For most of it’s existence, Inle Lake has been a serene piece of natural beauty, harboring a unique ecosystem and lifestyle, bringing together spectacular landscapes, perennial agriculture and gorgeous lotus fields into what my wife calls “a wallpaper scenery”. The home of the Inn Thar people.
The past few decades have brought a fair amount of development, which impacted largely positively the diverse communities sharing the lake. Bicycles were more or less replaced by motorbikes, long boats were fitted with Diesel engines, tourism and trade picked up. While major conservation efforts were put in place and, to be fair, Inle is still a fairly spotless piece of nature, the silence was kinda gone, forever. The Chinese diesels, equipping both traditional long boats as well as “Chinese bull”, Myanmar’s favorite agricultural vehicle, provide great bang for the buck, in every sense of the word. Boat tours on the lake became cheap, popular, just as beautiful, but deafeningly loud. While accepting it as a part of life (we’re adults after all), the dream of silent boats never really went away.
Our Inn Thar brothers and sisters, who are running probably the most awesome ground handling service on the Inle Lake (I apologize for the shameless promotion, but they are truly amazing – boats, cars, trekking, or whatever you may want to make happen locally), have put a lot of thought (and work) into it and, well, they’ve come up with a feasible solution. We’ve looked at various options, from electric (nope, we’re not nearly there yet with that tech) to various boat engines, but the winning design was surprisingly different. Also, the requirements were pretty narrow:
- We wanted a silent propulsion solution that would fit traditional long boats, allowing for the retro-fitting of a larger fleet at a later time.
- We needed a scalable solution. Can we maintain the propulsion? Do we have spare parts? Is it serviceable at village level with commodity tools? If not, it won’t work in the long run.
What worked amazingly well were, surprisingly, automotive engines. Long boats are massively heavy things, and if they can hold a diesel tractor engine, they’ll be just fine with any other regular car engine. Turns out that a common Toyota petrol engine can be adapted to the propeller quite easily, and that it’s ridiculously silent to begin with, even before soundproofing. About 6 month ago, we finally met the Silent Beast:
We loved the stainless steel shield, it’s useful for both soundproofing as well as venting and cooling. The boat is really silent, with the engine running most of the time at low revs, humming barely noticeable in the surrounding. When the driver pushed it a bit harder, the engine picked up gracefully and we instantly left all traffic behind. The sensation is pretty much like driving a BMW (cabriolet) on Inle Lake, so it took a while to wipe the huge grins from our faces. Even then, the engine noise is barely noticeable, in favor of the wind. Nevertheless, the frame of the boat does impose a limit towards how fast you can comfortably go, which is about twice the top speed of a diesel boat (on the same frame). We crossed Inle Lake in 20 minutes, and comfortably so. We felt we could teleport anywhere. It was a great day.
Today we have 4 Silent Beasts, in various phases of commissioning. It has been a busy period, and a lot more needs to get done. We have worked with local environmental regulators to follow-up compliance topics. A lot more testing needs to be done, and a lot of new questions answered, but so far, so good. The silent boats have been very well received and, whenever one is available, it’s usually the first thing booked in the morning. They are also pretty expensive to run, as they don’t burn agricultural diesel, expect a full-day Inle Lake sightseeing trip to cost you MMK 75,000 (instead of the regular MMK 20,000). This means, they won’t displace the diesels off the market anytime soon, but they will establish themselves as the upper tier of the Inle Lake vehicle. If you have the chance, don’t hesitate it taking one for a ride, it’s worth every penny.
About the author: Dragos Salageanu is the Business Development Director of Alamanda Travels, which is more of an advisory role (he is Batman in real life). His lovely wife, Khin Hpone Yin, is the manager and evil leader of all things Alamanda & Shwe Inn Thar..