A tiny village in the backwaters of southern Myanmar is cleaning up its act and laying out the welcome mat, as Keith Lyons finds during a visit to a remote settlement sharing an estuary with Thailand.
As tourist destinations go, it would be hard to find any place smaller than ramshackle Wae Ngae. The tiny Burmese hamlet of a dozen rickety wooden stilt-houses looks out across a wide estuary to its more prosperous neighbour Thailand. The sleepy village, where small fish dry on racks in the fierce midday sun, is an unlikely test-case for a responsible tourism project which ambitiously aims to better lives, while conserving neglected habitats, as well as providing intrepid visitors with an authentic non-touristy experience, an antidote to commercial tourism and the catchphrase of 2019 – over-tourism.
Just launched is a new Community-Based Tourism (CBT) initiative along with efforts to improve waste management. “This is part of our efforts to promote responsible tourism models and practices in the Kawthaung area, involving small communities, civic groups, local government and the private sector,” says Istituto Oikos Country Director and STAR Project Manager Daniele Alleva. Italian NGO OIKOS (www.istituto-oikos.org/en), which employs European and Myanmar biodiversity and sustainable development experts, launched its STAR Program in 2018 in the southern Myanmar’s Tanintharyi region, having initially focused earlier efforts on Lampi Marine National Park in the Mergui Archipelago before extending its outreach to the mainland’s Kawthaung district. Funded by the Italian government and private donors, the three-year project aims to promote well-being and social inclusion, as well as working alongside communities to protect soil, water, forests and wildlife.
While the Myanmar partly-democratic government has recognised the important role of tourism in the nation’s post-dictatorship economic development, the southern (and largely neglected) region has been identified as an area with untapped potential. Past exploitative forestry, mining and fishing practices have damaged the environment, with vast plantations producing palm oil and rubber and a smuggler economy meaning little of the region’s wealth from natural resources trickles down to ordinary Burmese.
There is no road access to Wae Ngae, a ‘new’ village established by Burmese from further north in search of new opportunities in fishing, farming or manual labour. There is no boat or ferry service to the villages dotted beside the estuary or up tributary rivers, says Shwe Fun from the partner organisation Parchan River Conservation and Development Association (PRCDA). There are many challenges, including lack of facilities and infrastructure. Neither his organisation, nor the government’s fisheries department (part of the Ministry of Livestock, Fisheries and Rural Development), are adequately resourced or empowered. The only way for him (and the fisheries officer inspecting the oyster and mussel farms) to reach the settlements is to hitch a ride from the port of Kawthaung on a long-tail boat for the two-hour journey upriver.
Passing the large flotilla of fishing boats docked at Kawthaung, most which catch squid and fish for the Thailand ‘grey’ market (there are no processing facilities in Kawthaung), any visit must be timed with the tides. Across the estuary of the Panchang river, which is sometimes turbulent in windy conditions, Thailand is tantalisingly close. On the Thai side, the river is known as Kraburi, and beyond Thailand’s largest preserved mangrove forests are the bright lights of Ranong, with its 7-Elevens, and menial jobs for those lucky enough to be able to work legally (or illegally).
The inequalities are highlighted at Wae Ngae village, where residents struggle to survive, fishing at night the river estuary, trapping crabs and farming oysters and mussels on the tidal mudflats and mangove forest riverbanks.
Despite the subsistence existence of the inhabitants of Wae Ngae (and its larger twin settlement of Wae Gyi), a banquet of freshly-prepared dishes is served for visitors upstairs in a newly-constructed stilt-house. A locally-harvested medicinal root, similar to cassava, is served in a tonic drink with honey, preserved in whisky.
As brahminy kites and sea eagles soar and circle on thermals, Alleva says for adventurous visitors there are opportunities for birdwatching, spotting dolphins, visiting fish and shellfish farms, and kayaking in the mangroves. “This project is ultimately run by the community, to ensure sustainability,” he says.
As well as the CBT initiative OIKOS has undertaken waste awareness campaigns in many villages. “Wae Ngae is one of five villagers where we are promoting social inclusion by income-generating activities including a waste management project to enable participants to earn money instead of discarding trash,” says ecologist Cristina Tha, an assistant project manager with OIKOS, showing the area behind the settlement set aside to consolidate the rubbish.
Later the open-air downstairs area is used for a meeting about the village’s waste recycling programme which sees rubbish sorted for re-use, recycling, or disposal. Plastic which cannot be re-used is burned at high temperatures, while glass and cans along with scrap metal are ferried to Kawthaung or across the river to Thailand, where it can be sold. “It has been a challenge to get community buy-in, but at Wae Ngae they have an incentive to sort the trash, as the village makes money by selling it, mainly to Thailand, if the price is better than available in Kawthaung,” says assistant project manager Giulia Cecchinato, who has a background in forest and participatory forest management.
From Wae Ngae it is a pleasant 15-minute walk through leafy areca palms which yield betel nut, and rubber plantations where the bark is cut to bleed white latex into coconut shell cups, to Wae Gyi, where an open rubbish dump sits between the shoreline and the primary school and hilltop Buddhist monastery. Visitors to the area will be able to venture up a tributary of the Panchang River where ancient mangrove forest line the tidal stream, and clamber up a hillside for a panoramic view of the tropical jungle, before heading back to the bright lights of Kawthaung or Ranong, or the Andaman Club Casino on a nearby island.
Visitor numbers to Kawthaung have increased in recently years, as the border port is the gateway to Mergui archipelago’s new resorts such as Wa Ale Resort and Boulder Bay Eco-Resort, though many of the visitors are day trippers from Thailand, or foreigners on a quick visa run. There’s hope that backwaters on the estuary and among the mangroves such as Wae Ngae and Wae Gyi might benefit from the growth in tourism. Last week, the village of Wae Ngae received its first guests.