Social Impact and Sustainable Tourism at Indawgyi Lake

Photo - Face of Indawgyi

Nature lovers and birdwatchers, look no further than Indawgyi Lake for your next holiday. Myanmar’s largest lake is a burgeoning tourist destination filled with rich history, nature and outdoor activities. Due to climate change and pollution, it has been a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve since 2017—one of four wetlands in the country experiencing decreased wildlife populations. Here, migrating water birds flock in thousands from Central Asia and Siberia.

Travelers who come to Indawgyi Lake can experience a quiet, simple life with local charm: modest guesthouses, majestic Shwe Myintzu Pagoda and artisans who make freshwater shrimp traps.

But getting there isn’t easy. The bus ride from Mandalay aboard Shwe Kachin is a long one. Departing from central Mandalay in the afternoon, it arrives in foggy Indawgyi City (formerly called Lon Ton Village) in the early morning. A quicker option is to fly to Myitkyina and drive about five hours west to Indawgyi City where foreigners are allowed to stay. Situated southwest of the lake, tourists can birdwatch, kayak, bike, trek and more. The serene lakeside location makes it ideal for a relaxing holiday but there are plenty of activities for the more adventurous.

The “floating” Shwe Myintzu Pagoda sits on the largest freshwater lake in Myanmar Face of Indawgyi,a social enterprise founded by American duo Stephen Traina-Dorge and Patrick Compton, works on projects that focus on environment, cultural preservation, education and business development. By collaborating with the local organizations, artisans, schools and tour guides, they act as a bridge between this rural community, Yangon’s resources and international tourists and investors who support their mission. Their ultimate goal is to open Lon Ton Social Impact Guesthouse, lakeside accommodation and vocational training centre dedicated to their four pillars.

“In 2012, Indawgyi Lake Wildlife Sanctuary had no paved roads, electricity, cellphones and barely any foreign visitors. 17 for the entire year. Now, Myanmar’s biggest lake is opening in a country that is facing both the opportunities and the challenges of developing in a highly interconnected and globalized world,” said Traina-Dorge in his crowdfunding video.

“We want tourism to help preserve what makes Indawgyi special.”

Currently, tourists can stay at Indaw Mahar Guesthouse or Indawgyi Motel, and if those are booked up, then homestays can be arranged by ‘FIND Myanmar’ a Myitkyina-based tour operator partnership with Face of Indawgyi. When we visited in March during the Shwe Myintzu Pagoda Festival, all shops had closed for the week and moved to the festival grounds where hundreds of vendors had set up noodles, fried snacks, clothing and wares to sell. This festival draws thousands of domestic tourists every year, most of whom camp on the lake’s shores. A boat driver near our homestay who took us to the pagoda in the afternoon, even allowing us to stop in the middle of the lake for a quick swim in the crisp, clean water. The “floating” pagoda was a spectacle at sunset.

One of the best tourist attractions is freshwater shrimping during dry season. It is a unique experience to be a part of a fisherman’s daily lifestyle. Shan-ni cooking classes can also be arranged. No matter what you choose to do, you’ll be immersed in local Indawgyi culture.

We spent one day motorbiking to the mountains near Nanmun Village, south of Indawgyi City, where our tour guide led us on a trek past farms and forest to a small natural hot spring and a meandering creak that we climbed up. Along the way, we stopped for breakfast at a Shan noodle shack and lunch at a Chinese restaurant, both of which were fresh and delicious. In the evenings, we ate at Shwe Inn Wa and Malika Restaurant, two restaurants in Indawgyi City. At Shwe Inn Wa, our Face of Indawgyi hosts arranged a special meal of ngabaun, steamed Indawgyi fish wrapped in banana leaf, and hin law, steamed local seasonal vegetables also in banana leaf. Vegetables are harvested from surrounding forests and fish are caught fresh from the lake.  

Face of Indawgyi translated menus for all of the restaurants, tea shops, noodle shops and cafés in the Indawgyi area

The main ethnic groups are Shan-ni, Kachin and Burmese, and the food reflects those cultures. Most villages are derived from Shan, or “Tai” culture—those living in Indawgyi’s valley identify as “Tai Laing.” They have a rich history and practice farming, fermenting and salting foods, but many stories and techniques are passed down through generations of oral storytelling. Face of Indawgyi intends to preserve these traditions and the Shan-ni language with audio and video recordings.

To foster education about recycling in the community, they have worked with the local villages to produce sustainable trash cans made of bamboo and fishing nets. Tourists can enjoy the lush, plastic-free environment, while information signs are posted about keeping the area clean. Hands-on projects teach students that their environment is special. Face of Indawgyi also collaborates with Flora and Fauna International and Inn Chit Thu on nature projects.

Sustainable trash cans made of bamboo and fishing nets help keep the environment clean and trash-free Founded in 1787, Lon Ton’s name comes from Shan-ni language, lon means “coming down from the hills” and ton means “finding food.” For generations, Lon Ton Village has been a gathering point for Shan-ni people who lived in the valley and Kachin people who lived high in the mountains. Today, the tradition continues, as it is the main meeting place between the lake’s visitors and the people of Indawgyi.

With untouched forests, village trails and rice paddy fields, Indawgyi Wildlife Sanctuary is one of the last remaining grasslands in Southeast Asia. The next time you find yourself in Myitkyina, or hankering for a peaceful holiday, opt for Indawgyi Lake’s stunning nature. In the midst of forests, lake, mountains and blue sky, you are sure to experience an unforgettable time whether you choose relaxation or adventure.

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