Inle Lake (three hours from Thazi and 32 kilometers from Taunggyi) is one of Myanmar's most unique and scenic spots. Famous it's floating villages, colorful markets and leg rowers, this lovely body of water is sandwiched between gentle green mountain ranges and located at a pleasant and cool elevation. Most visitors stay in the town of Yaungshwe on the eastern side of the lake, where many hotels and guest houses are located.
Inle Lake is on the Shan Plateau about 900 meters above sea level. It is about 22 kilometers long and roughly 10 kilometers wide. In the local Intha language “in” means lake and “tha” means inhabitants. The lake is home to the Intha people, many of whom live in villages built on wooden stilts over the water of the lake. The Intha are also famous for their distinctive leg-rowing technique. There are about 20 major Intha villages along the lakeshore. [Source: Myanmar Travel Information]
Inle Lake doesn't have a clearly defined shore. The level of the lake rises and falls in accordance with the wet and dry seasons. Depending on the season, Yaungshwe and other towns are some distance away the shore, which is fringed by high grasses and swamp vegetation. Less fish are being caught in Inle Lake every year. Part of the problem is overfishing. Part of the problem is also an overabundance of silt and water hyacinths, both of which are taking their toll on the fish population by robbing the lake of oxygen.
Inle is located in the heart of Shan State which shares borders with Thailand and Laos. More than 30 hill tribes are living in the mountains. Much of the area is unspoiled, and there are many picturesque places that travelers can visit and have all to themselves. Lake Inle is surrounded by the “Blue Mountains” of the Shan Plateau.
Inle Lake is becoming a little too overdeveloped. Hotels are sprouting up around the lake at an alarming rate. Diesel-powered long boats race around the lake with no concerns about noise, pollution and safety. Litter floats in the lake and collects near the shores and restaurants. Inle Lake was nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1996 but thus far has been rejected possible due to the overdevelopment. According to a report submitted to UNESCO: “A large mountain lake in a well preserved landscape. Several ethnic groups use the lake and its shores as their central landmark. The cultural traditions of numerous villages around it focus on the lake and have distinctive features: - internal navigation, fishing and commerce; - floating vegetable gardens installed on artificial rafts. - distinctive housing shapes and types. An annual Buddhist festival is held on the lake. The symbiosis and ecology of the lake, its shores and its villagers constitute a genuine instance of cultural landscape.
Most of the 100,000 or so inhabitants of the Lake Inle are “Intha” ("Sons of the Lake"). Considered a distinct ethic group, they live in "floating" villages on the perimeter of the lake, and in some cases the middle of the lake. Intha villages don't really float. The houses are supported on mud dug up from the bottom of the lake and teak pilings that can last hundreds of years. So that Intha children don't drown they are taught to swim before they can walk with water wings made of gourds.
The people of Inle lake are called Chay Nant Hlau Tu. The Inthas have been described as simple, honest and friendly folks and a strong, rugged and diligent race gifted with a spirit of creativity. The nat (spirit) that guards the lake is named Daw Gyig (The Big Royal Guard). Offerings are made to her and great efforts are made to keep her happy and appeased. The offerings are often made by women who present the offerings in cups to protect the men from poisonous snakes and other dangers.
The Inthas live on the waters of the lake in houses built on stilts from the day they are born. The Intha are already veterans at swimming and boating at a young age. They balance themselves on one leg in their boats while dexterously using the other leg to work a single oar. This unique style of rowing can only be seen in this area. The leg rowing technique facilitates passage through the thick vegetation found in the shallower parts of the lake. This traditional method of propelling their boats has been handed down through the generations.
Intha Leg Rowers
Most Intha men are leg-rowing fisherman who use light, unstable boats that capsize easily to get around the lake. At the back of these shell-like boats are foot-wide platforms where the rowers stands on one foot.Leg rowers row with the handle of oar placed in their armpit and the shaft of the wedged between their shin bone and foot. The boat is propelled forward with a backward swing of the leg against the oar, which is then pulled out the water with the foot and brought forward in a circular sweeping motion and then placed in the water again for another backward stroke. The skill is learned and mastered during childhood. Nowhere else in the world do people row a boast in this way.
