If Myanmar exists as a place apart from the world, Lake Inle exists at an even greater remove. It is a world that exists entirely above and around water, where everything — houses, gardens, pagodas — seems to float just above the glassy surface of the lake, and where the Intha people still live much as their ancestors did.
It’s one of the places they say you must see in Myanmar. Inle is a serenely beautiful expanse of water, where the blue of its surface seems to run seamlessly into the blue of the sky. It’s a massive lake — just under fifty square miles, but shallow enough for swimming.
It’s on the lake’s surface where the juxtaposition of past and present is most obvious. On this placid body of water, fringed with stilt houses and floating gardens, the Intha fishermen use a time-honored method of trapping fish which is not done anywhere else in the world. Using a large, conical net, they steer the boat with one leg while using their hands to fish. With movements that are nimble and practiced, the Intha fishermen appear like delicate acrobats on the water’s surface. Seeing this ancient choreography play out on the water was one of the most special moments of my trip.
But Myanmar is changing. The unique way of fishing that developed on Inle Lake is no longer economically feasible. Nowadays, the Intha people make more money appearing to fish as a show for tourists. In this land where the past and the present are colliding, there’s an irony in the performance of an ancient technique so that it can be captured on iPhones and posted to social media.
But in all other ways, Inle remains as it always has. Delicate stilt houses are perched just above the water, pagodas seem to float on the water, whole lives are lived on the water. Only the fisherman have changed.