Inle Lake’s Fishermen & Long Neck Women

After a long bus ride and even longer boat ride into the scenic Inle Lake, I was greeted by amazingly huge cloudy skies, wooden buildings on stilts, floating gardens, and people standing in boats as far as the eye can see. As my boat penetrated deeper into the lake I realized that the people were in fact fisherman who were standing on one foot. These Intha fisherman use their leg to row so they can fish with their hands while precariously perched on the rear of their boats for hours at a time. Every so often, the fishermen would force their huge wood gill nets down into the water. I wasn’t exactly sure how this worked because net fisherman usually hit the water to scare fish into their nets but these fisherman merely pushed their large wooden contraptions into the water. I leaned out of my boat (much to my driver’s dismay as the boat severely rocked) and suddenly understood – Inle Lake was only 2-3 meters deep despite being over 115km² so the net would actually touch the lake bed and trap fish inside. Ingenious! There were only a few fisherman out and it was the middle of the day so I decided to set out before sunrise the next morning.

Waking up in the pitch dark, I gathered my camera gear and got onto the boat my hotel so nicely supplied. Setting out onto a mosquito filled lake on a rickety boat in the pitch darkness is pretty terrifying, but thankfully I was taking my anti-malaria medications. The lake started to slowly light up as first light appeared and I could just barely make out the boat driver.

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My driver took me to an old abandoned structure in the middle of the lake where I could set up my tripod. It used to be a market but my driver told me it now belongs to the Myanmar government but is almost never used. A number of fisherman were busy looking for fish in the murky pre-dawn light.

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I couldn’t believe that they were standing on one foot on the backs of their very unstable looking small boats. I switched lenses and quickly realized that they were, in fact, doing exactly that. Their center of gravity was often behind the back of the boat yet they managed to not fall into the water.

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Facing away from the rising sun, one fisherman was wearing a bright red orange that closely resembled Burmese longyi. I imagine the dress-like longyi would be somewhat difficult to fish in.

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Getting even closer, I could see how they deftly navigated and rowed their boats with their feet.

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Recreating a classic Inle lake shot I saw at the airport. Recreating shots I’ve already seen isn’t really my style but it was fun calling over the fisherman and tipping him for letting me to ease onto his boat for a few photos. He didn’t even blink at the request so I imagine he is familiar with photographers.

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The sun started to come up so I decided to get out of the boat and enjoy the sunrise in peace.

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My plans to quietly enjoy the sunrise were cut short when this young boy appeared out of nowhere and loudly listened to some music on what appeared to be a shortwave radio with an impressively massive antenna. I was photographing from a nearly abandoned floating market in the middle of the river and there were no parents anywhere and he didn’t arrive on any boat that I could see. Did he sleep on the structure that night? Was he a squatter? I never did figure that out.

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And now for something completely different.

I decided to shoot some silhouette shots since I hadn’t yet seen Inle Lake fisherman photographed like that before. I also love to play with light and haven’t had much of an opportunity to do that on this trip. After a few boring silhouette shots that were all very blown out (this is nearly the equivalent of photographing straight into the sun after all) I decided to go all pinhole photography up in here. I jacked the ISO down to 100 and shrunk the aperture to ƒ/32. At small apertures (high f-stops) something interesting starts to happen: you get starbursts. This is typically done with city street lights or a few points of light to create dramatic light bursts but I’ve never really seen it applied like this before. It’s typically an effect that people avoid and can be very distracting but I decided to push it far beyond reasonable limits to get the photos below. Abusing optical physics for fun, yep, that’s me!

There were zero photographic filters used for these shots and nothing was done in Photoshop. The star bursts were due to the tiny aperture and this effect was naturally captured by the lens.

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Burmese fisherman, superstar!

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My God, it’s full of stars…

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Rowing with his feet.

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After going crazy with the starburst fisherman I took another break… trying to use one of the fishing nets for partial shade. I am 5’10” so you can see how large these are, a net of this size could easily trap fish in the ~2 meter deep lake behind me.

