Published March 17, 2014
Inle Lake, sunk into a valley 2,800 feet above sea level in Burma's Shan state, is like the region's fertile San Joaquin Valley, producing a cornucopia of colorful vegetables in prolific amounts.
Tomatoes, cauliflower, beans, cucumbers, even flowers for offerings at local Buddhist temples all grow here. But instead of farmers tilling soil and planting seeds in the ground, the "farmers" of Inle Lake raise their crops on floating islands, built from underwater weeds dredged up from around the lake.
Inle Lake is one of the major tourist destinations in Burma (also known as Myanmar), where tourism is becoming a major industry for the country as a whole.
For decades the Southeast Asian nation was an isolated and repressive country tightly controlled by military rulers. But in 2010 voters elected an ostensibly civilian government. Since then Burma has implemented a number of political and economic reforms, and has thrown its doors open, welcoming not just tourists but businessmen and investors from all over the world.
There's a frontier atmosphere about the place, with companies rushing in to get a piece of the action as one of the last undeveloped economies in Asia takes off.
Getting to Inle Lake requires an adventurer's spirit, too.
From Burma's former capital, Rangoon (also known as Yangon), there are a number of local airlines that provide service in turboprop planes to Heho, the closest airport to Inle Lake. It's a short flight – a little over an hour – but worth it. The drive would take over 12 hours and while enjoying the flight you can see why – layer after layer of mountain ridges peek up through the mist toward the horizon.
From Heho it's a short drive to the town of Nyuang Shwe to board a boat that will finally get you out onto the lake. Most of the travel on the lake, for tourists and locals alike, is done in long, narrow teak boats powered by noisy, cheap Chinese outboard engines, whose sound disturbs the otherwise bucolic setting.
At 13.6 miles long and a little over six miles across, Inle Lake is the second largest lake in Burma. (Indawgyi Lake in northern Kachin state is the biggest.) The floating gardens cover about a quarter of the lake surface.
It takes about 15 years to develop an island for growing a crop. The dredged-up weeds are mixed with earth and slowly the islands grow. Bamboo poles anchor the islands to the lakebed.
Surprisingly, even with all that plant life mulched together there is no trace of a smell of rotting vegetation. Climbing "ashore" on one of the islands, the plant bed undulates with the added weight, but it offers sturdy support and the eddying water is cool and appears clean.
The gardens provide much of the produce for local consumers. As the boat skims over the water, walls of vines full of ripe, red tomatoes line the canal. Locals are proud to say that the tomatoes grown here provide 70 percent of all the tomatoes sold in Shan state.
On some plots, heavy gourds (or pumpkin, in the local lingo) ready for harvest hang over the water. Elsewhere, a new crop of a not-yet-identifiable vegetable is sprouting through the topsoil of newish-looking islands.
The vegetables go well with another thing the lake provides in abundance – freshwater fish.
Inle Lake's skilled and much-photographed fishermen have developed a unique way to maneuver their boats as they go after their catch. Standing on one end of the boat they wrap one leg around the oar and use that to row. This allows them a good view to steer clear of water plants and it leaves their hands free to tend to their nets and baskets.
Another local industry that takes advantage of the lake's natural resources is lotus weaving. In a labor-intensive process, craftspeople extricate the fibers from freshly picked water lotus stems. The fibers are joined together to create strands of yarn, which is then woven into garments for monks. It's also mixed with silk and woven into colorful scarves for the rest of us.
But aside from supporting these industries, the lake is very much a part of the everyday life of local residents. Homes and businesses are built on stilts over it and people bathe, brush their teeth, wash their dishes and clean their clothes in it.
Visitors can get a small taste of the local lifestyle by staying in one of the comfortable hotels that also are built out over the water. The rooms are in high demand. A recent study found that more than 300,000 visitors make their way to the lake every year, with that number set to double by 2015.
The government has approved a 600-acre hotel zone (downsized from 2000 acres originally) for up to 16 hotels on a hill to the east of the lake. The site already is being prepped and cleared land is visible from the middle of the lake.
A project of this size will undoubtedly alter the landscape of parts of the lake. The Ministry of Hotels and Tourism says it's committed to developing and managing tourism in sustainable and responsible ways.
Still, now would be a good time to go to Inle Lake, if for nothing else than to get that "before" picture.