There is a tendency in Myanmar to “enhance” natural landscapes by building pagodas on picturesque hilltops and establishing ramshackle shops where weary travellers can refresh themselves with snacks and energy drinks.
Moeyingyi Wetland Wildlife Sanctuary is one of those rare places in southern Myanmar that lacks such enhancements, and simply allows nature to speak for itself. Visitors to the 104-square-kilometre (40-square-mile) sanctuary can truly get away from it all: Once out in the middle of the lake, there is nothing to see but calm water, aquatic vegetation and majestic migratory birds stretching to the horizon in all directions.
Moeyingyi is located in Pyinbongyi village in Bago Region, 112 kilometres (71 miles) north of Yangon. It’s just off the old Yangon-Mandalay highway, and is therefore easily accessible by private car. Established in 1986, the sanctuary is a birdwatcher’s paradise. Even before reaching the lake, visitors will have the chance to enjoy the beautiful landscape of paddy fields in the surrounding area. Here, oxen are used to plough farmland that attracts snow-white egrets and open-billed storks.
Drongos and mynahs can be seen snacking on insects as they ride on the backs of water buffalo.
The main activity at the lake is taking guided tours in a long-tailed motorboat. These usually last about 90 minutes and provide the opportunity to explore the rich wetland area in all its natural glory. Binoculars are essential for these excursions, as are sunscreen and wide-brimmed hats. More than 100 species of water bird have been documented at the lake, including nearly 70 migratory species such as little grebes, grey herons, sarus cranes, Asian open-bills, ruddy shelducks, purple swamp hens, spot-billed pelicans, pheasant-tailed jacanas, black winged stilts, great cormorants and many others. There are also about 25 butterfly species, as well as more than 20 varieties of natural grass that provide habitat for migratory birds and breeding grounds for resident species.
Of course the lake, which reaches depths of about 3 metres (10 feet) during monsoon season, is also home to a thriving fish population. The fish not only constitute an essential part of the ecosystem but also provide livelihoods for local villagers, who ply the lake in small boats and can be seen hauling in their catch using homemade nets.
To maximise the number of migratory bird sightings, the best time to explore Moeyingyi is from November to March, with January providing the most ideal conditions.
The sanctuary can easily be visited as a day trip from Yangon, but it’s also possible to spend the night at Moeyingyi Resort Hotel, which consists of nine wooden, boat-shaped cabins at the edge of the water, each accommodating up to two guests. These rustic bungalows are greatly overpriced, but they do allow visitors to enjoy the full Moeyingyi experience, including watching the sun go down as thousands of egrets and herons fly to their roosts in trees surrounding the lake. Clear nights bring the spectacle of countless stars twinkling in a sky free from light pollution, and staying overnight also allows visitors to enjoy the breaking of dawn, when the greatest number of birds flock to the lake.
Moeyingyi is a must-see destination for birdwatchers and nature lovers, but the experience could be improved. The sanctuary is often described as an ecotourism destination, but to truly earn that moniker, it would be necessary to ban motorised boats from the water. Limiting lake access to paddle-driven transport such as kayaks, canoes and rowboats would eliminate noise pollution and fuel spillage, and would allow visitors to get even closer to wildlife that might otherwise flee the clacking sound of outboard motors.
Foreigners: $2 per person
Locals: K100 per person
Parking fee: K500 (small vehicles)
K1000 (large vehicles)
Overnight stay (breakfast included)
Foreigners (two people): $65 per cabin
Foreigners (one person): $50
Locals: K30,000 per cabin
Dinner: K15,000 per person