About 10 minutes after our plane landed, we were haggling with taxi drivers outside Myitkyina Airport for a ride to one of the most underrated and mysterious destinations in Myanmar.
Settling on 90,000 kyats, the driver took us past the waterways snaking through lush green paddies that we had seen from above. We turned at a town called Hopin for the final 40-minutes of a four-hour drive, crossing mountains that offered a vista of the valley and a large expanse of water below—in fact, the largest lake in the country: Indawgyi Lake.
The next two days would be full of the lake’s magic. Deep blue water flanked by mountains is part of the magic, but the old fables spoken in the villages, the fresh, homely mix of Kachin and Shan food, the boat trips and the bicycle rides, that is all part of the magic, too. Exciting new initiatives are also taking place on the banks of the lake, such as the opening of an education center. Our first action, though, was to sling down our bags in a homestay at Lone Ton, the only village in the area allowed to host foreigners.
It was a simple guesthouse: four rooms, each with a fan, lamp, and desk, and a bookshelf at the reception hinting at the home’s other use as a library and reading club called ‘Pyin Nyar Gon Yi,’ meaning ‘Light of Knowledge’ in Burmese. Out back timber slats bridged over the lakeshore to a toilet set under the shade of a mango tree.
About a 10-minute drive away is Nunmun village, where a longyi shop is making a name for itself. The owner, Malar Aung, won an award at a 2017 national weaving competition in the former capital of Amarapura for her men’s longyi design, which was inspired by an old silver Burmese coin. The sound of tapping shuttles rang from her tin-roofed workshop, as nine young women and four teenage boys used fabric from Myitkyina to weave paso (men’s longyis) and women’s acheik-patterned htamein on wooden looms. They cost from 6,000-13,000 kyats and orders come from as far as Mandalay, Naypyidaw, and Yangon.
At dusk, shrimp catchers stack their wooden canoes with traps, using grounded beans for bait and soda bottles floats. Some let a visitor or two squeeze in the boat to join them, but we ventured out onto the lake the following morning in a larger craft rented for 50,000 kyats from Lone Ton. The young driver steered toward Shwe Myintzu, an extraordinary pagoda connected to the mainland by a concrete path which floods in the wet season. We waded through the water around the pagoda, our feet against ceramic tiles that were dry a couple of months before.
The lake was vast and quiet on our way to the fishing village of Hepa, which some say was stripped of forest decades ago to make way for the current, pastoral lands. Cows grazed idly on the shore, but, all due respect to the cows, there are more exciting and endangered species in the area, such as the hog deer, easter hoolock gibbon, and even the clouded leopard. Locals say there was once so many tigers here that people feared traveling from village to village; now it would be a surprise to spot tiger dung.
In Hepa, fishermen used tree sap to seal cracks in their boats. A dog mustered up the energy to bark, and a man dozed outside a thatched house on a writing desk. Like all the lakeside villages, life here has a languid pace. Many of the residents moved from a town near Mandalay in the 1970s, and had counted on the skills of Inle Lake boat makers who would visit seasonally. Our boat was anchored amid tree roots, where I saw a freshly-shed snake skin. As we returned to Lone Ton, the rain poured down, and, eager to get home, the driver accidentally ploughed the bow into a duck enclosure, giving its inhabitants full run of Southeast Asia’s third biggest lake and a taste of freedom they had never experienced before. Perhaps it was the rain, but after reversing the boat the young man literally ran away.
We swam twice during our visit. Once was next to a small pagoda on a rocky outlet, which led up to a naga shrine where a pagoda builder and a deep-tanned monk chewed betel. They told us about how there was a tunnel running from underneath the pagoda to Lake Indaw, nearly 150 kilometers south. Legend goes the tunnel was used by an ancient dragon, and that Indawgyi was once a city inhabited by people who could morph into tigers. Then one day a widow had a premonition that the place would be flooded. As she fled with her children, the waters came, turning the erstwhile people-tigers into strange fish that can still be seen to this day.
Another time, my friend took a dip outside the new Indawgyi Wetland Education Centre, managed jointly by NGO Fauna & Flora International (FFI) and community-based ecotourism organization Inn Chit Thu, which rents bicycles and kayaks and organizes trips, with all revenue going back into the community. The center is a perfect place to learn about and watch birds on the grassland of the lake, some of which migrate from Siberia and China.
Sustainable tourism outfit Face of Indawgyi is also helping to protect the environment and improve the lives of people in the area. It promotes the language and culture of the Shan-ni, a minority in Kachin State which has been suppressed by conflict, and it has plans for a social impact guesthouse and hotel training school on the shore.
Community is so strong on the lake that about an hour before we left, the whole street—including us—were invited to a one-year-old’s birthday party for plates of ochre, bamboo shoots, noodle salads, and fish. Monsoon season may not be the best time to travel, but a visit to the lake in Kachin State is rewarding at any time of the year.
Getting there: Air Mandalay flies from Yangon to Myitkyina and back every morning for 113,000 kyats (about US$77) for locals and $128 for foreigners. From Myitkyina, take a taxi to the lake for about 90,000 kyats. Alternatively, take a train from Myitkyina to Hopin and then take a taxi or motorbike the rest of the way.
Staying: A handful of homestays and motels at Lone Ton village each charge about 10,000 kyats per guest per night.