Loud Beauty: A Boat Ride on Inle Lake

By Dave Fox
Nyaung Shwe, Burma (Myanmar)

SONY DSCOur boat’s motor pounded like a jackhammer as we sputtered downriver toward Inle Lake. After a late night at a raucous festival, the engine’s constant popping should have hurt.

But there was something hypnotic about the water – placid and smooth with sparkly ripples reflecting early morning sun. The visual beauty overrode the noise, and lulled us into a calm one would not expect on an eardrum shattering journey that followed a night of cheap Burmese rum.

For nearly an hour, we chugged past stilted houses and tangles of water lilies through the narrow channel that connects Inle with our home base of Nyaung Shwe, until suddenly, as if a giant curtain had been flung open, the lake sprawled before us, wide and shimmering with silhouettes of distant fishermen.

SONY DSCThirteen miles (21 kilometers) long from north to south, Inle Lake is Burma’s second largest lake. It’s home to several different ethnic groups, many of whom live in clusters of bamboo houses on stilts over the water.

Fishermen in the area are known for their awkward rowing style. The stand upright in tippy boats, balancing on one foot, holding the top of a long oar with the opposite hand, and using their other leg to push the oar through the water. Once they’ve found a satisfactory fishing spot, they cast their nets, then beat at the water with their oars to herd fish into their traps.


We passed small villages – entire communities of bamboo buildings on stilts maybe five meters above the water. Not just houses, but schools, restaurants, a post office, even a library.

We stopped at factories that produced local handicrafts – clothing woven from lotus root fibers, hand-rolled cigars sweetened with banana and anise, and a silversmith who heated his metal over a charcoal fire. (Separate articles on the local handicrafts coming soon!)


After lunch (on stilts), our driver took us to a more controversial attraction, a place I hadn’t realized we’d be stopping at.

The women of Burma’s Padaung (a.k.a. Kayan) tribe are famous for their heavy brass neck rings. According to the Lonely Planet Myanmar guide, Padaung girls are young when fitted with their first ring. As they get older, many more coils are added until their collar bones are forced down toward their rib cages, giving the illusion of unnaturally elongated necks.

The practice, Lonely Planet reports, was started long ago to make Padaung women appear less attractive to raiding parties from other tribes. Today, they have become a tourist freak show.

Lonely Planet writes:

“Many Padaung women are ferried across the border to Thailand to provide a photo opportunity for visiting tour groups.  The UN has compared the treatment of Padaung women to the treatment of animals in a zoo.”

We were encouraged to take their photos and buy textiles from their shop. We did neither.

SONY DSCWe moved on to more inspiring spots. The Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda stakes a commanding presence at the water’s edge. Prayer chants bellowed through the air from loudspeakers, while inside, a monk sat on the floor in front of a microphone. The pagoda is famous for its five ancient images of Buddha, which male devotees honor by affixing small squares of gold leaf. (Women are prohibited from doing this.)

While Phaung Daw Oo is considered the holiest religious site in Shan Province, it’s been overshadowed on the tourist circuit by Nga Hpe Kyaung, a monastery famous for its jumping cats. Monks have trained the felines to leap through hoops.

And hey… jumping cats, man! Who wouldn’t want to see that? According to Lonely Planet, the monks would put on shows for tourists as long as it wasn’t meal or prayer time.

SONY DSCUnfortunately, for us (but perhaps good for the kitties), the Kate Talks Travel website reports that as tourism has been on the rise in Burma, more and more people were coming to see the shows and it was wearing the poor cats out – so the monks have stopped the performances.


As we chugged back toward Nyaung Shwe, the late afternoon sun was scorching. We arrived with nice, crispy sunburns, and enough time for a beer and a nap before dinner and round two of the festival.


Inle Lake Boat Rides: A private motorboat for the day – with a driver and space for up to six passengers – will run you around 20-40 US dollars, depending on your bargaining skills. If you’re staying in Nyaung Shwe, hang out around the bridge by the river and the boat drivers will find you. Consider arranging your trip the day before and scheduling an early departure. We left at 7 a.m. to be on the lake before the mid-day heat kicked in.

Coming Soon on Globejotting: Inle Lake crafts and a bumpy bike ride.

Published on Friday, December 21, 2012

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