Day 13 – Four Seasons Tented Camp, Chiang Rai

First thought? Super high end African safari camp. For anyone who’s visited the likes of Jock Safari Camp in Kruger all those feelings of a ‘well-to-do’ colonial era of safari came flooding back to me here.

The icing on that cake of those ‘safari-feels’ is their awesome old-school Land Rover Defender. Ridiculously expensive to service but worth it’s weight in gold for maintaining that safari camp illusion. It’s these kinds of details that I love about FS Tented Camp…

Hands down this is a honeymooners wildest dream. All suites are open plan so it’s all about loved-up couples. The suites are ah-mazing! Everything is ‘solid’, done well with an incredible eye for detail. Each suite is styled differently in oh-so subtle ways with themed (but classy) fixtures such as ‘tribal’, ‘elephant’ and more.

When you look closely more awesome safari camp touches start to make themselves known – like these martini glasses. LOVE these – adds a whole next level of class to the ‘mini bar’, if you can call it a mini bar. it’s more like a make-your-own sun-downer bar in your own suite. Tres romantic.

Then the classic blue Mahout outfits by the door and the ‘money-shot’ over-sized baths peppered with ‘faux’ ivory touches here and there.

FS Tented Camp has a headline act. It’s their new (less than a year old) 2-bedroom suite. Perfection, and the only one they have. Standing high above the forest this is a private suite (located a short drive in the Defender from the main complex and bar) with 2 suites flanking a gorgeous central communal pool and lounging area. It’s next level jungle realness.

For two couples travelling or a small family, THIS IS IT. Extra touches include movie nights whereby the hotel brings out a projector and screen in front of the pool. To the sounds of crickets it’s movie time with cocktails, pizza for the kids plus, actually, whatever else you want! I love the step-up to the beds too – very ‘safari chic’.

Tip: the suites are strung out through the resort along the jungles edge so depending on which suite you’re in it’s a little walk to the main complex. The Defender is available to tootle you up and down the bumpy resort road (only a few mins) but still for those with walking difficulties request a suite closer to the main complex or at least close the Burma Bar which overlooks the Myanmar border, LITERALLY a stones-throw across the river from where you stand (and sip).

Closing comment – book ahead. The camp fills in the high months. The new 2-bed suite is already gone for Christmas and New Year. Check out the shoulder season specials where FS offers free nights at other properties in Thailand if you book the tented camp package.

Day 6 & 7 – Mandalay, Myanmar

Every country has those ‘must do’ destinations. In Myanmar  it’s generally 1.) Yangon, 2.) Bagan for temples and 3.) Inle Lake for the wow factor. For clients who like to spend more time in one destination for a ‘full immersion’, Mandalay is a fabulous option (usually one night) with many unique sights to fill a 2-day program. Here’s my top 5 ‘Must do Mandalay’!

Firstly bear in mind the new non-stops with Silk Air to Singapore opening up Mandalay as an intl. gateway to Myanmar. It means clients don’t have to fly back to Yangon (where most itineraries start) to go onward to the next country. Logistically this is a huge plus. Mandalay is also great onward to BKK and other SE Asia regional gateways.

Mandalay is the old royal capital of Burma and so here you can visit the last palace of the last Burmese monarchy.  Wherever you drive in Mandalay you can’t ignore the Fortress walls which stretch an unreal 2km’s each way. The walls are totally in-tact despite the British having bombed the inner complex to defeat the Japanese occupation in WW2.

I was desperate to know what was inside. Nowadays its a center for the Myanmar military but tourists can still visit part of the inner complex of timber buildings from the royal era that survived the WW2 bombings . Suddenly you know Mandalay’s USP is a center of colonial history. Anyone who loves history, Mandalay is fascinating. Go to the palace with a guide.

Temples and Monasteries. Mandalay has many beautiful and diverse examples. When planning your client’s itineraries we need to think about ‘temple fatigue’. Yes, temple fatigue is a thing!

Myanmar as with the rest of South East Asia has ALOT of temples to see. They and their history are captivating. However if clients have already been to Yangon and Bangan, it’s a GREAT idea to ask them just how interested in temples they are and how we manage their time to diversify their touring days.

Mandalay is the center of Myanmar’s arts and crafts industry. Mandalay is equidistant to India and China. Alot of electronic goods are exported into Myanmar from China, and by return Mandalay is a point of export for food product to China. Our guide took us on a drive through Mandalay where we stopped briefly to see the Buddha images being crafted right on the streets.

You might recognize that iconic picture of the bridge in Mandalay. U Bein Bridge, made totally of teak. You only need an hour or so here to talk half way or so across the bridge, made of nearly 1,000 teak logs. Although for time factor we went in the day, this is best done at sunset when we can organize a cruise to catch the views of the sunset and the bridge.

Finally a big highlight of Mandalay is ‘Ava Island’. We combined a stop at the U Bein Bridge and then went onward to Ava Island. You take a quick boat across the river to the island. Arrive and most take a horse and cart to tour around the island’s temples and monasteries. Ava island boasts some amazing sights, and although I’d already seen a lot of temples and monasteries in Myanmar, the examples here on Ava Island were incredible. My only tip – anyone with a particularly fragile stomach or impatient disposition (one may be true of me!) the horse and cart ride across the uneven (but gorgeous) rural pathways was very bumpy on the horse and cart ride!

