Some time ago, I had seen a Hollywood movie called Waterworld, set in a dystopian future where all the land has been submerged beneath the seas. People lived on makeshift islands and moved around in boat yearning for a sight of dry land. Inle Lake was a little like Myanmar’s own Waterworld; an entire ecosystem thrived on the vast Inle Lake, a 13.5-mile long waterbody in Eastern Myanmar, closer to the border with Thailand. This is the land of the Shan people, one of the main tribes of Myanmar who pride themselves on their distinct culture. Unlike the inhabitants of the fictitious Waterworld, the people of Inle Lake seemed completely at home on the waters.
We took a boat out on the first day, crossing the broad lake and passing narrow canals flanked by dense foliage to reach the temple at Inthein Village on the lake. The long path to the temple here was bordered by souvenir shops selling a variety of items- woven shawls, mother of pearl trays, lacquerware and beads. If you get past those, you reach the entrance to the temple which seems quite ordinary. But as we entered further inside, it seemed almost as though we had entered an alien kingdom.
Narrow stupas, perhaps hundreds of them, rose up around the temple, some topped with gold, some still in old stone and brick. Beyond the newer stupas lay a large group of ruined stupas known here as Nyang Ohak or “under the shade of the Banyan Tree”.
These crumbling structures still bore signs of the rich carving and painting that would have once made them lofty noble structures. Now, there was something touching about their ruined beauty as brick and earth and vegetation all mingled together to create something that was neither temple nor tree.
The next day, we set out with our guide Sai on a long narrow boat where we sat in a single file. On the lake, the fishermen were casting their nets. The fishermen here are like dancers with the delicate balance of tightrope walkers. They stand with one leg on the narrow prow of their boat while the other leg holds the oar and steers the boat. They made this feat look so easy and effortless as though they had almost become a part of the boat.
The main villages on the lake are Ywama and Nampan. Though the entire village is on water, it functions like any other community with local handicrafts, farms and markets. We glided past a small village where all the houses stood on stilts and reached the weaving center which too was right on the lake.
Here, we saw how the local people drew the fibre out of lotus stems to create the threads that would be woven into scarves and shawls. Weaving is a major business in this area and the dexterous women make cloth from silk, cotton and lotus stems which become thameins, longyis, skirts and scarves.
Burmese cheroots are famous for their exotic flavours which are exported to different parts of the world. Most of them are made in this area in small workshops where they are also sold mostly to tourists. We saw the cheroot making process in one of the shops on the lake. The broad dried cheroot leaves brought down from the forests were stacked in baskets.
A row of local ladies sat on the ground, each one expertly rolling a slim cheroot. They used a long cylinder to roll the leaf and then added to it a tobacco mixture that been soaked in a juice of honey, tamarind and herbs. Each cheroot was folded on one end, the other snipped off and then bundled with the rest. The ladies were experts at the process and a single cheroot would not have taken more than a minute to make. Neither I nor my husband smoke, but we bought a couple of boxes of assorted cheroots for our friends.
Our last stop was the local temple, the Phaung Daw Oo Paya, which is the holiest shrine in the Shan state. This shrine is famous for its 5 small statues of the Buddha that now looked like small golden blobs thanks to the layers of gold leaves applied on them over a long period of time.
Paper thin squares of gold are available at the temple and anyone wanting to make an offering can buy one and paste it on to the Buddha as an offering. Besides this, the bustling shrine was a huge gold coloured barge in a wooden shelter. This barge, bearing the Buddha images, is taken out in a procession on the lake during the annual festival.
As we headed back to the hotel, we noticed the floating gardens on the lake. This seemed like a marvel of agriculture, since there is no dry land here. The Intha farmers use the floating bed of weeds and water lilies as a base and put layers of soil from the lake bed on them.
The Inle Lake tomatoes grown on these farms are famous all over Myanmar. The tomatoes, okra and gourds were planted in long narrow beds and we could see farmers on boats rowing between these beds, tending to their crops like any other farmer would.
By the time the sun was setting, we could see the fishermen on the lake do their last dances for the day. One of them must have had a very good catch since we saw him doing brisk business, passing buckets of fresh fish to a trader whose boat had drawn up against his.
We reached our hotel just before dark, having now become very used to travelling around in a boat just as we would in a taxi. We had gotten a brief glimpse of how people lived a very different kind of life on the lake, even as they went about the same business of making a living, bringing up families and praying to their God. Human ingenuity and adaptability was at its best here and we were thankful to have seen a part of it at Inle Lake