- 1 - Real and Fake Leg Rowing Fishermen on Inle Lake
- 2 - Village Life on Inle Lake…Yes, it Includes Souvenir Shops
- 3 - Inle’s Floating Gardens and some Buddhist Hypocrisy
After visiting the temple, we got back on our boat and headed into another floating village. This one was even more photogenic than the first and I shot another 200 photos. By now the sun was at its hottest, but I still had no interest in holding an umbrella while trying to shoot photos. I’m pretty shocked I didn’t come away from this outing with a horrible sunburn. Outside the village, we finally got an up-close look at Inle Lake’s famous floating gardens.
Villagers in the area take reeds that grow around the lake and weave them into a long, thin mat. They float these mats out on the water and load them with mud from the lake bottom. Bamboo poles anchor the mats to the lake bed. And that’s it. The gardens are ready for planting. Because they float on the lake’s surface, they are immune to flooding. The mud from the lake bed and the water itself are both incredibly rich in nutrients. Combined with the mild weather year-round, this makes for some very fertile gardens.
If you’ve read about this traditional gardening technique elsewhere, you’ve likely come across effusive praise for the brilliant use of natural resources and its environmental sustainability. A few Google searches is all it takes to see how misguided such praise is and how uninformed many of the articles you’ll find online actually are.
The floating gardens are not especially friendly to the environment and they aren’t even traditional. The practice has only been around since the 1960s and in that time has contributed to a drastic decrease in water surface area. While the gardens start out floating, they soon take root and eventually become permanent parcels of land. Add to that the extreme overuse of pesticides and herbicides directly on the lake and you have a gardening technique that might seem natural and sustainable at first glance, but actually does far more harm to the environment that standard farms.
As we drifted slowly between these gardens, we knew none of this and simply enjoyed watching farmers in their own boats tend to the rows of vegetables as they floated between them. We also passed a number of boats that were collecting weeds to create new gardens or shore up existing ones. Apart from fishing, collecting weeds seemed to be the most common activity on the lake.
We had one more stop before heading home and it was the most pointless: the inexplicably famous jumping cat monastery. From a cynical (also known as realistic) point of view, monks contribute little to society, spending their mornings begging for food and the rest of their days basically idle. In an apparent attempt to change this, the monks at the Nga Phe Kyaung monastery have trained cats to jump through hoops and now charge tourists to see this miracle.
We had no real interest, but a Canadian couple decided to splurge to see some cats jump. Unfortunately, they were informed that the cats were currently napping and in no mood to perform. This was a few years ago and tourism to the area has increased greatly since then, so I can imagine how tired the cats must be these days. Maybe this doesn’t even exist anymore and they simply renamed it the sleeping cat monastery.
That would be better for all involved. As is usually the case when animals perform any kind of trick, they learn to perform that trick at the end of a stick. Apparently, exceptions are allowed in the ‘harm no living being’ Buddhist philosophy as long as the animals are beaten for a good cause like fleecing money from tourists.
I ignored the sleeping cats and used the opportunity to shoot photos from a relatively still structure—a welcome change after the constantly moving boat. I didn’t have a zoom lens and we were too far from anything of interest, so I knew I wasn’t getting any great photos, but it was still a better use of my time than watching cats sleep.
The napping cats and the monks who exploit them were our last stop and we only had another hour or so in the boat to get back to Nyaungshwe. It started to rain at the beginning of that hour. Luckily it didn’t rain heavily, so I still didn’t have to bother with an umbrella and was able to take more photos of the fishermen in the distance.
When we got back to Nyaungshwe, we each gave the drivers five dollars, plus a few more as a tip, to make up for the grand total of zero Kyat in commissions they earned thanks to our not buying anything at any of the shops. We figured they deserved something, since they were both friendly and they tried their best to please us.
Our boat tour of Inle Lake was without a doubt the second most touristy thing I did in Myanmar after the horse-cart in Bagan, but it was also one of my favorite activities. In fact, this area as a whole was my favorite destination and the day we biked along the shores of the lake to visit a vineyard was even better than our day on the lake itself. If I made it a point to shun all touristy locations and activities, I would have missed out on my favorite destination in the country.