Burma's Leg Rowers: Keeping the Tradition Alive

June 1, 2015 Nellie Huang

It's 7am, and the sun has just risen above the calm waters of Inle Lake. The air is fresh and humid, and the hypnotic sounds of morning prayers echo in the distance. Surrounding my teak boat are clusters of hyacinth plants and purple water lilies. Dark reeds sway beneath the boat while dragonflies flutter in the air and pond skaters glide haphazardly on the water’s surface.

Out on the open water, a fisherman appears in the distance, paddling with one leg and balancing with the other. I watch his acrobatic moves in awe: holding onto a fish trap with both arms, the man wraps his left leg around an oar, propelling his boat forward with a circular motion.

His eyes are staring intently at the water, looking out for a sign of fish. From time to time, he taps the boat’s hull with his oar to scare the fish out. Once he spots movement in the water, he thrusts his hand-woven rattan trap into the lake and releases the latch to drop the mesh, catching the fish within. With one synchronized movement, he hauls the fish back up onto the boat, all while balancing himself on just one leg.

A fisherman with a large conical-shaped fish trap.

A fisherman with a large conical-shaped fish trap.

Water world

This extraordinary leg-rowing tradition is unique to Inle Lake, and has drawn many — including myself — to this part of Burma (officially known as Myanmar).

Located in the heart of Shan State in central Burma, Inle Lake is hemmed in by towering mountains and lush hills. It is no ordinary lake though; Inle is a magical world of floating gardens, Buddhist stupas, and villages built on stilts.

Sunrise on Inle Lake.

Sunrise on Inle Lake.

At just 22km long and 11km wide (13.6 by 6.8 mi), Inle supports a substantial population of 70,000 in and around the lake. The fisherman is one of the many Intha people who live on the water.

The Intha’s lives are centered on the lake — they live in stilted houses; they grow produce such as tomatoes, melons, and papayas in floating gardens; they eat fish as a staple diet; and they even pray in Buddhist temples built on the water.

After all, Intha translates to “sons of the lake.” It’s safe to say that without the water, the Intha people would not exist.

A dying trade but age-old tradition

As I learn, leg-rowing is more of an Intha tradition than just a fishing technique. This practice is believed to date back to the 12th century and has been passed down from one generation to the next. Thant, my local guide, explains: “My parents are leg-rowers. So were their parents and ancestors.”

Leg-rowing is an acrobatic fishing technique that is harder than it looks.

Leg-rowing is an acrobatic fishing technique that is harder than it looks.

So why did they adopt such an interesting way of fishing?

According to Thant, this leg-rowing technique gives the fishermen a better view of the waterways. Water hyacinth and reeds form an thick underwater maze, making navigating around the lake quite difficult. Using their legs instead of their hands to row, they can see submerged obstacles and find the clear route out.

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? Thant smiles and says, “Yes, but when you’ve always lived on water, it comes naturally.”

Myanmar’s leg rowers have fished this way for generations.

Myanmar’s leg rowers have fished this way for generations.

These days, the fishermen sell their catch to floating restaurants that cater to tourists. Since Burma opened its doors to foreign visitors, local fishermen have seen an increase in income and improvement in their quality of life. It’s heartwarming to see the positive impact travel has had on the local communities and know that we, as travellers, are doing our part to sustain their livelihood.

I ask Thant if the younger generation is also learning to fish this way. He says, “Many young Burmese are moving into the city to find better work. Sadly, most of the traditional fishermen left are old people.”

Thankfully, the leg-rowing tradition is kept alive each year at the Phaung Daw U Pagoda Festival, one of the largest Buddhist festivals in the country. 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. According to Thant, the participants spend all year preparing for it and the parade is a spectacular sight.

While leg-rowing may be a dying trade, it is still a tradition that the Intha people will hopefully hold on to. At least for now, the leg-rowing tradition remains an important part of the Intha heritage.

An Intha man farming in his floating garden..

An Intha man farming in his floating garden.

Getting There

G Adventures runs a number of departures to Burma encompassing a wide range of departure dates and activities to cater for different tastes. We’re thrilled at the prospect of showing you this big blue planet of ours — check out our small group trips here.

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