Two years since my last visit, I am back at beautiful Inlay Lake (also spelt ‘Inle’) in the heart of Shan State in Myanmar (formerly known as Burma). Inlay Lake is a highland lake famous for its scenic beauty, tranquillity, cool climate, iconic pagodas, a rich mixture of ethnic cultures, floating markets, floating gardens producing tomatoes, and the unique leg-rowing style of the Inntha fishermen of the lake.
The easiest way to get there is a one-hour flight from Yangoon (formerly known as Rangoon) to Heho airport and then a bumpy 45 minutes to the town of Nyaung Shwe (meaning the ‘Golden Banyan tree’, the gateway to the lake) by car. Or you could do as I did with my project team colleagues, and drive 5 hours to the capital Nay Pyi Taw (pronounced approximately ‘Nappy Door’) for official meetings before undertaking a tortuous 6 hour road tour over the hills to Inlay. Myanmar seems to consist of endless rows of rugged mountains lying in parallel lines, and the roads have to wind their way up and over these obstacles at frequent intervals.
Remembering a clear blue lake lying between blue hills from previous visits, it was disappointing to find dense smoke haze from fires burning on nearly every hillside blanketing the valley and hanging over the lake. The beautiful setting of the lake was lost in the haze, with the mountains barely visible on either side. At least the legendary tranquility of the lake can still be found, but only if you can get away from the endless noisy boat traffic ferrying tourists, locals and cargo back and forth, cris-crossing the lake.
Inlay Lake faces many challenges from population pressure, agricultural practices and expanding tourism. Our project is to develop a sustainable tourism management plan for this flagship destination. The task of sustainable management appears daunting, but positive stories are emerging as local groups expand their own initiatives. I met an inspiring group of young Inntha men (from the ethnic group of the lake) who have formed the Valentia group to provide a village rubbish collection and cremation service for those communities who live over water in so-called ‘floating villages’ around the lake.
Without land, rubbish management and burials are a very big challenge! Villagers living over the water in bamboo stilt houses have almost no land, and none to spare for landfill or cemeteries. The Valentia group collect household rubbish by boat 5 days a week and transport it to an incineration site on the lake shore donated by their mentor, dynamic Inntha lady Daw Tin Tin Ye, known as Ann. She promotes Inntha heritage at every opportunity, through her various tourism businesses and community projects.
The Valentia group are working with the Park Warden of the Inle Wildlife Sanctuary, U Sein Htun, a dedicated government official working hard with limited resources to coordinate rubbish collection across 444 villages in 35 communities around Inlay Lake, in a practical ‘bottom-up’ approach encouraging local communities to take action to control accumulating rubbish.
Inlay Lake is surrounded by 100,000 pairs of hands, and they are already taking on the challenging task of sustainability in practice!