Inle Lake, Myanmar
The beauty of Myanmar’s Lake Inle comes not just from the nature but from its relationship with the people who live on it. Towns growing from the islands, houses suspended above the water, and floating commerce that takes place between them all.
The lake is the livelihood of these people – the fish beneath the surface provide their daily meals and also the means of trade with the communities on the shore. But increasingly the lake is bringing the residents of Inle a new source of income – the tourists who arrive by the boatload every day.
And US dollars speak louder than Myanmar kyat. Any enterprising businessperson can see that the daily bread will be worth more than the daily fish and so the financial diet of the lake is changing.
It means that as a tourist to Inle Lake you are seen as a floating ATM rather than a curious visitor – which is the opposite of most places I’ve been to in Myanmar. To explore the towns and sights on the water you need to take a boat and you are, in a large part, captive to the operator’s itinerary. The cost of hiring a boat is low (about $20 for the day for a boat which holds up to 5 people) but it is cheap because the hire companies and the captains will earn even more from commissions at the shops they take you to.
Inle Lake boat tour
There’s a pretty standard itinerary that you’ll be offered and it will include things that sound interesting on paper – a local blacksmith, a weaving factory, cigar-makers, boat builders. But these are all just fronts for the shops attached to them. The blacksmith, for example, has a few men working over the searing fire in one corner and then three large rooms of metallic souvenirs for you to purchase.
Perhaps the most extreme example comes at the house of the Karen women who lengthen their necks with metal rings. Three women at the end of the house will happily pose for photographs before some friendly assistants will walk you through the shop, pointing at the purchasable items apparently made by the women. I’m not sure the Karen people traditionally lived on Inle Lake so I’m not sure what they’re doing here. It feels as authentic as the Mandalay Bay hotel in Las Vegas.
What could be a beautiful part of the country and a beguiling look into a unique way of life becomes a tour through a shopping mall. The Venice of the East, this could be, with romanticised notions of lazy canals and timeworn houses on the water. Instead it becomes… well, like an actual Venice of the East with tourists nodding politely as they pass each other on the water and queues of boats tied up outside restaurants chosen by the captains (inevitably based on commission).
Even the fishermen in the lake will happily pose for photos and then paddle up and ask for money. You have to wonder whether they’re even bothering to put a line in or whether they earn more from redirecting their efforts to the hundreds of boats of foreigners who come by each day.
Inthein temples, Inle Lake, Myanmar
One exception is probably the (optional extra) trip to Inthein, which has been described by some as a mini Bagan. Shops line the arrival area of the boats and the path to the main pagoda but then they fade away as you enter the Buddhist compound. The hundreds of ancient stupas and temples, all packed in together with the trees growing through them, are an incredible sight. And the whole area is practically deserted, the only other eyes coming from the heads of the statues, which thankfully have nothing to sell.
All of that’s not to say that it isn’t interesting to spend the day on Inle Lake and you don’t see things with are authentic and intriguing. Life does go on around you and you can capture an awareness of how it is when all the boats return to the shoreside towns and resorts.
The views of the water with the birds flying overheard are stunning and the communities which have survived for generations in the centre of it all are fascinating.
Just be prepared to feel like you are on a Disneyland ride, gliding along with a camera and no control. I haven’t felt so disconnected as this during my entire time in Myanmar which is a real shame because it’s the relationship I’ve been forming with the country that has been the highlight. Not Inle Lake.