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Inle Lake: A Magical World Afloat

see also photos by Tewfic El-Sawy

From pristine waters, to mist-shrouded mountains, to lush floating gardens, Inle Lake is a stunning narration of Myanmar's diverse natural beauty. Combine the breathtaking vistas with charming villages, timeless traditions and ever-present Buddhist spirituality, and Inle gives the impression of a magical world afloat. Time passes ever so gently in this enchanting place, which is contentedly sheltered from the rush of contemporary life. To say that Inle is a treasure trove of serenity might sound trite, but to visit here is to glimpse a profound truth behind the cliché.

The lake is inhabited by Intha people, who take their name from the word meaning sons of the lake. Their villages of bamboo and wooden dwellings are situated in the midst of the lake, perched on stilts, in total harmony with the environment. This is the only place in the world where flower and vegetable gardens float, created by joining beds of water hyacinth and flotsam. When secured to the bottom of the shallow lake with bamboo poles, they form rich, fertile plots for cultivating a wide variety of market and subsistence crops, including beans, cabbage, tomatoes, cauliflower, melons and papayas. The abundance of these crops is best seen in the vast open-air markets that operate on a five-day rotation.

The lake lays claim to several thriving cottages industries, none so resplendent as silk and cotton weaving. Visiting the workshops, it is easy to see why Inle's weavers are celebrated for the beauty and delicacy of their textiles. Like every region of Myanmar, Inle has its own unique, readily recognizable designs. The warm earth tones and intricate patterns denote and manifest the richness of their creative imagination. The textiles, which are used primarily for the traditional longyi, or sarong, differentiate the community and serve as a source of immense local pride. Similarly, small enclaves of cheroot factories, silversmiths and gold-leaf making can be found along the raised wooden walkways that serve as streets.

Every village in Myanmar, no matter how small or remote, has a monastery. Inle Lake has several. One of the most noteworthy is Nga Phe Kyaung. Like all Myanamar monasteries it is oblong in shape and the inhabited portion is raised on eight-foot pillars. In keeping with tradition, it is only one story high, as it would be an indignity for a holy monk to have anyone over his head. Young boys who enter the monastery in a state of shin, or probation, hope to empower their natural capacity for spiritual enlightenment and compassion. But Nga Phe Kyaung is perhaps better known as the Jumping Cats Monastery, so called because monks on break from their spiritual endeavors train cats to jump through hoops. It is typical to observe these learned monks discussing matters of Buddhist philosophy while coaxing cats through a ring.

If there is one aspect of Inle Lake that fully captures its spirit, it is the legendary fishermen. They are best known for their standing, one-legged rowing technique. The origin of the technique is uncertain, but it is believed that the practice began in the 12th century to enable the fishermen to navigate their flat-bottom wooden boats above the floating gardens.

Our friend, Sai Woon Sone, tells us that to fully appreciate the lifestyle of the Intha fishermen, we must begin well before dawn. And so we set out in a canoe, bundled up against the early morning chill, and await the sunrise. The lake lies silent, motionless, and the encircling Shan mountains are visible only as a shadowy, serrated rim through the early morning mist. An hour passes in absolute, tranquil, meditative solitude. Then gradually, almost imperceptibly at first, the sunrise begins to transform the reverie, and a magical sight slowly unfolds. The mountains assume a distinct form. Sunlight reflects like jewels off the shimmering water. The mist lifts to reveal dozens of fishermen on the horizon, each standing poised at the end of his boat, clad in the traditional Shan-style trousers, mandarin jackets and woven bamboo hats. The immensely tall, conical-shaped traps rising from the boats are evidence of the unique fishing tradition that the Intha have invented and perfected. Now just past dawn, it is time for the fishermen to leave the cold solitude of the lake and return to their villages with last night's catch. With one leg firmly planted on the stern and the other leg extended to power the oar, they make their way toward the lacy network of canals that will lead them home. They row with such mesmerizing grace that they appear to dance to a timeless tune.

