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Villagers wait on Inle Lake for tourists boats to approach on sunrise cruises. Traditionally dressed, the men pose with fish traps for tourists and ask for small amounts of cash.

Villagers wait on Inle Lake for tourist boats to approach. Traditionally dressed, the men pose with fish traps for tourists and ask for small amounts of cash.

PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN WENDLE

John Wendle in Myanmar

for National Geographic

Published April 7, 2014

The morning sun shoots rays over the tops of the steep hills surrounding Inle Lake that pierce the mist rising from the waters. Egrets and coots glint white in the sky overhead and glide off into the deep green marsh.

Silhouetted against the newly risen sun are fishermen in their wide-brimmed, conical hats. They paddle by twisting a leg around their oar and balancing on the end of elegant, hand-carved pirogues, creating a picture postcard of Myanmar, also known as Burma.

Watch as a Myanmar fisherman paddles his boat with one leg.

Across the dazzling water world, the clink of hand-powered looms weaving lotus-stem shawls drifts from "floating villages," where whole communities exist on stilts above the water and cafes serve tourists tomato salads harvested right off the floating gardens of the lake.

Drawn by this beauty, Inle Lake is bursting with visitors, but activists worry that this unique aquatic environment is too fragile to survive the onslaught of pollution and waste that the tourism industry brings. The government, acknowledging the potential for ecosystem loss, has pledged to spend $35 million (U.S.) to tackle the problem. But most fear that it will not be able to act soon enough.

Photo of a young women taking a selfie and sending messages in front of the Maha Wizaya Pagoda in central Yangon.
Young women take selfies and send text messages near the Shwedagon Pagoda, the most important Buddhist shrine in Myanmar.
PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN WENDLE

Numbers of Foreign Visitors Soar

As Myanmar has opened up to the outside world over the past four years, the country has encouraged tourism as an important source of hard currency. "Tourism plays a vital role in Myanmar by reducing poverty, enabling employment opportunities, balancing social and economic development, and implementing political reforms," reports the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism in its national plan.

Photo of a peddler selling snacks in front of a VIP bus headed for Mandalay.
A peddler sells snacks in front of a bus headed for Mandalay, an iconic tourist destination and Myanmar's second largest city.
PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN WENDLE

In 2012, around 1.06 million foreign tourists visited the country—almost a 30 percent increase from the year before. Inle sees 77,000 domestic tourists and another 91,000 from overseas.

Map of Myanmar
NG STAFF; ANA M. MYERS
SOURCE: MYANMAR INFORMATION MANAGEMENT UNIT

Hotels have been springing up in Nyaungshwe, a quaint farming town to the north of the lake—with more than 50 built in the past two years and many more planned in a 617-acre government clear-cut on the shore of the lake.

"If it comes too fast, too big, the footprint obliterates what the original, desirable situation was," said Barbara Bauer, the head of Inle Speaks, an organization focused on environmental and economic issues connected with the lake.

Take a look inside an authentic silk weaving workshop.

"One of the most important things to understand is the fragility—both environmental and economic fragility—of the lake and the interaction and interdependence on tourists upon it," she said. "I think the people here are by nature and tradition caretakers of their resources, but they are not yet well enough informed to know how to do this, faced with the onslaught of both tourism and chemistry," said Bauer.

Still, there are parts of the Inle area, like Nan Taw on nearby Samkar Lake, where tourism is practically nonexistent and few foreign faces are seen. It is here that William Bleisch, a program director and researcher for the China Exploration and Research Society, is hoping to get ahead of the country's rising wave of commercial development.

Photo of tourists returning to the main town of Nyaungshwe from a popular sunset boat ride on Inle Lake, Myanmar.
Tourists return to the main town of Nyaungshwe after a sunset boat ride on Inle Lake.
PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN WENDLE

Galápagos of Asia

The V-shaped hull of the handmade boat drifts through the freshwaters of Samkar Lake and noses into the landing at Nan Taw. Brilliantly reflected in the clear waters of the reservoir, dozens of homes made of woven bamboo mats cascade down to the water's edge.

Jumping ashore, Bleisch follows a boatman past grunting pigs, sun-dried fish, and playing children. He is trying to find a live specimen of the Inle herring barbel, also known as the Stedman barb, a fish he fears may have disappeared from the lake. He's been working on environmental conservation in this area since 2011.

Photo of a student at the Inle Hospitality Vocational Training School.
This student at the Inle Hospitality Vocational Training School is learning how to work in the front office of a hotel. The best students get positions at the best hotels in Myanmar.
PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN WENDLE

"It's like the Galápagos of Asia, these alpine lakes in Southeast Asia,'' he explains. "Each one of them has been this little laboratory of evolution." Yet in three years of research Bleisch has found only 9 of the 17 endemic and range-restricted species historically reported in the lake. "We're still hopeful for the others, but some of them may be gone already, and others seem to be much rarer than they were in the past," he said.

