The neon glare of Nyaung Shwe

Wai Linn
From Nyaung Shwe’s main dock, it’s a short boat ride to Inle Lake. (Photo - EMG)
From Nyaung Shwe’s main dock, it’s a short boat ride to Inle Lake. (Photo - EMG)

On one humid night delegates from civil society organisations across Southeast Asia were celebrating the end of a conference at a posh big hotel in Nyaung Shwe on the edge of Inle Lake. The boisterous party dragged on way past 10pm. Lights from the hotel’s rooftop illuminated the small town.

Every country has its own tourism industry, a major source of livelihood for many in some countries. Myanmar’s top tourist draws – ancient pagodas and temples, ethnic culture and natural wonders – have sparked a massive influx of foreign tourists. Inle Lake is a must-see on anyone’s itinerary. 

Located in southern Shan State within Taunggyi district, Nyaung Shwe is a popular hill station at an elevation of 2,950 feet in the Inle Lake area. With an average rainfall of 37 feet and temperatures ranging between 46 °F (7.7 °C) and 91 °F (32.7 °C), it’s a favourite holiday destination. According to historical records, the city was established in 1359 AD and ruled by powerful Shan saophas (chieftains). Nyaung Shwe Saopha Sao Shwe Thaike became the first president of Myanmar.

Tourists flock to Inle Lake to observe local ethnic traditions, enjoy its fair weather, and take in Shan, Danu, Taungyo, Intha, and PaO villages. Nyaung Shwe is an evergreen destination as most tourists tend to make a stopover in the town on their way to destinations in the Inle Lake area. Local residents reckon the town might be a victim of its own success.

Despite the city’s rich cultural heritage, fewer sellers are seen in traditional clothes at Mingalar Market, the main market of Nyaung Shwe. Many roadside signboards related to the tourism industry have sprung up across town. Like Bagan, tourists roam the town all year round [except for the rainy season] either on their bicycles or horse-drawn carriages. 

Big hotels, guesthouses, tour companies, car and bicycle rental services, gift shops, traditional handicrafts shops, and restaurants are all over the place even on small alleys. Ethnic people can be seen around the lake where they run boat rental services. From there, the Shan mountains are visible on the horizon amid cloud banks.

A hotel owner told me that Inle Lake boasts around 70 hotels and motels compared to Nyaung Shwe’s over 40 hotels and motels. Construction of new hotels is banned in Inle and Nyaung Shwe, so hotel operators have set their sights on building hotels in Maing Thauk.

Monks inside an ancient pagoda in Nyaung Shwe (Photo - EMG)

“There aren’t any original ethnic land owners in Nyaung Shwe anymore. They have sold their land and bought plots in rural areas and on the outskirts of the town. Land prices are high in the town. Every place has been turned into a hotel,” an ethnic Shan man groaned in a tired voice.

However, the town continues to attract investors and migrant workers, turning into a melting pot of cultures.

“It is crowded with foreign tourists during Thadingyut and Tazaungdaing. Many local visitors come here in April. I moved here from Yangon two years ago after my father had been transferred to the town. I was unemployed so I started working at a hotel. I get Ks 70,000 (US$63) when there are fewer guests and more tips when there are many guests. As room rates are high, only a few local visitors can stay at the hotel,” said a receptionist at a hotel in Nyaung Shwe.

With the lack of major tourist attractions, Nyaung Shwe is worth a little more than a temporary stopover. The truth is there’s not much in the way of culture to take in besides Shwe Yan Pyay Pagoda (famous for its murals and bell) and the former palace of Sao Shwe Thaike, now a museum. Maing Thauk and Indein are well worth a visit, as are the broker shops selling famous tomatoes from the lake.

While some educated and skilled ethnic people are lucky enough to work in hotels, other uneducated folks are cheap labour at hotel construction sites and retreat to the countryside when jobless. 

Most of the handicraft products like handwoven fabrics sold in Nyaung Shwe come from Inle Lake. Given its present circumstances, it’s possible to conclude that Nyaung Shwe’s tourism has rarely contributed to the locals’ wellbeing. Worse, it’s threatening their culture. 

Members of the city’s tourism industry are collaborating with the Forestry Ministry to build hotels around Inle Lake and on the hills of Maing Thauk. While conscious of the impact of property development projects on the environment, hotel executives in Inle Lake and Nyaung Shwe have come together to conserve the natural landscape around Inle but to no avail due to the lack of funding and technological knowhow.

The natural beauty of Inle drives tourism, not the other way around. 

“Waste is being released into the lake because of the high cost of wastewater treatment. Hotels can’t do that. Some hotels do, but the rest of the hotels don’t want to follow. Centuries-old trees were cut to give way to new hotels. Much of the region has been deforested. Many luxury hotels have emerged,resulting in more reliance on undergroundwater. Who’d wants to visit Inle Lake if she’s no longer beautiful? How will the hospitality sector survive at this time?,” said Sai Sai Ngin, program negotiator of the A Phyu Yaung Saydanar Environmental and Social Pioneer Group.

While reflecting on the voices and images of Nyaung Shwe, I could see that the town was still alive under the glare of garish neon lights from the high-rise hotel. The Asean traditional night finally came to a close after 11 pm.  The delegates walked back to their hotels without the need of a shuttle bus. Judging by the number of restaurants still packed with tourists even by midnight, Nyaung Shwe is very much a sleepless town. It was another day in paradise for some people in Nyaung Shwe. But if tourism comes at the expense of local culture, the chances are the city will likely be consigned to oblivion one day.