Located in Shan State, Inle Lake is a sprawling 45 square-mile (116 sq. kilometers) shallow body of water, whose shores are dotted with four towns and many villages. Fishing, hydroponic farming, weaving, and silversmithing are among the main industries in the region. Shan State is home to many ethnic minorities in Myanmar — Shan, Chinese, Thai, Mongol, and Indian. In recent times, there has been ethnic fighting with the dominant Burmese, but at this point, things are peaceful.
Our guide Thet Thet picked us up at the airport, and we drove an hour to the town of Nuang Sheve, where we would board our long-boat to settle in at the stunning and atmospheric Inle Princess Resort. It was Friday, and we were fortunate to find the traveling market that circulates among five towns and villages in full operation when we arrived — an exhiliarating introduction to local culture as we wandered through the marketplace, stooped over under the plastic tarps that protected sellers and buyers from the sun. From stalls, stands, and blankets laid on the ground, produce, meats, live fish, filleted rats, spices, sweets, flowers, powders, household goods — all these sights and smells intoxicated our senses. People were especially friendly and welcoming, and it confirmed that this segment of our journey would be especially exciting.
For two days, we traveled about in a long boat, a canoe-like vessel about thirty feet long, which held the four of us seated one behind each other, our guide and the pilot, skimming across the broad lake surrounded by tree-covered mountains. We saw fishermen move about with one leg wrapped around an oar and slap the water with paddles to scare fish into their conical nets; we chugged up and down “streets” of water in fishing villages built on stilts; and we watched farmers harvest squash and tomatoes from trellises perched atop rows of floating plant masses anchored to the lake bed with long bamboo poles.
Pulling up to the village of Phaung Daw Do, we devoured our first authentic local cuisine (my favorite — cauliflower and peas in ginger and garlic and an avocado milkshake). Across from our restaurant was the town’s pagoda housing five historic Buddhas rescued from the lake bottom and now globular in form from centuries of gold leaf applied to them as part of rituals.
Workrooms with craftspeople creating works of art at silversmith and silk weaving shops successfully tempted us to buy. We watched the Pa Daong women at their looms, wearing stacks of gold rings around their necks, wrists, ankles, and knees.
Plying the water back to our hotel as the sun set in the stiff chilly breeze, I was amazed that the pilot could find his way in the dark through narrow channels of tall grasses, clogged with water hyacinths. But we returned to our rooms where a fire was blazing in the fireplace. We were thrilled with the adventures of our two days on Inle Lake, an extraordinary experience. The next morning, it was off to Bagan by plane.