Ecotourism in the Ayeyarwady Delta
Ecotourism in the Ayeyarwady Delta
The great Ayeyarwady River flows from the north to the south of Myanmar for 2,093 kilometers, splitting into numerous branches to form a large, fertile delta area (240 x 210 kilometers), before entering the Andaman Sea and the Bay of Bengal.
When Myanmar reopens for tourism, the Ayeyarwady delta region has much to offer as a destination for foreign visitors looking to explore off the beaten path and away from tourist sites and crowds.
Pathein, the capital of the Ayeyarwady Division, is a half day leisurely drive from Yangon. Attractions along the way include traditional bamboo umbrella making and Shwemohtaw Pagoda, before arriving to the glorious white sand beaches of Ngwe Saung. This sleepy, unspoilt resort area is blissfully untouched by urbanization.
Those wishing to venture even further off the beaten path should set your sights on the Meinmahla Kyun Wildlife Sanctuary. Located in the southern delta, it’s a convenient one day trip by steamer from Yangon to Bogale. Those making the journey are rewarded with idyllic sights of wide expanses of paddy fields, coconut tree-lined riverbanks and scenes from daily village life.
A few local guest houses offer accommodation in Bogale, the best being the Forestry Department Guest House.
Be sure to stock up on purified drinking water (no single use plastic bottles, please!) as Meinmahla Kyun is an island located in the wetlands near the mouth of the sea, and rain is the only source of fresh water. In the dry season, water is in short supply and must be brought from outside.
The expedition begins with a two-hour motor boat ride to the Kyaung Daunt, as the scenery changes dramatically. Mangrove trees and bushes sway in the breeze. Fishing birds scan their prey from above, then swoop down for the catch. Fishermen sing gaily from their canoes. Local villagers welcome visitors with broad smiles and enthusiastic waves.
An important function of the Sanctuary is to collect hatchlings (baby crocodiles) from their nests, nurture them for one year, then release them into the wild. The aim is to increase the saltwater crocodile (Crocodylus porosus) population. Visitors can visit the headstarting centre to observe the adorable hatchlings, which make little hissing sounds of protest when the staff catches them to take measurements.
Continue two more hours by boat to Thaung Chaung camp, at the southernmost end of the island. The camp has two very basic bungalows. A sleeping bag or mosquito net and a portable mattress are essential for visitors unaccustomed to sleeping on a wooden floor and mat. Once you settle in, feast on delectable fresh fish and shrimp. For adrenaline junkies tempted to take a dip in the river, remember: this is the natural habitat of crocodiles!
Other Sanctuary dwellers include snakes, dolphins, wild cats, wild pigs and fishing birds. To conserve the wildlife, other important functions of the Sanctuary staff are to protect the mangrove forests and wetlands, and educate visitors on the vital importance of living in harmony with nature.
Another highlight is a visit to a nearby fishing village, of which Kadonkani is the largest. The village serves as a source for exporting fish, shrimp and crabs to Yangon and as far away as China. Bamboo crab storage containers, fisherman in canoes hawking their fresh catch, and the frenzy of fish trading activity, all add to the ambience, which juxtaposes quaintness and commerce.
A favorite activity is nighttime crocodile spotting by boat. The creatures’ eyes glow red in the dark, making them easy to spot.
Some fishermen live entirely on the river, with a canoe serving as home, place of business and mode of transport. Their children are even born in the canoe! If they’re afraid of a crocodile attack, it’s by no means a deterrent to their way of life.
In general crocodiles are greatly feared by fishermen and intensely disliked by local people, who refer to them as “man-eaters”. Food-habit studies reveal that crocodiles are largely fish eaters, but they also capture birds and small mammals that make their way into a croc’s habitat. As part of the conservation effort, Sanctuary staff are trying to change peoples’ perception of and attitude toward the much-maligned reptiles. According to behavior studies, crocodiles do not typically prey on humans, except to defend their territory against intruders. If crocodiles were as dangerous as their reputation suggests, the fishermen would not dare to anchor their canoes at the edge of river at night, when the crocs are asleep nearby on the mud bank. Crocodiles can grow to a length of 7 meters (23 feet) and a weight of 1,000 kg (2,200 pounds). A canoe is no match for an agitated crocodile!
In summary, the Meinmahla Kyun Wildlife Sanctuary has great potential to promote wildlife education, environmental awareness and ecotourism. It not only offers refuge for endangered species, but a respite for nature lovers seeking to escape the hustle and bustle of the city and awaken the senses. Feel the gentle touch of the warm breeze on your skin. Listen to the soothing sound of water gently lapping against the shore. Awake in the morning to nature’s chorus of chirping birds. Relax and calm your soul in the great Ayeyarwady delta region.
Special thanks to Daw Ohn Mar Ohn, Ph.D, Zoological Department, University of Yangon, and Forestry Department, Bogale Township.