Connect to share and comment
Five teams of top, young journalists set out from Myanmar's commercial hub of Yangon to better understand how the country is changing under a reform-minded government. Travel along with these 20 reporters — 11 Burmese and 9 American — as they journey the ancient Burma Road, through the country's capitals past and present, down the Irrawaddy Delta, onto Inle Lake and across Yangon itself at a critical time in the country's history.
One of Myanmar's treasured natural features is rapidly deteriorating due to a confluence of forces.
INLE LAKE, Myanmar — The tranquil waters of this highland lake are flanked by high mountains and in the mists of dawn there is a quality of light and a quiet serenity that many visitors describe as mystic.
On Inle Lake a unique, centuries-old civilization has flourished. There are small villages along the banks with Buddhist temples, one-hut schools and bustling markets. Many houses rest on stilts above the waterline. There are floating vegetable farms. And the fishermen propel long, wooden skiffs by balancing at the back of the boat and wrapping their leg around a single oar as they push through the still waters with a unique motion that has become the symbol of the local Intha tribe.
The country’s second-largest freshwater lake, a candidate for World Heritage Site status, Inle Lake is a complex ecosystem. It is ranked among Myanmar’s top tourist destinations, but under a military regime spurned by much of the world, visitors were rare. Then, three years ago, when a civilian government replaced a half century of iron-fisted rule, change in Myanmar — and the lake — began to accelerate.
Tourist hotels are already mushrooming on once-pristine shorelines and 617 acres of farmland have recently been razed for a special zone to include 16 more hotels. The tourism boom is eroding traditional lifestyles of the local tribes and adding to already serious water pollution from overuse of chemical fertilizers and pesticides by farmers.
Situated in Shan State in eastern Myanmar, the lake is also being battered by a web of other woes. Dumped into its waters is toxic waste from a coal mine and power plant along with sedimentation as impoverished villagers denude the mountain slopes of forest cover. The resulting fall in water levels and several years of poor rainfall, believed to stem from climate change, has shrunk the originally 100-square-mile lake by a third. Fears have been voiced that one day it may simply vanish.
“Tourists coming in might be good for the government, but it’s not for poor people like us.”~U Yan Way
For years, even as signs of deterioration became evident, the ruling military did little or nothing but exploit the lake’s revenue potential. Following the advent of a civilian government in 2010, a five-year plan was drawn up with United Nations and Norwegian government support to reverse environmental degradation and uplift the lives of the local community.
But the opening up of the domestic economy and Myanmar’s door to the outside world has also sparked the oft-witnessed race between development and preservation.
“Inle Lake is like our parents. And when our mother and father get sick, we need to cure them,” said U Myo Myint, a lakeside dweller who has switched to organic farming. “But we still have time to heal this place. We still have hope.”
It’s morning at the pier in Nyaung Shwe, and boats are already being loaded with foreign tourists in a flurry of dark sunglasses, bright t-shirts and backpacks. Powerful engines are ignited and the flotilla sets off on another daily lake tour, the boats trailing yellowish sprays in their wakes.
Nearby, Yone Gyi Street is also abuzz. Here you can drink a beer or an espresso, book airline tickets or get a pre-tour shave at “Hair Cat.” If you are a local, there are stores selling construction tools and pesticides, both much in use these days. A recently built hotel, the Inn Star, stands immediately next to — and one story higher than — a Buddhist pagoda, something regarded as a sacrilege. Piles of sand and pebbles lie in front of a still unnamed hotel under construction, where Ko Loon Aung passes a cement-filled bucket to a fellow worker above him laying bricks.
“I like working here. This is another source of my income,” says the 30-year-old member of the Intha ethnic minority whose pay was raised a week earlier to 4,000 kyat ($4) a day — about double the national average of less than two dollars. “In the past, there was no place to work. Now there’s a lot of construction. They hire a lot of people.”
The income helps support his two children, but it isn’t yet enough, so he still keeps to his old occupation of growing rice, corn and sugar cane.
It’s been a different story for U Yan Way, 57,