- 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
“Skip it. It’s too touristy.” If you’ve done any traveling, you’ve probably heard this phrase. Some travelers shun any destination or activity seen as popular and will even go so far as to berate others for not doing the same. They don’t seem to understand that places become touristy for one simple reason: they offer something worth seeing or doing. If you skip them, you miss out.
Myanmar as a whole got very few visitors when I traveled there in 2011, but it did have a standard tourist loop with three main stops along the way: the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, the Bagan Archaeological Zone and Inle Lake. I missed the first, but loved the other two. My day riding a horse cart among the temples and stupas of Bagan was not without annoyances, but I’m happy I did it. Hiring a boat to take me around Inle Lake ended up being one of my favorite activities in Burma.
Myanmar’s second largest lake (the largest is Indawgyi Lake and traveling there was NOT one of my favorite activities in the country) lies in the mountains of the disputed Shan State. Most visitors stay in the town of Nyaungshwe a few kilometers north of the lake, since the hotels on the lake itself are expensive and only accessible by boat. Being stuck in my hotel, unable to freely leave without hiring a boat did not appeal to me, mainly because I like to eat, so I stayed in one of the budget guest houses in Nyaungshwe. The town has hundreds of food stalls and restaurants and I was able to simply leave my hotel and walk to any one of them whenever I felt hungry.
Of course, anyone staying in Nyaungshwe will want to get out on the lake at least once and I was no exception. Boat trips can be arranged directly at the docks or through any of the hotels or guest houses. In 2011, a standard trip cost around $15 for the day and included the main sites on the northern part of the lake, plus stops at several shops. The boat drivers stop at the stores in the hopes of scoring a commission. These stops are part of the itinerary, but you can skip them if you pay the driver a little more upfront to compensate them for the loss in earnings.
To cut my costs, I teamed up with two sisters from Montreal, whom I had met in Mandalay. Together we had the owner of our guesthouse get us a boat for $15. We didn’t mind visiting the shops, since they all made their products on location and we figured watching local artisans at work might be interesting.
We headed to the docks early the next morning and met our driver. He didn’t speak any English, but had brought his son along to do all the talking. His English wasn’t great either, so I’m not exactly sure what he was talking about most of the time, but it didn’t matter. He was enthusiastic and seemed happy to tell us all about the lake, even if we couldn’t understand most of it.
We set out down the canal that connects the town to the lake, passing local women doing early-morning laundry in the muddy water along the shore and a surprising amount of boat traffic. Mostly the boats were transporting goods and locals between Nyaungshwe and the villages on the lake, but we saw a few other tourists as well. It was early, but the sun was already starting to heat up. Our driver offered us umbrellas to shield us from the sun, but I was busy taking pictures and couldn’t be bothered holding one.
When the canal opened up into the lake, we immediately saw Inle’s most famous image: the local fishermen who use one of their legs to row their boats. Unfortunately, these particular “fishermen” were clearly just posing for tourists in the hope of making some extra money. They were simply sitting around in their boats until they saw us; then they popped up onto one leg and wrapped the other around their oar. I half expected them to flash us a peace sign. They weren’t actually trying to row anywhere and they certainly weren’t attempting to catch any fish.
This was a bit disappointing and we began to wonder if the leg-rowing fishermen you see in all the photos even existed anymore. Most the boats around us were using long-tail motors, so it wouldn’t be surprising if the fishermen did the same these days.
Our worries were groundless. Once we got a bit further out on the lake, we saw plenty of fishermen using the traditional rowing and fishing methods. Of course they were off in the distance, where the motor noise from the tourist boats and the transport ships wouldn’t scare off the fish.
This made if difficult to get a good photo and suddenly the guys who were posing at the entrance to the lake made much more sense. They actually had a good business idea, but they chose a poor location. If they posed somewhere farther along, after tourists got a chance to see how far away the actual fishermen are, I’m sure their little venture would be much more profitable.
Either way, we didn’t care too much about taking photos at this point and just enjoyed watching this unusual fishing method. Standing up in the boat and using a leg to row, allows the fishermen to see above the vegetation that covers much of the lake and it also gives them a better vantage point from which to spot the telltale bubbles that indicate fish below the surface.
When they spot some fish, they quickly toss our their nets or lower their gigantic net baskets, which are over two meters tall, into the water. Since the average depth of Inle Lake is about two meters, the baskets reach all the way to the bottom, trapping the fish inside. We also saw several guys slam their paddles into the water. I’m guessing this helps stir up the fish, but it could easily have a completely different purpose.
I’m not sure how effective this traditional fishing method actually is. We didn’t see a single fishermen catch a fish while we were watching. We learned from our guides that they suffer from the same problem as local fishermen everywhere: encroachment of humans into the natural environment means fewer fish, smaller catches and less income.
Continued in part 2: Village Life on Inle Lake…Yes, it Includes Souvenir Shops