Feline Fine: Welcome to the Eco Haven for Burmese Cats (and Humans)
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because you can jump barefoot from the boat to the hotel lobby.
By Stephen Starr
It’s not every day a guest can arrive at their hotel barefoot having jumped off a long-tail boat, get handed a welcome drink and be greeted by feline royalty. But on this warm spring evening at Inle Heritage, a nonprofit foundation standing on bamboo stilts on Myanmar’s famed Inle Lake, that’s exactly how it rolls.
The brainchild of energetic hotelier Yin Myo Su, or Misuu, Inle Heritage is at the forefront of rural eco-conservation in Myanmar. As well as the hotel, there’s a vocational training facility, a restaurant and agriculture-conservation programs. And a Burmese cat reintroduction program. Founded in 2009, the center has been a major undertaking — “an absolutely crazy idea,” Misuu says — and despite the fact that from the outside it may come across as an exotic tourist site, its raison d’etre is to help the Inle Lake community. “I was born and raised on Inle Lake,” she says, “and I realized that if the quality of life is not good enough for us to live here, how can we expect to attract visitors?”
There’s also an island devoted to Burmese cats.
Each year, 40 local students undergo training here with a view to kickstarting their careers in the hospitality industry elsewhere. Visitors can also take part in culinary classes specializing in the cooking of organic Shan food, much of which is grown in the center’s five raised-bed vegetable and spice gardens tended by students. The resort is home to a small aquarium displaying endangered endemic eel and carp fish species and rare turtles. There’s also an island devoted to Burmese cats (they even roam the grounds) — prized by Burma’s colonial overlords during the early 20th century, the feline almost vanished in the 1930s and remains virtually unknown in Myanmar today. Since 2008, Inle Heritage has been breeding the rare cats, bringing the population to more than 40.
The teak and bamboo hotel bungalows face south, away from the noise of passing boat engines, and boast stunning views of the surrounding valley, particularly at first light. The restaurant serves traditional Shan and Inthar (the ethnic group to which the leg-rowing fishermen scattered around the lake belong) dishes, culinary assortments that are regarded throughout the country. But bear in mind it closes in early evening and is busy on weekends, so it’s best to book ahead.
Inle Heritage and the wider lake region hit that sweet spot between raw adventure and a level of infrastructure that allows visitors to comfortably experience a slice of everyday local life. All around, the network of canals that makes up nearby Inn Paw Khon village heaves with activity. Women in stunning Shan dress ferry soil piled high at the bow of their longboats to nearby floating gardens. Aside from the boat engines clap-clap-clap, the only audible sound is of a group of men — some submerged in lake water up to their shoulders — struggling to raise the timber frame of a new building. Spend more than a couple of hours here and you will feel like you’ve been transported into a past era.
Beyond the chill vibes and idyllic setting, Inle Lake’s ecosystem is facing challenges. Receding water levels and heavy fertilizer use on the lake’s floating gardens risk damaging the broader community’s tourism-focused industries. There’s also the state-sponsored repression and killing of Rohingya Muslims in western Myanmar that has hit foreign visitor numbers this and last year. “As a hotelier for 22 years, this season has been the hardest I’ve experienced,” says Misuu.
But she’s undeterred, and her single-mindedness has seen Misuu become a vital contact for international development groups. “There was a lot of red tape and traditional barriers — new ideas are always viewed skeptically, especially with the older generation around Inle Lake,” says Achim Munz of the Hanns Seidel Foundation, an NGO. “(But) with her approach, she trailblazed and showed what is possible.”
So, pack lightly and bring a notebook — because visiting here is as much about learning as doing.
GO THERE: INLE HERITAGE, MYANMAR
- Directions: Coming from Mandalay or Yangon, fly to Heho airport and take a taxi to Nyaungshwe ($25). From there, take a spectacular long-tail boat ride through Inle Lake to reach Inle Heritage on the south shore. Opening hours are 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.
- Accommodation: A bungalow, which accommodates up to three people, costs $150 from April to September and $230 from October to March. Entry to the cat sanctuary and aquarium is free of charge. Bookings: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Pro tip: Take a day course at the culinary school to avail yourself of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to source and cook food from Inle Lake. Groups of 2 to 4 people cost $100 per person (groups of 9 to 12 cost $70 per person). Lunch or dinner is included.
- Stephen Starr Contact Stephen Starr