Sleeping on a Floating Island on Loktak Lake

In early morning’s fog blanket, a fisherman paddles to his spot on Loktak Lake that he has constructed from floating phumdis.

“Loktak Aquamarine, Floating Homestay and Campsite – WELCOME” reads the sign nailed to a pole. The same words appear in Manipuri script above the English. An image of a tent, a deer, and water with large and small circles illustrate the experience.

Next to the pole a dirt path leads down the steep embankment to the lake. At the bottom of the steep, 15-foot path stands Ashok, a middle-aged man in a red plaid shirt, khaki pants, blue baseball cap, and rubber wading boots. Holding a long oar, he straddles two canoes strapped together to accommodate several passengers. With his brother and their wives, he owns and operates the homestay. His weathered, patient face acknowledges a life spent outdoors and on the lake. Literally on the lake, as I’m about to discover.

The lake beyond him reveals hundreds of what appears to be reed and grass masses. And they float around the lake. Ashok and his wife live much of their time in a group of huts on these floating islands. And that’s where we’re about to spend the night.

Goodbye, Solid Ground

Our guide Rajiv Verma and Ashok help the four of us baby-step down the path and onto the wobbly vessel. My innate lack of good balance momentarily threatens to catapult me into the water. Two other local young men, also overnight guests, pile into the craft. Ashok shoves off and steers his seven passengers and their overnight luggage onto the lake.

Loktak Lake sits about 30 miles south of Imphal, capital city of remote Northeast India’s state of Manipur. Our Tempo Traveler van bounced over the last seven miles from the local town of Moirang through small villages on dusty gravel roads, thoroughly rattling our senses. A smooth boat ride over a still lake now provides a welcome antidote.

Our hushed voices and the occasional chatter of birds are the only sounds disturbing the quiet that reigns over the water as we slip past floating clumps of reeds and grasses in various states of decomposition and regeneration. “They’re called phumdis,” Rajiv explains. Ahead a cluster of seven structures appears to sit on the lake; no, actually they sit on three substantial phumdis tied together. So that’s Aquamarine, our home for the next twenty-four hours. Why don’t these buildings fall through the grassy mat and settle to the bottom of the lake, I wonder.

Our double boat slips past a cluster of water lilies in bloom and Ashok’s small floating island with his duck family and coop. We glide onto a wedge of matted reeds that serves as the dock, and we come to a stop. The trial of debarkation begins.

I’m not stepping onto land––and certainly not onto the grassy mat itself––or first my foot followed by my leg would pierce the mat and plunge me into the water. I aim my foot at four bamboo poles tied together resting on the phumdi’s squishy surface. The poles bounce a bit as I walk this tightrope to a series of six poles forming the entire main walkway system of the settlement. Water seeps up between the poles to remind me that my footing will be tenuous at best during our stay here. And only one person on a section of walkway at a time, please, or the bamboo poles will bend into the water. One by one, the four of us make our way to the solid wooden platform in front of the hut that accommodates us for the night.

loktak photo
Loktak Lake’s 111 square miles holds countless large and small floating plant islands that support indigenous animals, homes, and a floating park
We remain afloat

The platform sits in front of the covered porch of our newly constructed two-story hut, the only one at Aquamarine. Four twelve-inch bamboo stools, called murahs, plus a hammock serve as the only furniture in the hut. Squatting on a stool produces a meditative pose; rising from them necessitates contorting the body: my left knee rebels. I quickly claim the hammock as a rocking chair. Then I notice a sign over the entrance to the hut that reads, “Please take off your shoes.” 

Inside, the first floor has two mosquito net tents each with three-inch thick mattresses lying on the wood floor. Built just a few months ago, our hut is a two-story structure with another larger mosquito net enclosure for sleeping on the second floor, plus windows with elevated views of the lake. To get there, I climb a bamboo ladder, and my bare feet scream out in pain on the rungs. How am I going to negotiate this ladder in pitch darkness for the inevitable nocturnal nature call? Gratefully, Eva and Suresh insist we take the other first floor mosquito net accommodation.

On the roof of each guest hut sits a solar panel that powers a large battery providing a limited amount of electricity for the single light in the room and outlets for charging our electronica. It is a modern world after all.

