Loikaw is an unassuming little town straddling the Pilu River, guarded by a hilltop pagoda. As the capital of Kayah State, it's the best place for getting to see the beautiful countryside and colourful tribal peoples of the region.
For years, Loikaw and the surrounding countryside was off-limits to tourists. Some areas still need permits, but Loikaw and Kayah State have really opened up. Foreign travellers still have to head back to Loikaw to spend the night, but trekking into the surrounding countryside and visiting local villages is now possible.
What is impossible is dividing the land from its people, particularly since the animist religion observed by many locals makes the landscape itself sacred. So for instance, a trek to Khaw Sa Maw Mountain isn't just about bagging another peak. The holy mountain figures large in Kayan hunting rituals. Rock gives way to bright green forest, then to shining fields of intensively farmed rice on the way down.
Located right in the centre of town, Taung Kwe Zayde pagoda is a huge splatter of white and gold on top of a sheer-sided limestone crag. Go for the gaudy and over-the-top Buddhist sights, including a rickety bridge over the ravine between two peaks. Or, choose the views over Loikaw and the surrounding countryside - but go! Enthusiastic summit-baggers might extend their trip to some of the other rock-top temples in the town.
A rather pretty oddity is Thiri Mingalarpon Kyaung. Though it's now a monastery, it was the palace of the sao pha or 'sky prince' of Kalah until 1959.
Loikaw is the epicentre of ethnic diversity in Myanmar. There are Kayan women with their 'long necks' tightly encased in brass rings, Kayah in their red and black dresses, and Kayaw with huge hoop earrings and bright glittering necklaces. Though most people have converted to Buddhism, they keep their original beliefs running in parallel; villages bristle with 'spirit poles' (kay hto bo), like those at Dor Sor Bee.
Even just visiting Loikaw's morning markets or taking a bus, you'll see people in bright traditional dress, glowing orange turbans, or muted purple robes. Visiting local villages is the best way to see these people working in the fields, doing craftwork, or just puffing the afternoon away with an overstuffed cigar.
On Wednesdays and Saturdays, the Demawso Market gives the best chance of spotting people dressed up in their tribal finery. While local handicrafts can be found, this is a market where farmers from the local countryside come to sell their wares, not a tourist market.