Intha fishermen use nets inside conical bamboo "traps" which are just as unique as their rowing style. To catch fish in the shallow lake the fisherman thrust their traps in to the water with the pointy end up. When the open side of trap hits the bottom of the lake the fisherman releases the net which drops to the bottom, and hopefully entangles fish caught in the trap. The fisherman repeats this action in a different locations across the lake. Usually only one or two small fish — mostly carps, catfish and eels — are caught at a time.
Their boats are shallow shells that resemble surfboards. more than boats and they are light but very unstable. Most of us would capsize one of their boats immediately were we ever to set foot in one. The leg rowers perch themselves precariously on a corner of their tippy shell-like boats.
During regattas fifty-man crews standing in long rows battle one another on boats that are specially counter balanced to account for left and right footed rowers. The equivalent of a coxain keeps them in a cadence, and it is an awesome sight to see 100 synchronized legs sweeping in and out in a broad circle. The rowers usually represent their home village and crowds spur their teams forward with shouts of "Myan!, Myan!" which means "Faster!, Faster!" More than pride is at stake, large sums of money are also wagered.
The Intha people are hard-working. Cigar-rolling and weaving are the women's work. The weaving of the Lotus robe at Padaung Oo Pagoda is well-known in the country.
Tours of a cheroot factory are offered at Inle Lake. Tamarind and Star of Anice are the brands made there. One visitor wrote on Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree forum: “It turns out cheroots have very little tobacco and are mainly a mixture of flavorings, bark and a little tobacco. Also all natural, even down to the glue made from sticky rice. They're surprisingly very nice”.
Intha women are known for their weaving skills. The silk sarongs they make are highly regarded. If a woman works from sunup to sundown she can produce two yards of material a day. Both Intha women and men perform the farming chores.
Inle Lake Floating Farms
The Intha grow crops on "floating gardens" that really do float. Used to grow cabbage, cucumber, beans and other vegetables, these gardens are constructed between 200-foot-long strips of matted grass anchored in place by bamboo poles thrust into the lake bottom. Fertile muck is scooped up from the bottom of the lake, placed onto boats and applied to the matted grass which is then planted with crops.
With a constant source of moisture the "floating farms" are very productive. Some farmers make a living by slicing off sections of floating land and selling it to customers. The gardens are generally long and narrow so they can be easily serviced by boat. Gourds and grapes are sometime grown on stilted arbors.
Intha women are known for their weaving skills. The silk sarongs they make are highly regarded. If a woman works from sunup to sundown she can produce two yards of material a day. Both Intha women and men perform the farming chores.
Tomatoes, melons, cucumbers and all kinds of vegetables are grown in "floating farms" of aquatic plants that are moored to the bottom of the lake. Eric Pasquier wrote: Covered with a layer of nutrient-rich grey-black soil, the parcels once in place, are seeded and tended like ordinary plots of farmland. Algae from the lake and other local resources are used as fertilizer...before long the threadbare strips of floating land sprout a luscious selection of tomatoes, pumpkins, green beans, peas, eggplant and flowers. Every year the Intha clear out the previous year’s crop to prepare them with fertile mud and seed for the next year’s harvest. It’s a job that requires five people working five days straight. If done correctly the floating island will be productive for approximately 10 years...When not moored to lake bed or in transit, the floating island invariably sink. [Source: Eric Pasquier, Travel3sixty, September 2010 **]
The floating farms are made up of 200-by-2 meter strips of floating land. For local farmers—that earn no more tan a few hundred dollars a year—the farms are worth a lot of money and involve a significant investment. Generally, every Intha family buys or produces one island per year, gradually increasing the size of their arable land, A portion of land is used to grow food for their own consumption, a parcel is reserved for the production of offerings from Buddha and another for offerings to the local monastery . The majority of the land is used to grow crops that are sold at the local ‘floating market or for export. A part of the land is also reserved for the grandiose feast of the Golden Bird, which takes place in November .” **
Intha Hydroponic Agriculture:
Peter Leah wrote: “In Myanmar a large scale traditional hydroponics system can be located and is still being used today at Lake Inle. The principle is very simple. Rather than growing on land and needing a labour-intensive watering system in place to get a decent yield, they float man made islands of matted organic material across a fresh water lake. Anchored into place, the islands are sturdy enough for crops to root successfully, and then the roots simply keep growing into the lake below, thus having access to as much fresh water as they require without the need for the farmers to continually keep them hydrated. [Source: Peter Leah, Myanmar's Inle Lake Shows Bridge to Ancient Hydroponic Farming Systems, January 23, 2013]
“The process for creating the floating fields can take up to as much as 10 years until the requisite amount of growth and submerged, matted organic matter has formed. They try to speed up the process by dredging the silt from the lake floor and add this to the newly formed islands, as this is thought to aid with the fertility of the plant life, and the nutrients in the soil.
