Any Inle Lake visit will include stops at some of the numerous and still largely traditional lakeside villages and their special floating gardens.
Despite certain brochure descriptions the villages are not actually floating Cambodian style -- the water level variations don’t warrant it -- but are constructed on wooden piles driven into the lake floor. Some of these traditionally teak buildings can be huge -- up to two or three storeys -- and villages such as Nam Pan and Ywama are extensive. In Inn Paw Khone village, entire weaving factories are built on stilts.
Pagodas, schools and markets tend to be built on land reclaimed by piling up lake-floor mud while attractive wooden walkways and bridges often connect different houses or village sections. These make great places to wander if your boatman can find the right place to drop you off, while taking a stroll away from many of the handicraft workshops can work too.
The gardens and villages are typically visited on a day trip from Nyaung Shwe, which will take in the various handicraft villages as well. Standard day hire for one of the Lake’s motor-powered longtail boats is 18,000-25,000 kyat from dawn to dusk. You can book directly with a boatman at one of the jetties, though you’ll encounter plenty of touts in Nyaung Shwe’s streets. Pilots – most of whom will speak at least minimal English - may offer discounts during quiet periods while if you book with your hotel reception it can include a small commission, but there’s more incentive for reliability.
Weaving in and out of the village streets by boat is delightful. The workshops do give you a chance to take a break, letting you stretch your legs, use the facilities and grab a drink. Part of the charm is discovering local life as you putt putt down a back course, but please respect villagers’ privacy. Photographing locals showering or cleaning their teeth is intrusive and inappropriate.
The best and most extensive gardens are towards the north and west of the centre, especially around Kayla village, so they are easily fitted in during a return journey to Nyaung Shwe. We have seen floating gardens in one or two other spots in Southeast Asia, but nowhere are they as spectacular and widespread as at Inle. Floating gardens are not traditional to the lake, having only been introduced in the 1960s, and their environmental impact is highly controversial.
The gardens are formed by consolidating natural floating lake vegetation into compacted strips. Above waterline stems and leaves are then cut and burnt and lake mud piled on top, gradually creating a strip of floating soil and compost. These floating rows are then anchored to the shallow bottom with bamboo poles and crops can be planted; shallow rooted tomatoes are the clear favourite. Rows are organised into ‘fields’, with water channels between them and tending and harvesting is then done from small wooden boats. Some longer-standing gardens are firm enough to walk on and roots will eventually connect them to the lake bottom but they do wobble -- it's an odd sensation.
Last but not least, this is probably an appropriate spot to mention the unique fishing style used by Inle Lake's fishermen. The Intha fishermen in their long thin wooden craft wrap one leg around the oar to propel, keeping both hands free to use their conical nets. It's one of Burma's most iconic images.
Though serious fishermen may not appreciate the wash or distraction of a boatload of camera-wielding foreigners rocking up to see them, some showmen hang around at the head of the lake, where the channel from Nyaung Shwe arrives. Think of them as buskers; they’ll do rowing and fishing demonstrations to satisfy your photography needs in exchange for a little cash tossed into a hat handed round at the end, a win-win for everyone.
These guys traditional Intha gear -- baggy beige trousers and bamboo hats -- and some put on truly awesome demonstrations. The grace and balance of the best ones is just phenomenal and it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to describe it as aquatic ballet. Get out early to catch the keen ones before any other boats arrive and the light is good.
Some other points to bear in mind in relation to boat hire. Don’t attempt to bargain the pilot down too much or he’ll be trying to skimp on fuel all day. Try and organise the boat the day before and make sure you know where you’re meeting, as there are several jetties. Agree on a price beforehand too, bearing in mind that further-flung destinations such as In Dein or Thaung To require supplements. Especially if he hasn’t earnt much commission from your handicraft purchases, a small tip of say 5,000 is customary. For comfort and safety reasons, and even though you’ll see boats carrying more than 20 local passengers, a maximum of five foreigners per boat is permitted. Better boats come equipped with blankets, umbrellas and even sometimes waterproofs.
By Mark Ord
Last updated on 13th October, 2016.