Mitch and I spent the holidays at Inle Lake, a large lake in the Shan state of Burma. The people of Inle Lake are called Intha, and there are many other ethnic groups like the Shan that live together around the lake, using it for its natural resources. We stayed in a small township called Nyaung-Shwe, a bit north of the lake, for four days while exploring the breathtaking surrounding areas.
Here are some highlights of our time at Inle Lake:
1. Spending the day on the Lake
Mitch and I spent our first full day at Inle, Christmas Day, on a private long-tail boat exploring the lake. One boat for the day runs about 25,000 kyat ($25 USD), and your driver will take you around several points of interest on the lake, including silversmith shops, textile shops, pagodas, floating gardens, cigar making shops, etc.
Inle lake is about 40 square miles but not very deep (average depth is about 7 feet, Wikiepedia tells me). The shallow depths were evident as we glided along — we could see many underwater plants reaching their stringy arms towards the water surface and sunlight. Locals take advantage of the shallow depths by building their homes on stilts, by cultivating floating gardens, and by fishing for sustenance from its abundant supply. Interestingly, the floating gardens have recently played an large role in water loss at Inle Lake, which is beginning to become a major issue. That being said, we were lucky to visit the lake before too much tourism and unsustainable agriculture truly take their toll.
Being on the lake and observing vibrant yet modest lifestyle still felt like being transported to a time long, long ago. Take a quick look…
One of the most interesting stops was the silk and lotus weaving area. We had never heard of lotus textiles, and we learned it is made from the fibrous centers of lotus plant stems. The stems are lightly scored and bent along the cut. This breaks the stem but not the thin fibers in the center. The two stem halves are pulled apart, revealing the fiber, which does not break and is collected and then woven on a loom. The resulting textile looks similar to linen but feels much softer and stronger. This process is very rare and performed only in Burma. As such, a simple men’s shirt made from pure lotus fiber costs about $500 USD! Also available for those not in the 1% were scarves made from both silk and some lotus fiber, but they were still quite pricey! The lotus textiles were actually very beautiful, and I don’t want to overlook the work that goes into harvesting the fibers and weaving the items. Learning about this practice was an interesting and unexpected new textile discovery.
2. Visiting a winery, monastery, and more on bicycles
One of our favorite activities as tourists is renting a bicycle and exploring the surrounding areas on two wheels. The roads around Nyaung-Shwe that lead to Inle Lake are not difficult but require some effort. There are small hills and some dirt roads with rocks. The town offered six speed bikes as well as very sturdy looking mountain bikes with large tires. We opted for the more budget friendly city bike with six speeds and were just fine.
Heading south to the western side of the lake, we cycled through beautiful tree-lined streets and many small villages, catching some humorous vignettes of small-town life around the lake. We stopped in Khaung Daing and easily caught a long tail boat to the eastern side of the lake at Maing Thauk where we visited a forest monastery atop a hill and made our way to a winery. Yes, there is a legit winery in Burma! The wine was okay, but the views breathtaking.
3. Exploring Nyaung-Shwe
Spending one day slowly walking around the small town of Nyaung-Shwe, Mitch and I had a wonderfully relaxed time. We explored the local morning market, slowly snacked on samosas and sipped tea, stopped in an art gallery, and made some new little friends at the local nunnery. As usual, the best days are usually those spent off the heavily beaten tourist trail.
4. Seeing a puppet show
Mitch and I didn’t know that Burma has a long history of beautiful puppetry. One evening, we found ourselves in a small, one-room theater that fit about ten to twelve audience members, mesmerized by a traditional Burmese puppet show. The show was set to traditional Burmese music and featured scenes in a forest with a monkey, a magician, a horse, an ogre, and scenes in a court with a jester, and other vibrant characters. The puppets used were made by the puppeteer’s grandfather and passed down through the family. He explained to us that the art of puppetry was dying in Burma, as children now were not so interested in learning it; however, his little nephew pictured below (who served all audience members tea) would be the next in line in their family to pick up the trade.
Like many beautiful areas in Burma, Inle Lake is quickly becoming a popular tourist destination; however, the infrastructure is just not set up to properly preserve its natural beauty. The lake is so shallow that its volume can’t handle the amount of human impact (tourist and local) the way a large, deep lake would. We were very lucky to see the lake in all of its beauty and hope it can be maintained for friends and family to share our wonderful experience there.