Shan State is mountainous area in eastern Myanmar that is home to people of many different minority ethnic groups, offering the opportunity for visitors to enjoy beautiful landscapes while being exposed to the country’s remarkable cultural diversity.
The most well-known site in southern Shan State is Inle Lake, a stunning body of water whose glassy surface reflects the green mountains that ring its shores. Inle is home to the Intha people, many of whom live in villages that rise out of the middle of the lake on wooden stilts. The Intha fishermen are famous for using a unique leg-rowing technique to propel their boats across the water, and some villagers also grow tomatoes and other vegetables on picturesque floating gardens. Visitors can spend a day or more exploring Inle by boat, visiting mid-lake villages, markets, monasteries and pagodas, as well as workshops where locals produce traditional crafts such as fabric made from the fibres of lotus plants.
On the western side of the lake is Indein Pagoda, a collection of ancient monuments accessible by boat along a narrow waterway through charming rural scenery. Trips can also be arranged to Sankar, a village that was once home to Shan royalty located about two hours by boat south of Inle. To the east of the lake lies magical Kekku Pagoda, a forest of nearly 2500 closely packed spires considered sacred to the ethnic Pa-O, who are known for wearing dark indigo clothing and colourful turbans.
A visit to southern Shan State can also include an excursion to Pindaya, a massive complex of caverns set high on a limestone cliff overlooking Pone Taloke Lake. The subterranean chambers contain more than 8000 Buddha images of many shapes and sizes that have been placed there by Buddhist pilgrims over the past several centuries. Another noteworthy destination in the region is Kalaw, a peaceful town that served as a British hill station during the colonial period but is now a primary jumping-off point for treks to ethnic villages in the surrounding hills. These walks can be as short as a few hours long, or they can be multi-day excursions that include overnight stays in village homes or jungle monasteries.
Access to northern Shan State is mainly along the road from Mandalay to Lashio, which is becoming increasingly popular among foreigners for overland travel by car, bus and even bicycle. Another transport option is the train, which gives travellers the experience of passing over a deep gorge on the spectacular Gokteik Viaduct, which was the second-highest railway bridge in the world when it was built in 1901.
Stops along the road the Lashio include the sleepy town of Kyaukme, which offers tours of small papermaking factories and treks to ethnic Palaung villages. There are also hot springs in the area that are popular with locals. Farther east along the main road is Hsipaw, another great starting point for trekking, as well as tours of cottage industries such as weaving, candle making, cheroot rolling and popcorn popping. Boat trips to swimming areas on the Dokhtawaddy River can also be arranged. Lashio, located about 100 miles from the Chinese border, is a big town with a thriving market. It holds historical significance as the starting point for the Burma Road, which was used to get supplies to the Chinese army during World War II.