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

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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.