MYANMAR : the Island Movers 

The Island-Movers of Myanmar


Text and photography by Eric Pasquier 

 

Waist-deep in slime, the island-movers of Lake Inlay, Myanmar, cut strips of land away from the banks of the lake and pole them out to deeper water. Balancing on top of the 200x2 metre grassy ‘punts’, the island-movers are oddly reminiscent of Venetian gondoliers.

 

Taking place between October and February each year, it's how the Intha farmers have created arable land for themselves, reflecting an age-old way of life that is now under threat.

ERIC PASQUIER captures this remarkable practice before it dies out completely.

Since time immemorial, a pe ople who live along the banks of Lake Inlay, in Myanmar (formerly the Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma) have been practising a unique method of farming.
They tear away pieces of land from the lake’s semi-insular banks and steer the resulting ‘floating islands’ to a spot along the 50 km-long lake where they will be used to grow fruit, vegetables and flowers. 

The amazing feat of moving the ‘floating islands of Myanmar’ takes place at 1,000 metres above sea level, in the southern portion of the Shan province of east Myanmar, along the border with Thailand, Laos and China, every year between October and February.

In this four to five month period after the rainy season, the lake’s water level is at its highest point, making it easier to navigate.

Often, a family’s total land area is increased by the addition of a new parcel of land, floated down from the spot where it is hacked along the river’s banks, and transported to the growing ensemble of plots.

Like the interchangeable pieces of a giant puzzle, parcels of land are attached, detached and re-attached to one another in increasingly vast and complex configurations.

The technique used is quite complex, requiring great skill and precision.

The men hack the floating islands from the mainland, cutting through the hyacinth roots and other tentacle-like appendages attaching the buoyant earth to the shore. It is necessary to cut the roots to just the right length, as excessively long roots will drag along the bottom of the lake, slowing the island’s progress during the move and roots cut too short will effect the island’s soil, making it infertile sooner.

The islands must also be at least one metre thick if the soil is to accommodate a proper harvest. In island making there is a fine line between success and failure and the island movers’ personal opinions and experience are worth their weight in gold on Lake Inlay.

With sweat running down their brows, the men lean into their long bamboo push-poles with all their might in a synchronised effort to move the tons of water-logged earth. In general, a single island requires a crew of five men.

The islands are too heavy to be pulled by motorboats which, though available here, would also be too costly to use. 

When these ‘gondoliers’ have to move several islands at once, they usually tie them together with grass or bamboo plaits, forming a long multi-island convoy wide enough to pass unhindered through the many obstacles along the way.

These large parcels of floating earth must be pushed, pulled and coaxed, often over great distances, by this very special breed of men. Their job consists exclusively of moving these strings of floating islands from one point of the lake to another while balancing on long strips of floating turf. These people of Lake Inlay - the ’Chay Nant Hlau Tu,’ - row standing on one leg, the other skilfully wrapped round their paddle.

This technique facilitates passage through the thick vegetation that abounds in the more shallow parts of the lake. Once they reach their final destination, the islands are anchored to the bottom of the lake with bamboo supports. The lakebed is luckily never more than seven metres below the surface. 

Covered with a layer of nutrient-rich grey-black soil, the parcels, once in place, are seeded and tended to like an ordinary plot of farmland. Algae from the lake, and other local resources are used as fertiliser.

Over the years, the Inthas have developed an intelligent way of living in harmony with their natural habitat. 

 

Before long, the threadbare strips of floating land are sprouting a luscious selection of tomatoes, potatoes, pumpkins, green beans, peas, eggplant and flowers. Every year, the Inthas clear out the previous year’s fields to prepare them with fertile mud and seed for next year’s harvest. It is a job that requires five people working full-time for five days straight. If done correctly, the floating island will be productive for approximately ten years.

 

On average, the islands are 200 by 2-metre strips of floating garden. The average island costs 6,000 kyats ($60 U.S.), a fortune for the locals, who earn an average of about $20 per month. But for them, it is an essential investment. Three days are needed to prepare the island prior to transportation and the preparation costs more than the parcel of land itself (the movers ask for 8,000 kyats, or $80, for a 7 km move). Every Intha family generally buys an island per year, gradually increasing the size of their arable land. 

 

A portion of land is reserved for personal consumption, another for the production of offerings for Buddha, another for offerings to local monasteries and the main portion, for the production of goods to be sold at the local ‘floating market’ or for export. Another portion is specifically reserved for the grandiose ‘Feast of the Golden Bird,’ which takes place every year in a profusion of colour and pomp, during the month of November. 

 

The lake is central to the people living along its banks and the traditions that have been kept alive here over the centuries reflect the importance of the lake. Local Myanmar legend even has a special ‘Nat,’ - a general class of spirits originating in native religion - that protects the people who live on the lake’s shores. His name is ‘In Daw Gyig’ which translates as, ‘The Big Royal Guard of the Lake.’ The rituals of the Intha people in many respects is an expression of their need to constantly appease their protective spirits. Both Buddha and the local spirits must be humoured.

 

Women in bright silk garments sit on the floating parcels of land that glide along the waters of Lake Inlay, pulled by the boat on which Ma Cho Mar Aye, Ma Su Mi Wyn and two other young women hold cups filled with offerings. The women appease the gods with generous offerings, thereby protecting the men of this trade from poisonous snakes that prowl the waters and other dangers lurking in the thick vegetation of the lake.

Today, 140,000 Inthas continue to live and work along Lake Inlay. In Intha ‘In’ means lake and ‘Tha’ means inhabitant. As their name implies, the Intha have adapted perfectly to the particular conditions of life along the lake over the years and have become excellent gardeners. Ko Nyo, Khin Maung, Sein Wyn, and Kyauk are local Inthas who continue to work in the ancient world of ‘kitchen garden moving.’ They are true professionals. They uphold a unique tradition that requires many years of experience. Often the knowledge is passed on from father to son.

This tradition is now under threat. The centralised government in Yangon (Rangoon) now oversees all transactions involving the floating islands of Myanmar. The ancient tradition of cutting away chunks of land from the shores of the lake is a serious menace to the region’s ecosystem, as many years are required for regrowth. The government authorises transactions on an individual basis, in an apparent attempt to preserve the natural habitat of the vast array of flora and fauna that thrive here. 

As a result, the ranks of the ‘floating island movers’ of Lake Inlay have been reduced to a mere contingent of 100, most of whom began working in the trade as early as thirteen or fourteen years old. They struggle to keep alive a profession as ancient as it is difficult, pushing huge chunks of soaked earth through the murky waters of Lake Inlay, constantly pushing and pulling, struggling to save their precious cargo from a watery demise (when not moored to the lakebed or in transit, the floating islands invariably sink). Little by little, their profession is dying off.

During the dry season, the island movers spend their days fishing and ever-faithful to their role to the people of Lake Inlay they dream of the day this coming autumn when they will once again, be able to proudly steer their convoy of floating islands towards their destination. But no doubt they can’t help wondering what the future will hold for them in the long run, now that this fascinating Myanmar tradition seems to be threatened with extinction. 


Copyright © Eric Pasquier 
All rights reserved.