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Myanmar's Inle Lake - A watery Shangri La in the landlocked interior of Shan State

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The road from Bagan to Inle Lake claws its way up a series of white-knuckle switchbacks from the hot, dusty floodplain of the Ayeyarwady River into the rugged mountains of central Burma's Shan Plateau. Years of neglect have reduced the pavement to a narrow, potholed strip flanked by crumbling shoulders where transport trucks and oxcarts compete for passing space. The teak forests that once thrived here were long ago stripped away and the hills are now encrusted in tree-strangling vines. There is no evidence of reforestation.

We opted to break the eight-hour drive to the lake with an overnight stop at Kalaw. Located at a cool elevation of 1,320 metres Kalaw, with its charming colonial houses and pastoral rural surroundings, was once a British Hill Station where the Raj could escape the oppressive summer heat of Ayeyarwady Valley. Today about 20,000 people live in and around Kalaw and its bustling market is an eclectic mix of local Shan and Indian farmers, tourists, Muslims, Nepalese, and fatigue-wearing recruits from a nearby military base. Wandering through its market, past bins overflowing with local vegetables, and counters piled high with fresh chicken, fish, and pork, it's hard to reconcile this scene of abundance with UN reports that Myanmar has one of the world's highest rates of chronic malnutrition. But Kalaw is on a main transportation corridor and we are seeing it at the peak of the harvest. For thousands of Burmese who live beyond the country's crumbling roads, in the frontier villages where tourists and journalists are forbidden to go, hunger and disease, like corruption and repression, are part of everyday life.

Beyond Kalaw the road to Inle Lake winds through a verdant rolling upland where huge fields of cabbage, corn, melons and tomatoes are being harvested. Using two-wheeled ox-carts and trailers drawn by primitive Chinese-made garden tractors the farmers deliver their produce to waiting trucks — some destined for China, others for Yangon, Mandalay and other big Burmese cities that depend on this part of rural Myanmar for so much of their food.

Arriving at Inle Lake is like entering a dreamscape — a surreal world of stilt villages, floating gardens, leg-rowing fishermen, and thousands of tiny boats. Although it is only 22 km long and 11 km wide the lake supports 17 stilt villages woven together by a web of canals leading to floating markets, craft factories, and more than 100 monasteries and shrines scattered along the shore. About 70,000 people live on and around Inle Lake. Most are Intha who are believed to have migrated from the coast of southern Myanmar in the 1300's. Industrious, hard-working people the Intha have embraced a market economy while preserving much of their ancient culture and tradition.

The small town of Nyaungshwe near the northern end of the lake is the main transfer point between land and water — the place where fishermen, lake farmers, and craftsmen bring their produce and products to market. The Hu Pin Hotel, where we spent two fascinating days, is located on one of the busy canals only a short walk from Mingala Market — right in the centre of Nyaungshwe's chaotic street economy. Slender boats, their props spinning at the end of long drive shafts attached to small smoke-belching engines, jockey for dock space to unload their cargo. The street clatters with the wheels of over-laden pushcarts, trishaws, and trailers bouncing behind one-lung garden tractors headed for the sprawling market.

The best way to experience Inle Lake is to hire one of the long-tailed dugout canoes for a tour. Driven by a local fisherman and powered by a noisy little engine with a huge open flywheel, our boat had space for four people seated one behind the other. We stepped gingerly aboard our narrow craft from a bamboo dock in Nyaungshwe and set off at a surprisingly brisk pace. The three kilometre run down river from Nyaungshwe to the north end of the lake is a broad channel bounded by a vast expanse of reeds. What appeared to be a shoreline was actually just a mat of water plants and the wakes of heavily-laden incoming boats sent ripples across the floating landscape.

At the shallow north end of the lake we paused to watch a group of fishermen stalking carp and other bottom fish. With the balance and grace of ballet dancers they stand at the stern of their tiny dugouts on one foot and row with the other — leaving both hands free to manipulate the net. The net is suspended inside a large cone-shaped bamboo frame and when the fisherman spots telltale bubbles the contraption is lowered to the bottom in hopes of catching a foraging fish. I still marvel that the fishermen don't end up in the lake.

By chance our trip on the lake coincided with the Ywama floating market. Every five days the local farmers and fishermen converge on Ywama by boat and oxcart to sell their produce. When we arrived the foreshore was a gridlock of boats as people struggled to get their merchandise ashore — some balanced baskets on their heads as they stepped from boat to boat, others laboured ashore with huge loads on their backs.

The market itself was a conglomeration of stuff for sale, some in tin-roofed stalls and some just spread out on the muddy earth. An old man had a half dozen eels for sale, the woman next to him squatted amid her piles of brightly coloured dried beans and peppers and behind them a short-order cook fliped chapatis over a makeshift wood stove. Except for the serenely docile oxen tethered to their empty carts behind the market the place pulsed with the hum of buying and selling. And, of course, where there are tourists there are hawkers — some of them very persistent.

After leaving the market we cruised through a maze of narrow channels to one of the stilt villages. The entire area was covered with a mat of floating water hyacinths, the basis of a thriving cottage industry. Even before leaving our boat we could hear the rhythmic clatter of wooden handlooms. An old woman in one of the thatched houses demonstrated how fibre is extracted from the hyacinths and we watched nimble-fingered young women spin it into thread and weave it into fabric for hats, handbags and souvenirs. The Intha people of Inle Lake have become such expert weavers they now import, dye and weave Chinese raw silk and manufacture it into finished garments for the overseas market.

From a deck outside the spinning room I waved at a couple of kids cavorting in the water outside their house. They waved back and amid a ripple of giggling and splashing treated me to a private aquatic show. This, I thought, is why the fishermen don't end up in the lake with the fish. The kids who grow up in the stilt villages of Inle Lake learn their water skills from the time they are toddlers. Water is their playground, their front yard, and their road to a friend's home.

The tomatoes were beginning to ripen in the small private garden floating beside their house and farther out in the lake farmers in tiny dugouts were harvesting the commercial crop. The gardens of Inle Lake thrive on floating mats of decaying marsh plants, soil, and water hyacinths. Staked to the bottom with long bamboo poles the incredibly fertile floating islands yield a non-stop harvest of fresh vegetables. And while one group of farmers harvest the crop another group works at stabilizing and maintaining the islands themselves. Using long bamboo poles they dredge decaying vegetation from the lake bottom, pile it first into their dugouts and then onto the island where it becomes part of their floating garden.

No tour of Inle Lake would be complete without visiting at least one monastery. In addition to being innovative farmers and entrepreneurs the Intha people are devout Buddhists and the lavish Phaung Daw Oo Paya, on Ywama's main canal, is one of the holiest sites in all of Shan State. During our visit in early October four of the temple's five Buddhas were waiting to begin their three-week ceremonial cruise aboard a royal barge powered by leg-rowing fishermen. We missed the launch and went on to visit the "Jumping Cat Monastery". As I watched the young monks entertain themselves and a handful of tourists by coaxing their feline pets to leap through coloured hoops I thought about the other monks — the ones we saw in Yangon and Mandalay who faced the fury of the ruling military junta and its armed soldiers. Here among the Intha people Inle Lake seems as far removed from Myanmar's political turmoil as the legendary valley of Shangri La.