We were entranced, hypnotized by the ethereal beauty of Inle Lake. Morning to night the air was thick with smoky haze from fields being burned on the low hills that surround the shallow, thirteen-mile-long lake. Added to the lake’s own naturally thick mist, it made for difficult breathing, but bold sunsets and brazen moon rises, the queen of the day vying with the orb of night for deepest and most stirring orange. The vivid blue waters of Inle offer everything the villagers need, including the means to live right on the water itself.
Slender teak boats plied the lake, a solitary saronged youth poling along in the one-legged manner of Inle fisherman, balancing stork-like on one leg, wrapping the other around a single long oar, moving his boat forward with an awkward-looking but effective push, dip and pull, leaving both hands free to tug in a pale green fishing net, or to scoop thick algae out of the shallow lake bed with a hooked rod.
The net would be flung back, or the water slapped with a big splash to stun fish to the surface, or a conical wire fishing basket heaved up, dripping, all while the fisherman balanced on a skiff as delicate as an eyelash on a teardrop. The algae, piled in thick green-brown heaps would be used as nourishment for farm gardens of tomatoes, cauliflower, string beans, red carnations, potatoes, garlic, pink, purple and white flowers, gourds, peppers and melons, each plot staked by bamboo poles driven through the garden and into the shallow lake mud below. Without these tethers the lush, impossibly green plots would float away.
Our boatman poles us down narrow blue channels, past black-face gulls perching on the garden tethers and snowy egrets high-stepping slowly and methodically along the green ground hunting for the tiny pink shrimp that abound in these waters. Later we slide quietly along broader canals past tall stilts that support teak and bamboo village homes. The lake waters can rise as much as 20 feet during the rainy season, but this time of year the lake is reaching its low ebb, and the houses are perched, treehouse-like, above water that in many places is not even waist deep.
A cat wanders down his home’s boatramp, to ponder the watery universe that surrounds him, longing to climb a tree or pounce on a mouse on dry land. Two pigs grunt on their thatched, shaded bamboo platform, perhaps desiring nothing more than a cool roll in the mud, despite their airy abode. A mother poles by, sitting crossed legged at the back of her skiff, baby on lap, market baskets piled high with produce from the day’s shopping, a conical hat that hasn’t changed shape in centuries shading her face. In the front of the boat, her 3 year old already has his own, child-size paddle; he steers industriously, helping his mother guide their boat home. A family crone squats by the water’s edge, soaping and rinsing the family’s china and cutlery in the placid canal waters. And a longer boat full of festively dressed women, all laughing and chattering, speeds up its engine with a load roar, taking off for a pagoda or shrine elsewhere on the lake.
On another day we putter slowly up a broad channel, past water buffaloes submerged to their nose hairs in the pleasant waters. Occasionally a derelict teak monastery appears round a bend, its steep, multi-tiered, filigreed tin roof now rusted from neglect, front steps sagging, a place that time, tourism and perhaps even Buddha have forgotten.
Some children work along the canal’s edge, plucking a few leaves from what must be a special tree, stuffing them in a plastic sack. Just upstream other kids have the day off, and are wading the shore and plunging into the canal, splashing and giggling loudly with the pleasure of it all. More skiffs, the only means of transportation in this water-bound world, glide by, one with a young family, another keeping pace with the skiff at its side, each with a woman paddling, the two of them socializing as they head to market or home or to work or to pay homage at a shrine. Time does not stand still on Inle, but there is the sense that it has been thus since time immemorial.