Meet me at Indawgyi

Photo Welcome to Indawgyi, Myanmar’s largest lake. Photo - Face of Indawgyi

07 March 19 - Source: Myanmar Times - The legend of the lake tells of the decadent city See Khan, sprawled across a valley in Kachin State. See Khan was an insult to the world and in retribution for its sinful ways was flooded – either by resident nat or a great dragon.

Today, in the place where See Khan once was, is Indawgyi, Myanmar's largest lake, measuring approximately 777 square kilometres – roughly the size of New York City.

It is one of the most beautiful natural landscapes in Myanmar. A larger, quieter version of Inle, with a more diverse plume of migratory birds and only a handful of guesthouses.

Photo - Face of Indawgyi

Hepa, Hepu

I visited a year ago, invited to attend a workshop on 'eco-tourism development planning', co-hosted by the Forestry Department and Fauna & Flora International. Together, over the course of two days, stakeholders thrashed out ideas on how to attract and satisfy visitors to the lake. (Currently, less than 1,000 foreign visitors make it up to Indawgyi each year.)

The workshop took place in the Wetland Education Centre in the town of Lon Ton, now the home of the organization Inn Chit Thu (or "Lovers of the Lake") - a group founded in 2013 with the aim to promote sustainable tourism at Indawgyi.

Photo - Face of Indawgyi

From the terrace of the Centre guests can sip upon locally produced organic coffee, binoculars to hand, attempting to spot one of the more spectacular migratory birds from Siberia. (Full points if you see the critically endangered Bear's Pochard, or better yet, the elusive Pink-headed Duck, feared to be extinct since 1949.)

I myself rented a kayak and began circumnavigating the silky surface of the lake. When my arms tired I paddled up to the nearest village, heaved my kayak onto the banks, and began explorations on foot.

My arrival did not faze the cattle but would cause a small stir with the villagers. It was usually disjointed brigades of novice monks and other boys that would greet me, take turns wearing my life-jacket, and lead me to the nearest monastery or tea-shop.

Photo - Inn Chit Thu

MamonKaing, Hepa, Hepu … I diligently scrawled notes onto my map.

The sun was high and scorching when I reached the latter village. Finding a small noodle house I took a late lunch, a prolonged hiatus, and slipped into slumber. It would require three swiftly downed cans of Shark energy drink and a hastily inhaled Red Ruby cigarette to get me back on my feet to return to the kayak.

I would not have time to reach the ShweMyitzu Pagoda at the centre of the lake, though it is a magical place to visit at dusk. Nor was there time for Nyaungbin, ShweTaung,and Ton San Kha to the north, where energetic hikers venture into the forest in search of gibbons.

Instead, I turned my kayak back towards Lon Ton and began to paddle.

Wetland Education Centre. Photo - Inn Chit Thu

Wings of a Dragon

One day, we hope, there will be other guesthouses on the lake, allowing foreign travelers to kayak from village to village over the course of a few days without needing to rush back to the starting point.

For now however all official accommodation are in Lon Ton: the iconic stalwartIndaw Mahar Guesthouse, two sweet homestays, and the new "Indawgyi Hotel."

A ten-room ecolodge is scheduled to open in the town in March 2020. This will be run by the community organisation "Face of Indawgyi".

Wetland Education Centre. Photo - Inn Chit Thu

Founded in 2017, Face of Indawgyi connects visitors with a range of low-impact, community-focused activities such as freshwater shrimping and learning how to brew the local liquor. With an emphasis on cultural preservation, the organisation can also help arrange cookery classes of the Shan-ni ("Red Shan") cuisine.

Indawgyi is lucky in that the tourism products currently on offer have been created with the well-being of the local communities and the environment in mind.

The truth is, for all the serenity on the lake, beyond the vicinity of the biosphere reserve less wholesome forces are at play once more.

In Daw Mahar One. Photo - Sampan Travel

As I paddled due west, clouds began to gather above the mountain that rises behind Lon Ton. My map from Inn Chit Thu cautioned: "Stay away from this Mountain!!!"

Mining operations – largely for gold – are polluting the lake and dislodging sediment which blocks oxygen and sunlight from penetrating the water and sustaining life. The deterioration of the lake threatens not just the birds and fish, and the few wild elephants and bears that survive in the reserve, but also the fishermen on its banks.

Wetland Education Centre. Photo - Inn Chit Thu

Further in the distance are the hellish jade mines of Hpakant, and platoons of the Kachin Independence Army.

At first glance, Indawgyi appears to be a tranquil, undisturbed, idyll.

In reality, the fight is on.

The fight to save Indawgyi, to preserve the lake, and forestall a second coming of the scourge of See Khan.

This article was written by Bertie Alexander Lawson, Managing Director of Sampan Travel.

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