A dying tradition: the leg-rowers of Inle Lake

I’ve been struggling to write about my time in Burma. The magnitude of visiting this country continues to follow me. I dream of pagodas, I feel the delicate strands of silk when I wrap myself in scarves, and my taste buds dance when I indulge in tea leaf salad, the supply of pickled tea leaves I brought home rapidly dwindling. How can I do the people justice?

I can start by talking about the leg-rowers of Inle Lake, in the northern ethnically diverse Shan State. I can start with them, because their tradition is rapidly dying out.

Traditional leg-rower of Inle Lake

Traditional leg-rower of Inle Lake

The waters of Inle Lake are thick with reeds, making water visibility poor if you are fishing in the traditional sitting position. The revised style evolved with the fishermen standing at the stern of the boat, one leg wrapped around the oar. This enabled them to see beyond the reeds and enjoy a better fishing haul.

A classic scene with a leg-rower.

A classic scene with a leg-rower.

But as tourism pours into the country, traditions like this are being lost. Shrouded in mystery, Burma has been cut off from the outside world for much of the 20th century due to an oppressive military junta and economic sanctions. Recent political reforms have led to a rapid increase in tourism into the country, and for better or worse, Burma is open for business. And with it come economic degradation, cultural homogenization, a loss of identity. And free speech slowly, cautiously returns.

My guide in Yangon, named Shan after his birth state to the north, takes us down University Avenue to point out Aung San Suu Kyi’s residence. He turns to me and smiles. “Welcome to Rangoon! I can now safely call it Rangoon again.” He speaks openly and in flawless English about the rapid changes he sees in his country due in part by the influx of people like me, travellers.

“You have just come from Nyaung Shwe, by Inle Lake. But you did not see many traditional rowers. They have given up the craft. They work in construction, in mining. The lake is getting very polluted, soon we won’t be able to fish there anymore.” I nod. My motorized boat took me all over the lake, spewing gasoline fumes into the air and dumping noxious chemicals into the lake. We passed mining equipment, luxury hotels, and the ever present tourist boats. He points to my camera. “Can I see your photos?”

The first leg-rower many will encounter from Nyaung Shwe

The first leg-rower many will encounter from Nyaung Shwe

“This man makes a living on tourists. He poses for photos at dawn, captures a few fish. I bet he asked for a tip when you were done taking his photo.” Shan hands the camera back to me as I nod. “This is the new Burma. This is the Burma where you can buy Coca-Cola, where there are ATMs at the pagodas, where we adjust to massive influx of tourism.”

Leg-rower at dawn

Leg-rower at dawn

Inle Lake was a land of contrasts, of beauty, and a welcome rest from the oppressive heat of the south. A blooming tourism industry, the region now boasts a hot spring (with the most dilapidated road I have ever encountered to get there), two vineyards, lush floating gardens, excellent markets, relaxing spas, affordable over-water accommodation, opportunities for bird watching for ornithologists, and ample lake tourism if you can drag yourself out of bed early enough in the morning to capture the golden light of dawn, as well as high quality silk and lotus weaving.

Spinning lotus thread

Spinning lotus thread

The wines available for sampling at the Red Mountain Estate Vineyards & Winery were a noble first effort. However, I couldn’t help but feel guilty.

Red Mountain Estate Vineyards & Winery

Red Mountain Estate Vineyards & Winery

Were the workers fisherman at one time? Would their sons continue the traditional occupation of the region, save it from obscurity? Or would they too cater to tourism?

Workers at Red Mountain Estate

Workers at Red Mountain Estate

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