A day on the lake in a traditional boat observing life as it could have been lived in the 18th Century.   About making clothes out of lotus stalks!

There was little today that reminded me of the times I live in except for the electric motor used by most of the cargo and tourist boats on Inle Lake.  But even those motors could have been there 100 years ago if not 200.  It was as if life had been frozen in time.

The Inle Lake region is a succession of very shallow lakes connected by rivers,  surrounded by fertile land and framed by rolling mountains.  Fishing is obviously a major part of life, and on our 8-hour tour crisscrossing the northernmost lake today, we observed a variety of fishing methods.

We — that is a South Korean business man, Mr. Young, who arrived within ten minutes of me at the Aquarius Inn yesterday.  This boat trip is just what you do and what you come for around here, so the assumption is that you “check that off’ on the first full day of your stay.  A boat can be hired for about $20 and will take up to 6 passengers.  The more fellow travelers you can find, the better the price-per-person gets.  The two of us were a good start and by the end of last night we had rounded up Sora, a young Japanese girl and David, a backpacker from Switzerland.

Our captain met us at the hotel and walked with us to the jetty where dozens of slender, upward pointing boats were lined up.  They transport cargo or passengers on demand.  When locals are transported across the lake they sit on the wooden planks, upward of a dozen or so.  When tourists are loaded, they get wooden lawn chairs to sit in, no more than six.  We Westerners are known for not doing so well for hours in seating positions…  The boats have no roof, and reports from sunny summer travelers are that by about noon this trip can become unbearable.  The rainy season was kind to us.  We had a full cover of clouds which rarely broke for more than ten minutes of sun shine, but we had no rain.  It could not have been better.

This was a beautiful and relaxing day.  There is something mesmerizing about water.  The hours pass by doing nothing but looking.  There are the unique Inle Lake fishermen, who stand on one leg at the end of their boats balancing their bodies by wrapping the other leg around an oar.  With their hands free they operate their fishing nets. It is beyond me why they don’t fall.  And I wonder who came up with this?  Somehow it must be an effective way of operating these fishing boats or this method would not have survived for hundreds of years.  I did not tire of looking at these men.

Other boats were operated by a team of two.  Often women or children would steer and process the catch while the men would stand and carefully throw and then collect their nets.  Each time they seem to catch something.  And then I saw some young men who stood in small boats, beating the water with a paddle.  I could not figure out what that was for.  They could hardly be killing fish like this directly.  Where they driving them into nets they had planted previously?

Dozens of villages line the lake.  Some of them are entire “floating villages” with houses built on stilts and literally over the lake; others are partially built into the lake but back up onto the main land.  The lake is shallow and I could not help but think of the Aztecs, who had built their capital Tenochtitlan on Lake Texcoco.  In both cases the lakes were shallow.  But contrary to the Inle Lake people, the Aztecs did not built on stilts but chose to create chinampas, floating islands, which they anchored in the soil with fast growing trees.  Both methods allowed each culture to live with and on the lake rather than next to it.

Inle Lake has it all: a floating market, floating monasteries and pagodas, floating workshops, homes, restaurants, stores, vegetable gardens, and recently, costly floating hotel resorts.  We stopped at a few places.  Memorable was a silversmith workshop where intricate jewelry was produced featuring a variety of distinct ethnic local designs.  As everywhere else, these were family businesses handed down for generations.  Young boys worked on benches bent over tiny silver parts.   One of them heated and shaped the silver with an old fashioned forge bellow he was pumping full of air with one hand while pushing a silver wire through the fire with the other.

We stopped at a village where three women from the famous “long-neck” tribe, the Badaung were working as weavers.  Aside from that, they were most desirable photo subjects for any and all foreigners who stopped by.  They made money from donations for allowing themselves to be photographed.  I was thrilled to have the opportunity to see three of these unique hill tribe women, but I was also utterly uncomfortable with the setting in which they were displayed like trophies.  On a table near their work area, samples of the neck bracelets they were wearing were displayed.  They were so heavy!  I had no idea!

Never say no and never think you know it all!  The question came up if we wanted to see a weaving factory and I of all people said that I did not need “another one” after having seen several weaving workshops by now.  Thankfully, the Japanese girl was interested and so we all went.  There never is just “another one”; not with all the pagodas, stupas, and temples and not with all the workshops around here.  Yes, there were the looms I had seen before and the cotton and silk products I had seen in various places around Myanmar, but never ever had I heard that you could make clothes out of lotus stalks!  A man sat on the floor with a pile of 2-3 feet long lotus stalks next to him.  With a knife he gently made a cut about two inches from the top, separating that part and pulling a bunch of very fine white fibers out from the inside of the stalk.  He did this several more times until the stalk was only about 10 inches long and he had pulled all the fibers from that one stalk.  On to the next.  After about 20 stalks, he was able to roll up the fibers into a single, sturdy thread.  We learned that it takes 4000 lotus stalks and 20 full days of pulling fibers before one small scarf of about 4 feet by 10 inches can be produced costing a whopping $160 dollars!

I was completely impressed, at least for a while.  Then I began to wonder:  Lotus Clothing How old was this method?  Was this a fad product developed for tourists?  It was definitely nothing that would go into mass production or was even feasible for large-scale consumption.  It was nothing that would satisfy animal activists, as it never could compete with the wide-spread silk production.  The fabric was nice, but if you would not know what you were looking at you would think you would handle a $10 mix of raw-silk and cotton.  What was the point of this?  Unfortunately, we were moved along and these questions only occurred to me much later.   I am still impressed, I have to admit.  But I am no longer convinced that this is a good idea.  4000 lotus stalks for a small scarf?

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4 comments so far

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  1. What an experience – stepping into another world. We have seen the pounding of paddles on the water in China and it was to move the fish out of the reeds and into the nets.

  2. So utterly different from anything I have ever seen or experienced. You are so fortunate to have been in the midst of this culture, to have seen these things. One wonders how long it will be around before “creeping civilization” shows them a “better way”. Or have they been passed over for the foreseeable future? Only time will tell.

  3. Good grief, what a miserable existence these people are eking out!

  4. It was as if life had been frozen in time….exactly! This is also my feeling when I was in Bagan and trekking from Kalaw to Inle.