“Once the islands have matured, they are sliced into long, thin strips, and moved into position in the lake. Once in place, the islands can remain suitably fertile for growing purposes for up to 15 years, at which point the islands are rotated, and newly formed islands are put into place. The old islands are formed purely of organic matter, so will bio-degrade naturally and re-enter the life-cycle of the lake system. As the islands rise and fall with the water level, this approach to growing is completely resistant to flooding.
“Vegetable crops have successfully grown in this way for many generations, and Lake Inle is particularly famous in that part of Asia for the tomato crops that tend to ripen around December time each year, providing both a sustainable food system and potential income for those in the local area. The lake is also full of fish, the most common being a breed of carp that combined with floating gardens has helped sustain the communities around the lake for many centuries.”
Inle Land Movers
To create the floating islands farmers tear away pieces of land from the lake’s banks, move the pieces of land to places in the middle of the lake and grow fruits, vegetables and flowers on them. The farmers do this at the end of the four-to-five month rainy season when the lake’s water levels are highest, making it easier to find pieces of land and then move them to locations in the lake. During the dry season the island movers spend their days fishing. [Source: Eric Pasquier, Travel3sixty, September 2010 **]
A family’s land holdings grow as the as the pieces of land are cut off, moved, attached, detached and reattached to one another in often complex configurations. Eric Pasquier wrote: “the technique is quite complex, requiring great skill and precision, The men stand in waist-deep slime and carve the floating island from the mainland, cutting through the hyacinth roots and other tentacle-like appendages attaching the buoyant earth to the shore. It is necessary to cut the roots just the right length, as excessively long roots will drag along the bottom of the lake, slowing the island’s progress during the move and roots cut too short will affect the island’s soil, making it infertile sooner. The islands must also be at least one meter thick if the soil is to accommodate a proper harvest. **
“With sweat running down their brows, the men lean against their long bamboo push poles with all their might in a synchronized effort to move the tons of water-logged earth. In general, a single island requires a crew of five men. The islands are too heavy to be pulled by motor boats...When these ‘gondoliers’ have to move several islands at once, they usually tie them together with grass or bamboo plaits, forming a long multi-island convoy wide enough to pass unhindered through the many obstacles along the way. **
“These large parcels of earth must be pushed, pulled and coaxed, often over great distances, by this very special breed of men. Their job consists exclusively of moving these strings of floating islands from one point to another while balancing on long strips of floating turf...Once the men reach their final destination, the islands are anchored to the bottom of the lake with bamboo supports. The lake bed is never more than seven meters below the surface.” **
The tradition is under threat. The centralized government in Yangon now overseas all transactions involving the floating islands of Myanmar. The ancient tradition of cutting away chunks of land from the shores is a serious menace to the region’s ecosystem, as many years are required for re-growth. The government authorizes transactions on an annualized basis, in an apparent attempt to preserve the natural habitat of the vast array of flora and fauna that thrives here. **
As a result the ranks of the ‘floating island movers’ of Inle Lake have been reduced to a mere contingent if 100, most of whom began working in the trade as early as 13 or 14 years old.
