MYANMAR, 19 May 2017: Posh and poor cats are among the top tourist attractions on Inle Lake. At the top end of the social ladder, pretentious purebreds lap up a life of luxury at Inle Heritage Foundation.
At the other extreme, working-class cats used to jump through hoops for snacks at the famous Nge Phe Chaung Monastery located on the western shore of the lake. In recent years, the monks ordered their retirement, but they remain in residence pensioned off to slumber in the shade of the timbered temple. Noted for its magnificent collection of Buddha images, throngs of tourists continue to visit the teak wood monastery and still call it the ‘Jumping Cat Monastery.’ It’s kind of flattering for the working-class cats, but despite the recognition they are never going to quite make it to the luxurious lifestyle that the purebreds enjoy at Inle Heritage Foundation.
Nestled between canals at In Paw Khon village at the very southern end of Inle Lake, a converted wooden rice mill is home to 38 pedigree Burmese cats icons of the foundation’s pledge to revive the lake’s heritage and support sustainable tourism development.
The cats provide the furry, fuzzy images for tourists courtesy of the foundation’s founder, Yin Myo Su.
According to her website, the Burmese cat breed may have existed in Myanmar for over 1,000 years. They were recorded as royal pets and the country’s last monarch was said to keep 40 of them in his palace before he was banished to India by a victorious British colonial army. So along with razing Mandalay’s royal palace to the ground, British colonials brought about the end of a monarchy and its purebred cats.
Inle Heritage initiated its pioneering project to reintroduce Burmese cats to the country in 2008 with three British and four Australian bred pedigree cats imported to start the programme.
“Today’s the foundation’s Burmese Cat population has reached 38,” says foundation owner Yin Myo Su, noting the recent addition of four kittens.
From their origins as court attendants, they have now become Inle Heritage’s royalty, cared for, pampered and waited on around the clock. They are icons of the foundation’s good intentions. If you would like to buy a cat you would have to shell out USD600 undergo a strict vetting procedure and be prepared to look after them for 20 years. Selling cats is not the priority for this non-profit organisation, saving heritage is.
Myo Su passionately talks about “championing sustainable, local tourism as both an economic driver and stabilising force to restore the lake and its culture.”
The objective is ensure the 85,000 residents who live on and around the lake can share the benefits of tourism, while learning how to protect the lake’s beleaguered environment.
Myo Su manages both her family’s Inle Princess Resort on the far northwest tip of the lake and her Inle Heritage Foundation in a canal running from the southern shore.
The foundation’s core activity is to offer a free education to young lake residents who are seeking a career in hospitality, while promoting and restoring the lake’s Inthar culture.
The non-profit foundation runs a hospitality school just for locals, which Myo Su says is now 90% self funded and should be entirely self sufficient by 2018.
Opened in 2014, the school enrols 40 students annually from around 200 applicants for its 10-month course. So far, 120 students have graduated trained in the basics of hotel keeping. This year enrolment extended to 46 students.
They could be heading for jobs that pay as little as USD120 a month. That worries Myo Su who believes the minimum salary should be pegged around USD250.
“Today, Myanmar is one of the most expensive of all the developing nations in ASEAN for living costs, utilities, food, transport and services.”
In that environment the biggest challenge is to create a skilled labour force and to fuel economic growth, the clean sort that will be kind on the lake’s sensitive environment.
“We have to care for our heritage, share new values with our neighbours and find ways to improve life on the lake… that is our small contribution not to be independent, but to share with communities around us to find solutions,” she says noting the challenges are almost overwhelming.
“Out of every 100 young people living around the lake, 30 will not pass high school, just 7% of residents have bank accounts and 50% of households around and on the lake have no electricity,” explains Myo Su, as we enjoy a Shan style lunch at the foundation’s restaurant.
Tourists see a different side of the lake. They visit the foundation for lunch usually after a short stop nearby at two weaving and handicraft centres, Khit Sunn Yin and Mya Setkya. At the centres, silk and cotton are woven on traditional looms and the fine quality cloth is then sold by the metre, or as finished clothing at the centre’s gift shop.
From the second floor restaurant diners can view the narrow canals that feed into the lake, a 22 km long mass of water that makes up Myanmar’s second largest lake. Once the monsoon season sets in the land around the foundation turns swampy, or entirely submerged as the seasonal level of the lake rises.
The royal cats are snoozing in their ground floor palace below the restaurant that leads to their private island, with its pavilions and landscaped play gardens. Close by an aquarium with 30 fish species, native to the lake, illustrates the lake’s natural wealth that is now endangered by over fishing and pollution.
On the other side of the restaurant stands the kitchen’s garden where “chemically-free” vegetables are grown. The chef occasionally wanders through the garden to pick herbs or vegetables for the restaurant’s next order.
Cooking classes at USD100 ( one to four persons) a session are held daily, based on the recipes from the owner’s cookbook that is on sale in the gift shop. ( For five to nine persons the price drops to USD85 pp and for 10 to 12 persons USD70 pp).
There is even a replica of the interior of the family’s home of yesteryears down to photos of the grandmother whose cooking prowess inspired the foundation’s menu and cookbook.
I’s all very cosy and if you need to stay longer to soak up the heritage there are four villas that will set you back USD150 a night.
Not cheap, but the foundation is working hard to whittle away the gap on its profit and loss statement to reduce it reliance on grants and donations.
Myo Su says running costs exceed USD400,000 for a project that has 75 staff. The goal is to cover all of the foundation’s onsite activities by 2018. During its fiscal year 2016/2017, gift shop sales and revenue from the restaurant, cooking classes and stilt house rentals covered 90% of all costs.
But the foundation’s core project remains the free 10-month course in hotel keeping. The lucky students live on site and at the close of their training the foundation organises a job fair attended by Inle Lake’s resorts and restaurants.
Myo Su believes that responsible tourism can be a transforming force in her country. “We have to make change ourselves,” she says. “We can’t rely on traditional leadership to do it.”
She is passionate about it taking every opportunity to present her concerns for the lake’s future, recognising it will require a miracle to save the vast lake for generations to come.
“Yes, there are fears Inle Lake could be overdosing on tourism… But we have to start somewhere, make a small contribution and show by example that we can live on the lake and benefit from tourism without destroying the environment.”
She admits there is some distance to go
“I don’t call our food organic, sure we have all the certification possible but we lack one very important certificate water purity. We are chemically free, but the battle is to rid the lake of pollution…we need to share solutions with our neighbours to save the lake.”
Our boatman is waiting to take us back across the lake to Ananta Resort where we are staying the night.
Myo Su returns to her cooking class intent on passing on the recipes her grandmother perfected while sharing a heritage that should not be lost
As we pass by the door, Myo Su is rolling up her sleeves to join the class moving between cooking stations to administer encouragement and perhaps a dash of spice or sprinkling of herbs here and there. Saving heritage on the go.
(Adventure Myanmar Tours and Incentives and Amazing Hotels and Resorts sponsored the media trip, organised by PATA Chiang Rai Chapter chairman, Jaffee Yee, to promote the concept of ‘two countries, one destination’ by highlighting travel links between North Thailand and Myanmar’s Shan state.)