Outside, I get a good look at the Aquamarine homestay complex––five thatched-roof huts, called khangpocs, plus two smaller metal out-buildings, the bathrooms, one royal purple and the other emerald green. Bamboo walkways connect every building. Three of the khangpocs are guest units. Our hosts live in the other two, one for cooking and daytime living and the other for sleeping. A ten-foot tower holds a large blue plastic tank filled with lake water for the bathrooms and washing dishes. Every day, the men go to the local village on land to bring back drinking water. We carry our own purified water; our digestive systems would revolt if we drank the local liquid.

“Why don’t the huts fall into the lake?” I take the opportunity to ask. “It’s physics,” Rajiv informs. Of course. “Each structure is built on a raft that distributes the weight. Rocks, bamboo, wood, plastic, metal sheets, rods and thatch make up the building materials of the khangpocs. And rafts float, especially when they’re buoyed by a tight mat of plants.” I suppose. But still.

Phumdis support the eco-system

With an average depth of nine feet, freshwater Loktak Lake measures 111 square miles. It plays a critical role in the local economy. Loktak supplies hydroelectric power to the region; provides drinking and irrigation water; and feeds the regional residential and commercial needs with a variety of fish that are cultivated in hatcheries. The only floating park in the world, Keibul Lamjao National Park, protects the endangered Sangai deer. Phumdis comprise almost three-quarters of the park’s area. Rising sea levels, human activity, and pollution increasingly degrade the phumdis and water quality and threaten the extensive wildlife that thrive on the lake. (Well, who couldn’t do with fewer water cobras and pythons?!)

The phumdis themselves range in thickness from a few inches to six feet. Four thousand fishermen and their families have huts on the lake and live there most of the time. During the hot, dry season, families return to their villages. Fisherman cut and piece phumdis together to form the perimeter of huge floating circles of plants about forty feet across to use as personal fishing ponds. So those are the curious gigantic circle formations I saw from the air when we landed in Imphal two days ago. Now I notice one adjacent to our hut.

I take an essential adventure

Time to check out the bathroom facilities. The purple guest outhouse sits behind the hut next to ours, which necessitates a return trip over the main walkway. At the next crosswalk, I turn right and take tentative steps along the narrow walkway that’s parallel to the hut. Fortunately, the hut’s thatched roof extends far enough to provide something to hold onto until I reach the corner of the building.

About ten feet beyond sits the outhouse with nothing close enough to serve as a grab bar just as the walkway narrows to four poles. Deep breath and rapid tightrope steps and I arrive at the structure’s front platform. Whew!

The two-room suite is quite adequate and comfortable for taking care of personal business and washing up. A large blue barrel of lake water and dipper serve as the flush system.  Emboldened by my earlier success, I quickly retrace my route in reverse and return to our porch’s hut. Just maybe I won’t have to use the facility again. As it turns out, the night custom makes it easier for some than for others, since men can walk to the edge of the hut’s platform to take care of nocturnal needs.

As a reward for the successful adventure, our host emerges from the cooking hut with a large tray of food for chak (Manipuri for lunch). She effortlessly traverses the bouncing walkways to our porch. 

Tasting Manipuri home cooking

Traditional Manipuri households eat two meals a day, breakfast and a late-night supper. Because Westerners enjoy lunch, our hosts accommodate us, and we dine on homecooked dishes. A local chutney accompanies boiled chicken, called laai pata, with hot chilis. Northeast India specializes in hot chili production, especially the infamous “ghost chilis,” Bhut jolokia, declared the World’s Hottest Chili in the 2007 Guinness Book of World Records. Since then, four other chilis have claimed that title, making the ghost chili the fifth hottest, still 400 times hotter than Tabasco sauce. Dal (lentil soup using chana beans), local rice, and a small potato fried in mustard oil round out the lunch. What scrumptious tastes singing with flavor and heat!

After chak, Rajiv, Rick, and I gingerly board the hee (Manipuri for canoe) and head for open water to explore. In the driver’s position at the rear, Ashok steers past floating phumdis, as we glide over submerged fishing nets attached to long bamboo poles imbedded in the muck of the lake bottom. Around one of the giant phumdi circles, we steer past a floating island with its single hut. A man works on his fishing net, and a woman appears briefly to collect dishes. They both wave to us. Rajiv talks softly about the role the lake plays in the lives of its people. Besides the occasional slap of oar on water, silence rules. As far as I can see, the lake surrounding the phumdis reflects dramatic clouds and sky as birds circle overhead looking for their evening meal. The sun dips below a tall hill across the lake, and the scrub and brush on the hill’s edge light up in a luminescent gold, a signal it’s time to return to Aquamarine.

