wrapping the other leg around the oar, evolved as the lake is covered by floating plant material and it is impossible to see ahead if seated. There are about 70,000 Intha in towns and villages around the lake. There are also a mix of other Shan, Pa-O and Palaung, Danu and Barmar groups. Transportation on the lake is traditionally by small boats, or by somewhat larger boats fitted with ‘long-tail’ motors that are necessary because of the usual shallowness of the lake. We travelled in one of these larger boats that sat 5 people quite comfortably.
During your stay in the western part of the Shan State, you will also come across the ubiquitous Pa-O people, who are the second largest ethnic group, after, of course, the Shan themselves. Their homeland tends to correspond with the most visited parts of Shan State, the Kalaw, Pindaya and Inle lake region. Highland Pa-O traditional dress is highly distinctive, with the women wearing plain black or indigo tunics with narrow blue and/or red trim and brightly coloured turbans wrapped around their heads, mostly in orange and red. The Palaung who are of Mon-Khmer stock, and the Akha and Lisu groups are of Sino-Tibetan origins. As such, they are likely to have inhabited these regions for longer than Tai groups such as the Shan themselves, with ethnologists estimating their migration to date from some 1,000 years ago.
A day on Inle Lake is like no other that you have experienced. From the time you board your boat at 8:00AM, till the time you return around 6:00, it is an array of amazing sights.
Our first stop was the market, where upon our arrival in the area we were bombarded with sellers in boats offering us an array of merchandise. I of course succumbed and bought some jewellery.
We went into the shop to meet the Palaung women who wear brass coils around their necks. There was a 40 something woman, an older woman of indiscernible age and 2 young teenage girls. We learned that the neck stretching process starts at age 9 and the number of coils is increased at set intervals. A symbol of wealth, position and beauty according to tradition, the coils can stretch their necks over a foot and weigh over 20 pounds According to the Guinness Book of Records, the world record for longest neck—15¾ inches. These women are obviously being used to get the tourists into the shop but they do receive money to have their pictures taken. I felt conflicted as I stood there in the shop, wanting to take a picture while at the same time feeling that I was in a human zoo….. I didn’t like the feeling.
The women told us she had not put the coils on her daughters. It is common for the younger generation not to follow this tradition. It is however a way for these people to earn money for their families. I bought the red scarf on the rack made by the lady in the picture, as well as a number of other well made items from the shop. By now, my MADE IN BURMA wardrobe had grown so large, I would have to buy another suitcase or chuck some of the clothes I had brought with me, if I was to get it all home.
We continued on our journey to Indein village, where there is a collection of restored and ruined stupas begun in the 12th century and added to by Shan princes up until the 18th century. The small creek took us away from the lake past sights not changed for hundreds of years…women bathing their babies, women washing clothes….life happens on the banks of the creek.
We docked in the main village and climbed a steep hill to see the restored section of stupas— this forest of shining spires on a low hill creates a spectacular effect, while the still-ruined brick stupas on the lower slopes are superb. Restoration practices would likely make any archaeologist cringe.
Back on the lake we continue our tour. Fish caught from the lake – the most abundant kind, is called Inle Carp and are a staple of the local diet.
In addition to fishing, locals grow fruit and vegetables in large gardens that float on the surface of the lake. The floating garden beds are formed by extensive manual labor. The farmers gather up lake-bottom weeds from the deeper parts of the lake, bring them back in boats and make them into floating beds in their garden areas, anchored by bamboo poles. These gardens rise and fall with changes in the water level, and so resistant to flooding. The constant availability of nutrient-laden water results in these gardens being incredibly fertile. Rice cultivation is also significant.
Environmentalists are concerned about the changes that are happening in and on the lake. There was an article in The Irrawaddy Magazine in 2010 about a documentary made by Min Htin Ko Ko Gyi. This documentary shows that the livelihood of these fisherman is now in jeopardy, partly due to the impact of farming practices used in the floating gardens and partly as a result of drought and deforestation in Shan State. The 30-minute documentary, titled The Floating Tomatoes, includes interviews with Inle Lake tomato farmers who have experienced health problems after years of using chemical fertilizers and pesticides. More than 100,000 people earn their livelihood by growing tomatoes in Inle Lake’s floating gardens. They use fertilizers and pesticides to produce higher yields, but most are unaware of the negative effect these chemicals have on their health and on the lake. They do know, however, that the water from the lake is no longer safe for drinking and cooking. Deforestation of the slopes surrounding the lake are also a cause of Inle Lake’s environmental decline. Both drought and deforestation—which increases the impact of drought by causing silt to build up in the lake—have also played a large role. Burmese environmentalists have found that the climate and biodiversity in the lake have changed to the point that this unique floating world may vanish forever.
Our last stop of the day was at “The Jumping Cat Monastery” or The Nga Phe Kyaung Monastery. Alas, the monk who trained the cats to jump is gone, so they now just laze around and look cute. This is likely much better for them as throngs of tourists used to visit this place just to see the cats perform. Now the few people who visit can take in the 19th century monastery on stilts with their collection of Buddha statues from different parts of Myanmar and Tibet, set on wooden and mosaic pedestals that are hundreds of years old.
As we returned to our little cabins on stilts, the sun was once again saying Good-Night, but this time it was also bidding us farewell to Burma….. The Golden Land.
Burma/Myanmar is an amazing place and I am so grateful that I was able to visit before it was discovered by the rest of the world….change is inevitable…but it will not remain the same place. As Rudyard Kipling said over one hundred years ago “This is Burma….it is quite unlike any place you know about.” How right he was…..Burma remains a world apart from other countries in Southeast Asia.