After a great breakfast at the Viewpoint Lodge and Fine Cuisine, we met Ma Su, owner of Century Travel who would act as our guide for our tours on the lake and one other traveler who was staying at Ma Su’s hotel, Queen Inn bungalows. It was a 1-minute walk from the Viewpoint lobby to the jetty where we boarded our long boat for the ride south down the canal to Inle Lake (proper).
On the 40-minute ride to the lake we passed farm land, narrow side canals, houses on stilts, a bird conservation reserve, boats filled with produce on the way to market and others filled with locals going from one place to another and still others carrying likeminded tourists. Along the shore we passed by one after another villager washing clothes, produce and themselves from small decks along the canal.
Once we reached the Lake, we got our first exposure to the famous one-legged fishermen of Inle Lake. You can find a more detailed description of the technique elsewhere but basically, the fishermen stand on one leg at the back of their narrow boat and wrap the other leg around an oar that they expertly maneuver to navigate the around the lake. This leaves both hands free to both throw and retrieve a net or drop a cone shaped trap to catch fish.
The first of the fishermen that we saw were using cone shaped nets that they would hold with one hand and one foot and drop into the water hoping to trap fish as the cone fell.
We weren’t sure if this was an accurate observation but the only place we ever saw the fishermen using cones was very close to where the canal from Nyaungshwe enters into the lake; a place where every tourist entering the lake from the north would be sure to see them. Everywhere else, the fisherman we saw were perched on one-leg on the back of their boat throwing and retrieving cast nets. The vision of the cone fisherman with their distinctive dress and the cone held high ready to drop is so iconic to the lake that it made us wonder if perhaps the local tourism council had made arrangements for their placement to be sure as many tourists as possible got the experience of this view. Of course the image of a fisherman standing on one leg with the other wrapped around an oar and throwing a net was pretty impressive in its own right.
We continued south on the lake passing other fishermen, working boats carrying passengers and of course the occasional tourist. As we rounded a corner we caught the first glimpse of what would be our first stop of the day, Phaungdaw Oo Paya Pagoda. We were greeted at the jetty by some friendly kids and made our way to the main hall of the temple. Among other displays, the center piece of this site are the five small gold leaf covered Buddha images. Over the years, there has been so much gold leaf applied to the images that they really look more like 5 golden snow balls than religious icons but we trust there really are Buddha statues inside of each foil ball.
This particular day was a Tuesday so we had anticipated a visit to the nearby market but the day fell on some special event so the market was closed on the day of our visit. No problem, the market moves from village to village on weekdays so we would have plenty of chances to visit markets later in our trip. While we weren’t able to visit the local market we did get some nice views of the Inle Lake Pagoda, which is also nearby.
From Phaungdaw Oo Paya Pagoda, we made one of most anticipated stops of the visit to Inle Lake, the Khit Sunn Yin weaving center where weavers create textiles with 3 different threads: lotus stem fiber, cotton and silk.
We have visited cotton and silk weavers all over the world but to our knowledge, Inle Lake is the only place where textiles made from lotus stem fibers are woven. Interestingly, lotus fiber weaving is not an ancient tradition but something that first came roughly 100 years ago.
The story goes that a young women who was especially devoted to her monk wanted to give him a unique gift to demonstrate her dedication. In pulling lotus flowers from the lake for display in local temples and pagodas, she noticed that when she broke off the stem from the flower, long thin fibers often pulled free. Since the lotus flower carries a special symbolism in Buddhism, she felt a garment made from the plant would carry a special blessing.
After some experimentation, she figured out a way to roll individual thin fibers into a longer stronger thread that could then be used for making textiles. The legend is that she needed over 100,000 stems to collect enough fiber to made that first robe for her monk.
As shown in the above photos, lotus stem thread (on the left) is heavier and coarser than cotton or silk (on the right) and is naturally an off-white color but it can be dyed to any color. While the materials (lotus stems) are free for the picking all over the lake, the labor intensive nature of the preparation of the thread and the uniqueness of the product results in a relatively high price for the finished woven product.
Upon arrival at the weaving center we climbed to an upper level and entered the workshop. As shown on the video below we experienced a hands-on demonstration of how the lotus fibers are pulled from stems and rolled into a thread.
We then walked around the different floors of the center and watched beautiful ladies creating beautiful textiles. One floor is primarily devoted to cotton weaving and another to silk weaving. We saw warps of silk being prepared for Ikat (aka Mukmee) designs.
From the blacksmith shop we returned to the area of the Phaungdaw Oo Paya Pagoda for lunch at the Ngwe Zin Yaw Restaurant. See our Inle Lake Restaurants page for a review of our visit there.
During our ride down a series of canals on the way to the Shwe Inn Thein Payae Temple complex in the village of Indein, we passed through a series of straw damns that not only was of benefit to net fishermen but also helped control the level of the canal. Once we arrived in the town, we walked through the village and ultimately to an uphill walk through a very long corridor lined on both sides with merchants selling local crafts before reaching the temple complex.
Shwe Inn Thein Payae is perhaps the most concentrated collection of pagodas and stupas in all of Myanmar, if not the world. Once the field of monuments is reached, it almost feels like you are in a different world. As shown in the photos and video below, one of the most amazing aspects of this place is that even though it is such an astounding display, there was literally no-one else there when we visited. It brought back comparative memories of our visits to Angkor Wat in Cambodia where we were surrounded by tens of thousands of visitors in the central temple area.
Our final stop of a long day on the lake was at Nga Hpe Chaung also known as the Jumping Cat Monastery, a very old wooden temple. The monks at there have taught cats to jump through small hoops and put on performances throughout the day for visiting tourists. We arrived rather late in the afternoon and by that time, all the cats were well fed and a bit lazy from treats for performing their jumps all day so we didn’t get to witness the show but that really wasn’t the reason we visited anyway.
The entrance to the main building at the monastery features some beautiful gilded wooden latticework and opens onto a large room full of teak support columns and 6 very impressive golden Buddha images.
From the monastery it was a short boat ride back to Nyaungshwe ending a very long day on the lake.