Myanmar has only recently emerged from a bubble of isolation. Although still poor, tourist dollars are starting to pour in, especially for the people of Inle Lake, in Eastern Myanmar.
American economic sanctions were withdrawn so recently that Coca Cola has only been available for a year, and Macdonalds and other fast food places, have not yet arrived.
So maybe the traditional structures of Myanmar society are not yet as challenged as in other South East Asian countries.
This is a place of extraordinary beauty.
The Inthas have floating gardens on the lake. They grow high quality tomatoes all year round that are sold all over the country. The gardens are formed from masses of grasses, reeds and other aquatic plants. Some parts of the gardens are floating and some parts submerged. They are, in effect, floating islands held in place by bamboo poles.
Fishing is the traditional livelihood of the Intha, and fish is the main source of food supply for local people as well as their main income. Intha fishermen have a unique, fascinating and graceful rowing style. They stand on one leg and wrap the other around an oar and row with that leg, leaving their hands free.
They developed this style of rowing because they need to be standing to see beyond the clumps of reeds floating on the lake. Only men row this way - women row sitting down. I'm not sure how women manage to navigate the reed problem.
These girls coming home from school were carrying aluminium pans instead of plastic lunch boxes (or even worse, plastic bags) and I asked if I could photograph them. They agreed, but clearly were feeling rather shy.
Electric wires, precariously balanced on bamboo poles, stretch alongside the water, powering generators in villages. But electricity is, on the whole, not widespread, nor is it reliable.
Some villages are investing in solar power, a sensible alternative.
Every five days the market rotates around the various villages on and around the lake. This is the opportunity for people to buy and sell goods, catch up with each other, and do things like have a hair cut. The market we went to was in Nampan village and it was bustling. We saw no other tourists. Maybe because it was the rainy season?
You don't see these traditional costumes in the cities so much, but there is still pressure on women to wear them in rural areas. One Pa-o woman I spoke to complained that it was very hot. I asked her what would happen if she didn't wear it. She said she had no choice.
Near the lake are stands of bamboo. Bamboo is used extensively - for housing, for hats, for poles to secure the floating gardens, for food. One man explained to me that as soon as he can earn some money, he will change his bamboo home for brick. Bamboo houses are flimsy, get damaged by the weather and need to be re-built each year.
Inle Lake is home to to many species of wetland birds, both residential and migratory. It has been given protected environmental status by the government and by ASEAN.
Everything looked serene and lovely, and I certainly didn't meet a local who was prepared to tell a tourist that all was not so wonderful under the surface. But I wondered about the environmental health of the lake, and found a recent paper on the topic by a local researcher, Kyaw Zin Aung Soe.
During the last decade Inle Lake has suffered severe environmental degradation, due to the ongoing agricultural practices in and around the lake.
There has been deforestation (logging) in the catchment areas of the lake for farming purposes. After ploughing, the soil can no longer absorb water. So when it rains the soil erodes and flows into the lake. This sedimentation is causing a decrease in the size of the lake.
The floating gardens choke the lake's fragile ecosystem. Tomatoes, the main cash crop, require chemical fertilizers and pesticides. These, of course, pollute the water. Older people told Kyaw Zin Aung Soe that in the past the water was clean and drinkable. Today that is no longer the case.
|Water Hyacinth, an invasive weed growing on the Lake|
As the lake shrinks in size, and becomes polluted, the fish population declines, and native species are threatened with extinction. Of course, this also applies to the bird population, and to all the flora and fauna in the ecosystem. One older villager told me he remembers when he was a child, a tiger was killed and its body displayed. If you put your arms around it, you got strength and courage. He thinks it must have been the last tiger.
None of this should be surprising. The fact that tourism is growing is both a challenge and an opportunity for the local population on the lake. They won't be able to depend as much on fishing and won't be able to go on living as they used to do, so they will be forced to diversify and find different strategies to make a living.
And how will the increasing tourist numbers affect the environment? Only time will tell. There is a lot to worry about in terms of the future of this stunningly beautiful place.