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It is a crisp morning in Nyaung Shwe and we are sitting having breakfast under the dark teak terrace of A Little Eco Lodge.
Aung Kyaw Swar waves his hand airily up at the beams around us.
“I bought an old house on Inle Lake and after demolishing it moved it all back to resettle here. A lot of the wood had been eaten by the termites but I used all the pillars. These are easily 80 or 100 years old. Teak pillars. The shape is exactly the same as the original house. I just enlarged it and formed the rooms. It’s about promoting the local way of living.”
Aung Kyaw Swar is the owner of A Little Eco Lodge, a small guesthouse on the outskirts of Nyaung Shwe. We are looking out on a field of a couple of acres where in a few months – and then only for several weeks – a hundred heads of sunflower will bloom. The sound of monks from the nearby monastery is receding into the distance.
Aung Kyaw Swar was born and raised around Inle. His first boss was U Ohn Maung, today the Minister for Hotels and Tourism. In the 1970s U Ohn Maung founded Nyaung Shwe’s first guest house – Inle Inn Nyaung Shwe. Aung Kyaw Swar worked with him and his family in all aspects of their business: from catering to construction to guest relations.
“That gave me a lot of experience and knowledge: how you serve people, how you deal with people and what are their expectations. Working with the clients is another window through which to look at your own culture and the environment. You have to study instantly their likes and dislikes, their nature, and what make them happy. It was interesting to me.”
In 2012 Aung Kyaw Swar was living in Yangon but his mind was “back in Inle”. Around this time he began speaking to Daw Yin Myo Suu – founder of Inle Heritage Foundation – about what they could do for the youth of the lake. At her urging, he agreed to become the first principal of the newly-founded Inle Heritage Vocational Training School. In 2013 he moved back to Nyaung Shwe and bought the plot of land where we were now having breakfast.
In addition to running the Vocational School, Aung Kyaw Swar began supporting owners of small hotels and guesthouses that prioritized experience and feeling above all else; properties that held the customs and traditions of Myanmar front and centre. It was through this work that he decided to create A Little Eco Lodge in January 2016.
The Lodge is a success. On the grounds Aung Kyaw Swar has also been able to build a bamboo restaurant (“A Little Tree House”) and a weaving workshop (“A Little Loom.”) But Myanmar law doesn’t make it easy for property owners with less than 10 bedrooms to acquire a hotel license to accommodate international travellers. Aung Kyaw Swar talks of the “impossibility” of setting up a business.
“Now it is only possible if you have a lump sum of investment. By law or regulation the government should protect the environment but size of the hotel doesn’t matter. Whether there are 4 rooms or 400 rooms the questions should be: Do they do waste-management properly? How do they utilize the natural resources? How do they treat the staff? Do they pay tax? And then let them run it!”
Nyaung Shwe has seen much change since the arrival of the first intrepid tourists. Hundreds of hotels and guesthouses have now sprung up, radically changing the town from what it was just a couple of decades ago.
Between 1994 and 1996 arrivals increased from 3,200 to 21,000. This rose to 60,000 in 2012, 138,000 in 2015, and 225,000 in 2017. Today the whole of the Inle Lake region hosts over 100 hotels, 1,200 licensed boats for tourists, 350 tour guides, and 40 travel agencies.
When Sampan spoke to hoteliers in Kalaw, they would often cite the situation in Nyaung Shwe as a worst-case scenario. Too many hotels; too little quality; too little planning regulation.
Aung Kyaw Swar does not believe that a blanket restriction on construction is the answer. Instead he urges for greater guidance and research on the part of the government. Research on “… the size of the town, size of the population, how much carrying capacity there is for clients and rooms; what kind of rooms types there already are and does the building style fit the specific destination. How are they going to recruit for human resources; how are they going to train … Right now, they just see the number of tourist arriving.”
On the eastern bank of the lake it is still possible to see a scar on the hillside of the ill-fated “hotel zone” of the previous government. This particularly upsets Aung Kyaw Swar.
“Is this a responsible approach to develop the industry? It is not responsible for the environment, nor for the local economy. Only for the wealthy people from across the country.”
The scant regard for preserving the environment is also something that concerns, Philippe Lenain, owner of the newly opened Myinka Trek Ecolodge.
As we walk up in the hills surrounding his lodge he speaks of the horror of deforestation that has blighted the Myanmar landscape. We pass crooked, lone trees that have been attacked for charcoal and firewood. Over the valley in the distance he points to where his company has arranged for hundreds of trees to be planted that year.
He has already witnessed deforestation first-hand in Cambodia.
“Have you ever smelt a rubber tree plantation? Chemicals, fertilizer … Nothing natural at all. Not a bird to be heard or an insect to be seen.”
Philippe does not describe himself as a hotelier. He has come to this trade not by design but by instinct. He has lived in Southeast Asian for decades and moved to Yangon with his wife Pearl in 2015. They found themselves leaving the city every weekend to explore the Myanmar countryside. When they arrived in Kalaw it was “love at first sight”.
“It is mainly a project for Pearl and I. The people were nice. Everywhere we walked was interesting. Slowly it dawned on us that we should not come here every two weeks but live here and only go to Yangon when needed.”
They settled upon the village of Myinka, just north of Kalaw. The idea to create a four-room guest house was “a natural thing”, allowing them to host Philippe’s four children and, when the children are not there, invite friends and other guests to stay.
