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One-leg Rowing Intha Fishermen - Keeping Tradition Alive

August 31, 2023 - 5518 views

The image of Intha fishermen standing up on one leg in the narrow stern of the boat has graced a thousand postcards, inspiring more than a few sunrise and sunset photoshoots.

Inle Lake is one of Myanmar’s most iconic destinations. At 900 meters above sea level, the lake - nestles snugly in the Nyaung Shwe Valley - is an eye-opener. You don’t just come to Inle Lake for its beauty, you go to see the traditions of the people who live there. The unique method of one-legged rowing is, perhaps, the most iconic representative of the fascinating local culture. 

Located in the heart of Shan State in central Burma, Inle Lake is surrounded by towering mountains and lush hills. It is not an ordinary lake though; Inle is a magical world of floating gardens and villages built on stilts. Floating land created from dried and hardened weeds and floating hyacinth secure the floating huts and bamboo villages to one fixed spot. No joke, floating land.

The serenely picturesque Inle Lake, famous for its floating villages, gardens and markets and the unique way of life.

The serenely picturesque Inle Lake is famous for its floating villages, gardens and markets, and unique way of life

The villages embraced their creativity over the years in order to make this lake their home. People living on the lake call themself Intha. After all, Intha translates to “children of the lake.” And their life is closely connected with the water. Most lake traffic consists of long, flat-bottomed boats. These days they generally have noisy diesel motors, but the traditional fisherman still uses the leg-rowing technique. They stand at the stern and wrap one leg around an oar whilst gripping the hull of the boat with the other foot. The whole process is really impressive to watch. They balance themselves on one end of the boat and manipulate the net with their hands while rowing the boat. They have an amazing sense of balance while performing their snake-like motions.

Basically, leg-rowing is a traditional fishing technique of Intha. This practice is believed to date back to the 12th century and has been passed down from generation to generation. The lake is covered by reeds and floating plants making it difficult to see above them while sitting. Standing provides the rower with a view beyond the reeds. Using their legs instead of their hands to row, they can see submerged obstacles and find a clear route out. At the same time, they can keep watch for the tell-tale bubbles of shoals of fish. Rowing this way also frees their hands and allows them to handle the fishing nets, which can be quite bulky and heavy when catching large fish. But isn’t it hard to balance a boat with just one leg? Yes, of course. But when you’ve always lived on water, it comes naturally. Standing up on one leg in the narrow stern of the boat, the fisherman paddles his other leg around an oar and with a circular movement to propel his boat forward. Swiftly, with one well-balanced and precise motion, net and fish are brought back on the boat. However, the leg rowing style is only practiced by men. Women still row in the customary style, holding the oars whilst sitting in the boat.

One Leg Rowing Intha Fishermen

Are you interested in seeing the leg-rowing fishermen of Inle Lake?

Thankfully, the leg-rowing tradition is kept alive each year at the Phaung Daw U Pagoda Festival. During the 20-day celebration, Buddha images from the pagoda are paraded around the lake in a barge pulled by hundreds of leg rowers. Several leg-rowing competitions are also held around the lake. The participants spend all year preparing for it and the parade is a spectacular sight.

Leg-rowing boat racing

Leg-rowing boat racing

Inle Lake is a poetic place for those who are looking for a “land of art” to take mesmerizing photos in life. And, one-leg rowing in Inle Lake is definitely an art! The image of Intha fishermen standing up on one leg in the narrow stern of the boat has graced a thousand postcards, inspiring more than a few sunrise and sunset photoshoots. No doubt, the leg-rowing tradition remains an important part of the Intha heritage. Hopefully, it will retain its unique character and friendliness as Burma reopens to the rest of the world.

Read more: 7 Must-try Activities on Myanmar's Floating Villages


Image Sources: Internet

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