The rowers are best seen in all their agile splendor at the Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda festival. According to legend, King Alaungsithu proferred five sacred Buddha statues to the pagoda in the 12th century. The priceless treasures disappeared from the pagoda, then inexplicably reappeared in the 17th century. The relics were placed on a barge and taken out for procession around the lake. They were lost at sea during a storm and only four were recovered. After conducting an exhaustive, fruitless search for the fifth, the disconsolate worshippers returned to the pagoda. Miraculously, the missing statue was there, covered in mud & seaweed. Henceforth, only four Buddhas can be removed for procession, while one must remain in the pagoda. They must always be astrologically aligned, in the same relative position to each other, to prevent natural disaster from occurring. Today the Buddhas are completely misshapen from gold leaf offerings that worshippers have burnished onto the bodies. Every October, beginning on the fifth waxing moon day, pilgrims flock to the pagoda for its annual three-week festival. During this time the venerated images are carried up and down the lake on a lavishly decorated barge in order for worshippers to pay homage. The festivities include processions of dozens of canoes, each containing no fewer than twenty perfectly aligned, perfectly balanced leg rowers. They propel themselves forward in unison with such steady, graceful, fluid rhythm, that they might be performing an exotic, highly stylized ballet.

Just beyond the shores of the lake, nestled in the surrounding hills, members of the Pao tribe dwell in tidy little villages of bamboo huts. The only way to explore these hills is on foot, so we set off on a six-hour trek. Time has been kind to these villages, where customs built up over so long a period of time have had the good fortune to escape history's traumatic events. We pass through several charming communities, and eventually happen into Moe Kong, an Eden-like hamlet surrounded by fields of garlic, tangerines and cheroot leaves. There is something distinctly captivating about this particular village, so we wander around trying to put our finger on it. Before long, Daw Tan Shwe comes out to greet us wearing the traditional Pao costume. Her bright orange headdress argues against her somber black tunic, both elegantly striking counterpoints to broad planes of her noble face. Fortunately, our unexpected arrival is not considered an intrusion. On the contrary, her attitude is one of warm welcome. She offers us tea & sugar cane candy. She is amazed that we can make this rigorous six-hour trek, which she gestures to us in improvised sign language, for we don't speak Pao and she doesn't speak English. "Don't worry," I gesture back to her, "I run marathons, so I am accustomed to such physical trials." She is impressed. "But take care in this intense sun," she cautions me, "lest your fair skin will turn dark like mine." We admire her bronze complexion and assure her that it is a cherished element of beauty in our culture. She admires my fair skin and we agree that if possible, we would gladly exchange complexions. We visit as long as possible before saying goodbye. We continue on reluctantly from this enchanting village because we don't want to break the spell of the serenity we feel here. We have been in Inle only three days and already it seems as if the world has slowed to the gentle pace of the graceful leg rowers.

The reward for a day of trekking is our arrival at Kakku, a complex of 1500 pagodas dating to King Alaungsithu's reign in the 12th century. The stupas of this architectural and spiritual masterpiece are magnificently preserved, built to last and to defend themselves against the ravages of time. They stand with imposing grandeur as a lavish affirmation of Myanmar's ever-present Buddhist spirituality. The perfect composition and sculpture make it one of the finest sites we have ever seen. Strolling among the stupas, we can almost imagine the supplicants who once worshipped here. Kneeling, heads bowed in devotion, the vanished figures seem to develop and fade, develop and fade,like ghosts of Kakku's ancient disciples amidst the hallowed shrines.

The physical attractions of Inle Lake captivate, but like any place that holds special regard, it is largely about intangibles. Incredible is this lake, a world in itself, where every custom holds its meaning and importance, where every life way is defined by ancient practices, religious beliefs & local traditions. Inle is a world of pagodas, picturesque villages, floating gardens and leg rowers. But still more, it is a society of gentle graciousness, a reflection of the Intha and Pao, their joys and faith, wisdom and values. Indeed, the beauty of the setting and the immensity of the cultures come together and stand as one in this exotic land, this refuge of dreamers, this journey through the very soul of Myanmar.

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Published on 2/24/04

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