life on a lake in rural Myanmar




Myanmar has only recently emerged from a bubble of isolation. Although still poor, tourist dollars are starting to pour in, especially for the people of Inle Lake, in Eastern Myanmar. 


American economic sanctions were withdrawn so recently that Coca Cola has only been available for a year, and Macdonalds and other fast food places, have not yet arrived.







So maybe the traditional structures of Myanmar society are not yet as challenged as in other South East Asian countries.


This is a place of extraordinary beauty.



Inle Lake is large - about 13 miles long and 7 miles wide, although it's hard to know exactly where the lake ends and the marshes begin.  The Intha tribe live in villages on and around the lake, and rely on it for their livelihood. Many other ethnic groups live here as well, but this is the main group. The name, Intha, means 'sons of the lake'.




The Inthas have floating gardens on the lake. They grow high quality tomatoes all year round that are sold all over the country. The gardens are formed from masses of grasses, reeds and other aquatic plants. Some parts of the gardens are floating and some parts submerged. They are, in effect, floating islands held in place by bamboo poles.





Fishing is the traditional livelihood of the Intha, and fish is the main source of food supply for local people as well as their main income. Intha fishermen have a unique, fascinating and graceful rowing style. They stand on one leg and wrap the other around an oar and row with that leg, leaving their hands free. 

They developed this style of rowing because they need to be standing to see beyond the clumps of reeds floating on the lake. Only men row this way - women row sitting down.  I'm not sure how women manage to navigate the reed problem. 


























These girls coming home from school were carrying aluminium pans instead of plastic lunch boxes (or even worse, plastic bags) and I asked if I could photograph them. They agreed, but clearly were feeling rather shy.

Electric wires, precariously balanced on bamboo poles, stretch alongside the water, powering generators in villages. But electricity is, on the whole, not widespread, nor is it reliable.

Some villages are investing in solar power, a sensible alternative.










Every five days the market rotates around the various villages on and around the lake. This is the opportunity for people to buy and sell goods, catch up with each other, and do things like have a hair cut. The market we went to was in Nampan village and it was bustling. We saw no other tourists. Maybe because it was the rainy season?









This woman is from the ethnic group known as the Pa-o. Their traditional dress is a dark longhi (wraparound skirt, which Burmese men also traditionally wear) and top, with a brightly coloured towel wrapped around her head.

You don't see these traditional costumes in the cities so much, but there is still pressure on women to wear them in rural areas. One Pa-o woman I spoke to complained that it was very hot. I asked her what would happen if she didn't wear it. She said she had no choice.

Near the lake are stands of bamboo. Bamboo is used extensively - for housing, for hats, for poles to secure the floating gardens, for food. One man explained to me that as soon as he can earn some money, he will change his bamboo home for brick. Bamboo houses are flimsy, get damaged by the weather and need to be re-built each year.

Inle Lake is home to to many species of wetland birds, both residential and migratory. It has been given protected environmental status by the government and by ASEAN.

Everything looked serene and lovely, and I certainly didn't meet a local who was prepared to tell a tourist that all was not so wonderful under the surface. But I wondered about the environmental health of the lake, and found a recent paper on the topic by a local researcher, Kyaw Zin Aung Soe.  


During the last decade Inle Lake has suffered severe environmental degradation, due to the ongoing agricultural practices in and around the lake.

There has been deforestation (logging) in the catchment areas of the lake for farming purposes. After ploughing, the soil can no longer absorb water. So when it rains the soil erodes and flows into the lake. This sedimentation is causing a decrease in the size of the lake.


The floating gardens choke the lake's fragile ecosystem. Tomatoes, the main cash crop, require chemical fertilizers and pesticides. These, of course, pollute the water. Older people told Kyaw Zin Aung Soe that in the past the water was clean and drinkable. Today that is no longer the case.

Water Hyacinth,  an invasive weed growing on the Lake
As the lake shrinks in size, and becomes polluted, the fish population declines, and native species are threatened with extinction.  Of course, this also applies to the bird population, and to all the flora and fauna in the ecosystem. One older villager told me he remembers when he was a child, a tiger was killed and its body displayed. If you put your arms around it, you got strength and courage. He thinks it must have been the last tiger.

None of this should be surprising. The fact that tourism is growing is both a challenge and an opportunity for the local population on the lake. They won't be able to depend as much on fishing and won't be able to go on living as they used to do, so they will be forced to diversify and find different strategies to make a living. 

