Just a short distance from Yangon in the cool green highlands of the Shan State, and yet seemingly worlds apart from the capital, lies Inle Lake, an area of outstanding natural beauty. Famous for its leg rowers, vibrant markets and prolific bird life, the prosperity of the country’s natural resources is most apparent in this region. In this unique environment, whole villages sit on floating islands and colorful hill tribes inhabit surrounding fertile valleys and forested mountaintops, still wearing their individual ethnic dress.
Religious monuments in white or gold leaf dot villages and riverbanks; there are more than 200 monasteries here. The holiest of the temples is Phaung Daw U, home to five 12th Century statues, so revered that the gold leaf rubbed on them as offerings has obscured their shape. During the annual fall festival, the statues are carried on lake on ceremonial barges. It is said that some years ago, when one of the barges capsized, only four of the statues were recovered. Yet when the monks returned with them to the monastery, the fifth was already in its proper place.
Inle Lake supports a thriving community of people with varied ethnic background—Intha, Shan, Taungthu, Taungyo, Pa-O, Danu, Kayah, Danaw, and Burmese. The 125,000 or so residents support themselves by fishing for nga-pein (perch), farming, silk weaving (they buy raw silk from China), metalworking, and noodle-making. We explore by long-tail boat and cruise along a channel to watch farmers as they cultivate rice, vegetables, fruit, and flowers. Much of it is grown on floating islands formed by accumulated marsh, soil, water, and hyacinth roots that combine to form incredibly fertile masses that are staked to the lake bottom with bamboo poles.
In a place like this, you can almost believe such magic is real…