Experience 22: Learn to row with your legs on Inle Lake

by Oliver Smith
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We’ve taken some extraordinary boat trips on our journey so far, from the ghats of Varanasi to the canals of Venice. But today we set out on what may have been the most challenging of the lot.

Inle is one of the main destinations for Myanmar's growing number of tourists – a long, narrow lake surrounded by low-slung hills and bamboo stilt-houses, and full of swaying reeds. In fact, the waters are so packed with reeds, the local fishermen of the Intha tribe use an unusual style of rowing so they can spot their prey from up above. Standing up on their boats, they wrap their thighs around a paddle and push themselves through the water, freeing up a hand to chuck a spear at any unsuspecting fish that swims by.

It’s a skill that’s impressive to witness, almost as if the paddle were an extension of their legs. Today, with the help of some of Inle’s finest leg-rowers, I did my best to learn leg-rowing in half an hour. Needless to say it didn’t end well for any of the parties concerned. Except maybe the fish.

It soon became clear that these boats are designed for small, nimble-footed local men, not big clumsy Anglo-Saxons with bellies ballasted by spring rolls. Just standing up on the boat proved impossible. I’d perform an elaborate ballet routine to stay upright – lurching one way and then the other like a Jenga tower about to collapse – before crash-landing in the water, getting a mouthful of algae and sending a minor tsunami to the far corners of the lake. The fishermen watched me with the odd mix of pity and confusion only reserved for 27-year-old men wearing fluorescent lifejackets in waters two-foot deep.

Then I tried to use a fishing net and the spear. For one proud moment, I managed to cast the net into the lake, before giving it a spontaneous test drive by falling in and getting tangled up in it. By the sixth time I’d fallen in, any self-respecting fish close by would have swum to the next province. 

I said goodbye to the fishermen with a newfound respect for the art of leg rowing. They paddled off – the shallow drafts of their boats slowly vanishing into the horizon – and for one strange moment it looked as if the two figures in the distance were walking on water.

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