Loikaw the capital of Kayah state is a dusty little low-rise town that at first glance has the appearance of somewhere that hasn’t changed in many years, if you scratch under the surface however you’ll discover a recent history that belies it’s sleepiness.
Kayah has always been difficult to visit, but recently some of those restrictions have been lifted and although large parts of the state are still off-limits there are an increasing number of adventurous visitors venturing there.
Squashed in-between Shan, Kayin, and Thailand, Kayah is the smallest state in Myanmar and although it has a population of less than 300,000 people it is home to a surprisingly large number of ethnic tribal groups who speak a number of distinct dialects. The spoken Myanmar here is colloquially quite different to the Myanmar you might find elsewhere and English speakers are rare.
Loikaw is an excellent base to visit the state from and opportunities to explore the surrounding area are plentiful and worthwhile, and certainly sufficient to fill a few days. An attractive lake forms a centre piece for the city and the Pilu river pleasantly meanders through giving rise to some nice locations to take a beer and watch the world go by. The word Loikaw means “a separate hillock” in the Shan language, and as you will discover the whole area is around the city is dotted with numerous rocky outcrops, each adorned with a golden pagoda.
What to do
You don’t need to prepare an itinerary before visiting Kayah, the best approach is to head to the nearest beer station when you get there with a positive and open attitude and before the night is out you will have made a lot of friends, have a schedule and tour guide arranged for the next morning, and have leant a lot about the history of the state, (or just ask at reception at your hotel if you prefer). One of the benefits of being off-limits for so long is that tourists are still a novelty to the people of Loikaw, and on the whole they are keen to talk to you and share their knowledge, don’t worry if you don’t understand, someone will be summoned from somewhere to translate for the price of a beer or two.
There are a number of attractions to see within easy reach of Loikaw. The interesting and unpredictable umbrella lake is worth a visit, which if you are lucky will produce ‘umbrellas’ in the water as earth is disturbed from the bottom of the lake by volcanic activity underground (but not always). You can scale numerous mountains laden with pagodas, and you must watch the sunset from the Taung Kwe pagoda in town. You can explore the Kyet caves to discover strange carved coffins, that nobody can really explain the story of, and you may be encouraged to visit the homes of the long necked women, that’s a decision you’ll have to make.
But the real allure of Loikaw is the chance to see a slice of traditional and historical rural Myanmar in the villages surrounding the city, and meet people that live a simple agrarian life as they have done for centuries.
Pick up a copy of the book ‘From The Land of Green Ghosts’ by Pascal Khoo Thwe, before you go, it’s an incredible story.
And also check out the tall Kayhto Bo spirit poles that are used during animist ceremonies.
Getting There and away
From Nyaung Shwe you can take a 5 hour boat ride to Phekon and then complete the final hour of the journey by road. From Yangon and Mandalay you can take a bus (about 18 hours), and from Kalaw and Nay Pi Taw you could take a slow train. Myanmar Airways flies regularly from Yangon, the one hour flight costing about $70 each way.
Where to Stay
Hotel Loikaw, (08322946) is the best of the bunch, and the most expensive. Expect to pay up to $80 per night for a bungalow, it is a long way from town so you really need your own transport.
Min Ma Haw, (083 21451) has a range of rooms from the very simple to the slightly less bare. It’s clean and convenient, expect to pay between $30 – $60 per night.
Moon Joy is a very basic option, it has a useful location near the lake and rooms are around $20 per night.
Where to eat
Shwe Let Yar is perhaps the stand out restaurant, and here as with most places you can be adequately fed and watered for less than 5,000Kyat, but ask around where you are staying and go with the local knowledge, most places offer Shan, Thai, Chinese, or Myanmar cuisine. Look out for locally caught fresh fish and river prawns, splendid Kayah pork sausage, and try the tasty local grain wine called Khaung-yee.
A version of this article was published in My Yangon Magazine– September 2015