We stood atop the hill overlooking Inthein, a village on the banks of Inle Lake, awestruck by the sight before us. From where we stood, all the way down the hillside, right down to the lake, lay the ruins of nearly one thousand stupas amid the lush greenery. The overgrown vegetation contrasted magically with the ruins, bringing out their beauty and history. We took in the crumbling structures as we walked down, marvelling at the workmanship and the intense labour that must have gone into the creation. Some intricate carvings on the stupas are still discernible. Our guide explained that though no records are actually available, the great Indian Emperor Ashoka is said to have built the Inthein or Indein stupa complex to commemorate his visit to Inle Lake. While a few old ones are being restored, the complex also has some recently donated stupas. Feeling pleased that we could claim a connection, however distant, to this beautiful place, we walked back to the jetty, to get back into the boat and proceed on our way around the lake.

The freshwater lake, situated at about 900 metres above sea level, in the Shan Hills of the Shan State of Myanmar, is home to about one lakh people, who live in villages along its banks, or in floating villages and communities. To the average tourist, the lives of the lake dwellers would appear straight out of Waterworld.

It is remarkable how comfortably the people have adapted to a simple, yet unique lifestyle on the lake. Seated in a single file in a narrow, motorised canoe, we went around observing the various activities of the lake dwellers. On one side was a school where children were reciting lessons, while on the opposite side women were washing and cleaning on the steps of their stilt houses.

Made of wood, bamboo poles and woven bamboo sheets, the houses stand on stilts upon the lake. Fruits and vegetables grow in the floating gardens around the houses. Expectedly, fishing is the main source of livelihood in this region. The fishermen row their boat in a distinctive style, standing on one leg, with the other wrapped around an oar, for a better view.

The lake dwellers create a rich variety of handicrafts unique to the region, including the famous Myanmarese parasol and fan made of handmade paper and decorated with dried flowers. The star anise-flavoured cheroot is again a local speciality. Among a range of fabulous hand-woven fabric, the one made of lotus stem fibre is spectacularly soft and cool to touch. Woven bamboo mats, wood carvings and lacquer work inlaid with bamboo are among the other artefacts that visitors shop for during their boat tour.

Of the many ethnic tribes that inhabit Inle Lake, the women of the Kayan tribe stand out on account of the shiny brass rings placed around their necks, one every year after the age of 5 or 6. The rings elongate the neck and are meant to shield the women from tiger bites!

Among the many pagodas and monasteries built on the banks of the lake or on small islets, the most important is the Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda housing five important idols of the Buddha. Originally small and lean, the idols have over the years gained significantly in proportion, almost becoming shapeless, thanks to layers of gold foil offerings from devotees. Old photographs in the monastery clearly bear this out. The idols are taken on boats in a ceremonial procession around the lake during the annual Phaung Daw Oo festival. According to local lore, during the first year of the procession a woman bowed before the idols and the boat capsized. This happened the following year too, and since then women are not allowed near the idols or the altar in the monastery. The point on the lake where the boat capsized is marked by a pillar of bamboo poles bearing a swan capital, as the Buddha is believed to have been a swan in a previous birth.

The Nga Phe Chaung is also known as the Jumping Cat Monastery because the monks have trained the resident cats to jump through a hoop. The monastery also houses an interesting collection of ancient Buddha idols.

Our sojourn on Inle Lake ended when our boat drew up at the jetty outside our hotel, also located on the lakeshore. After a sumptuous vegan dinner of fine organic local produce, we retired for the night to our room perched on stilts, and were gently lulled to sleep by the soft waves on the placid lake.

(This article was published on March 14, 2013)
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