Much of Eastern Myanmar falls within Shan State, a vast upland of remote valleys divided by bare ridges and tracts of scrub forest, with the mighty Thanlwin River slicing through its heart. Although now largely denuded of their original forest cover, the grand river val leys and rippling mountains of the Shan Plateau include some of the country’s signature landscapes, foremost among them Inle Lake, with its backdrop of misty hills and soaring ridgetops. The east also boasts an exceptional cultural diversity and is home to several ethnic groups.
Arriving in Shan from other parts of the country, the differences between this hill region and lowland Myanmar are immediately apparent. The climate is noticeably cooler, and the stupas are more slender and tapered than in the rest of the country. The population is mostly ethnic Shan – Thai-speaking descendants of the tribes who accompanied Kublai Khan on his 13th-century invasion of the Bagan Empire. However, there are several other ethnic minority groups from the hills – including the Pa-O, Padaung, and Danu – who, with their distinctive head- gear, clothes, and jewelry, are also among the defining features of the region. On the western edge of the plateau, beautiful Inle Lake is the area’s undis puted highlight. Every year, thousands of visitors come to experience the unique way of life of the Intha people, symbolized by the distinctive leg rowers standing on the back of their long-tailed canoes. Boat trips to Shan stupa sites, monasteries, and stilt villages provide the focus for lakeside stays, while in the surrounding hills a network of trails offers outstanding treks. For more adventurous travelers, Hsipaw in the north and Kengtung in the far east are springboards for long-distance treks to still more remote hill-tribe villages. In the past few decades, the Golden Triangle – where the borders of Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar meet – was a no-go zone for foreign tourists. The drug cartels who control the opium trade for which this area has long been notori ous had been waging war against the state. With the signing of various accords in recent years, however, the region is slowly moving toward peace, allowing visitors to again travel to most parts of the region.