Eastern Myanmar

Inle Lake

Inle Lake is one of Myanmar’s most iconic destinations in the mountains of Shan State, where floating gardens made of woven water hyacinth reeds, silt and bamboo provide a backdrop for graceful, one-legged boat rowers. Inle Lake is perfect for leisurely boat excursions, walking explorations or longer trekking trips through the villages of the Shan, Pa-O, Intha and Danu ethnic minority groups.

Hauntingly picturesque, Inle Lake lies at an altitude of nearly 3,000 feet, fringed by tall grasses and reed beds, ringed by well-forested hills and, according to the season, may often be wreathed in mist. The main body of the lake is some 13 miles in length with calm, crystal clear waters. Its shores and floating islands are home to villages built on stilts, whose inhabitants are the hardworking and resourceful Intha people. These are the famous leg rowers, skilfully navigating the lake by rowing in a standing position – one leg wrapped around an oar pivoted on their hip, another leg balancing on the prow of their boat, and body poised to plunge a fish trap into the waters beneath. In addition to their fishing skills, the Intha are traditional market gardeners, cultivating flowers and vegetables on a floating tangle of water hyacinth and silt anchored to the lake bed by bamboo.

Moreover, Inle Lake is an official bird sanctuary, rich in wildlife. Its main body is reached along a narrow waterway from the northernmost lakeside town of Nyaungshwe. The boat ride passes waterside temples and villages, and in the less populated stretches, herons stand in solitary contemplation at the water’s edge while cormorants dive for their prey. In the principal part of the lake, there are many islands to visit. Away from these developed areas, a leisurely canoe paddle through channels branching from the lake brings a closer view of the local life, with fascinating encounters and friendly villagers. Heading south from the main body of the lake the traveller passes through another long and narrow waterway to reach the 17th century ruins of Sankar, where Shan and Pa-O villagers now live side by side, and the ancient Tharkong Pagoda, which legend tells was founded by an early Burmese king.

The region offers ample trekking opportunities and extended walks to keep the active traveller busy. Trekking out into the Shan hills east of Nyaungshwe, at the lake’s northern end will lead to Pa-O villages and beautiful views of the lake along the way. Extended walks through rice paddies pass many Shan stupa ruins that lie dotted around the countryside. Besides the Buddhist teachings, nats (spirits) have a special place in Myanmar culture. A large nat shrine located in a grave of banyan trees by the lake shore is accessible only by canoe. The trees that surround the shrine have been allowed to grow into a swampy jungle as no one dares to cut them down for fear of attracting the spirit’s wrath.

Kayah State

Previously closed to outside visitors, Loikaw is one of the hidden gems of the country and marks the point where the Dawna Range, mighty Salween River and Shan Hills converge. It is the capital of the Kayah State, home to over a dozen ethnic minority tribes whose cultures are very much intact and thriving. The Kayah (Karenni) ethnic group forms the majority, and the territory was named for the bright crimson head wraps and shawls of the Kayinni, or “Red Kayin” people. The town bursts with colour as many ethnic minority groups proudly wear their traditional dress. Another ethnic group, the Padaung people, are known for the circles of thinly pounded brass necklaces used to elongate the necks of the women, though the practice has become less standard in the younger generations. Loikaw also provides ample opportunity to learn about local cottage industries and crafts making. The surrounding areas are perfect for treks and unique explorations in the future when the region opens further.