Visiting Inle Lake
Amanda Jones wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “From Kalaw it's a three-hour drive to Inle Lake, lodged between two mountain ranges. Once at the lowland lakeside township, Mr. Moe and I took a longboat with my luggage and headed out on the vast lake to Villa Inle, a lovely hotel built on the water's edge with five-star, free-standing bungalow rooms that overlook floating gardens of fiery water lilies. [Source: Amanda Jones, Los Angeles Times, December 13, 2013]
“There's only one way to get about at Inle and that is by an open-air, narrow longboat with chairs — and noisy diesel motors. Inle is where I most felt the crush that tourist demand is creating. Hillsides have been bulldozed to make way for hotels and luxury housing, and touts have begun to hound foreigners with, "Buy this today cheap special price." Of all the places, Inle is the one to visit before Westernization ruins it.
“Right now, though, it is spectacularly lovely. The fishermen still wear baggy pants and row with their legs as they toss nets. Villagers still sell vegetables from wooden boats, gliding between the over-the-water stilt houses. Women still sit all day weaving sumptuously patterned fabrics from silk and cobweb-like fibers ripped from the stems of lotus flowers. Men still hunch over pure silver, hammering out patterns to create jewelry and temple offering bowls.
“At one end of the lake are the not-to-be-missed Indein ruins, the lower part of which is still in its original, untouched condition, with trees and roots fusing, Angkor Wat-style, with ornately carved pagodas. Above, however, the authorities have begun to "remodel" the pagodas, meaning they are covering them with fresh cement and a coat of gold paint. Archaeologically compromised? Most certainly. Another reason to get here before more of the country's gracious history is "remodeled."
Yaungshwe and Tourism at Inle Lake
Yaungshwe (10 kilometers off the main road between Thazi and Taunggyi) is the main tourist center for Inle Lake. It is a pleasant place, with several friendly guest houses and a handful of restaurants where travelers congregate for drinks and Chinese food.Most budget travelers are dropped off by bus on the Thazi-Taunggyi highway. From there they catch a ride with a taxi, pick-up truck or hotel minivan into town.
There are not a whole lot of tourist attractions in Yaungshwe. The Shan State Cultural Museum is housed in a former Shan Palace. The countryside around the lake is lovely and good for walking and bicycle riding (bikes an be rented for a round $1 a day). You can see farmers riding water buffalos to their fields, temples and lots of friendly people. Treks can be arranged to temples, caves and hill tribe villages in the mountains around the town. Yaungshwe hosts a weekly market. Other towns in the Inle Lake area have markets on other days.
Myanmar Tourism Services Inle Office: No.316, Nyaung Pin Gyi Road, Nyaung Pin Thar Quarter, Taunggyi Township, Shan State, Union of Myanmar., Tel: (+95 81) 221 58, 205165, Fax: (+95 81) 221 58
Transportation to Inle Lake Area: The most convenient way is to fly from Yangon to Heho, which is the nearest airport to the lake. There are daily flights to Heho which take about one hour. The flight from Mandalay to Heho takes only 20 minutes. Traveling by car along the uphill and winding road over the Shan Plateau from Heho to Inle Lake takes a couple hours but is interesting and scenic.
There is also a regular train service via Thazi Junction to Heho and Shwenyaung, the nearest station to the Lake. The main Yangon-Mandalay train stops in Thazi. There are buses, taxis and minibuses from Thazi to the Inle Lake area. One can also travel by highway buses from Yangon to Taunggyi, then pass Shwe Nyaung and reach Nyaung Shwe.Many travelers head to Yaungshwe. They are dropped off by bus on the Thazi-Taunggyi highway. From there they catch a ride with a taxi, pick-up truck or hotel minivan into town.
