Myanmar: The leg rowers of Inle Lake

A motorboat tour of this little-known lake reveals a world of stilted dwellings, bloated Buddhas and ingenious fishermen

By Stuart Forster
Published 2 Feb 2016, 08:00 GMT, Updated 7 Jul 2021, 11:12 BST
Leg Rower

Leg Rower.

Photograph by Stuart Forster

Multitasking has never been my thing, so I watch with awe and a hint of envy at the straw-hatted fisherman patiently setting his net on Inle Lake.

Barefooted, he's balancing on one leg on the prow of a narrow wooden boat that would probably upend if I attempted to stand there. Not that I'd be able to maintain such a precarious yoga pose for long without getting wet.

The man's eyes are fixed upon his light net. It wafts in the breeze, despite being tangled in the water hyacinth leaves. Deftly, he flicks away the vegetation while controlling his boat's position through the gentle circling of a punt-like oar.

The fisherman's right leg is wrapped around the oar that's also tucked firmly under his arm. I notice he somehow grips it between his toes, and have sudden visions of a chubby pencil wedged between the fingers of a child.

"He's one of the Intha people's leg-rowers," explains Sun Taw Win, my guide, craning back to look at me from his seat in our motorised longboat. In addition to fishing, the Intha grow fruit and vegetables on the lake. Ingeniously, floating vegetation is bundled to create islands tethered between bamboo poles. Farmers living in stilted houses harvest three crops of tomatoes a year.

"The farmers sell their produce at markets in towns and villages around the shore," says my guide. "Many tribal people come to the markets from their homes in the countryside. It's very good for photography," he adds with a knowing look, nodding towards my camera.

Even in the relative cool of January the sun shines here much of the time. And that sunlight glints off the golden stupas of the Phaung Daw Oo pagoda. We moor alongside smiling locals, kick off our sandals and head inside.

Sun Taw Win leads me towards an altar topped by five odd-looking golden figures. They are, I learn, gold-bloated Buddha statues. It's traditional for worshippers to show their respect by adding layers of gold leaf. Over time, the figures have lost their original cross-legged form and now bear more of a resemblance to golden eggs.

Our final stop is at the teak-built Nga Hpe Kyaung monastery, whose floorboards creak as we walk. "This place is known as the jumping cat monastery," says Sun Taw Win.

Until recently the monks encouraged abandoned cats to do tricks for tasty rewards, entertaining visitors in the process. Animal lovers will be pleased to learn that this kind of thing is now frowned upon. Cats, however, continue to live in the monastery.

A tiny kitten totters past my feet and cowers below a cabinet containing manuscripts. A couple of Japanese tourists sit stroking a striped grey feline on a patterned carpet, while flicking appreciative glances at the life-size Buddha statue just feet away. Now that's my kind of multi-tasking.


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