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I got a few more traditional shots in the boat but the sun was already high enough to be casting rough shadows…

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And perhaps I can get in a little closer for a completely different perspective…

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Nope, shadows still rough. As my boat headed back to my hotel I turned back to photograph the structure I was photographing from – an amazing little abandoned floating market and perhaps home to a mysterious Burmese boy with a radio.

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This is the entrance to my hotel on stilts… only accessible by boat.

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Did i mention my hotel was on stilts? I could look out the window of my room and see fish swimming below and the entire room slowly rocked as waves gently lapped against the stilts. This was truly a magical spot – no internet for probably 50 miles in any direction, beautiful serene skies, no fans or air conditioning, and absolute silence as fisherman silently glided across the river every morning. I did not want to leave.

For a few moments I felt as though I had a rare glimpse into how the British colonials in Burma lived over a hundred years ago. In fact, someone at the hotel said that George Orwell himself stayed here many times back in the 1920s when he was stationed here as a member of the British Indian Imperial Police.

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After a nice long nap and a delicious lunch it was time to explore the lake more and visit the long neck women, one of the many ethnic minorities in the country. A hotel employee called them the Padaung. I quickly learned that “Padaung” is considered a bad word in Myanmar and the tribe prefers to be called Kayan.

It was a very long boat ride along Inle Lake and a storm was coming in. Much to my boat driver’s horror, I carefully stood up while the boat was racing across the lake and took a hand held long exposure shot (or five) to capture the speed. Naturally, I nearly fell in the lake as I tumbled backwards into the boat.

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As I approached the village, I saw a man paddling his wares to the market. Perhaps I should visit that market tomorrow, I thought. Yes, I think I shall…

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A surprisingly long time later we approached a village on stilts where the long neck women lived and worked. A few of the richer homes have electricity as you can see, and the waterways that acted as roads occasionally had high power lines crossing them.

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I hopped off the boat and saw some long neck women working in a touristy shop. I looked around and didn’t really see any others. These two beautiful girls briefly posed for me.

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If this girl looks awkward and nervous it’s probably because these girls are likely, as a friend put it, “tourism slaves” who are forced by their parents to continue the tradition in order to make money, while many of them have stopped wearing the rings. I later I saw them awkwardly posing with/for a number of Singaporean tourists as well.

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Another adorable long neck girl posed for me, she was curious about the soft box I was using for the lighting…

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A much older long neck woman with impressively large neck coils hanging out behind the shop and watching the storm come in. According to my local guide, it’s not actually the neck that gets longer – the rings press the collar bone down as the woman grows and compresses the rib cage.

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This girl loved the camera but always looked a bit nervous. It started raining outside so she put on another layer and came inside the shop.

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The life of many modern Kayan women is unfortunately not an easy one. Many ethnic minorities are heavily persecuted and the long neck women are no exception. Many long neck Kayan fled to neighboring Thailand during tough political times in the 1980s and were given refugee status and allowed to live in certain areas and many of them shifted careers to become simple tourism attractions.

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The Kayan women start wearing rings around age 5 and almost never remove them except to add longer coils. Apparently many refugees in Thailand have removed their coils and their necks were found to be temporarily bruised but permanently discolored by the rings.

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One of the older Kayan chuckles as I walk out in the rain to get some photographs.

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As the day came to an end and the shop closed up, one of the tired Kayan teens took a break.

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And her friend, once again, flashed me a nervous smile before I left.

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The ride back was a brutal rainy one on choppy water but it gave me time to reflect on the daily lives of the Burmese ethnic minorities. I saw many people fishing for hours and bringing carefully wrapped goods to and from a mysterious market on far end of the lake – to sell to tourists or locals? I watched the Kayan women making goods and selling them to tourists… but is that how they lived before they realized they could make money from tourists? It was difficult to get a straight answer from the local guides or the locals as they all wanted to paint a rosy picture of the inner workings of Myanmar. I would investigate the market tomorrow get a better idea, but in the mean time I pondered these and other questions as I drifted to sleep in the comfort of my gently swaying hotel room.