Inle Lake is a vast, serene water world, strewn with marshes and floating gardens and fringed by teak stilt-houses and temples. An otherworldly place where the local Intha people live in complete harmony with the water, commuting in spluttering long boats along its winding canals, tending to their productive vegetable gardens in the shallows, and fishing its carp-filled waters.
It is these fisherman who have become the lake’s accidental celebrities, famous for their balance and distinctive one-legged rowing style.
Every October(ish), to coincide with Buddhist Lent, the Inle Lake Boat Festival sees revered Buddha images from the main lake monastery taken by barge in a tour of other lakeside monasteries. On the final days of the tour, races take place with dozens of Intha in traditional Shan dress competing in huge teams. But such feats of strength, balance and tenacity are not the exclusive domain of Inle’s fisherman.
People haul and sell the fresh fruits and vegetables, harvested form their hydroponic lake gardens, at Mingalar Market’s busy five-day market in Nyaung Shwe. We walk past smiling babies plonked amongst towers of watermelons and thanaka-painted women hawking massive baskets of dried fish, sweets and hot local treats they fry up over cauldrons of oil.
At In Dien, a massive complex of beautiful stupa, we stumble upon a temple restoration. The dust catches the sun as locals labour to restore a crumbling 12th century structure by hand, unveiling intricate carvings and giant images of the Buddha.
Two women walk by carrying massive bundles on their heads, and we discover the uncomplaining ladies are about to undertake a two-hour walk home with their heavy loads. They certainly breed them tough around here.
It is something I ponder as we, less inclined to pursue such robust pastimes, enjoy a once in a lifetime lunch of beautifully presented local cuisine, served in a floating dining room constructed from converted wooden rice carrier boats on the luminous lake.
Thoroughly spoiled, we munch our way through luscious sour and salty curries, pickles, prawn fritters, mango pudding and more. The incredible food is prepared by the talented chefs of Nyaung Shwe’s The Shan Restaurant and served to us by their wait staff from long boats.
Sated, we return to our regular long boats to chug down bamboo-dammed canals, interrupting what appears to be bath time for dozens of grinning young monks, their tinkling cries of Mingalabar (hello) following us as we pass by.
The canals lead us into stilted handicraft villages where the fibres of the lotus plant are woven into scarves and shawls, and goldsmiths, silversmiths and blacksmiths produce their wares using traditional techniques and craftsmanship honed over generations.
After a day of exploring the lake, the Novotel Inle Lake Myat Min provides a blissful sanctuary with luxurious stilted villas surrounded by magical water gardens. We finish our day soaking away our cares in the resort’s infinity pool. As the sun sets, bathing the lake in shimmering gold, we count our blessings and I can’t help but wonder how the ladies with the hefty bundles that we’d met earlier are spending their evening.
Where to stay
Novotel Inle Lake Myat Min: accorhotels.com
Myanmar Tourism Federation: myanmar.travel