Working on floating gardens at Inle Lake. Picture: Chris Olney

In the chilly early morning mist, traditional Inle Lake fishermen in their flat- bottomed skiffs quietly go about their task of setting and pulling their nets.

It is a scene that has been repeated for centuries but now the peace and quiet is shattered by the noise of dozens of diesel engines powering long skinny canoes ferrying tourists around Burma's second-biggest freshwater lake.

The canoes, with up to five visitors sitting in single file, pass within a few metres of the fishermen. There are no speed restrictions and no navigation markers on this vast lake.

The fishermen, perched precariously on the stern of their tiny craft, which they propel with an unusual "leg rowing" technique where one leg is wrapped around a single paddle, seem strangely unaware that their unique lifestyle is a source of fascination to visitors. There is no waving, though sometimes they will pose for a picture.

You can hardly blame them; up until three years ago tourists were few and far between in this part of the world. Since a change in government and the release of Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest in 2011, hundreds of hotels, guest houses and restaurants have sprung up.

According to our guide, there is still not enough accommodation to meet the growing demand. So those intrepid travellers who arrive at Nyaungshwe, at the northern end of the lake, without booked accommodation may find themselves sleeping in a Buddhist monastery, of which there are plenty. Nyaungshwe is 35km, about an hour's drive, from the airport at Heho, in turn about 660km or an hour and half flight from Yangon (Rangoon).

Inle Lake is a vast waterway, 22km long and 11km wide, with long canals joining it. As yet, there are no ferries or other types of water transport, so if your hotel is on the water - and I counted at least a dozen - you need to be capable of stepping off a jetty (often just a plank) into an unstable low, narrow boat. Of course, getting out is perhaps more difficult.

More than 90,000 people live on and around Inle Lake. Many still live a traditional lifestyle in woven bamboo and wood houses on stilts in villages where the only transport is by boat.

But not everything has to be ferried in. The Intha people, one of Burma's many tribes, have developed ingenious floating gardens which supply fruit and vegetables for their own needs, as well as tomatoes to the rest of the country.

They use the floating masses of water hyacinth as a base which is anchored with bamboo poles. Mud is collected from the bottom of the lake to put on top of the plant material to make a rich soil in which plants thrive.

Other produce is bought and sold at a series of markets which move between villages on the lake's shores in a five-day cycle.

The market at Inthein is on a long canal that winds through thick vegetation and takes almost an hour to reach from our hotel on the other side of the lake.

Although there is the usual array of tourist trinkets, the market is bustling with locals going about their lives, buying and selling food and household goods. Here we get a glimpse of life that has changed little in 100 years.

Behind the village are hundreds of Buddhist stupas, many with trees growing through them reminiscent of Angkor Wat in Cambodia and dating from the 17th century.

The surge in tourists means the boat business is booming. A 12m teak canoe takes about a month to complete and costs about $US2500 ($2700). The engine is extra.

It also means the local cottage industries - spinning, weaving, silver smithing and making cheroots - are thriving too, with tourist boats spilling their captive cargo at the front door.

There is no option to stay on the boat, which is usually then moored some distance away until we are ready to leave.

Visitors are invited to watch the primitive production techniques and then, of course, get the chance to buy the products.

One of the area's unique items is thread woven from the stems of lotus plants. Traditionally, this was woven with silk to make robes for Buddha but now it is woven into unique scarves for western tourists which sell for about $US60 ($66) each, compared to $US20 ($22) for silk scarves.

Our hotel, the Myanmar Treasure Resort, was connected to the shore by a long boardwalk, with staff living in hotel accommodation on the land.

However, once evening falls there is no escape from the hotel. There are no lights on the lake and unless there is an emergency the boats don't operate.

There is no mobile phone coverage for western telephones, wi-fi is scarce and when available it is slow, ATMs are rare and the US dollar (only new notes after 2006) is king. But signs are that it can't last. If you want to see the traditional Burma, it would pay to plan a trip soon.

The West Australian

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