Watching basket fishermen gracefully cast out their fishing baskets while balancing on one leg is why people come to Inle Lake. We found these fishermen and even more remarkable sites on this fascinating lake in Myanmar.
After spending 3 days trekking from Kalaw to Inle Lake we arrived at one of the narrow channels that lead to the open lake. A boatman drove us across this huge watershed to reach the boat docks in the tourist town of Nyuang Shwe.
Inle Lake is a massive watershed, but it is very shallow. At times the sea weed is only inches from the surface, even in the middle of the lake. The shallow lake has resulted in a unique fishing technique. Fishermen stand on the end of their long-boats to have a better vantage point to see air bubbles that indicate the location of fish. To keep this upright posture, they have an interesting way of paddling too. While balancing on one leg, they skillfully paddle with the other leg.
Once a fisherman thinks he’s above a school of fish, he gracefully uses his leg to swing a fishing basket into the water while balancing at end of his wooden dugout. The fishermen are so smooth, it’s as if they are dancing on the end of their boats.
Hoping that he’s trapped fish in the basket, the fisherman uses a long pole to excite the fish so they try to swim away. Instead of getting away though, the fish get caught in the basket.
The basket fishermen are a dying breed as most of them now use nets. Some reports say that it isn’t worth visiting anymore because so many use nets instead of baskets. While it is true that the younger fishermen use nets, there were still plenty of basket fishermen. As well, the net fishermen have the same technique except they cast a net with their hands. We found both fascinating to watch.
Much of the lake industry has moved from fishing to gardening. Locals have developed a unique solution to planting vegetables on this shallow lake by building floating gardens. Farmers build garden beds by piling layers of water hyacinth, seaweed and fine mud from the lake bottom. The result is hundreds of acres of vegetable garden beds floating above the bottom of the lake. The beds are 1 m thick, with 1/3 of it above the surface of the water. Beds are anchored to the lake bottom with bamboo poles. Farmers grow tomatoes, squash, cucumbers and beans in these specialized gardens.
In order to reach their gardens, farmers navigate beween the floating beds on wooden boats.
The vegetation used to build these garden beds is harvested from the lake. Standing on their long-boats they use long rakes to pull up plants from the bottom of the lake.
It’s amazing to see the way these tribes, mostly Inda, have adapted to living on and near the lake and its watershed. There are at least 20 small villages on and around the lake. Most of the houses and shops are on stilts. A few are completely surrounded by water, even during dry season, while others have been built partially on reclaimed land. It was fascinating to take a tour up and down the ‘streets’ of water.
There are many Buddhist temples and pagodas around the lake. Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda is the largest. It is on an island in the lake and therefore is only accessible by boat. The golden pagoda seems very elaborate in comparison to the modest homes. Inside the five Buddha statues have been covered by so much gold leaf that they are no longer recongizable as Buddha. Also docked at the pagoda is the Royal Karaweik Barge. This ornately decorated barge is used to carry the Buddhist statues accross the lake during Buddhist festivals.
Here’s our YouTube video from Inle Lake
Where to stay and eat
The town of Nyuang Shwe is a cute village along the canals of Inle Lake. Here and in Kalaw, they seem to be the best prepared for tourists in Myanmar. They have signs in English, a good selection of restaurants and hotels and they have much needed laundry services. Somehow these two towns have been able to understand tourism before the rest of the country.
We don’t often recommend restaurants but Innlay Hut and Indian Food really stood out. Not only was it the best food we had during our entire time in Myanmar, the owner is an entertaining character.
How to get to Nyuang Shwe
Heho Airport is the closest airport to Nyuang Shwe. It is 45 km away and services both Nyuang Shwe and Kalaw. Overnight buses go to/from Yangon (9 hrs), Mandalay, (6 hrs), Bagan (6 1/2 hrs). Mini buses travel these routes during the day. Or do as we did and hike from Kalaw (3 days)
There are many boatmen at the docks offering boat tours. You can hire them directly or through a tour agency or your hotel in town. We hired the boatman that brought us to Nyuang Shwe after our hike.
Note – some of the basket fishermen are posing for pictures in exchange for a tip. Based on reports we thought they all would be fake, but in reality we saw a lot of basket fishermen actively fishing in the age-old technique.
Coming up next – The Roads Around Mandalay, Myanmar
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