Nearly a week since returning from Burma, I’m still sifting through the trip — the photos and memories of the people we met, the places we saw. We’ll get to the overall trip another time — today I want to tell you about my favorite place in Burma… one I hope I can convince you to never visit.
Inle Lake is a freshwater lake nestled in the mountains of Shan State east of Mandalay. Despite its size, at first glance, it’s easy to miss. So much of it is covered — by homes, people, farmland — the only way to see much of it is by being on it. And so we set out on our long boats…
There are nearly 100,000 people living in approximately 50 villages not just surrounding the lake, but on it as well. The result is a kind of Burmese Venice. Waterways make streets, with intersections and even speed bumps in the form of bamboo rods laid across the water (the rods force boats to lift their propellers out of the water — clever!).
Cruising the lake is pure pleasure and I could easily have devoted another day or two to seeking out its remote pockets. Like so much else about this country, Inle Lake offered a glimpse into a way of life largely unaltered over generations. Thatch huts stood on stilts, villagers transported goods via canoes, and farmers tended to crops growing on floating islands of soil. Women weaved lotus and silk, while men pounded silver and other metals.
And then there was the lake’s most iconic imagine — that of the loan fisherman balancing himself on the back of a canoe, a single oar held by a foot, rowing with a graceful, twisting motion.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t take long to realize life on Inle is rapidly changing as the country modernizes and the lake becomes one of Burma’s premier tourist attractions. Tourism, while still relatively light, is nevertheless growing, with new hotels cropping up along the shoreline and even on the lake itself. As you leave a pagoda, a canoe pulls up alongside you and a villager tries to sell you a necklace or a postcard. Can you blame them? Why spend a grueling day farming and fishing when you can earn more selling trinkets?
The lake is also suffering from a myriad of environmental woes, only some of which can be attributed to tourism. The challenges are well described in this article that points the finger at just about everyone: logging, pesticide, coal mining, tourism, you name it. The result is a shrinking lake and changes to life as its floating inhabitants know it.
Go see Inle Lake before it disappears. Or maybe don’t.