Rowing a boat with your leg is quite a difficult feat, but the leg-rowers of Inle Lake are well balanced men.

Inle Lake lies in in the Shan state of north-east Burma at a height of 880 metres above sea level. The shallow blue lake, covering an area of 116 sq kms, is known for its unique leg-rowing fishermen who are never known to fall overboard.

Known as Inthas, local people numbering about 70,000, live in four towns bordering the lake, in stilt-perched villages around the edge, and on floating islands on the lake itself.

Micro-gardens flourish in the mud beneath their houses where chickens and other livestock forage for food. There are also large floating vegetable gardens made from lashed reeds and anchored by bamboo poles which rise and fall with changes in the water level, and so are resistant to flooding.

The Intha’s basic diet is rice and fish. Fruits and vegetables along with necessities are sold in the ywa-ma, a miniature floating market which circles the lake, visiting all the villages, every few days.

When not cooking and gardening, Intha women weave colourful tote bags which are sold to visitors in the corridor leading to the Phaungdaw-U pagoda overlooking the lake. They also produce hand-woven silk textiles and the cotton longyi, a sarong-type garment worn by men.

Intha men have a constant battle to keep the pagodas above water level as the floating islands on which many are built slip beneath them. Graceful leg-rowers glide by carrying mounds of mud to prop them up. Water hyacinth, a major problem, must also be cleared.

In October a spectacular water carnival takes place when a golden Buddha accompanied by flower-laden hlays is taken in a procession around the lake. Leg-rowing races with 10-12 men, all rowing on one leg to a boat, are a highlight.

With tourism on the rise, the best advice is to visit this special part of Burma before it changes. A luxury hotel with bar, spa and bicycles for hire has already been built on the lake-shore. Access is from HeHo Airport, 35 kms via a domestic flight from Rangoon or Mandalay.



About Travels with My Hat

Australian photojournalist and author. Used London as a base for nearly forty years while freelancing in the Middle East, Arabian peninsular, Africa and South Asia. Have written and illustrated more than a dozen books and travel guides. Operates a well regarded religious images stock photo library: Live in Leura in the Blue Mountains outside Sydney.
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  1. Rosie says:

    How interesting, I had never heard of 'leg rowers'!

  2. julia says:

    I enjoyed reading this unusual and colourful story.It must be a very powerful muscular action.

  3. Mimi says:

    It is as you say, and I have a big jolt of nostalgia reading about it. The Phaungdaw-U Buddhas have been so covered with gold leaf that they look more like lightbulbs. A culinary "delight" of the region is a "dessert" of avocado filled with sugar and thick sweet evaporated milk. Well, it's different!

  4. cobweb says:

    The beauty of Asia and all its places of interest is that they are so different from our western culture and here is another one, one I have not heard of before. I'm sure Burma is going to soon be on the tourist route and will benefit from the dollars this will bring. Articles such as this one all help to promote a new and it seems, a fascinating country and no doubt for those who love something new and untouched you are right to encourage, they make the journey soon. Thank you for another glimpse into your basket of knowledge.

  5. I love your turn of phrase "basket of knowledge". Thank you.

  6. I find, now older, a huge nostalgia for the places visited in one's youth. Yet I recognise that all things must change.What sort of sugar for the avocado you mention? Jaggary would be good: if I can find some, I will try it.

  7. Mimi says:

    Jaggery would be the best, of course, but it's plain white granulated sugar they use and so much sweetness is an acquired taste.

  8. Jenny Woolf says:

    Extraordinary – this is a new one for me. Now it seems Burma will finally be able to start developing tourism, I guess we will start to become more familiar with its oddities.

  9. CO says:

    Tourists 'historically' go to Bagan, Mandalay and apparently now, also to Inle Lake, but there are many areas of this lovely, backward country which are not visited. When last there, I hired a taxi and travelled down to Moulmein in the delta. This is where Kipling wrote "waking, winking wonder" of the great pagoda. It is a fascinating town filled with temples, mosques and churches. Then there is the long, as yet unspoilt coastline, along the Bay of Bengal.

  10. Paul Gapper says:

    Your blogs are always so inviting I want to go there! Perhaps more of us should visit and support the local communities with tourism. If David Cameron likes it then it can't be bad.Keep on writing I want to read more.

  11. CO says:

    Thank you Paul. I had not known that DC had given his approval…

  12. Mags says:

    I have to agree with Paul,your blogs are incredibly informative and can only inspire people to visit this wonderful country.Looking forward to reading many many more.

  13. Thank you for dropping in Mags.

  14. Julia says:

    There is discussion these days on what name Burma/Myanmar should be used for the country. Many people continued to use Burma as a protest against the military coup (relates to the Burman people) and the concensus is that we should call it what name is used by Aung Saan Suu Kyi. You don't mention what year you visited.

  15. CO says:

    Until now, as a protest, many people stuck with Burma and this was also used by the BBC. I suppose if Suu Kyi is using Myanmar, then we must acquiecse. I know its smacks of colonialism, but I do prefer many of the old names we grew up with (Bombay for one) and I do hope the rulers never change the name of Mandalay. Or perhaps they have already?

  16. AMA says:

    Now that the political arena has improved a little, it may soon encourage more visitors . A fascinating read- well done !

  17. CO says:

    I hope visitors will endeavour to visit independent of "package tours". Many of the big hotels used by foreign tour operators are an investment of the military. Stay and eat local is the word. It also works out a lot cheaper.

  18. Jules says:

    I notice my previous comment has a typo… Aung San is not Saan… digital error. I have not heard her say whichever name yet. Like you, I prefer the old names, Burma references the Burman tribe, perhaps why it was changed my the military.When I first visited in 1978, I could stay where I liked. When I returned in 1980, I had to stay in the govt approved places. I hope the whole place truly loosens up as time goes by.

  19. Sorry to turn up so late for this post. I like the fact that you mention Moulmein, Christine. On my recent trip to Myanmar/Burma I spent a few days in Moulmein and also Hpa-an in the southeast. Much as I enjoyed Bagan, Mandalay and Yangon, Moulmein was the highlight of my trip. It was a great train ride there too from the capital.There's a piece on my blog here: and here: for the Myanmar v Burma debate. The BBC still insist on calling it Burma, presumably in defiance to the incumbent regime. My understanding is that Myanmar was chosen as a name because a) it has no colonial overtones and b)there are large majorities in the country that are not ethnically Burmese.Absolutely right: eat, sleep local. Unfortunately trains are government run. An excellent and very cheap boat can be chartered between Moulmein and Hpa-an if you ask the man at the Breeze Hotel.

    • Sorry to turn up late to reply but I have not been receiving the comments! I am so pleased you also like Moulmein. Until now, no tourists makes a huge difference but of course it is brimming with cultural and religious interest.

  20. Moulmein should be on the UN World Heritage List.Thanks for tip re. boat-trip.If only tourists knew about locally-run boat-trips – notably on the Irrawaddy – instead of paying huge sums for a luxury river-cruise through a foreign tour operator…

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