As it was village land they did not need a construction permit to erect a bamboo building.
“I read documents myself on how to build things in bamboo. But you can read as many things as you like on the internet but until you do it you know nothing. After I drafted a constructor but he didn’t know about bamboo. Those people who know about bamboo they live in the village. They don’t work as construction workers! We could have done things much better. Maybe for the next one …”
When COVID sent Myanmar into lockdown Philippe had the time to complete the finishing touches: painting, arranging the furniture, finalized the external decorations and pruning the garden into shape. The four rooms are light and there are thick blankets for the cool Shan nights. A long wooden table in the dining area encourages communal eating and there is South African wall art at the entrance.
Despite the construction that is already creeping upon Myinka, Philippe is satisfied with their choice.
“Myinka will keep its charm. You see we are at the end of the valley. We have the last piece of land on the village. I think that was a good choice.”
However, he is less optimistic about Kalaw’s future.
“It is already degrading and it will continue to degrade. In my opinion it is only to become more of a city and it will lose its charm. There are already so many hotels. There will be even more. It is a trend, and you can see where the trend leads. Preservation is not on top of the agenda.”
Someone who is working hard to ensure that Kalaw does preserve its charm is Ole Rehlaender, General Manager of Kalaw Heritage Hotel. We stay with Ole the following day and after a frenetic game of table tennis retire to the garden for glasses of Mandalay Draft Beer – the country’s most underrated larger, Ole insists.
Ole, originally from Hanover, arrived in Myanmar in 2009. He managed hotels at Ngapali Beach and Nay Pyi Daw before moving to Kalaw in 2016. He wasted no time in founding the Kalaw Tourism Organization (KTO), Myanmar’s first Destination Management Organization.
Ole tells us that this has been instrumental in replacing “gossip and jealousy” with communication and collaboration. One of the first things KTO achieved was, along with GIZ, publishing the Kalaw Style Book – a manifesto of ideas and aspirations to preserve Kalaw’s uniqueness as one of Myanmar’s premier tourism destination. The Style Book sets out guidelines to ensure that the town maintains is character and that new development keeps to the aesthetic style: no building to be higher than adjacent pine trees, for example, and a preference for earth tones instead of reflective materials.
Ole hands us a copy of the Style Book with pride and says that it has likely reached the desk of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. He believes that it is because of the Style Book and lobbying by KTO that the town centre is not full of 10-storey buildings.
Ole smiles broadly and we order more glasses of beer.
Ole becomes excitable when speaking about crafting “smaller experiences” for those travelling to Kalaw. He believes it vital that hoteliers like him do not just sell accommodation but work together to build a story. When he speaks about sustaining, developing and promoting Kalaw heritage, he is not referring to his hotel but the entirety of the town.
“I cannot market a hotel if I am in a no man’s land! We need to ensure the environment is also inviting.”
When Ole first arrived the only thing that hotel receptionists recommended to travelers in Kalaw was trekking to Inle. And some travellers would get off the bus and start the trek right away, without even staying one night in Kalaw.
This is now no longer-the case. In recent years Kalaw has seen the arrival of experience providers such as Ride Behind Kalaw (motorbiking and kayaking), restaurants like Red House (Italian food and fine wine), and the social enterprise Sprouting Seeds (cookies, smoothies, and home-made ice-cream!) Ole himself has taken a leading role in organizing the Kalaw Trail Run (which welcomed 450 participants in 2019) and the town’s first Christmas market.
“Yoga classes, cooking classes, good food, good vibes! We have it all!”
And as an alternative to taking the common trekking route to Inle Lake, Ole recommends hiking north to Myinka or even Pindaya.
Philippe from Myinka Trek Ecolodge goes hiking most days. He is able to arrange treks for his guests from 1 to 7 hours; simply around the village or all the way to Aung Ban. From the Kasaung Taung Pagoda Philippe points out to us the different options.
Gazing out over the landscape, his dog Co Co snuffling at his feet, he looks like a man who has found contentment.
“We made the right decision. Sometimes you are right and sometimes you are wrong. But in this case we were right on insisting on Myinka. On that I have no doubt. There are very few places that can offer what we have here.”
Philippe and Pearl are not going to transform themselves into hotel managers – “We are too old for that!” But they are ready to welcome people who appreciate friendly and intimate hospitality.
“Myinka Trek Ecolodge is a place for nature lovers. For people who appreciate being in a place of silence, birdsongs … and frog-songs, too, if it’s raining! It is a place for being in the middle of the valley, for contemplating the buffalo in the rice fields and the movement of people through the village. Guests will have to appreciate being a bit isolated. People should take it for what it has to offer and not mistake it for what it is not.”
Those that appreciate Myinka, would also appreciate the peace and tranquility of A Little Eco Lodge. Everything that Aung Kyaw Swar has created was done to bring together attentive hospitality with the natural heritage of the region. A place of feeling. A place of experience. A place of tradition.
“I love this word ‘eco’. We want to be eco-friendly as much as possible. But ‘ecology’ to me is not only about being environmentally-friendly. It is also about how we are going to sustain the traditional practice though the service to the clients and in their rooms. That is why I bought an old house on Inle Lake and moved it back to resettle here.
“For me, when I say “eco”, it is about promoting what is natural. Promoting the local way of living.”