And how will the increasing tourist numbers affect the environment? Only time will tell. There is a lot to worry about in terms of the future of this stunningly beautiful place.




Comments

  1. What a special vacation! Thank you for sharing so much about Myanmar. Sorry to hear the sad environmental news. Your images are fantastic! How long were you there?

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    1. dear og, I think I may have made it sound worse than it is, so I have modified the ending to try to reflect that. I was there for 2 and a half weeks, one week on the lake and one in Yangon. I'm going to do another post about city life when I get myself organized.

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    2. thank you, og, for what you said about the images - I think it was the most photogenic place I've ever been in.

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  2. What is happening on the lake is a sad thing. A beautiful place though and the people look happy and peaceful. I wonder what it will be like 10 or 20 years from now, the peaceful lifestyle will be just a memory.

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    1. dear Karen, I think I may have exaggerated. I've changed the ending a bit since your comment.It's still beautiful, and the communities are still OK, so hopefully will still be OK in 10 - 20 years time. It's just that it is a real worry for the future - like the environment is a concern nearly everywhere. And I don't think environmental awareness or education is very developed yet in Myanmar.

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    2. The old man who told you about the last tiger? Did he express regret? Or relief?

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    3. I don't know how he felt about it - it was just a casual conversation, superficial because of cultural and language barriers. But I wish I had tried to ask more ...

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  3. Beautiful photographs. Were you in a motor boat? The bamboo houses are beautiful it would be a pity if they were all replaced by brick houses. But it must be so much work to rebuild them every year. I also like the colourful shoulder bags many people are carrying. I look forward to your next post about Myanmar.

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    1. Hi Denise, The bamboo houses have the lightest carbon footprint, too. But 'progress' is inevitable'. Partly it is so beautiful and simple because of the poverty. The colourful shoulder bags are made by the local people, part of their traditional customs. If you are interested in buying one, or more, I can find out where you can get them online. Let me know. Buying them helps their economy.

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    2. I still have a bag from Khin-Ma, a Burmese colleague at the Zurich library

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    3. Those bags are made by the various ethnic minority groups - I wonder which group Khin Ma was from, and whether she / he was a refugee?

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  4. What great, scenic photos. Sad to hear what is happening to the population with the shrinking resources though. Sad for the wildlife as well.

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    1. Hi Donna, I feel anxious about writing this because I want to support the new democratic government and the people on the lake, but on the other hand I don't want to gloss over the truth. The situation probably isn't that bad yet. I don't know if there is an environmental movement there, but I will be finding out more.

      I appreciate the positive comment about the photos, I am pleased with how they came out. I used my little Nikon Coolpix for easy carrying. It was also useful because it rained a lot and it is a waterproof camera.

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    2. I love my little Coolpix, both for traveling and the great shots it takes of big scenic scenes. When in St. Lucia, the water proof Coolpix was my favorite because it took really good shots on and below water. When I travel now, it always goes along. Looking at your photos, I am not surprised they came out so good. The camera holds a lot of depth in the images.

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    3. I haven't had any luck with it below water, the pictures come out blurry.

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  5. It's too bad someone doesn't teach them to compost. All that vegetation at the banks of the river could be composted and cut down on the use of fertilizer. Not that we are doing any better in the U.S., whose government supports Monsanto's evil empire.

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    1. hi linda, they use compost, they use the weeds and grasses they cut for mulch, I think they're pretty savvy, and very clever to have developed the whole system of floating gardens. Up till now they have been protected from Monsanto by sanctions and by poverty - the challenge starts now. It's a very interesting situation.

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    2. there were floating gardens, somewhere in Central or South America. UNESCO World Heritage site, but the gardens are no longer cared for.

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    3. I think there are floating gardens in Mexico, and I wrote a post a few years ago about floating gardens we saw in Cambodia.

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  6. Gosh, it does look incredibly beautiful! Thanks so much for taking us along on the tour. "Sons of the Lake" is a touching term and says so much. I'm amazed at the production of the "floating gardens."

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    1. hi Beth, it is so beautiful, it has really got under my skin. I just want to go back.

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  7. What a stunningly beautiful place you found with beautiful people. Sad that it will change when more tourists arrive and "westernise" everything. I'm not surprised that you want to return to such a magical place.

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    1. hi pauline, everything changes, in the meantime it is amazing and I am so happy I have been able to share it via the blog.

