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.

LOVE: Burmese Cuisine

Before I left the US people said “don’t expect amazing food in Myanmar”. Disclaimer – I don’t cook at home (the thought of cooking from scratch makes me anxious) so I’m always happy when I get to try someone else’s cooking – especially new foods from new places.

I’d never eaten Burmese food so had no idea what to expect. So I got stuck into local food the first chance I got. Day 1 my guide took me to ‘Feel’ restaurant where I had Burmese breakfast – seen below ‘Mohn Hin Ngha’, a Yangon regional dish – fish in a kind of yellow bean soup, duck egg, the inner part of the banana plant and rice noodle. Total departure from my daily bowl of oatmeal at home. I later learned this is the ‘go-to’ for locals who pick up a bowl on the way to work.

Fast forward I’ve eaten traditional Burmese food every day. Every meal except one or two Western style. I am OBSESSED with Burmese food. Except the fried crickets I saw in Yangon (!) I travel very adventurously when it comes to food so I’d recommend finding out exactly how adventurous clients want to be. I asked my Myanmar guides to take me to the local places where it’s hard to go and order on your own. We also went some of the ‘tried and trusted’ local restaurants where Diethem take clients as part of day touring.

Our guides order for the table and I just go along for the ride (I loved this, every day we try something new). After ordering food starts to arrive in a a gradual ‘wave’ of dishes which start to filter out one by one to our table, kind of Thai style.

I’m no food critic (far from it) but the best way I can describe the food is super-healthy Indian style with little aspects of Thai and Chinese. Rice with small (and many varied) bowls of vegetable and meat based dishes. The key difference – no heavy sauces/creams, just fresh base ingredients like garlic, chillis and tomato – these are the staple for base for most dishes.

So healthy and fresh. Its not ‘hot and spicy’ unless you want it to be, in-fact most of the locals I meet don’t like overly spicy – so for client’s apprehensive about crazy spices messing with their system, it’s not an issue.  Before I left for Myanmar I started taking pro-biotic tablets each day to prep my tummy for the massive change in my diet. I’m not sure whether it helped, but I after a week on Burmese food (I seriously ate ALOT of it!) I left feeling like my body thanked me for it.

There’s a reason you never see an overweight Burmese person. The food is amazingly healthy as it’s fried or steamed with these delicious fresh and locally procured ingredients. One of the reasons is the abundance of markets selling fresh produce.

As for Western cuisine, I can say it’s ‘okay’. You go to top Yangon restaurant spots like Seeds and you get fine food, but every where else I would manage expectations. For even the most adventurous ‘eaters’ like me, it was good to have the odd western hotel breakfast (we also had pasta one night), but if clients ask about local food, the secret is going with a guide who can manage the ordering process and take you to the tried and tested spots which tick the ‘live like a local’ box.

I learned that heading to a tea house for breakfast, lunch or dinner is core to the social lives of many Burmese locals. The tea houses buzz with activity. I’ve already googled Burmese restaurants in LA. I’m that hooked. I just hope they stack up to my authentic Myanmar experience!

 

Day 4 – Kalaw, Myanmar

If clients aren’t time starved Myanmar’s diversity presents limitless options. The best way I can describe Myanmar is a collection of micro-destinations, all with their own unique appeal, all within easy access of each other through a great network of domestic airports. I’ll talk about my final insights on how to build a rock-star itinerary later, but for now let’s talk about Kalaw.

For return clients and those with an extra one or two nights to play with, Kalaw is a fabulous place to sandwich between Bagan and Inle Lake. 60 mins from Inye Lake’s gateway Airport, Heho, where we arrived today from Bagan.

Why go? Crisp mountain air at 1,300ft+ above sea level – quite the antidote to humid Yangon! Fabulous scenery for hiking (or apres hiking with a glass or two…), and fabulous Brtish colonial history. Kalaw hits you with a feeling of PURE unadulterated relaxation washing over you. So first up the scenery is GORGEOUS…

The perspective of the Kalaw hills lend to a mesmerising feeling, a total 180 from the expansive temple-laden plains of Bagan. We had only a day to tour Kalaw but I immediately wanted to check-in and stay.

The first accommodation we saw was my favorite of the day. The above pictures were taken at Kalaw Hill Lodge, a new property only only 14 months old occupying this killer location overlooking the hills where Diethelm always books the upper level rooms for the view. For an active hiker like myself this was heaven. Clients like me who want to put on a pair of runners and sweat it out whilst taking pictures of amazing scenery, this is the place.