By now I’m getting the hang of boat departure and negotiating bouncy, sloshy walkways. We return to our porch and join our friends for late afternoon tea. Bora––fritters made from a lake reed, accompanies a red tea, called laal cha, sweetened with local honey. Unusual flavors to me, yet tasty.

photography from lake loktak
Bamboo pools tied together on top of the soggy grass-like mat form the walkways for this five-hut compound
Spending a quiet evening at home

Dusk arrives. There’s no other place to go and nothing else to do except take photographs and chat. We spend time getting to know our guide, Rajiv, who will accompany us for the next two weeks. A technology consultant and webmaster in his mid-thirties, he worked for a large multinational corporation in Chicago and Bangalore, India, before returning to his home base in the Indian state of Assam. There he established Northeast Explorers, an eco-tourism company that appeals to adventuresome travelers to his beloved, remote part of India.

It’s getting chilly Our host brings a small metal pot with red glowing charcoals to provide heat on the porch. When I remember that the temperature will drop into the mid-40s F tonight and the hut has no heat, I shiver.

For supper, we dine from the lake, with two kinds of fish prepared differently––rohu in a spicy curry and fried jiol, a catfish. Rice and an onion-and-dal dish using masoor lentils, plus several chilis served separately round out the menu.

Nighttime. The lake and sky are black. I turn off the single lightbulb just after 9:00 and the two couples crawl into their respective mosquito tent beds under heavy comforters. Thin mattresses don’t protect us from the hard floor. I pat myself on the back for bringing fashionable Heattech long johns and tee shirts and also for loading a few mystery novels on my iPad. It’s quiet. The iPad falls on my chest, signaling sleep time. My one midnight foray to answer nature’s call prompts me to be wide awake lest I step past the platform’s edge in front of our hut and into the lake.

Morning fog creates a daydream

I’m up, dressed, and outside at the hint of first light. Pea soup fog blankets the lake and the rest of Aquamarine. I barely make out our landlady fifty feet away at the cooking hut performing morning activities. Ashok boards his canoe and disappears into the otherworldly fog on shore run to buy food, water, and other supplies for the day. Out of the mist not far from the duck island appears the nose of a canoe, then the outline of a fisherman. He heads to the fishing circle next to our hut and pushes through an opening. Fog swirls around his canoe as he checks submerged fishing nets and cast new ones.

Soon everyone wakes, dresses, packs, and readies themselves to return to solid land and the next adventure. Our host appears with coffee and omelets. In an hour, we climb aboard the double boat with our luggage, bid our hosts goodbye, and head into the clearing mists. Other boats of fishermen and women heading to the mainland dot the water. Ashok glides past phumdis and soon onto the lake’s banks, where our driver Abdul waits with the van. Four grateful travelers touch solid ground, congratulating each other on successfully “roughing it” on Loktak Lake.

If You Go
  • Itinerary suggestion—you will be in a unique and remote part of the world. Plan for a week or two to visit Imphal, Loktak Lake, and small towns in Manipur, then head north to the state of tribal Nagaland. Try to catch December’s Hornbill Festival where the country’s tribes gather annually to celebrate at Naga Heritage Village in Nagaland’s capital, Kohima.

  • By Air—direct flights from three domestic terminals to Imphal International Airport: New Delhi, Kolkata, and Guwahati.

  • ArrivalForeigners arriving by air must register at the Imphal International Airport’s immigration counter upon arrival.

    Domestic travelers need to obtain an Inner Line Permit (ILP) to enter Manipur and three other Northeast Indian states, obtainable online. The purpose of the ILP is to protect and respect indigenous tribal cultures in this area.

    To Loktak Lake—located about 23 miles south of Imphal, challenging road conditions make this trip by car, taxi, or touring car just under an hour.

  • Accommodations—on Facebook, look for Loktak Aquamarine Floating Homestay and Campsite for contact information.

  • Recommended—hire a guide to visit the area’s sites. If Imphal is part of a larger Northeastern states visit, a guide is critical in this remote part of India.

    Contact Rajiv Verma at hello@northeastexplorers.in. Rajiv is an engaging, intelligent humanist who loves his native Northeast India and its people and knows how to navigate its unusualness. (He’s also a techie geek and website designer, so go figure!) Rajiv will arrange accommodations with hotels and homestays. He made our trip memorable.

Ashok takes us out on the lake at sunset

lake loktak photo

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