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Monday, 7th March 2016

A complete guide to the Inle Lake leg rowers

Anyone who is interested in travelling to Burma has probably seen pictures of the leg rowers of Inle Lake. This ancient technique has become synonymous with the body of water and is one of the most popular things for visitors to see on a trip to this part of the world.

The lake

Inle Lake could not be situated in a more idyllic location, right in the heart of Burma in Shan State. It is surrounded by hills and mountains, stupas and villages raised up on stilts. On the lake itself, all life can be found, from floating gardens to shops in boats ensuring all the residents get what they need.

Inle Lake’s people

Translating as sons of the lake, the term used for those who live and depend on this body of water is the Intha. Fish is a staple foodstuff for them, but their diet is supplemented by the tomatoes, papayas and melons that they grow on their floating allotments.


Inle Lake’s leg rowers do not need a lot of equipment to get out onto the water and do their jobs. They have a simple, narrow boat made from local teak wood and a single oar. As well as this, they take a hand-woven fish trap with them, which is usually constructed in the iconic shape that is wide at the bottom and tapers towards the top.

The technique

Balancing on one leg, the fishermen of the Inle Lake then use the other to propel them across the water and manoeuvre where they want to go. This often means wrapping the leg around a paddle and making circular motions, while managing to stay upright. All of this while holding a fish trap with both hands, ready to toss it into the water.

The fishermen wait for the perfect opportunity to release their traps, scanning the water for fish. Tapping the bottom of the boat with the oar also helps to bring them out from underneath the vessel. When the fish appear, the trap is released in one quick movement and a latch on the basket releases a mesh to capture them inside, before it is hauled back onto the boat.

History of leg rowing

One of the reasons that people travel to Burma to see the leg rowers is that this technique is not found anywhere else in the world. It is thought that this one-legged mode of propulsion began in the 12th century and has been passed on through the generations ever since, making it a unique tradition in the region.

Benefits of the technique

Conventional rowing sees the practitioner sitting in a boat using both hands at the oars, which presents two problems. The first is that being seated prevents the fishermen from getting the optimum view of the water and therefore know when there are fish present to catch. Secondly, with two hands on the oars there are none free to cast the trap into the water.

Related news stories:
Top highlights of Inle Lake (8th November 2016)
Nyaungshwe - the gateway to Inle Lake (7th September 2016)
Wine tasting in Burma (20th June 2016)
A photographer's guide to Burma (25th May 2015)
How to indulge a sweet tooth in Burma (25th November 2015)