Ode to Inle

Akham Bonbirdhwaja Singh *

Leg-rowers of Inle Lake : Pix Courtesy - Wikipedia / Wagaung
Leg-rowers of Inle Lake : Pix Courtesy - Wikipedia / Wagaung

The Lake

The presence of Inle Lake, which in one look resembles our own Loktak made the similarity between Shan and Manipur starker. This is a large lake covering over 114 sqkm, less than half of our Loktak, but due to presence of a large expanse of open water and water being very clear, the lake appears to be much larger than its extent. Its altitude is 880m above msl against 768.8 m of Loktak.

The surrounding hills are not mountainous but low range hills quite similar with that of Manipur. The catchment hills are mostly barren or low grade degraded forests, victims of slash and burn type of cultivation; the Shans are believed to practise Shifting cultivation. The resemblance therefore is astounding. Further similarity is that there are quite a good number of cormorants in both the lakes.

However, migratory ducks are not seen here, but black headed gull are plenty and they stay very close to the route of tail boats of visiting tourists. There are two main routes, one from NyaungShwe to the lake peoples colony which goes right in the middle of the lake and give a good panoramic view of the lake. The water expanse was not interrupted by islands or phumdi in the centre and hence, one get a feeling that the Inle is bigger than the Loktak.

The second route is the water channel which joins other water bodies altogether making the Inle Lake. This channel is a boating route which takes the visitors to many other tourists place like, Blacksmiths, Silver smiths, local Cheroot making, Kayan Long Neck People (Padaung), The villages inside the lake are famous for its weaving people, this is the only place in world where clothes of lotus fibres are made and is a favourite of tourists memento.

Inle is also known as Lake with Pagodas. There are many pagodas in and around the lake. A few of them are quite old and has their own distinctions for attracting tourists. The NgaPheKyaung or Cat Monastery, Hpaung Daw U Monastery (where gold leaves are pasted on Budha statues)are to name a few. A portion of the lake on the south western side has been dedicated as a nature reserve.

The other tourist attraction is the Lake People. The people of Inle are called Intha. Local fishermen are known for practicing a distinctive rowing style which involves standing at the stern on one leg and wrapping the other leg around the oar. This unique style evolved out of necessity as the lake is covered by reeds and floating plants, making it difficult to see above them while rowing by sitting.

Standing provides the rower with a view beyond the reeds. The farmers grow tomatoes and beans on their floating gardens. The floating gardens are like our phumdi, but their floating gardens are not dynamic living biomass like phumdi, it is a dead floating biomass, the biomass is constantly replenished by collecting freshwater algae, chara (submerged/underwater weed) and water hyacinth.

The underwater weeds are collected in large quantity every day for such floating vegetable gardens which is a source of income. That way, the water of the lake is also kept clean. The lake people are not expanding their habitation towards the open water and confine to the existing habitation.

The lake people do not build house on floating biomass. The houses are built on bamboo and wooden props and stilts. They use small canoe type boats. For tourists, the boats are a bit larger, they are called tail boats as they are fitted with motors. There are hundreds of such boats and they are seen continuously transporting the tourists.

Tourism is an industry here though all the Shan places are not open to outside world, only NyaungShwe is open, the Inle Lake belong to NyaungShweDistrict. Inle now is so popular in the tour itinerary of Myanmar, visitors of Yangon, Mandalay, Naypyi Taw and Ngapali, all touch down to Inle.

According to a past record, there have been two lakh visitors in a year, which by now much have gone up to at least four lakhs with the country opening up to the outside world. Every tourists used to pay 7000 Kyats for boats, about 60000 kyats for hotel, 15000 kyats for food and with some small items like hats for both ride, a tourist spend about one lakh kyats excluding the souvenirs.

Many people used to buy souvenirs which averaged to about 50000 kyats. The transportation cost from either Mandalay or Naypyi Taw could be another 20000 kyats. The income from fishing from the lake are not accounted here, Inle has many indigenous fishes which are famous for the taste. The income generated by the lake from tourism is quite substantial.

But what I feel is that such income is not benefitting the lake colonies much though, tourists go to their villages for seeing their unique lifestyle and culture, so the Lake Authority may charge a cess of about 2000 kyats per tourists which can go to the lake people. Further, a Home Stays inside the lake along with the lake people's colony would be of great source of income to them and tourists would like such an experience.

Long necked people of Inle, Myanmar

Though the lake is included in world biosphere network, there are conservation worries of the lake. The potable water for the lake people is also another problem. The lake is bound to be a tourists' destination for years to come, alternative arrangement has to be made for water and sanitation of the lake people.

On the shore also, the people living around the lake (there are four major townships) the sanitation has to be upgraded and no untreated sewage should come to the lake, that way the lake can remain attractive to the tourists. The people of Myanmar and Inle cannot afford to lose the income from the Lake which is in terms of millions of Kyats every year and is one of the icon of tourism.

A huge plus point for Inle lake management is the absence of plastic waste from the lake. With so much tourists and inhabitants, no plastic waste or bottle was seen inside the lake, which is a great success for the Inle Development Authority. In the past, the economy of the country was based on marketing the natural resources such as mining products of precious stones and petroleum.

Another source of income for the country was the timber; the British were engaged in timber business even before the Anglo Burmese wars. But tourism could be an alternative, Myanmar has many things to offer to those who love going around. The genesis of the country, the Buddhist setting, the ethnicity, the myth surrounding the history of the country, different food habit, beautiful landscapes and oriental hospitality of the people are good potions for tourism industry.

They are also lovely people very respectful of elders and strangers. But, tourism industry in Myanmar is in its infancy lagging far behind the neighbouring country of Thailand. Of late, this industry is also picking up. We learnt during our Myanmar sojourn that all the available accommodation in Yangon and Ngapali were sold out well in advance for the famous Burmese water festival and tourists were seeking accommodation outside major tourist destinations.

Postscript: Though Manipur is in the neighbourhood of Myanmar, the tourists from either side have not been much. Manipur had a long chequered relationship with Myanmar racially closely akin to each other. It is quite natural to have a blow hot and blow cold relationship in history because history everywhere in the world is like that only and ours is no different.

What is most important now is that a visit to Myanmar is worth taking and financially quite affordable. There are plenty of wondrous things in Myanmar; more than one can lay eyes upon. The roads are also very clean and wide, no roadside garbage dumps was seen, there are a few things that we can learn from Myanmar.

Furthermore, those Manipuri people who settled there at different points of time in the history are waiting for your visit. They are leading a tough and precarious life. A visit from us would give them a smile and brighten their lives and give hope to sustain.

For the smile on their innocent faces with highly broken Manipuri, one wouldn't regret having spent a few lakhs of kyats (pronounced chiat, one rupee was of 19.6 kyats during my visit). Having the Manipuri diaspora there is to our advantage and for me is more of a reason to visit it again.


* Akham Bonbirdhwaja Singh wrote this article for The Sangai Express
This article was posted on 07 May, 2018 .

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