Hauntingly picturesque, Inle Lake lies at an altitude of nearly 3,000 feet, fringed by tall grasses and reed beds, ringed by well-forested hills which, according to the season, may often be wreathed in mist. The main body of the lake is some 13 miles in length, with calm and crystal clear waters. Its shores and floating islands are home to villages built on stilts, whose inhabitants are the hard-working and resourceful Intha people. These are the famous leg rowers, who skillfully navigate the lake by rowing in a standing position on the prow of their boat, with one leg wrapped around an oar that is pivoted on their hip, while poised to plunge a fish trap into the shallow waters beneath their boat. In addition to their fishing skills the Intha are traditional market gardeners, and it is fascinating to observe them growing flowers and vegetables on floating gardens where the soil is bedded on a tangle of water hyacinth and silt, anchored to the lake bed.
Inle Lake is an official bird sanctuary, and rich in wildlife. Its main body is reached along a narrow waterway from the northernmost lakeside town of Nyaungshwe. The boat ride passes waterside temples and villages, and in the less populated stretches herons stand in solitary contemplation at the water’s edge, while cormorants dive for their prey. In the principal part of the lake there are many islands to visit. Away from these developed areas, a leisurely canoe paddle through channels branching from the lake brings a closer view of the local life, with fascinating encounters and friendly villagers. Heading south from the main body of the lake the traveller passes through another long and narrow waterway to reach the 17th century ruins of Sankar, where Shan and Pa O villagers now live side by side, and the ancient Tharkong pagoda, which legend tells was founded by an early Burmese king.
In September and October the lake hosts the famous Phaung Daw U festival. Leg rowing competitions are held throughout the festival. Four Buddha statues, mounted on a colourful royal barge, are taken from the Phaung Daw U Monastery at the centre of the lake and ceremoniously transported around its shores, staying each night at a different village. A fifth Buddha statue now never leaves the Phaung Daw U Monastery; centuries ago, so legend tells, it fell beneath the waters of the lake, when in procession one year, and was thought to be lost, but then miraculously made its own way back to its monastery.
Besides the Buddhist teachings, nats (spirits) have a special place in Myanmar culture. A large nat shrine located in a grave of banyan trees by the lake shore is accessible only by canoe. The trees that surround the shrine have been allowed to grow into a swampy jungle as no one dares to cut them down for fear of attracting the spirit’s wrath. The region also offers ample trekking opportunities and extended walks to keep the active traveller busy. Trekking out into the Shan hills east of Nyaungshwe, at the lake’s northern end will lead to Pa-O villages and beautiful views of the lake along the way. Extended walks through rice paddies pass many Shan stupa ruins that lie dotted around.