Sons of the lake. On quiet waters in eastern Burma, a primitive and beautiful fishing community
Inle Lake, Shan State, Burma — Our long wooden boat, eel-thin, slipped along the narrow river, dodging water buffaloes as they munched on bulbous, blue-plumed water hyacinths. We wove carefully between the great, gentle bovines. Shiny and black, they wallowed almost completely submerged, just their massive heads and horns above water. Inle Lake stretches 9 by 4 miles at an altitude of 2,880 feet in eastern Burma. It is considered this country's most scenic spot. On this early morning, sunlight had yet to sear through the thick morning haze as we entered the wide mouth of the lake. Sky, mist, and water blended in one uninterrupted, continuous veil of blue-gray, shrouding the surrounding mountains and shore. Distant boats seem to move somehow suspended between earth and sky, as we moved deeper toward the center of the lake.
We were here to see the scenery, and to see a curiosity: the leg-rowers of Inle Lake.
Local fishermen here have adapted a rather odd way of propelling their long wooden canoes. The men - only one to a boat - work from the bow rather than stern. They perch stork-like on one leg, the other wrapped around a single long wooden oar. From this position they are able to peer into the water. One arm is free to handle a large conical trap. The traps resemble six-foot-high dunce hats with netting wound around a bamboo frame.
But it's not fish the men spot first. Water is clear here, but long, green straps of eel grass hide the bottom-feeding fish. What they look for are tell-tale bubbles created by carp and catfish as they churn the bottom in search of food.
One fisherman proudly displayed his prowess as we edged closer to his solitary canoe, cameras poised.
With his left arm and leg he worked the oar. Reaching in back with his right hand, he swung the six-foot trap around and dropped it off the bow. Holding the top of the trap steady, he stuck an oar down the center, poking the murky bottom. He hoped this stirring action would chase a large carp into the loose folds of the gill net.
Alas, not this time. Only more weeds. We moved off toward fishermen in the distance who appeared to be having better luck.
It's not only the fishermen that use this entwined leg way of rowing. Larger boats, piled high with grass pulled from the water, are maneuvered the same way. The grass they harvest is used as cattle and hog fodder.
Most of the 73,000 Inthas, or ``sons of the lake,'' live conventionally on shore. Others have adapted methods of living in the lake.
Some build houses supported by stilts. Around these spidery-looking homes they tend their ``floating gardens.'' The gardens are developed by harvesting tons of hollow-stemmed floating water plants from the lake. These are lashed together in long, narrow 7-by-300-foot ``plots.'' Corresponding layers of earth and water plants are then built up, and pegged to the bottom of the lake with long bamboo poles. The result is a floating garden, so moist, fertile, and rich as to make any gardener green.
Women worked the gardens, weeding, harvesting tomatoes, eggplants, cucumbers - even flowers and bananas - from their boats.
After several years, the gardens begin to lose their buoyancy and are towed to a spot in the lake where they sink. Other ones are added, and eventually, an island begins to grow!
The generations have studded Inle Lake with these man-made islands, among which the Inthas farm the fish, and farm the waters.