Culture Shock: The One Legged Rowers Of Inle Lake

Culture Myanmar

Culture Shock: The One Legged Rowers Of Inle Lake

Mar 31, 2017

As a full time traveling remote worker (who also has lives with her boyfriend, calls her mom once a day, texts with her friends/siblings often, goes out all the time and waxes her entire body regularly) I  tend to make a big deal about “work/life balance.” I toot my own horn when I get it right, and complain a lot when I feel like I’m getting it wrong in either direction.

… Either way, I’m dramatic about it. But when I saw the one-legged rowers of Inle Lake, I had an entirely new appreciation for what “work/life balance” really means.

The rowers are native to Inle Lake, the second largest lake in Myanmar. Their teak boats dot the calm waters between the floating gardens from sunrise to sunset, and have been doing so since the 12th century. The practice has been passed down through Intha generations, and many of the rowers doing it now grew up watching their fathers do the same thing. The craft (which is literally rowing a boat with one leg) has two advantages: allowing the rowers to stand upright for a clear view of the lake, and keeping their hands free to catch fish.

So how do they do it? The rowers balance on one leg at the front of their boats, and wrap their other leg around an oar. They rotate their leg to stroke the oar, which propels the boat forward. Using their hands (which are free, because, leg rowing) they take either a harpoon or an enormous, conical net and plunge it into the water to catch fish.

Let me tell you… It is mesmerizing. 

They glide along the lake with an insane amount of grace, while balanced on one foot. And they somehow manage to catch enough fish to feed themselves, their families and their customers while doing it. If I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes, I don’t think I would have believed it was possible.

Watch for yourself:

I tried to picture myself attempting the same acrobatic feat, but am 100% sure it would land me face first in the water with zero fish to show for my efforts. My legs hurt just looking at them.

As I watched these super-humans practice their balancing act, something else popped into my brain: The fact that “attaining work/life balance” is even a thing that we talk about is something to be grateful for. It’s a privileged problem to have, which is easy to forget when we’re stressing out about meeting a deadline in time to make it to drinks with our friends (which was basically the story of my life when I was living in New York).

In places like Myanmar, there is no such thing as “balance” (well, other than using it to not fall off the front of your boat) — people simply work to live. Most farmers and fishers do backbreaking physical labor, either in these boats or in the fields, from sunrise to sunset. Even the artisans, whose work you would think might be less physically demanding, have to walk 3 hours in each direction every day to sell their goods. And from what I could tell, they don’t complain or make comments about “that 3 o’clock feeling.”

Inle Lake is a place of overwhelming beauty and fascinating traditions — the one-legged rowers qualify as both. It’s also a place to go to count your blessings, and realize how lucky you are to even be thinking about work/life balance, even if you haven’t quite attained it yet.


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