Inle LakeInle Lake is 22 km long, 11 km wide, 1328 metres above sea level and outrageously picturesque - it has dead calm eaters dotted with patches of floating vegetation and busy fishing canoes. High hills rim the lake on both sides; the lakeshore and lake islands bear more than 17 villages on stilts, mostly inhabited by the Intha people. Culturally and linguistically separate from their Shan neighbours, the Inthas are thought to have migrated to this area from Dawei (Tavoy) on the Taninthayi peninsula (Tenasserim) in southern Myanmar. The Intha dialect is related to standard Burmese but also shows similarities with the Mon-influence Dawei dialect. The Burmese 'th' sound becomes an 's' in Intha, so that the Burmese 'beh-thwa-ma-lay' ("Where are you going?") becomes 'beh-swa-ma' among the Intha.
According to one story, two brothers from Dawei came to Nyaungshwe in 1359 to serve a Nyaungshwe sawbwa (Shan chief). The latter was so pleased with the hard-working demeanour of the Dawei brothers that he asked them to invite 36 more families from Dawei; purportedly all the Intha around Inle Lake are descended from these migrant families. Another theory says they migranted from the Mon region in the 18th Century to avoid wars between the Thais and Burmans. Like the Shan, Mon and Burmans, the Intha are Buddhist; there are around 100 Buddhist Monasteries around the lake and perhaps a thousand stupas. The Inle style of religious architecture and Buddhist sculpture is stroungly Shan-influenced.
The hard-working Intha are famous for propelling their flat bottomed boats by standing at the stern on one leg and wrapping the other leg around the oar. This strange leg-rowing technique offers relief to the arms which are also used for rowing during the long paddles from one end of the lake to another. It also enables the rower to better see floating water hyacinth (kyunpaw) it's sometimes necessary to stand up to plot a path around the obstacles and to spot fish. Although outboard mortors are used for cross-lake ferries and for carrying tourists to the islands and lakeshore villages, most people still use oars and paddles to avoid petrol shortages, to save money and to preclude the hassle of hyacinth-tangled propellers.
The entire lake area is contained in the township of Nyaungshwe and supports the tribes that consits of Intha, Shan, Taungthu, Taungyo, Pa-O, Danu, Kayah, Danaw and Burman people.
The industrious villagers inhabiting the lake region support themselves by growing a wide variety of flowers, vegetables and fruits all year round, including tomatoes, beans, cauliflower, cabbage, eggplant, garlic, onions, betel vine, melon, papaya and banana. They also grow rice, especially at the northern end of the lake around Nyaungshwe.
One of the best times of the year to be here is during September and October. The ceremonial Phaung Daw Oo festival, which lasts for almost three weeks, is closely followed by the Thadingyut festival, when the Inthas and Shan dress in new clothes and celebrate with fervour the end of Waso, or Buddhist Lent. They are so religious that it's not unusual for families to spend all of their meagre savings during this one annual event.
During January and February, the nights and mornings around the lake area are cold, so you should bring socks and sweaters, and a warm sleeping bag would also be handy.