LOVE: Inle Princess Resort

Inle Princess Resort (“IPR” for those in the know!) is my pick for Inle Lake’s top hotel.

You don’t go to Myanmar for mind-blowing hotels but there are some standouts. Inle Lake has 3 solid options. Inle Villas (FAB for Honeymoons), Sanctum (new, contemporary)…and ‘IPR’ where I stayed. All three are great which is fab because it’s here at Inle Lake where you do a longer stay.

I sat down for a wine with the GM, Mrs. Kyawt Kyawt Khine, or ‘Ky Ky’ for short. Staying true to ‘Indochina Unscripted’ I wanted to talk to Ky Ky about her story. IPR’s resident (gorge!) Burmese cat also muscled in on the action too… I wasn’t mad about it.

Typically hotel GM’s I have met here are ex-pats. Brits, French, Danish etc. When IPR opened in 1998 Ky Ky was on reception. She’s worked with the resort since day 1. Ky Ky is local to Inle Lake and through her career with IPR has worked on reception, supervisor of front office, then F&B, then reservations and also in sales and marketing. PHEW! 3 years ago the owners asked her to run it.

Ky Ky knows the hotel inside out, every facet. Service as a result is fabulous. The hotel is a huge part of her life. I asked Ky Ky what makes IPR different. Without thinking she talked about the family feeling with all staff. Can you believe a third of IPR’s staff have been with the resort since it’s opened in 1998?

Ky Ky also told me how IPR (as seen below) creates crafts and products for the resort in their own artisenal furniture factory. Funnily enough earlier I commented to her on the amazing chandaliers and menus in the restaurant and villas – turns out it’s all made on site.

Ky Ky told me how busy IPR gets in high season. I’d never heard of Diethelm until 6 months ago. So when traveling here there are moments I’m reminded how highly the hotel partners regard Diethelm’s 60 year heritage.

Diethelm has supported IPR since it opened in 1998. These relationships help unlock THE best rooms in constrained periods. I’ve seen this relationship first-hand when it comes to ‘RESERVED’ signs on the best lakefront tables at breakfast (imagine, NOT being lake-front! Gasp!).

It’s a natural trust and feeling with some resorts, and here I got that feeling. Yes they have the rooms, the location, but that feeling you can’t create without a great leader, service ethos and a kindness. All of these ‘feels’ I got at Inle Princess Resort. I also got all of the hugs too, which are few and far between when you travel solo for five weeks! CUTE!

Day 5 – Inle Lake, Myanmar

Every destination has THAT iconic photo to lure you in. Greece it’s Santorini. Australia it’s Ayers Rock. For Myanmar ‘that’ picture is Inle Lake.

Sometimes the reality of being there doesn’t live up to the photos you’ve seen. Expectations are so inflated and so wild it can be a let down. Not Inle Lake.

For our day on the lake we boarded from the private jetty at Inle Princess Resort. Diethelm uses Indevi Lake Boats noted by their signature red flags, over-sized seats and luxurious rather stately looking wood paneling.

You want to have your camera fully charged (and your sun-screen with you) as Inle Lake will hit you like a multi-sensory explosion. Visually it’s other worldly. This was the day I realized I say ‘wow’ ALOT.

Gliding through the lake on your boat you pass floating villages, floating gardens and fisherman casting with old techniques still used today. The water’s surface looks soft and silky with only occasional swells from long tails passing parallel or out ahead in front.

If the rest of Myanmar feels 50 years ago Inle Lake feels a millennia ago. Anyone looking for a pure hit of relaxation – THIS is it. With the sun-shining down on you, legs stretched out, a light breeze, flying on the Lake it’s hard not to feel totally content with your place in the world.

For an anxious Type-A over-thinker like me I was SO grateful for this day. To not think, to totally let go of every stressful thought, Inle lake is the closest I’ll get to experiencing a voluntary partial lobotomy. Your most highly strung client will totally MELT here on Inle Lake.

We stopped for a little while at one of the lakeside markets and experienced Inle Lake’s version of a parking lot with long-tail boats parked up in perfectly organized chaos. Not nearly as stressful as Saturday afternoons at The Grove and a fabulous experience to see locals picking up their equivalent of weekly groceries! We picked up some snacks and headed for lunch.

Lunch was at Inle Heritage a fabulous spot we take guests to which, right on the lake, combines a hospitality school for local trainees, a hotel, a restaurant, cooking school, and (wait for it!), a Burmese Cat Village! My amazing guide Ms. Ni Lwin led us onto the veranda for what has become my staple 3-course Burmese lunch. Take a look at the color of the tomatoes. So red, fresh and famous for being locally grown here on the floating gardens of Inle Lake.

I also got my fix of my now favorite tea-leaf salad. Fermented tea leaves with fried chick-peas, peanuts, sesame and fried garlic. All super healthy and fried in their own juices. Anyone reading my post on Burmese food will know how obsessed I am with traditional Myanmar food.

This is a full day on the lake so you need 2 nights here – AT LEAST. After hopping from Yangon (1 night), Bagan (2 nights) to Inle Lake it’s here you want to STOP and unwind. I stayed at Inle Princess Resort. I’d also recommend Villa Inle and Sanctum Resort too.

… in closing – when building a Myanmar itinerary NOT going to Inle Lake is like going to Peru and skipping Machu Picchu.