The other thing that hits you between the eyes here is the pride of the people of Shan state, this the most eastern and largest state of Myanmar. Our amazing guide Ms. Ni Lwin was overflowing with pride to welc0me myself and Ms. Yu Yu to Shan State.

Tigers once roamed the lands of Shan State up until around 50 years ago. The traditional dress of the lady (above) who welcomed us to Kalaw Hill Lodge symbolizes the affinity the locals still hold for the tiger. Notice the turban she wears resembles the tiger ears. For men they wear pants with a silver belt which resembles the tiger’s tail. Then there’s the gardens in Kalaw. Fertile land in the region lends to scenes like this, amazing gardens found in every corner of Kalaw.

British colonial history is prevalent everywhere here too. Burma as it was known has a deep history of colonial occupation with the British and Kalaw exemplifies the best of British influence and infrastructure left behind, still used and still appreciated, such as Kalaw Railway station seen below. The houses (many now small charming guest lodges) and the railway station are a throwback to the bygone glory of the British Empire.

I’m no history buff, but just to breathe in the history is fascinating. I have a million questions about the history of Myanmar after visiting Kalaw and it’s colonial connection. I can guarantee clients will feel the same. How you feel when you leave? Re-invigorated. Kalaw is where you come back one day to relax, breathe in life and write your memoirs on a chaise lounge in one of the fabulous gardens!

LOVE: Seeds Restaurant & Lounge, Yangon

Seeds is so good I’m anxious to share in-case too many people find out about it! Seeds is ‘the’ place in Yangon you tuck away in your back-pocket just for your clients and your clients alone. It was the end of my first day of touring on little sleep for 2 days so I seriously thought about sloping off and hitting my bed at Governor’s Residence. I am SO glad I didn’t. My visit to Seeds was one of those times I get anxiety about having NEARLY missed it. Total case of near-miss FOMO!

We arrived at Seeds around 9pm for dessert. Lilli Saxer our Yangon MD drove us. Skirting the streets along the shore of Inya Lake (a lovely lake in central Yangon), we turned down a dark access road. No signs and no lights. It all added to the mystique of the arrival experience. Had I not been with Lilli I’d be wondering where the hell we were going.

Out of nowhere you turn a corner and Seeds Restaurant’s understated valet drive-up and host desk appear. Immediately you realize this is a case of having to be ‘in the know’ or to know someone who can hook you up. The welcome. Overwhelmingly warm. The super creative contemporary interior design screams of the owner’s personal vision, Lucia, who stepped out immediately to greet us.

The restaurant (used to be a private residence) reminds me of a super-high end home (for my kiwi friends like a million-dollar ‘bach’!) with expansive floor to ceiling glass doors opening up right onto a deck and a killer lakefront location filled with gorgeous lotus flowers seen only at this part of Inya Lake.

Seeds has amazing positive energy which in part comes from the fab indoor-out-door flow of the house, but primarily from the infectiously warm welcome of Lucia Eppisser who as hostess runs Seeds in partnership with her husband Felix, a Swiss Michelin Star Chef. Lucia welcomed Lilli like an old friend and greeted me like a new friend *insert smiling emoji here!*

Given the format of the building there are various places to relax and dine. There are tables on the the lawn, the deck and an awesome chef’s table right by the open kitchen where Felix shares with you the products they source from local organic suppliers.

Having been open for only 3 weeks (and with a max of 60 covers) the word about Seeds will get out fast. I’m proud to know through Lilli’s relationship with Lucia and Felix, Diethelm is ahead of the curve and supporting Seeds from day 1. DMC’s talk at trade shows about their ‘access’ (cue pretentious voice!) and it’s often hard to define what that ‘access’ actually means – advisor friends you know what I mean!

THIS is one of those times when I knew what it meant. This was a spontaneous visit and still Lucia led us to the best spot in the house overlooking the lake’s lotus flowers, immediately telling us they were already whipping up a surprise trio of desserts for us.

I’m sure availability will become an issue (especially at weekends) so my advice is we include Seeds as a fixture for the last night on a client’s itinerary with private transport. Booking ahead of time we secure the best table and ‘extra’ VIP welcome from Lucia and Felix.

Hand on heart I can say Seeds is the poster child for the kind of hidden ‘rock star’ moment that exemplifies why I set up this blog. Thank you Felix and Lucia – I LOVE Seeds Restaurant & Lounge, I will be back!