“Do not take photos of women showering” the sign clearly stated in large letters (with illustrations so anyone could understand). “Who would take a photo of…?” I didn’t even need to finish my question. Yes, right next to the huge sign asking them not too (and really, should you need a sign to inform you that this is not really appropriate?) several tourists were photographing women and children bathing and washing their hair in Inle Lake. Whilst the women did wear baggy clothes or sarongs to wash in, this was an ugly reminder of the downside to tourism; the sometimes unwanted intrusion on people’s ways of life.
Inle Lake is a beautiful place. It is around 13 miles long with many canals leading off of it and temples and markets lining the shore. Whole villages on stilts rise out of the water. Fishermen use traditional methods and the water is still used for bathing and washing. Justin and I had hired a small boat and driver for the day (easily arranged through our hotel and at a very good price) to take us around the huge body of water. Wrapped in a blanket to guard against the early morning chill, we zipped over the calm water and were at once taken a back by it’s beauty and size. Although we saw a few other tourists leaving on similar trips, once out in the main part of the lake, you would think it was just you and a few fishermen. The Intha people of Inle Lake use the unusual technique of rowing with their legs. One leg is wrapped around their paddle and used to row and steer the boat!
Aside from the leg rowing, another fascinating part of life on Inle lake is the maze of villages and floating gardens. Houses build on stilts make up streets on the water. Our guide certainly knew his way around the network of homes and shops. As I watched a girl in a canoe harvest some vegetables, I could hardly believe all this was floating in the middle of a lake.
While it was still early, we headed out to Inthein, a village and market on the shores of the lake. Clearly a popular stop, the main part of the market was mostly stalls full of souvenirs. But a short walk to the outskirts brought us to a place where local tribes women still shopped.
Another short walk and we had found a mini Bagan; a hill of ancient pagodas. With trees literally growing out of the roofs and several missing statue heads, these stupas had clearly been left to nature for a long time! It was a fascinating spot and there were only a few other people around. After walking back to the lake and then up a hill, we came to Shwe Inn Thein Paya, a group of more than 1000 stupas in various states of reconstruction. We couldn’t believe this was an ‘extra’ stop on the tour that we had to request. Other than the amazing villages and gardens on the lake itself, this was by far the best stop of the day. Other places we visited included textile workshops, Buddhist Monasteries and a boat workshop. We also ate lunch at a restaurant on the water.
Inle Lake truly is a stunning and unforgettable place. I would really recommend a day out on the water exploring the beautiful lake and it’s fascinating relationship with the local community. But these kind of trips do make me consider the impact of tourism, for good or bad, on local populations. I think it’s up to individual communities to decide how they embrace tourists and tourism. In some areas it brings money, opportunities and an exit from poverty (and it’s wanted), and that’s a good thing. It’s not my place to say people need to continue washing in lakes and using traditional fishing methods just because it’s interesting and ‘different’ for western visitors. On the other hand, the Intha People have been self sufficient for centuries, so maybe they have no need or desire to adapt their way of life. I think it’s a shame when things change too fast, local traditions and skills are lost and change is forced rather than natural. The Intha people have been using Inle Lake as a source of water and food for generations. It’s a shame that women are having to find new places to wash their clothes and hair, not because they have chosen to find new facilities, but because they are bombarded with tourists taking photos and boats churning up the water. Some women even got annoyed with our own boat driver (the boats tourists use are similar to Thai Long Boats) because he had the engine running on a part of the canal where they were washing clothes. I hope the people of Inle Lake continue to maintain their relationship with the water and they find a natural way to work with the growing groups of tourists that want to visit their beautiful home.
My last memory of Inle is returning to the shore in the late afternoon light. I caught glimpses of women outside their homes washing dishes and children brushing their teeth. But I didn’t even think of taking a photo with my camera as I knew these images would forever be in my mind. I’ll never forget Inle Lake or it’s people.
We stayed in Nyaung Shwe. It certainly had the most ‘backpacker’ feel out of the 3 towns we visited in Myanmar (Burma). There are plenty of good places to eat, some nice temples and lots of fellow travellers. Our lovely hotel was called The Amazing Nyuang Shwe. We had great views of the town from our second floor room and and my favourite bath tap ever (an elephant!). The staff were really friendly too! I am glad we stayed in Nyaung Shwe, rather than Inle Lake itself. It meant we could have a full day on the lake and then easily explore other parts of the area.