From a distance, the fishermen of Inle Lake look like match stick figures – thin, straight, black silhouettes against the morning sun.
As you get a little closer, they could be mistaken for cranes stalking across their river, plucking their long, agile legs in and out of the calm, cool water.
But truly up close, they are more like ballerinas, performing a graceful dance across the smooth blue stage of the lake’s surface, all in chorus, their legs arching expertly at right angle arabesques, to a silent orchestra.
Their elegant, expert, one-legged fishing style is unique to this region, and so mesmerising that it’s perfectly obvious as to why these otherwise humble fishermen have achieved such celebrity status as the face of Inle Lake – the iconic image of their smiling faces and outstretched single leg is emblazoned across all manner of souvenir, be it postcard, t-shirt, magnet or key ring.
The lake itself is its own microcosm, with varying pockets of life teeming across its circumference. The vast blue centre of the lake is of course fishermen territory, while at the edge of the lake, stilt villages populate its muddier, reedier corners, their existence marked by highway-like signposts and, as you’d expect, purpose built post offices, schools and restaurants.
With our hotel built on the lake itself next to one of the stilt villages, it’s the perfect place to observe the boat motorway of locals going to market, transporting goods to sell and those bringing home what they’ve bought.
Sunset is conveniently also rush hour, when the sound of motors is as profound and predictable as the arrival of mosquitos.
At the lake’s western edge you’ll find the market villages of Inndain and Nampan. Inndain, set across two banks of a channel, connected by a wooden bridge, is, to be truthful, a tourist favourite, but it’s still not crowded when exploring the temple ruins behind the action of the riverfront, as well as the market and monastery. A real highlight is the golden teenage Buddha, shining in the sunlight yet hidden inside an overgrown temple ruin.
On the other side of the village, past the market and the lady frying fresh Burmese pancakes, climb the hill that leads you to more temples and a panoramic view of the village. Be prepared for local monk children to offer to show you around and ask for a donation at the end.
Inndain, along with Nampan, is one of the five villages that the local market rotates across, and we managed to catch it in Nampan. Our boat had to edge its way in across the crowd of boats that flock to come to the market – tourists to buy local trinkets, locals to stock up on single portions of anything from meat, rice and spices to vegetable oil and petrol, and even get their hair cut at the mobile barbers and chill out at the ubiquitous tea house.
You can escape the market tourist crowds by visiting some of the harder to reach villages, like Thang Tong, on the other side of the lake. After the always impressive boat ride, it’s a leisurely stroll through fields of sugar cane, peanuts and rice to reach the village. There’s not a tourist in sight, and no trinkets to be sold – this is the local equivalent of Tesco, and then some. Vitamin B injections anyone? You can get it here.
We buy some fresh fried pastries and sweet, sticky tamarind buns to take with us, as Thang Thong is the perfect place to walk to the Khaung Daing hot springs, where you can shake off the dust and immerse yourself in the soothing, curing waters – there’s even cold beer.
We stayed at the Paramount Inle Lake Resort and flew Air Bagan from Bagan (Nyaung U) to Inle Lake (Heho).