We were driving at no more than 25km/h, which was not surprising at all, given the fact that the road was extremely bumpy and hilly and we were traveling in an incredibly small van with more than twenty people squeezed onto narrow seats.
By my perception, there was no more space but still, in every village, more and more people were trying to get in.
When there truly was no more physical space, people sat on the top.
But this was not all.
The closer we got to Loikaw, the more extravagant and diverse the people getting in the mini-van were, from Palaung to Kayan women (long-neck women), Shan and even Buddhist monks.
There was more ethnic and group diversity on that bus than in many European countries and I could not be more fascinated by all those different people, wearing turbans and colorful dresses.
However, when I saw all their faces staring at me, I quickly realized that the only strange and peculiar thing in that bus was not them, but a foreigner traveling to Loikaw on a local bus.
A guide to Loikaw: experience Myanmar like nowhere else
Loikaw is a city and the capital of the Kayah State, the smallest state in Myanmar but, at the same time, the one with the greatest ethnic diversity.
For years, Kayah State was closed to independent travelers and the only way to get in was on a tour organized by a local agency.
However, from 2013, Loikaw and Demoso, two of its seven provinces, were finally opened and ready to be explored by travelers seeking authentic adventures and wanting to avoid the growing mass tourism in Myanmar.
Note: The other five provinces remain closed due to ongoing ethnic conflicts.
Things to do in Loikaw
Visit authentic Kayan villages
Kayan, whose women are more popularly known as the long-neck women, are the best known group in the province.
You would be entirely wrong if you think that visiting Loikaw would be the same experience as visiting Karen villages in Thailand, which goes against any form of ethical travel.
You would be surprised to know that these women are originally from Loikaw and the ones who live in Thailand are actual Burmese refugees who had to migrate some years ago.
In Loikaw, you can meet Kayan women shopping at the local bazaar and just living their daily lives.
Note: In Loikaw, there is also a Kayan village which is totally aimed at tourists., Even though not many tourists come here and it’s miles away from the villages in Thailand I strongly recommend you avoid it
For more information, read: The long-neck women villages in Myanmar
Learn and meet other ethnic groups
From Palaung to Shan and Kayah, besides Kayan people, Loikaw is not short in tribal groups.
If you like photographing people, you are going to love Loikaw and Kayah State, as this is home to the largest ethnic diversity in Myanmar.
The Kayah, whose women tend to wear black and red dresses, are a Sino-Tibetan people and the largest group in Kayah State.
Palaung people, a group of people who mainly live in Shan State, can also be met in Kayah.
You may meet plenty of different people in the city but I recommend you cycle outside of the city, where most people are working in the fields.
Stunning pagodas with stunning views
In Loikaw city there is a famous pagoda called Taung Kwe, which is located at the top of a small hill, from where you get stunning views of the town.
In my opinion, after the Golden Rock, it was one of the best pagodas I got to visit in Burma, not only for its greatness but also for the views and its spiritual atmosphere. And there were no tourists walking around!
Due to the majesty of this pagoda, it does not seem strange that Burmese people from other parts of the country come to the region for a weekend gateway.
Enjoy the unique, local cuisine
If you are a foodie, you should know that Loikaw is famous for its local cuisine, consisting of rice paste-based dishes, like rice rolls filled with pork meat and a kind of risotto with minced tuna, vegetables and plenty of spices.
They keep smashing the rice for hours until it gets the desired texture. In order to obtain the rice paste, they keep kneading it heavily for a considerable amount of time.
I tried this last dish in a local home so not sure if you can find it in restaurants.
However, I tried the rice rolls in a few local eateries.
Spot elephants randomly
Did you know that Myanmar is the country with the largest number of domestic elephants in the world?
Not only this but also it is one of the few places in the world where they don’t use domestic elephants for tourists to ride them.
Instead, they train them to collect firewood from the forest.
I am not saying that this is a good thing; elephants should be at liberty and I am not even very convinced that these people treat them as they deserve.
Where is it?
Loikaw is located in Kayah State, in Eastern Myanmar, 200km south of Inle Lake.
How to get in Loikaw?
Inle Lake to Loikaw – If you come from Inle Lake, there is a local, direct mini-bus that leaves at 8am. It’s only 200km away but it’s a 9-hour journey. When I took it in December 2015, it cost me around $8. I suggest you ask the hotel if timings have changed since then.
Yangon to Loikaw – If you come from Yangon, there are big buses going there daily. It’s a 16-hour journey and tickets cost around $10. Additionally, Loikaw has a small airport with flights to and from Yangon. It will save you some time if you don’t mind paying the extra money. Check Air KZB for latest timings and prices.
Accommodation in Loikaw City
Please note that, in Loikaw, accommodation might be expensive for budget backpackers.
Budget – Loikaw Princess Motel – The cheapest accommodation in town. The staff is extremely friendly and they even lend you a free bicycle to move around. Highly recommended.
Slightly better – Kayan Golden Sky Motel – If you are a couple, you may also like this hotel, which is the second most budget hotel in town and one of the cleanest budget accommodations in the country.
How to move around / visit places
Motorbike – Unfortunately, renting a motorbike is strictly forbidden to tourists, as they don’t want you to go very far away.
Bicycle – Your best choice. At one of the hotels above, rental is free. Otherwise, you can find them easily around town.
Taxi – If you don’t have a lot of time or want to explore places further from the city, you can also hire a taxi. I paid $25 for half a day. I am sure that the hotel can provide you with a driver but, if you want to go with the same guy I did, here’s his Facebook page. He’s a funny man who speaks basic English and loved drinking beer. His profile.
Loikaw is, definitely, a real off the beaten track place in Myanmar. At the beginning of 2016, I still triggered the interest of the locals with my presence. They pointed me out, laughed and asked for selfies continuously. I think that it is only a matter of time before that all this will change, so hurry up!
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