Once-bustling Inle Lake goes silent

The people who depend on visitors to the popular Myanmar tourism destination have seen their livelihoods hit hard by the turmoil of the pandemic and military coup.
RFA
2021.10.15
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Motorboat operator Win Moe Kyaw has worked several jobs on and around Inle lake after the tourism decline and is now trying to earn a living as a fisherman. (RFA photos)

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The 45-square-mile lake is abundant with fish and is central to Myanmar’s fishing industry.

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Though he is working as a fisherman, Win Moe Kyaw says his family is no longer self-sufficient.

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About 50,000 people directly related to tourism around the lake have lost their jobs, according to the Myanmar Tourism Entrepreneurs Association.

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Win Moe Kyaw lives in Sithar village with his wife, Mazin Mar Win - who made woven cane mats before the coup - and their 2-year-old son.

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For now, Win Moe Kyaw and his family are just hoping to live and work in safety.

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A proposed UNESCO World Heritage Site, Inle Lake is famous for its unique wildlife and the floating plants that dot its surface. It’s been designated as a protected wetland for its ecological and cultural value.

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With more than 90 percent of the lake’s motels and guesthouses closed, motorboat operators do what they can to make a living.

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Many of the people who live and work around the lake had to switch careers after the collapse of the tourism industry.

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Win Moe Kyaw uses the unique form of leg rowing that was developed on the lake because it’s difficult to avoid the plants while sitting down.

Like many who live and work around Myanmar’s Inle Lake, 24-year-old motorboat operator Win Moe Kyaw is struggling to make ends meet under the dual pressure of the COVID-19 pandemic and the military coup.

He told RFA that this year he has seen less than a quarter of the usual customers. In past years, hundreds of thousands of people visited the proposed UNESCO World Heritage Site in Myanmar’s southern Shan State that is famous for its thriving natural beauty, particularly the floating plants that dot the surface.

Following the first wave of COVID-19 and February coup, international and domestic travel dried up and tourism services around the 45-square-mile lake were shut down.

Apart from fishing, some locals rely on a unique type of weaving – deriving thread from the lotus plants that grow in the lake. After collecting the lotus plants, the craftsperson extracts the fibers with a knife and soaks them in water. Weavers then use looms to spin the thread and add dyes to create vibrant colors.

The weavers also depend on tourism to sell their textiles, and not surprisingly the women-dominated industry has been struggling. One weaver, Mya Lay, recalled the way she and her colleagues would work together. "Forty looms are noisy," she said. Now the room she works in is quieter, with little business. "I'm a little bored," she said.

"If no visitors come here, there are no jobs for us at all. Even some business owners here need workers, they are scared to hire people in fear of potential exposure to the virus," Win Moe Kyaw said.

Before the coup, Win Moe Kyaw's wife, Mazin Mar Win, made woven cane mats but that business has been hit hard.

Several people run restaurants or small food stores – many of which have seen customers dwindle because even domestic tourists are unable to visit the lake.

“Visitors are no longer coming. I don't even clean away the spider webs anymore," said Tun Myat Lin, who owns the Golden Moon Restaurant in Heya Village, a now-closed must-visit site for tourists.

Win Moe Kyaw, like other motorboat operators in Sithar village - one of about 150 communities around the lake - has gone to nearby small towns to try to earn money through odd jobs in construction and landscaping and as a laborer and fish monger. But because of nearby gunfire and explosions, he stopped going.

For now, Win Moe Kyaw, his wife and 2-year-old son are just hoping to live and work in safety.

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Anna Lambert
Oct 16, 2021 04:17 AM

I have visited Lake Inle twice. The 'floating plants' you refer to are water hyacinth, which form a carpet and will suffocate the lake.

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