Inle Lake, located in Myanmar's Shan State, is characterised by peacefulness, wilderness, and the unique people who have been shaped by a lifetime on the water. Shan State is a highland area of central Myanmar that covers around one-quarter of the country and shares borders with China to the north, Laos to the east and Thailand to the south.
1. The Lake
Inle Lake is the second largest freshwater lake in Myanmar. It is 23km long and 11km wide. The size is ideal for exploration; taking roughly 45 minutes to travel from end to end by boat. It is located on the Nhaung Shwe 'plain', around 3000ft above sea level and surrounded by limestone ridges that extend to approximately 5000ft. It is a beautiful, peaceful place.
2. Monsoon climate
There are 3 distinct climatic seasons; the cool, dry northeast monsoon 'winter' (late October to mid-February), the hot, dry pre-monsoon season (mid-February to mid-May), and the rainy southwest monsoon (mid-May to late October). I visited during December and the weather was consistent and predictable with pleasant sunny days and cool evenings, nights and early mornings. Considering the breeze, a jacket was a must when out in the lake at these times.
The dry season also sees the arrival of migratory seabirds, including cormorants and gulls alongside stalks, egrets, swallows and kingfishers.
Historically, primary industry has dominated the local economy and continues to be of significance. The unique fishing techniques provide the opportunity for the perfect tourist snapshot.
Traditionally, fishermen slammed down large conical wooden baskets on to the shallow lake bed. Then they would bang and rattle their ore inside the basket to scare any trapped fish towards the nets that line the outside. Finally, the nets are compressed, entangling the fish, before the basket and catch are brought up to the surface. This routine is accompanied by incredible balance and control by the Intha people who have spent their life on the water. For a small fee, tourists can see local people provide demonstrations in traditional clothing. This was one of many examples from around the lake of traditional practices being maintained through tourism.
The modern fisherman has moved on to using lines of netting that allow them to cover a greater area (a few metres) and secure a larger catch. Furthermore, traditional clothing has been replaced with a contemporary universal comfort: sweat pants. These modern techniques still require considerable balance and skill.
4. Floating gardens
Unique floating gardens dominate the central and western areas of the lake. Farmers use weeds and water hyacinth to make strong floating beds. These are held in place by bamboo scaffolding. Crucially, the floating beds rise and fall with water levels in the lake. The nutrient-rich water allows for the growth of green and red tomatoes that are softer and tastier than those grown on the land. The produce is sold across Myanmar.
5. Weaving and Tobacco
Another traditional industry that has been flourishing around the lake for over a century is weaving from the lotus flower. Fibers are removed from the central stem of the plant before being moistened and rolled into thread.
It is then taken through a range of labour-intensive processes that use traditional looms, dyes and highly skilled handiwork. The beautifully patterned material that is produced is shaped into bags, scarves, ties and other forms of clothing. Pure lotus flower material is the most expensive due to its quality and durability. It can also be mixed with silk or cotton to produce lower quality, less expensive alternative.
Secondly, cigar making takes place from locally grown tobacco. Each component of the cigar is made from natural, local materials such as the filter being made from plant stem and the cigar is rolled in a leaf. The tobacco can be mixed with a range of flavours including banana, pineapple, tamarind and honey. Once again, this is a highly skilled process with each of the female workers producing around 400-500 cigars each day.
6. Water Village
The lakeside is scattered with a number of water villages with each house balanced on wooden stilts or sitting on makeshift reclaimed land. The wooden stilts last around 7-8 years before they need to be replaced. Although space is at a premium, homeowners have still been able to squeeze in vegetable patches, build pig pens, and attach satellite dishes to access cable TV. The villages shimmer beautifully as their wooden structures reflect off of the surface water.
Essential service are also constructed on the water. There are elementary, middle, and high schools. Our tourist boat kindly picked up and dropped off a teacher who was running slightly late; I know the feeling. There are post offices, restaurants, shops and pagodas supporting each village. Finally, in a place where space is at a premium, the sport of choice is volleyball. Small patches of land are used for courts and many people from the lake go on to represent Myanmar in the sport.
8. Water Hyacinth
One environmental consequence of globalisation has been the spread of animal and plant species. An example around Inle Lake is the water hyacinth, which is native to South America. It was originally brought into the area due to its potential to be used for symbolic offerings in Buddhist temples. On the lake, the water hyacinth lacks natural enemies, and this has allowed it to spread significantly. Water hyacinths are reducing the amount of oxygen in the water and they block sunlight from reaching the surface. This is changing the balance within the ecosystem and affecting fish stocks. It is also making the art of traditional fishing more difficult. The local government has recently been assessing the impact of the species with a view to creating a management plan.
Tourism is vital for the local economy. It accounts for an estimated 60% of the income generated around the lake. Well over 100,000 tourists visit the area every year. Locals are directly employed in the 90+ hotels and guesthouses, or as tour guides and drivers. Indirectly, many of the industries described in this blog benefit from tourism. Textiles and cigar makers sell finished products to tourists, fishermen can sell their products at a good price to hotels, and cooking classes using local vegetables from floating gardens are popular. The general opinion of locals is that tourism brings more benefits than drawbacks. One local suggested that tourism is '80% positive and only 20% negative'. It will be interesting to see if this can be maintained with the expected growth of the industry in the future.
10. Water scarcity
Regional population growth and rapid increases of both agriculture and tourism are resulting in the lake getting significantly smaller in size over time. From 1935 to 2000, the open water area of Inle Lake decreased by over 30%. The development and growth of floating garden agriculture is considered a key cause. Increased human activity in the area is also leading to sedimentation, eutrophication, and water pollution. Population and tourism are projected to continue to grow significantly in the coming decades and it will require careful management from key stakeholders to ensure that this development is done as sustainably as possible.
This beautiful ecosystem, surrounded by people with a unique culture and traditions, depends on it.