After fifty years of brutal oppression, Myanmar’s doors are have finally started to swing open, giving the independent traveller a peek into a world virtually untouched by mass tourism and this is probably the main reason we decided to go. We started our exploration of Burma with Inle Lake.
The region’s history of unique cultural and artistic practices stretches back a few centuries. Regional artisans were historically renowned for their jewellery, paper making, wood carving and textiles, including a silk spun from the stem of the lotus flower found only in this region.
Aside from the beauty of this most glittering jewel of Myanmar’s eastern Shan region, Inle is a thriving ecosystem, home to thousands who reside in floating villages. Highlights include the conical-hatted Intha fisherman whose leg-rowing technique is a unique sight, and motorboat tours of local handicraft makers.
Hospitality students from all over Shan state come to intern at Inle Heritage House, a gorgeous colonial-looking house doing triple duty as a Burmese cat sanctuary, hotel, and restaurant; you can even take cooking classes and tour its organic garden. Inle Heritage is a not-for-profit organisation that looks after the cultural and natural heritage of the Inle Region, and helps it grow as a great place to live, work and visit. We stayed there and will definitely return .
With its stilted villages, Intha leg-rowing fishermen, floating vegetable gardens and layered mountains as a backdrop, Inle Lake is one of the most unusual and extraordinary places in the world in which to enjoy a hot air balloon flight.
This is a “once in a lifetime” experience. Truly truly magical !
Inle Lake has been a major Myanmar weaving center for over a century and its chief artisans are based in the village of Inn Paw Khon. You’ll hear the looms clacking away through open-air windows as you come in to dock. It’s a big enterprise by Myanmar standards, with several tidy buildings housing twenty-plus looms apiece. Everything, from the dyes to the finished scarves and longhis (the Myanmar sarong), is done here by hand, by women of all ages (they’re allegedly more precise than men). There’s no retiring age, either: The eldest women approve designs and dying techniques, their experience and taste still invaluable, even as their eyes fail on the looms. While woven textiles can be found throughout Southeast Asia, Myanmar is the only place to make lotus fabric—and Inle Lake is ground zero for it, as its shallow waters create ideal growing conditions for the flowering plant. You can buy it directly from the source here, for an authentic, made-in-Myanmar souvenir.
The weekly market is a must experience, trust me but go early! Loved the no frills hair salon !
From Inle Lake we travelled to one of the world’s greatest archeological sites, a sight to rival Machu Picchu or Angkor Wat but – for the time being at least – without the visitors: Bagan.
The setting is sublime – a verdant 26 square-mile plain, part-covered in stands of palm and tamarind caught in a bend of the lazy-flowing Ayeyarwady river and framed by the hazy silver-grey of distant mountains. Rising from the plain’s canopy of green are temples, dozens of them, hundreds of them, beautiful, other-worldly silhouettes that were built by the kings of Bagan between 1057 and 1287, when their kingdom was swept away by earthquakes and Kublai Khan and his invading Mongols. Some 2,230 of an original 4,450 temples survive, a legacy of the Buddhist belief that to build a temple was to earn merit.
Bagan is still, by the standards of sites of a similar beauty and stature, a gloriously unsullied destination.
Burma is not known for its fine-dining establishments – indeed, there are very few restaurants, chiefly because there have been no tourists visiting the country for such a long time. This is beginning to change now that the country has opened up, but options for eating out, outside hotels, are still very limited. In Bagan, Black Bamboo was our favourite eaterie by far. We kept coming back after a couple of strange culinary experiences.
We discovered the most gorgeous lacquerware at Tun Handicrafts / Moe Moe. Ak to visit their VIP room and you will be blown away by the high end lacquerware they produce.We admired a dinner table and chairs that required three years of production.
After ten days in Burma, we flew to Luang Prabang, in Laos.
We stayed at Villa Maly. Once the home of Lao royalty, Villa Maly is an exquisite boutique hotel enveloped in lush tropical forests. Boasting a charming elegance and luxury of long-gone aristocrats, the residence is a haven of privacy and tranquility.
One of the most exquisite temples I have ever seen was Wat Xieng Thong Buddhist temple. Essential !
Tamarind and Dyen Sabai were definitely our two favourite food spots. At Dyen Sabai, you can try the do-it-yourself barbecue, known as sindat.
This would be my secret address. I literally raided Hilltribe Heritage. The owner, Sho is married to a French man, she belongs to the black hmong ethnic group and has access to authentic products. She knows how to transform and customize her finds, she also showcases home decorations, antiques and jewellery. I purchased the most delightful colorful hand embroidered Hmong skirts and throws.
Rise early to take part in a sacred ritual: the giving of alms. There are some 35 wats in town and every morning the saffron-robed monks walk through the centre, collecting rice for their day’s food.
Afterwards, browse at the morning market (6.30-10am): rice lollipops, wasp cocoons (the pupae are considered a delicacy), buffalo lung, betel-nut bark and leaves, live toads, and catfish. We were not too sure about the dried rats and bats!
Had a wonderful natural facial with Tui Na pressure point massage at Burasari Hotel and Spa. We highly recommend this place for a some luxury pampering. This is not your average place in Luang Prabang.
Of course the Handicraft night market is fun and atmospheric, but don’t expect to find this very special little something. Had some fantastic street food there, during a brief rain storm.
My last tip would be this one, make sure you soak up the town’s languid atmosphere by wandering the streets of the old quarter at dawn, when the town’s legion of monks receive alms, or at dusk, when the air fills with otherworldly chants wafting from the temples.