Sights Around Inle Lake
Mine Thauk Market like the other main markets around Inle Lake is open every five days. It is a large and bustling market where one can find a real local atmosphere with a variety of produce from the lake area. Other places of interest near the market in the lake are Paya Pauk Pagoda. Zakah Village and Nga Phe Chaung monastery. Accessible by ferry boats in Inle.
Nyaung Shwe (on Shwe Nyaung – Nyaung Shwe road) contains the main port to Inle Lake and is the main transfer port to Inle Lake by ferry boats. There are many interesting places in Nyaung Shwe, including Yadana Man Aung Su Taung Pyay Pagoda. It lies on the route of the royal barge. In 1274, there was a big earthquake that felled the pagoda. It was renovated to a height of 70 cubits and 160 cubits in girth. In the tazaungs there is Yadana Man Aung image with genuine relics, consecrated with a great deal of gold. The Nyaung Shwe Cultural Museum has displays related to ethnic groups in the area.
Aythaya Winery (40 minutes by car from Inle Lake, along the paved road that leads to Taunggyi and Kekku Pagoda) offers tours of the vineyards and wine tasting program. Also onsite at the winery is Winegarden Restaurant, which offers culinary specialties from the region as well as European meals.
Alodaw Pauk Pagoda (in Nampan Village, Nyaung Shwe Township southern Shan State) was built by Thiri Dhamma Thawka, a famous king, and originally known as Innphaya Pagoda. According to legend when King Alaungsithu visited the place he saw the Alodaw Pauk Pagoda and made a vow on a jeweled bowl turned into the bowl with Buddhist relics. King Alaungsithu rebuilt the pagoda enshrining the jewelled bowl, a stone obtained from the clouds, a stone obtained from the ivories, a pearl worth a hundred thousand, and all sorts of jewellery, four gold statues and seven silver statues. It was named Yadana Pagoda or Down-turned Bowl Pagoda.
Inle Lake Boat Trips
Most visitors tour the lake as part of day-long trip that begins in Yaungshwe and costs about $20 person ($5 for the government boat fee and $10 for the boat, shared among six or seven passengers). The motorized boats begin the 15-mile roundtrip journey by traveling out to the lake through channel cut through the reeds from Yaungshwe. In the middle of the lake you can watch leg-rowers try to catch fish with their traps (most of their efforts seem unsuccessful).
The boat travels to the "floating village" of Ywama, where visitors are swamped by souvenir saleswoman in boats selling crafts at outrageous prices (sometimes this is referred to as a floating market), and taken to a cheroot factory, a silk-weaving center to watch women make silk shirts, longis and cloth with hand looms. After lunch the visitors walk to Phaung-daw-Oo Pagoda, where pilgrims place pieces of gold leaf on sacred rocks and pray at a shrine with five Buddha images.
On the way back to Yaungshwe the boat stops at a beautiful Buddhist monastery constructed of teak. The main attraction of the monastery is its jumping cats, which are goaded by friendly monks into jumping through hoops. Visitors are welcome to sleep at the temple. After the monastery, boat passes by some floating gardens. Don't try to get out of the boat and walk on them. I tried it and fell through the bamboo frame. Swimming in the lake is alright. The water is clear and comfortable but it is difficult to climb back in the boat.
Places Visited on the Inle Lake Boat Trips
Phaungdawoo Pagoda (in Inle Lake) is a dazzling, magical place. One of the famous shrines in Myanmar among foreign tourists, this pagoda houses five small Buddha images, which are much revered by the lake-dwellers.Once a year—in late September or early October— there is a pagoda festival during which four of the five Buddha images are rowed around the in a colorful barge to 14 villages on the Lake. The barge is towed by the boats of leg -rowers and hundreds of boats follow the procession. The large crowds of people gather on the lake-shores to celebrate the occasion. It is really a splendid sight.. The festival lasts for 18 days. There are dance shows, fun-fairs, and boat race made of teams of leg rowers. Entrance Fee - US$5 The best time to visit Inle Lake is between September and March of every year.
