Myanmar (also known as Burma) today, is how Thailand and India used to be several decades ago, offering truly unique experiences for intrepid travellers. These can be completely tailor made for you and your family, allowing an entirely bespoke holiday, guided by local experts who know the villages and countryside intimately.
Whether you enjoy trekking in lush high mountains, cycling through a pristine landscape of vegetable farms and vineyards, sea kayaking and snorkelling, getting a taste of authentic rural living as a guest of a remote tribe or going hot-air ballooning over some of the most breath-taking landscapes in Southeast Asia; Myanmar is an excellent adventure destination for couples as well as families.
For a very long time, Myanmar remained cut off from external elements and commercial tourism, which has kept most parts of the country fabulously untouched.
In the recent years, especially after the democratic reform and subsequent lifting of sanctions by the international community, there has been a tremendous growth in tourism. However, this has been limited around a very small part of the country and vast areas still remain largely off-the-beaten-track.
One of my favourite areas in the country is Shan State – home to the beautiful Inle Lake. It is perhaps the most varied and exciting region in the country in terms of scenery and culture, and the high mountains in Eastern Shan State were once the nerve centre of Myanmar’s infamous opium trade.
Highway 4, which cuts across this region and connects it with Thailand via the Golden Triangle was the main route for opium distribution into Thailand and gained the title of ‘The Opium Trail’.
Although the trade is now completely eliminated, its remnants in the local tribal cultures have remained intact making it one of the most epic and thrilling journeys in the country.
This region was off-limits for foreign travellers until 2013. BBC’s Top Gear film crew were perhaps the first foreign nationals allowed in the region in 2013 by special permission and the section between Taunggyi near Inle Lake and Kengtung near the border with Thailand was featured in the popular TV programme in 2014.
It is now possible for regular travellers to obtain a permit to visit this region, but poor access and extremely basic infrastructure have kept it off the well-trodden paths. In my opinion, for those who are after a truly rustic and rugged experience, Shan hills offer some of the best trekking routes in the country.
The route between Inle Lake and Kengtung can be covered over three days, covering stunning nature trails and fascinating villages and farms.
There are very simple and local guesthouses along the way and it is also possible to spend a night in a tribal village in an extremely basic shared village home for the ultimate cultural immersion.
This is definitely not for everyone, as you would sleep on the floor, use a shared toilet and a shower is taken at the village well. Along the route, it is also possible to go bamboo rafting on the river and visit remote Shan villages.
What struck me the most was the region’s complete lack of modern infrastructure including mobile phones, which in today’s world is almost unimaginable! Some of the villagers I came across had never seen a non-Burmese person and yet they were all so friendly, kind and curious.
One of my most memorable experiences was the time spent with a family in a Palaung village chatting with the village head and sharing a few laughs with local children who were supremely amused and fascinated by their own pictures in my camera. The women of this tribe still wear traditional attire with dozens of silver bands around their waist.
It is rather hard to imagine that during the opium trade, this region was engulfed in gang wars and was considered to be one of the most dangerous regions in the country, a bit like what Colombia used to be like during Pablo Escobar’s reign.
Kengtung is the only airport in the Eastern Shan State and there are many interesting tribal villages to explore around the town including Lahu, Akha and Eng tribes.
This part of Myanmar has remained untouched for centuries. To me, the villagers seemed so happy and in sync with their natural surroundings and partly out of self-interest, I hope the area remains like this for years to come, which I am certain is wishful thinking on my part.
To anyone looking for exclusivity and remoteness, there couldn’t be a better time to visit Myanmar and especially the old Opium Trail before it catches up with its much more developed and touristy neighbours.
I am always delighted to discuss Myanmar, please do contact me if you would like more information.