Lessons from Inle Lake boaties

BANGKOK, 16 May 2017: They make it look so easy, but the most difficult feats look that way whenever the well practiced demonstrate precision skills.

Up front on the still surface of an Inle Lake channel, skirted by floating gardens, a single oarsman stands on one leg as straight as a ramrod on the tiny stern of his wooden boat. It is as if he is imitating a nearby white crane. Both are seeking clear vision over the tall grass to identify the watery path home.

Ananta Inle where lake trip begins

His other leg, mid-calf down to the sole of his foot, wraps around a long oar that dips gently into the water guiding the boat forward almost effortlessly through the narrow channel.In the boat’s hull a conical bamboo netted fish trap stands ready to be snatched and dropped over unsuspecting fish that come close to the boat. He already has a catch and by the steady stroke of his oar you can guess he is heading to his stilt house for a well-earned fish breakfast.

Perhaps it’s the predominantly fish diet that makes the Inle Lake boaties so agile with the acrobatic poise of a tight-rope walker.  I watch fascinated to see if he will waver, perhaps display a slight shudder of uncertainty as our boat’s wake pummels his boat.  But like the crane the oarsman remains impervious, his rowing leg completing a circular motion that dips and rises in the water with the precision and grace of a ballet dancer.

Yet they say necessity is the mother of invention and Inle Lake’s unique rowing style is just that a technique honed over centuries to give the fisherman two free hands to manage the fish traps, while controlling his small wooden craft standing on one leg.

They are not the fastest boats on the lake, but they are the quietest, the most graceful and probably the most compatible with the sensitive environment of this vast expanse of water.

Their owners use them to fish and collect lake-bottom weed and water hyacinth to create the base and fill out the volume of floating gardens that spread far and wide off the western shore of the lake. These fertile mounds, anchored by bamboo poles to the lakebed, literally float on shallow stretches of the lake. Here residents nurture the region’s best tomatoes with at least two harvests a year.

Dating back to the 1960s,  the floating gardens ultimately evolved into landfill that has significantly reduced the lake’s surface on its western shore. Experts estimate the water surface of the lake has reduced 32% since the floating garden practice began.

Sadly, the traditional fisherman’s way of life is under threat as the lake’s sensitive environment suffers. Tourism and commercial development, widespread silting of the lake caused by deforestation on the hillsides, hotter summer conditions and a severe reduction in rainfall during recent monsoon seasons have all contributed to a decline in the lake’s well-being.

Located in eastern Shan state, the 22-km long Inle Lake is the second largest expanse of freshwater in the country with a surface of area of 116 sq km. According to recent estimates it is home to 80,000 people who live on its shores, while another 15,000 reside on the lake itself.

But this urbanisation, often fueled by an explosion in  tourism demand, directly pollutes the water with sewage and cleaning liquids for dishes, clothing and bathing.

In addition, the 3,000 mostly tourist boats that ply the lake offering sightseeing tours spill diesel fuel into the water and their emissions degrade air quality and cause considerable noise pollution for residents of the four towns near its shores and canals.

But for the 600-odd tourists who visit the lake daily, the sight of the Inle Lake oarsman is the highlight of their sightseeing cruise.

I was told there are even classes that teach you the basic boating skills. Tuition resembles a cross between yoga and ballet dance routines arguably to establish poise and balance in the safe environment of flooded paddy field. Once the transfer from paddy simulation to the real-life environment of a nearby water channel takes place,  students quickly recognise that standing on one leg on the stern of a temperamental boat prone to unannounced wobbles is a skill learned from childhood.  There are some incredibly funny scenes that are predictably captured on Facebook pages.

However for the gifted few, who learn the basic skills of one-legged oarsmanship, the prize is amazing; two hands free to give a high-five and shoot a selfie.

Sourcing the tuition organiser proved unsuccessful. A feature in Men’s Journal on Stand up Paddle boarders (SUPs) authored by Kip Patrick claimed Smiling Moon Travel Agency in Nyaung Shwe provided lessons. The only mentions of Smiling Moon are the mixed reviews for its food and beverage posted on TripAdvisor.

Hotels will book you a short excursion on the traditional boats if you yearn for a slow almost silent cruise close to shore. This is ideal in the early mornings for photographers who want to capture shots of birds and waterfowls that flee the scene once the long-tail boats arrive.

You also get an opportunity to chat to the boatie as he stands on the stern and demonstrates the skills of one-legged oarsmanship.

The seating arrangement could be a downside. Unlike the long-tail boats there are no chairs. You sit cross-legged in the boat’s shallow hull very close to the waterline, an experience that might be a mite precarious for expensive cameras and lens.

Unfortunately, the traditional fisherman is out numbered by the sheer size of the long-tail boat fleet estimated at 3,000 craft all vying to ferry the 600 old tourists who arrive daily in Nyaung Shwe  for half and full-day cruises on the lake.

Last year an estimated 140,000 foreign tourists visited the lake. They stayed in 109 registered hotels or guesthouses.

The expansion of the lake’s hotel industry is expected to continue. Two years ago 617 acres of farmland at the southern tip of the lake was cleared to make way for a special zone that was supposed to be for 16 hotels, but so far the land remains empty.

Critics argue the lake is dying and blame the tourism boom for speeding up the decline and inevitable erosion of traditional lifestyles of the Intha people. There is considerable talk on how to implement sustainable tourism polices and to save the lake. Events are hosted, studies funded and considerable green wash applied by greedy resort investors.  In the end, the lake’s communities and towns will have to step up to the plate and say what kind of tourism they want for their lake.

Fears have been voiced that one day the lake may simply vanish. Perhaps the agile oarsman standing on one leg to gain a vision of the channel ahead has the answer. Look where you are going and always maintain balance.

(Adventure Myanmar Tours and Incentives and Amazing Hotels and Resorts sponsored the media trip, organised by PATA Chiang Rai Chapter chairman, Jaffee Yee, to promote the concept of ‘two countries, one destination’ by highlighting travel links between North Thailand and Myanmar’s Shan state.)


  1. Great article with lots of information. I agree that very urgent attention and action is needed for Inle lake for the sustainable development of tourism and the region itself. Most importantly, the impact on the environment is the very first thing to be taken actions immediately followed by the proper management of tourism industry in the area.
    Thanks for promoting Inle and also for making the actual situation to the world.
    By the way you have mentioned “crane” in your article when you compare the boat man standing on his boat. I suppose you mean for the bird “crane”. For your information, crane is not a bird to be found in Inle. It probably “Asian Open-Bill” or a kind of Egret. Thank you.

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