Local fishermen concur. "Before we used to catch a lot of fish, but now we can't catch very many," said Ma Nan Cho, a villager on the Samkar Reservoir, heading in to sell her morning's catch of finger-size fish at a local lakeside market. She did not think the fishing or the number of boats on the lake was the problem, she said. But something, she said, is changing.

Invasive Species

And one major change, says Bleisch, is introduced fish, whether brought in by accident or deliberately—like the fish farm full of Siberian sturgeon Bleisch happened upon one day. "We're coming to what biologists are starting to call the 'homogecene'—where everywhere you go you find the same [species] … It's just part of that whole process, that collapse of what's unique and special. That's what really has me concerned."

Farmers plant their crops on floating gardens.

Already the endemic Inle carp (Cyprinus intha), a unique species that plays an important role in the cultural life of the main ethnic group surrounding the lake, has begun hybridizing with the common carp, an introduced species, to the point where it is difficult to find a pure C. intha specimen.

Photos of laborers take a lunch break in the shade of sugar cane they are harvesting near Nyaungshwe, Myanmar.
Laborers take a break in the shade of the sugar cane they are harvesting near Nyaungshwe, the largest town on Inle Lake. When the cut cane fields are burned, the smoke can get so severe the surrounding hills cannot be seen.
PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN WENDLE

"To me it sort of encapsulates that opening up and connection with the outside world, which can be a good thing if people now have better hygiene, their kids are going to school, they have more markets—but it can also be very detrimental. If it is not carefully planned, it can destroy a lot. So, it's globalization in a nutshell when I see that list of species growing and growing. Every time I come back [to the lake], we've got another addition to the list [of species]. Now we're up to 43, I think," he said after having spent part of the day stuck in a jam of water hyacinth, itself an introduced, prolific, and problematic species.

Photo of a woman gathering single strands of silk at the Mya Setkyar weaving workshop.
A woman gathers strands of silk at the Mya Setkyar weaving workshop. Workers at the shop use hand-powered looms to weave silk and lotus-thread clothing.
PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN WENDLE

Even with all of this, Bleisch remains guardedly optimistic. "We're playing catch-up right now. We're trying to solve problems that could have been prevented if there had been the mechanisms in place ten years ago," he said.

"We know that tourism is growing here, and it won't be sustainable if it continues on this trajectory. Given that, I think there is real interest and concern among the local people, among the hotel owners, among the community, among the people who live here and make their livings here, to see that this doesn't destroy the environment, that it doesn't destroy the lake. And tourism can also be very beneficial. It can open people's eyes to new possibilities that are not as destructive compared to some of the things that they've been doing."

10 comments
stacey nguyen
stacey nguyen

I've been there last year and can see the tourism rate increasing very fast. I totally agree with this article. I'm also worry whether Burma government can preserve the nature, the heritage and also plain people while they open the door to develop economic. Sustainable development between developing economic and environment protection always a hardest problems for developing country. thanks you so much for your great article.

jaime sarmiento
jaime sarmiento

Next destiny but taking into consideration what they have said.

Carolyn Russ
Carolyn Russ

Burma is amazing, go now, it is unlike anywhere else in Asia

A. Person
A. Person

Fascinating article, going to Myanmar would be an unforgettable experience no doubt. But I have a question: what are the names of the potential tourist spots on the map? I would really like to know. Also, is it better to have a stable economy, or a stable earth? This is a question we must ask. 

Barbara Bauer
Barbara Bauer

Hi John, great article, and thanks for quoting me.  We’re making a bit of progress:  not on the overall health of the lake yet, but on educating the people.  We had a successful 4 day bird watching and habitat preservation workshop, and we just came back from a meeting with one of the floating villages.  We hope they will be the first “Inle Speaks - Green Village”.  Requirements are to complete a clean water project, implement a waste and trash management system, and a policy of reduced boat speed/noise in and around the village.  We hope you'll come back soon.

Barbara

Paul Matich
Paul Matich

I won't bother going now.  It will be like everywhere else in Asia very soon I would imagine. 

Claudia Smith
Claudia Smith

The task of preserving the environment will be made doubly difficult by the incredible charm of Myanmar and the people. I am very fortunate to have visited Myanmar for a month in 2013 and hope to return before too long.

Kieran Gregory
Kieran Gregory

Studying Travel and Tourism management, such an interesting article! I just hope that they do not over do it, and ruin the outstanding culture that Myanmar has to offer

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