Inle Lake is one of Myanmar’s most beautiful natural features. It is home to the famed Inthar people, the ‘Sons of the Lake’ who are well known - and much-photographed - for their distinct way of fishing whereby they steer their boat while standing upright with one foot hooked around the paddle, leaving both arms free to cast their thimble-shaped nets into the water.
The fishermen complement the placid surface of the water, down upon which morning mist falls from the blue Shan hills riding up on either bank. Clamorous reed warblers flutter over the reeds of the bank, while large and brightly coloured dragonflies swoop and skim across the surface.
And yet for all its beauty, Inle Lake is suffering. Increased boat traffic due to its booming attraction as a tourist hot spot has led to both water and sound pollution; much water is taken from the lake to be used by the hotels, and the pesticides and fertilisers deployed by the Inthar farmers themselves - not to mention untreated sewage - have sullied the once clean water.
Deforestation and slash and burn farming techniques on the hills surrounding the lake has led to foreign nutrients and silt draining into the lake; alien breeds of plant and fish are also threatening the ecosystem.
Global warming is also playing its part. Higher temperatures contributing to the lake’s shrinkage. Many of the canals formerly used by villagers to reach the lake are today too shallow to use. The most damning prediction that Sampan has heard from those who live and work on and aside the lake, is that it will no longer exist in twenty years time.
Authorities are working to rectify the problems; organisations such the Inle Heritage Trust and Inle Speaks are also playing their part, and most of the hotels on the banks are now working to neutralise any of the negative effects they may be causing.
However no hotel is doing more than Villa Inle Resort & Spa. Under the management of U Aung Ko Ko, this hotel has been working hard for the last decade to improve the health of Inle Lake and the lives of its inhabitants. Earlier this year, the hotel became the first hotel in Myanmar to receive Gold Certification from the Sustainable Tourism body Travelife. Travelife not only looks at the environmental impacts of a hotel, but also how it affects the local community, both socially and economically, and the well being and treatment of its staff. When taken around the hotel by the General Manager Aung Ko Ko, even someone with little knowledge of septic tanks and organic farms can tell that the hotel’s management and staff are not simply paying lip-service to the cause of Sustainable Travel, but are leading the way for other hotels in Myanmar to follow.
With sumptuous cottages, and top-notch pool, restaurant and spa, this hotel is one of the most luxurious in the region. Villa Inle Resort & Spa therefore challenges the false conception that a luxury product cannot also be a sustainable one.
Earlier this year Sampan Travel sat down to speak to U Aung Ko Ko …
Firstly, why don’t you introduce yourself and say a bit about your past in the hospitality industry.
I am originally from Bagan. In the build up to Visit Myanmar Year in 1996 I worked in Bagan Thande Hotel, a Government Hotel. But then at that time the government began privatising many hotels and I moved to Thiripyitsaya Hotel, also in Bagan. And then I moved to Yangon, in 1998, to Pan Sea Yangon [now Belmond Governor’s Residence] as Front Office Manager. In Bagan, I had started originally as a waiter, and then was promoted as supervisor, and then was promoted to front office department as duty manager in 1997. When I moved to Yangon I became the Front Office Manager. After that in 2001 / 2002 I was promoted as room division manager.
In 2003 or 2004, I was moved to Pan Sea in Siem Reap. I wanted overseas exposure, and that is why I proposed if they had the opportunity to work overseas I would like to work. After 6 months I moved to Luang Prabang, for about 3 years. In 2007 I came back to Myanmar and worked at the Hotel at Tharabar Gate in Bagan, and then I moved to Inle Resort as a Reservation Manger. I then transferred to Nay Pyi Daw Aureum Palace. Because at that time I did not know about Nay Pyi Daw and had no experience in MICE [Meetings, Incentives, Conferences, and Events] and the government market
After a year I felt OK with the setup, and I returned to the tourism sector. At that time, an owner proposed to me to work in this area at Villa Inle. But it had no name then. I thought yes, I like Inle Lake, I can work there.
This is the longest time I have spent at one hotel. I am happy here. I like the place, I like the area. The owner gives me full authority, and so I can show my ideas; in the marketing, the reservations, the ground setting. Even the name and logo are mine. People need to have the chance to show their abilities and their skills, then people are happy. This is according to my experience.
Why don’t you tell us a little bit about Villa Inle Resort & Spa?
Villa Inle Resort & Spa is not on the lake, but on the eastern banks of the lake. We are 20km big, with only 27 villas. All villas are wooden villas and all are around 100 square metres big. So you can get the lake view from every villa. And we are in the nature! We have 7000 teak trees in the compound, and we have plenty of plants, so we are participating in the reforestation programme.
We are the first and only hotel in Myanmar to have the Travelife Certificate. There are over 150 criteria to meet for this, including energy saving, water and waste management, and having a company policy to take good care of our staff. Not only in paper, but following up. We started for this two years ago, and we got certification in March .
We only have 27 villas. All our villas are in old Myanmar style. If someone is in Myanmar or at Inle, they should get a sense and feeling of the area - this we are giving to you. When you are here, in the room you may not feel it is a room, but it is a house, your own house.
We have a small organic garden and so we can provide fresh fruit to our clients everyday for breakfast. We have bananas - four types! - mangoes, tamarind, and dragon fruit. If our organic garden cannot produce the fruit we find seasonal fruit from markets around the country, like longan, lychee ...
You can ask me, ‘Why don’t you provide apples or oranges?’ This you can find throughout the world, but mangosteen for example, I am not sure you can find in Europe. I have never seen. I would like people to have this taste. In the garden we do not make it a modernised garden, we do not put the modern flowers. We put the tropical, regional flowers. So when people come here they will feel that this is Inle Lake, this is the region. We are giving this message.
How do you perceive the health of Inle Lake today?
In general, it is getting unhealthier. It is fragile. This is for me a big concern. Every stakeholder, the public, the authorities, everyone has concern.
So, OK, there are so many things why the lake is getting shrunk.
Number One: weather is changing, global warming.
Number Two: the lack of maintaining forests by the government authorities. This is important because all the resources of the water come from the forests and the mountains.
Number Three: the main concern is with the local community. They should have more education about how to maintain the lake. Their bread and butter is plantation floating gardens, especially tomatoes. They use a lot of chemicals, this affects their health.
And also, the water levels and quality is getting worse and worse because of pollution. Now even with the small boat they use an engine. I am afraid in the next 5 or 10 years, the young generation will not have the skill of the leg rowing.
Also local authorities should control the number of boats on the lake. I don't think they are controlling that. OK they issue the license, but there are boats without license on the boat, and this is increasing.
So the pollution and the use of chemicals, the waste, the use of plastic bags ... For me, if we keep going on like this for the next 10 years …. next 5 years … I don’t know. I am really afraid.
Are you optimistic that Myanmar tourism in general will grow in a sustainable way?
It is a little bit difficult to say. Firstly, the world economic and political situation is not stable. In the EU, America, these big countries have a lot of problems, and this really affects world tourism. Myanmar really opened in 2010, when the military government transferred to the - let’s say - ‘elected government’. Tourism in the country opened and is booming. But it should be controlled. We can see in Nyaung Shwe there are lot of hotels and guesthouses, we have quantity. But our tourism should have quality also, in my opinion. So, OK open hotels and restaurants but if the staff have no training in hospitality then the people will compare with other countries and feel uncomfortable.
Yes, of course we should have tourists, but first infrastructure, good infrastructure. We should have more tourism, but quality tourism. This is my personal opinion.