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  8. Thank you for sharing your photos and information about a place that I have heard of but knew little about. It truly looks like a beautiful place!

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    1. Thanks for the comment, Dorothy, I'm looking forward to sharing my photos of Yangon, the biggest city.

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  9. It's tough, isn't it, Catmint, when simple people have to decide between a suspect future and a backward past? It would be nice to know they were being fully supported by the rest of the world, but no, the rest of the world will be there only for the opportunities it can capitalise on.
    My hope is they retain their identity and voice whoever tries to take control.

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    1. dear Faisal, I think you're making it too sound black and white, when I'm seeing it as terribly complicated morally. They're not all so simple, some of the community leaders have studied in other places, or been to prison, and now come back.

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  10. What an amazing trip! I was hoping the lake was going to be clean and that they had some local, organic method of farming all those tomatoes. The idea of McDonald's polluting that area is horrific.

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    1. Hi Tammy, it was an amazing trip. I was hoping the same, and if I hadn't delved into it, I wouldn't have known. In the meantime - it's still a Macdonalds -free zone! This story hasn't ended yet. Hopefully I'lll be able to keep you posted on the updates.

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  11. Fabulous trip and amazing experience...your images are so crisp and clear...they capture the essence of this place. It is sad to think that as we invade a place more with tourists it will in all likelihood decline or have issues...let's hope this doesn't happen...

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    1. Getting tourists is very complicated and paradoxical - it brings in money needed for conservation, and motivation, as well as risk. But now is a good time to see it, before it changes a lot.

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  12. Absolutely fascinating, and beautiful photography!

    I'd better hurry up and holiday there, too, before the hoards arrive.

    Looking forward to your second post.

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    1. Hi Bubbles, thanks for the post - maybe see you there!

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  13. Thank you for a fascinating look into a culture I knew nothing about. The country is so beautiful. i hope the people can find a balance between progress and protecting what makes their country so special.

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    1. Hi Deb, it really is a special and fascinating culture. The people have gone through so much trauma, I hope it works out for them.

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  14. I am envious with you Catmint as you were there before I. A few friends have been there singly and their photos were so beautiful, but your definitely show a lot more information about the culture and status. It is depressing that population increase will surely be their immediate problem, with the pollution of the lake very eminent. That happens in many parts of our country too. And the demise of ecosystem and wildlife in their country is also affecting all of us. Thanks for the plenty of photos.

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    1. Hi Andrea, I'm so pleased you liked the post. Living in the region, it's not just a strange and exotic place for you, but one that you can identify with to a certain extent.

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  15. This was absolutely amazing. Thank you so much for providing this info and the amazing photos to go along with it. It's a gorgeous land - those houses are stunning and the "parking lot" of those boats is pretty cool. I really liked hearing about the market. that really interests me as my father and grandmother (and other villagers in their part of China rely on the market for so many things. What excitement that must bring to a live that is pretty wrought in survival, despite how gorgeous it is to us foreigners.

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  16. I think you so such awesome environmental work.

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  17. thanks for the compliment Wendy. That's the paradox, isn't it? We like it because it' s so pretty and still natural, but their lives are harder and they have fewer choices than us. It's too easy to romanticize it. I'm fascinated the way your father has made a new life for himself in America, using his agricultural skills.

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  18. Very interesting. It looks like an area that should be pristine, and free of all those chemicals. (And colas and mcdonald's!) But, I can understand on the other hand the need for additional income, and homes that don't need re-building every year. Seems there are never any easy answers. It was extremely interesting to see the way they row their boats with one of their legs while standing - it must take a lot of practice and coordination!

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    1. thanks for the comment Holley - I agree, there are no easy answers.

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  19. Catmint,

    This post brought so many good memories of the tranquil town, Taunggyi and Inle Lake of course. I was there before and that was more than ten years ago and my goodness, these beautiful place has not change a bit. Even more beautiful now! The boat ride was wonderful, excellent scenery and the people there were so charming and friendly. I just so loved the place.

    As I have mentioned before, this time round I was at Pyin Oo Lwin, another wonderful wonderful place of Upper Myanmar. It was a fantastic trip and food was so good :-D

    Btw, where will you be visiting next? Hopefully same destination again hehe...

    Cheers,
    Stephanie

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    1. Hi Steph, it hasn't changed yet, but is starting to change. I haven't been to Pyin Oo Lwin. I want to go back to Myanmar next time I travel, but I don't have any plans.

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