Picturesque Inle Lake and it’s Unique Intha (Lake-Dwellers)
Lakes are lovely all over the world. But if you take a lake, unpolluted and with clean, crystal clear waters and from a hot tropical climate, put it in cooler climes high up to 2,900 feet above sea level, stretch it 14 miles and surround it with blue mist-shrouded mountains, you will really get an exquisitely beautiful, romantic place. This is Inle Lake, one of the most popular resorts for foreign tourists as well as for the local people of Myanmar.
To make it all the more interesting, this lake is not bare and barren like the great Indaw Gyi Lake of the Kachin State, the largest lake in Myanmar. Inle, though it is the second largest in size, is inhabited by the unique Intha people, lake-dwellers who have so well adapted to their strange unusual way of life, that they live in complete harmony with their natural environment, with a sustainable aquatic and agricultural economy, handicrafts and trade. They are also the only people in the whole world who row their boats, not with their hands, but with their feet, while standing up.
Inle Lake is located in the southern part of the Shan State, the largest of the seven states of Myanmar. Apart from the other seven regions of mainland Myanmar, these seven states are named after the predominant ethnic group in their respected region, and they surround the lowland areas of central Myanmar in a horse-shoe shape on high mountains and hills. Of all the seven states, the Shan State is the largest, richest and culturally the most interesting area, with a long history dating back over seven or eight centuries. The Shans are racially akin to the Thais, the word Shan is actually a slightly different pronunciation and spelling of Siam, as they come from the same word.
Inle Lake was at one time under the jurisdiction of the Sawbwa (Chieftain) of Nyaung Shwe. The lake is on the Shan plateau which is surrounded by high mountains and stretches to the borders of China and Thailand to the east and includes the famous Golden Triangle region where Myanmar, Thailand, and Laos meet.
The Lake is elongated in shape and stretches about 14 miles from north to south, and at the broadest part, east to west, it is only about seven miles. It is about 25.8 square miles in area, though if the marshland around it is included it is 75.4 square miles. During the monsoon, rainy season, the water level rises and some of the marshland is again covered by lake waters.
The depth of the water is on average only 7 feet, so it is sometimes called by the local people, In-Tain or “Shallow Lake”. The deepest part, in October, or near the end of the rains, is not more than 20 feet, in summer (March-April) the deepest is only 12 feet. At the shallow southern end, it is only about 4 or 5 feet deep.
The lake waters are broad in the northern part from In-Ywa Oo (which means village at the head of the lake) to the Nant Pan in the southern part. It is at its widest stretch between the villages of Maing Thauk and Par Nwe on the east bank and Lin Kin to Kyun Gyi on the west bank. The lake waters become narrower and narrower towards the south, and it becomes the Taung-bilar Chaung (stream). From its southern end from Min-Ywa village, it becomes the Bilu Chaung, a well-known name in Myanmar because it produces the largest volume of hydroelectric power in the country at Moe Bye dam, beyond the dam is the famous Lawpita Waterfalls near Loikaw, the capital of the Kayah State.
Geologists say that the lake was formed from the erosion of limestone, and it is “a solution lake”. About 10.5 million years ago, the lake waters were about 300 feet higher than at present. The lake was formed by “block faulting”. At one time the lake was much larger and stretched for 36 miles, with a width of 8 miles. Even the present town of Nyaung Shwe was under the lake waters, innundated.
About 40,000 million cubit volume of waters flow into Inle Lake, and the sedimentation rate is about 22 million cubits per year. The actual water volume of the lake is only about 12,200 million cubits and geologists say that if nothing is done to control the erosion, the sedimentation and so on, the whole lake will disappear within 500 years and some researchers are also saying that it could be much sooner than that. The peculiar nature of the lake is that there is no hard lake-bed, but only greenish sediment in layers that form a soft marshy one. This is full of limestone sediments that form good fertilizer for plants, therefore, the lake-bed is clogged with aquatic plants.
There are a number of rivers and streams which flow into Inle Lake. From the north flow in the Nan Kat and Nan Lat streams which later form the Nan Lit Chaung (or locally known as Tayaw Chaung). This is dammed near Oke-Hpo village and there are two ponds near the Shwe Nyaung to Nyaung Shwe road. Then it flows by Bawdi-That Chaung to the Maing Li Chaung at Nyaung Shwe and crossing Hpa-Hpai village flows into the Lake.
Similarly, there are many streams and rivers flowing in from the west and the east. To the south, it is the Bilu Chaung (meaning Ogre River) which flows out from the lake, and the Inle Lake area is sometimes referred to as the Bilu Chaung basin.
Inle Lake is surrounded by Sin Taung (or Elephant Mountain), Loi Khawt Taung, Loi Ngan Taung and Thet Hlwot Taung to the east, and Let-Maung Kwe Taung, Shwe Myin Tin Taung, Taung Kha Mauk Taung, Shwe In Tain and Shwe U Daung Taung to the west. (Taung means hill or mountains).
As Inle Lake is at an elevation of nearly 2,900 feet it has a milder, cooler climate than places like Yangon and Mandalay. Many Myanmar people like to visit Inle Lake during the hot season months of March and April when temperatures in plains of lowland Myanmar are well over 100’F as it is only about 90’F in Inle even at the hottest time. For foreign visitors from cooler climates, the best time to visit Inle is after the monsoon period (from mid-May to the end of September), and especially during the cool season (winter) from November to February when the coldest temperature in only 45’F and never below freezing point.
During the monsoon when rainfall is about 120 inches per year in the Ayeyarwady Delta and Yangon city area, in the Inle area, it is only about half that amount, i.e. 60 inches per year. Probably because of the mountains surrounding the lake, visibility is sometimes only for a few yards and if you are caught in the middle of the lake, it is as if you are way out in the ocean, the shorelines disappear, and you are alone in “the wide, wide sea”.