MANDALAY — About 38 miles east of Mandalay, in Pyin Oo Lwin’s Magyi Inn village, Dee Doke waterfall crashes down into one of Burma’s most stunning natural pools, and one of its many travel delights. The entrance to the waterfall, tucked away down a sleepy road off the highway, is peppered with small restaurants, each vying for incoming guests’ attention.
Just past the strip, a small junction offers two routes to the pools. Elderly persons typically opt to stay on the ground level while younger travelers head uphill. Small huts, selling everything from slippers to snacks, line the rocky ascent to the top, where climbers can soak in a bird’s eye view of the ponds below, surrounded by beer-drinking youths.
The preferred spot for many visitors is a terraced pool; a shallow, five-step body of water that ends in a punchbowl-shaped fall, the limestone underneath giving it luster. Around the pool, red warning letters advise against littering and breaking beer bottles, while urging visitors to “be kind to nature.”
Though the site at times receives large crowds of tourists, the water remains immaculate. Merchants who work nearby say they all do their part to keep the place clean and welcoming.
“We collect trash every evening to make sure the area is clean,” Maung Oo, a souvenir shop keeper, told The Irrawaddy on a recent visit. He said the vendors burn the trash and collect epty cans and bottles to sell to recyclers.
The Dee Doke pools were discovered in 2000 by a group of geology students, but only since 2008 have they really caught the eye of tourists, who, in addition to the pristine waters, come to admire the stalactites that line the ceilings of nearby caves. Others prefer even more adventurous activities, such as climbing up steep surrounding hills where more caves have yet to be explored. Locals recalled one Western climber who attempted to scale the walls of one such cavern.
Such freestyle climbing is inadvisable, however—the man went up without a hitch, but had trouble when he tried to come back down. One local, Than Than Yin, recalled the ill-fated attempt, as the man fell to the ground and was found unconscious.
“We had to call an ambulance,” he said, “we don’t know if he survived or not.”
On a lighter note, the pools have opened up a broad debate about conservation in the area. While Dee Doke is beautiful on its own, visitors say its natural appeal is under threat by renovation. The ten-step pool, for instance, is the largest, and hence a draw for many swimmers. But it is also man-made; created by arranging sandbags to obstruct the natural water flows.
“The ‘upgrade’ with the sandbags threatens nature,” said Hla Hla Win, a visitor from Mandalay who has frequented the area since 2009. Other patrons were also critical of a surplus of shops, which they said spoiled views of the waterfront.
Locals said a private company was angling to build a recreation center at the site, but the plan has faced mounting public criticism. Aye Aye Myint, a member of a local development committee, told The Irrawaddy that locals pushed back hard against the project. She said the company had presented a plan to “loan” retail space to local vendors, which was flatly rejected.
“We’ve been working for years to develop this region with our own money,” Aye Aye Myint said. “And as soon as the area starts to grow, a company wants to come in and boss us around.”
The company made two attempts in early 2015 to persuade residents to sign onto development agreements but left empty-handed both times. Locals then sought permission from the government to build up a recreation center on their own.
“We got the green light from the Mandalay Division government last year,” Aye Aye Myint said, elaborating on a plan that would not only reinvigorate the waterfall area but also include a sapling program to combat deforestation on the surrounding hills. “We’re also going to renovate the roads, trekking paths, shops and, of course, the pools.”
Locals are eager to develop the area, though some visitors said they’d prefer that things stay just as they are, reveling in the natural beauty that has, for the most part, remained intact despite some manipulation of the swimming areas and the addition of a few shops.
Pyae Sone, a university student from Mandalay, said he worried that even a little development would bring unwanted and unsightly consequences.
“Some parts of the walkways are rocky, slippery and dangerous,” Pyae Sone said, “but the discos near some of the shops around the ponds are disrupting the serenity of nature.
“Three years ago, the area was very natural. We welcomed plans to upgrade the place, but now we see sandbags blocking waterways and destroying nature. If locals hadn’t sought development advice from experts, the natural beauty of the area wouldn’t be at risk and the ponds in jeopardy of becoming man-made.”