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



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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.