Perhaps no area of Myanmar touched me more than Inle Lake. The fishing village I visited on the lake, is neither pre-modern or post-modern, it is somewhere in between: all the trash from modern life, but few of the conveniences. In a mostly pre-modern world, much of life revolves around fire and rain: the wood-burning fires that cook the food, and the rains that irrigate; the rains that cause the level of the lake to rise and fall, marking seasonal changes, and impacting what kind of fishing techniques can be used. I was touched by the living conditions, I was touched by the under-developed medical infrastructure, I was touched by the people with [real] disabilities, and I was touched by the stories of how the mobile Internet was changing lives.
Not far from the departure point on the lake, you come across a type of Inle Lake fisherman that is also famous for demonstrating their balancing skills to tourists, in return for tips. The fishing technique is not the only technique on the lake, and it is a real technique, but it only works when the water level in the lake is at the right level, because it depends on the cage being able to touch the bottom of the lake. Other fishing techniques work all year round.
Being a lake, you get around by boat. I was told that motor engines have been with the lake for sometime, going back to diesel engines. There is usually a steady stream of boats going in either direction in the middle of the day. Note, these boats do not have covers, as you may have come to expect at many destinations, so slap on a hat and some sunscreen. Many of the boats have umbrellas as well, which provides fairly good protection from the sun, for the upper body.
Not surprisingly, in a pre-modern town, you get to see a bunch of different arts and crafts done the old fashion way. You can visit a blacksmith, a silversmith, and weavers.
Certainly the blacksmith and silversmith make for some good photographs, but it is also interesting, in both cases, to see how old manually pumped billows are operated. In all cases, you of course get the opportunity to buy wears.
The state of technology in the fishing village, and surrounding villages, that I visited, had a large impact on me. Crops cannot be transported far because of the lack of refrigeration both in the transport infrastructure but also in homes. In this area, electricity arrived around 2008, but most cooking is still done by charcoal, wood, and hay – wood and hay having different burning characteristics leading to different cooking effects. I asked one of the locals why electric kitchen appliances are not used, and the answer I got was that people do not know how to use them. There might be something to that, but I am a little skeptical of that. I am not sure these economies are credit based, because incomes are neither steady or large. This was emphasized with me when one of the locals expressed skepticism about whether apartments, a little further inland, would be successful. I was told that electricity is used for rice cookers, but not other appliances. In the house I visited, there were electric outlets in one part of the house only, where the rice cooker was, but apparently they are used for charging phones as well.
The Internet came in 2012, in the form of mobile Internet. Before that, football matches would be a community affair – someone had one of those large satellite dishes, they would set up a viewing area, and people would pay to watch football. Now, there is the Internet. Before 2012, people in the Inle Lake area did not know about protests occurring in other parts of the country, now there is FaceBook which is used as a search engine. One of the young men told me he watched Mark Zuckerberg’s congressional testimony live, on Facebook. He also told me he does not watch BBC or Al-Jazeera, believing them to be “fake news”, he would rather talk to someone on FaceBook who lives in another part of the country and learn from that person “what is really going on”.
In the Inle Lake area, I was particularly struck by the no-man’s land this community is in. All the paper/plastic trash all around from modern disposable consumables, but few of the comforts of modernity; and for sure, not the level of healthcare we take for granted in developed countries. One of the young men I was talking to clearly had a disability (an actual deformity, I am not talking about the tourist scam type of disability). I noticed someone else with a disability, so I asked the young man I was talking to about why so many disabilities. He told me 5% of people in Myanmar had a disability (the only official source I could find says 2.3%). I asked the young man why the rate was so high, and he said it was because so many people are born at home, which in and of itself can cause problems, but certainly there is not good care when things go wrong. Whatever the real rate of disability, and whatever the real reasons, I was also told that the older generation was skeptical about hospital care, and it does appear that hospital facilities are still being built out in rural areas.
Clearly, if you think tech is killing the world, you might want to spend some time in parts of the world where tech is not pervasive. Depending on where you are, you might begin to appreciate just how much tech has improved our lives, and how privileged we are to live in a tech-centric part of the world. I understand there are some improvements to be made, but let’s be clear, there are some parts of the world where living without tech may indeed be fun for a while, but there are others where it definitely is not.
One particularly interesting aspect of the area is a type of vegetation that floats on the surface of the lake, and allows vegetables to be grown on top of it. It has been tried in other areas but fails. Apparently the calcium running down from the limestone in the hills creates an enhanced buoyancy. One person claimed that 40% of the Myanmar’s tomatoes came from this region (but that is probably something worth fact checking).
There are long and short treks in the area. I took a small hike to the top of a hill to get a good view of the surrounding area. At the top, I came across this delightfully photogenic local who was at first shy about getting her photo taken, but once we showed her a photo in the camera display, she was enthusiastic. Taking pictures of people is a tricky thing. It can be intrusive and not everyone likes it. So care is needed.
The one sunset I caught was gorgeous, presenting different hues over a period of time, and hard to capture in a few shots. For those that don’t mind the occasional nip of a flesh-eating insect, they are a sight to behold.
Lastly, as we drove away from the lake, we stopped in a rice field to snap a few pics. The more yellowish color represents rice that is close to harvest.
Inle Lake is a community that is neither modern or pre-modern, somewhere in between. There are beautiful sights, fun boat rides on the lake, and to die for sunsets. There is also a backdrop of a people ebbing and flowing with the tides of tourism, and not yet enjoying all that the world has to offer. Do they know it? I’m not sure.