Ngaphechaung Monastery and Its Jumping Cats (25 minutes boat ride from Yaungshwe) is situated in Inle Lake on the way to Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda. The monastery is an attractive wooden structure built on stilts and huge pieces of teak wood over the lake at the end of the 1850s. Aside from its collection of Buddhas the monastery may be of interest to visit because its monks have taught a few of the many cats living with them to jump through hoops and perform other tricks. Sometimes the cats jumping through flaming cane circles. The monastery is also known for a collection of old Myanmar's Buddha images from different areas. Nga Phe Chaug is the biggest and oldest monastery on the Inle Lake.
Ywama Village (on Inle Lake, 15 minutes boat ride from Yaungshwe) is the largest village on the Inle Lake. The streets of the village are like webs of canal. There are some beautiful teak houses built on large wooden poles driven into the lake bed. The main activity is the floating market in the largest canal northwest of a hotel. The floating market is and attraction is kind of touristy. You can visit the goldsmith workshops and observe the sculpture and umbrella industries.
Shwe Indein Pagoda (on the western bank of Inle Lake, 45 minutes boat ride from Yaungshwe) is a whitewashed stupa on the summit of a hill with a famous Buddha image enshrined in it. Indein is one of the small villages of Inle Lake located on. Below the stupa around the hill are cluster of hundreds of ancient stupas. Most are ruins overgrown with bushes. The pagoda and stupas are said to date to the the 8th century. The pagoda hill is quiet and calm and at the end of the Indein creek, which connects with Inle Lake just after the Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda.
The beautiful pagodas are overgrown with plants and are largely deserted, as most local pilgrims are content with visiting Phaung Daw Oo. Reaching Indein requires a boat trip along the spectacular Indein Creek, which is connected to the lake.The creek is narrow with many twist and turns. Since the both sides are paddy fields you can see the farmers ploughing with water buffaloes. At the lunch time while groups of farmers are having lunch the water buffaloes enjoy themselves with a dip in the creek. At many places in the creek the farmers dam up the water with bamboo barriers to irrigate the paddy fields. Indein water is not only useful for irrigation it is also used for bathing and washing cloths. It is common place to see novice monks, buffalo boys and village girls wash and swim in the creek. Trekking enthusiasts can climb up Mt. Shwe U Daung. 3000 feet above sea level in 90 about minutes.
Markets and Villages Around Inle Lake
Inle Lake’s floating market, which rotates from village to village on a five-day cycle, provides the opportunity to observe people from the many different ethnic groups in Shan State. Also, Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda, on the western end of the lake, is a famous pilgrimage site visited by people from throughout Myanmar. The pagoda holds a festival every year around September or October, which draws many local and foreign visitors.
There are nearly 20 villages around the lake, some of which are farming communities while others are known for papermaking, weaving, silver making or pottery making. The most famous products of Inle Lake are the highly valued monks’ robes woven from lotus fibers. Weavers must adhere to the Buddha’s teachings, including keeping the Five Precepts, while making the robes. This unique fabric is found nowhere else in the world, and is said to have been invented about 100 years ago by a woman living at Inle Lake as a gift to her revered abbot. Visitors are welcome to watch the weaving process, and can buy products like lotus fibre shawls and robes.
A floating hotel called Golden Island Cottage has been built on the lake by the local Pao O people, who live in the nearby mountains, and is reachable only by boat. Guests stay in bamboo bungalows connected to a central pier by sturdy piers. Each cottage has a veranda which can be used to watch lake life. Guests are welcomed with music from a drum and cymbal band. . The Pao people had been fighting with the government. The hotel was part of the truce agreement. Much of the money earned by the hotel goes to fund village schools, roads and clinics.
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures: East and Southeast Asia”, edited by Paul Hockings (C.K. Hall & Company); New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.
Last updated August 2022