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Inle Lake, Myanmar’s most beautiful natural feature, is situated at the centre of the Shan Plateau. It is home to the famed Inthar people, the ‘Sons of the Lake’. The men are renown for their distinct way of fishing whereby they steer their boat while standing upright with one foot hooked around the paddle, leaving both arms free to cast their thimble-shaped nets into the water. The poised ballet-esque pose that the Inthar strike mid-catch, sporting their conical hat and balancing on the tip of the flat-ended canoe, makes for startling silhouettes against the silver surface of the lake at dusk.
Visitors to Myanmar can at Inle Lake board a boat from Nyaung Shwe and spend the day visiting the floating villages on the lake and those on its banks. Cheroot workshops, silversmiths, and weaving houses are all open to visit, watching the artisans at work as well as sampling and buying the products on offer. One can also visit the floating gardens of the Inthu (‘Daughters of the Lake’), where a staggering 70% of Myanmar’s tomatoes are grown.
In addition to the Inthar, Inle Lake (also referred to as Lake Inle) is home to people of the Shan, Taungyo, Pa'O, Danu, Kayah, Danaw and Bamar ethnicities. The optimum way to gather a full impression of the different peoples of the lake is to visit the Five Day Rotating Market, one of the most worthwhile things to do in Inle Lake. This market takes place at different villages and towns around the lake every morning except on the Full Moon and Black Moon days. Here villagers from Inle Lake and the surrounding Shan Hills gather to sell their ware and browse those of their neighbours. The colours and vibrancy of these markets make for one of the finest Inle Lake views.
The village of Maing Thank lies on the north-eastern bank of Inle Lake, extending from the foothills of the Shan mountains out into the water where the buildings stand on stilts. The water turns a glossy black at dusk, reflecting the little kites made out of plastic bags that the children of the village fly. One can take a canoe ride down the flowing avenues between the houses and through the reeds, deftly passing other villagers in their boats. As throughout Myanmar you will see prepubescent boys riding motorbikes with their hands barely reaching the handlebars, so in these villages around Inle Lake you will cross MUFC kit-clad youngsters knee high to a grasshopper, manning both motorized and manual boats. When the latter, it is remarkable to watch them artfully mimicking the traditional leg-steering technique that their fathers and older brothers demonstrate when fishing on the lake.
Maing Thank was once considered as a potential hill station by the British, however a bout of severe malaria struck and, sufficiently disenchanted with the quaint village, they promptly departed in favour of Taunggyi high up in the mountains, now capital of Shan State. The British left behind a long wooden bridge that today still stands stretching from the houses on stilts to the banks of the lake. The cemetery for the British dead remains but the superstitious locals built and then ardently adorned a paya around it to protect against pale-faced spectres. Today there is very little there that appears either Christian or charnel. Many visitors to Inle Lake make the undulating journey from Maing Thank back to Nyaung Shwe between the banks of the lake and the foot of the Shan Hills, dropping in on the Red Mountain Vineyard, only the second in the country. Though there may be better wine to be found elsewhere in Myanmar, there are few more serene views over the region, and no better vantage point from which to watch the sunset over Inle Lake.
The Phaung Daw Oo Festival is one of the more wondrous demonstrations of piety to be observed at Lake Inle, or indeed Myanmar in general, and should not be missed when in the region at the time.