Wild waters: Southern Shan State

For the second installment in our travel series focused on wild swimming spots, we head to Taunggyi and Heho for pastoral tranquility, orange toenails and a transcendent sunset swim.

By DOMINIC HORNER | FRONTIER

WHEN YOU hear the names Heho and Taunggyi, you probably think of an airport and balloon festival, respectively. But for the wild swimmers among you, I have some good news: there’s more to these places than you probably realise. This pocket of southern Shan State is home to a number of off-the-beaten-track swimming spots that are guaranteed to make your next trip something to write home about.

The Heho Hill-Ponds

Most people don’t linger around Heho, but just a few minutes’ drive from the airport is a unique day out for those who enjoy their wild swimming. From the centre of town, take a left on Pho Sai road and you’ll find yourself heading north and parallel to the hills. Here, golden stupas stud the horizon, Pa-O women wear brightly coloured traditional headscarves, and off the main road you’re more likely to pass an ox cart than another car. Even if you don’t so much as dip your toe in water, this is an eye-opening area to explore.

In truth, visiting the hill ponds is more of a cultural experience – the area just happens to have swimming holes as well. Most of the ponds are a light orange-brown due to the colour of the rich local topsoil, and don’t look that enticing. But if you don’t require crystal clear water, don’t mind coming home with orange toenails, and are happy to share your water with the odd herd of water buffalo, then the waters are perfectly swimmable.

And if you do decide to swim, keep in mind that the first purpose of all these ponds is irrigation, laundry and bathing – not recreation. A friendly smile and some modesty are essential parts of your swimming costume.

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Suggested routes: Cross through the hills to highway 43, which connects Shwenyaung to Lawksawk, towards Shwenyaung reservoir or follow the main road off to the left towards Pindaya (see map).

It's not easy to find but Yitikhon offers real peace and tranquility. (Dominic Horner | Frontier)

It’s not easy to find but Yitikhon offers real peace and tranquility. (Dominic Horner | Frontier)

Shwenyaung Reservoir/Nomoo Lake

Where would we wild swimmers be without GPS? Not at Shwenyaung reservoir that’s for sure. Tucked away off highway 43 at the end of a dirt road, the reservoir sees very few visitors and has no real name: Shwenyaung is just the nearest town. Regardless, the lake is a family-friendly spot that’s ideal for a picnic and a bit of a wander.

Just a couple of miles further up the road you’ve got Nomoo lake. If they were brothers, Shwenyaung would be the golden boy, the lake you’d want your daughter to bring home. Nomoo would be the one that gets caught smoking behind the bike shed. It’s definitely a bit rough round the edges, the sort of place where you’ll find young men blasting EDM and passing round a bottle of Grand Royal. It is worth checking out, just don’t expect the same level of pastoral tranquility as Shwenyaung.

Shwenyaung Reservoir Coordinates: 20.938715, 96.918555

Nomoo Lake Coordinates: 0.965526, 96.935445

Rafting at Inya Kan. (Dominic Horner | Frontier)

Rafting at Inya Kan. (Dominic Horner | Frontier)

Inya Kan

Half an hour north of Pindaya – a town famous for its sacred caves – lies Inya Kan, a beautiful natural lake set within rolling farmland. Most of the lake is inaccessible due to the surrounding marshes, but if you follow the lake along its western bank you’ll come across a man-shaped hole in the fence through which you can gain access. I was lucky enough to do some impromptu bamboo raft paddle boarding with a few local kids, but even if you don’t luck out to the same degree this is a very pretty swimming spot that makes for a decidedly rustic experience.

The sun sets over the mountains at Intaw. (Dominic Horner | Frontier)

The sun sets over the mountains at Intaw. (Dominic Horner | Frontier)

Intaw

Intaw is not easy to get to. From Taunggyi it’s a solid 2.5 hours each way – a full day trip. But it’s worth it. The dam is huge, and just like Inya Kan much of the lake is inaccessible due to thick reeds at the water’s edge. By far the best point of entry is Kyaw Wai village, a small fishing community in the middle of the western bank. From here you can also arrange a boat for a mini-tour of the lake. I spent sunset in the middle of the lake with a fisherman as the sun gradually fell behind the mountains – a near transcendent wild swim and an unforgettable experience.

Girls bathe in the river at Namm Bae. (Dominic Horner | Frontier)

Girls bathe in the river at Namm Bae. (Dominic Horner | Frontier)

Namm Bae Waterfall

Namm Bae waterfall is absolutely fantastic, a genuine treat for natural swimmers of every stripe. The falls themselves are actually pretty small – small enough to jump from, at least – and your lunch options are limited: it’s either fried tofu salad or fried tofu salad. But there’s a lovely, laid-back village community atmosphere to the whole place that makes it just irresistible. I planned to spend just a couple of hours here but in the end had to be dragged kicking and screaming back to Taunggyi by my driver. Never mind the small scale and lack of amenities, you won’t be disappointed at Namm Bae.

Wild waters Shan State

Wild waters Shan State

How do I get there?
There are regular daily flights to and from Heho.

How long do I need?
Four days would be required to see everything. Here’s a suggested itinerary:
Day 1: Lower hill ponds linking up to Shwenyaung reservoir/ Nomoo lake.
Day 2: Upper hill ponds linking up to Inya Kan.
Day 3: Intaw
Day 4: Namm Bae

How do I get around?
Expect to pay K40,000 to K50,000 for a return taxi to most destinations except for Intaw, which is likely to cost around 60,000. If you want to really explore the hill ponds, a motorbike works best.

Where do I stay?
There are many accommodation options in the area, particularly at Nyaungshwe, Taunggyi and further west at Kalaw. My pick is Dreamland guesthouse in Ayetharyar, just outside Taunggyi, for several reasons. It’s cheap, cheerful and the wonderful English-speaking staff can help you to organise transport. Also, you’re not too far from most of the swimming spots.

This is the second installment in my monthly, six-part “wild waters of Myanmar” series, which will take me to lakes, rivers, creeks, dams, waterfalls and remote beaches across the country.

TOP PHOTO: The Heho hill ponds (Dominic Horner | Frontier)

By Dominic Horner

By Dominic Horner

Born and raised in London, Dominic Horner is an English teacher at the British Council. His writing can be found at Myanmar Mix and Lonely Planet.
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