Jan 28, 2015

    Revel in Myanmar's unspoilt beauty

    A MONTH ago, I landed at Putao's tiny airport in the northernmost part of Myanmar, where a protrusion of the Kachin state juts up towards Tibet between China's Yunnan province and Arunachal Pradesh, a state in India.

    The most distinguishing features of this far-flung part of Myanmar are its remoteness and the fact that it boasts the country's share of the Greater Himalayas, that magnificent range of towering peaks that arcs over the top of the Indian sub-continent. That Kachin possesses South-east Asia's tallest summit, Hkakabo Razi (5,880m), and one of Myanmar's largest national parks is a source of pride.

    Walking down a steep, rocky trail under a jungle canopy of vines, banana trees, hardwoods and bamboo, where some of the most exotic orchids in the world still thrive, I got a fleeting view of the emerald Nam Lang River below. This beautiful river surges down from the Himalayas to merge with the mighty Irrawaddy River.

    Now that Myanmar is finally "opening up", foreign investment is flooding in and tourism is burgeoning, we are left to worry how long it will be before our own rapacious, Promethean instinct to exploit, develop and enrich becomes the undoing of even these last out-of-the-way and hard-to-reach backwaters of the world.

    As the Nam Lang River approaches the flat Putao plain, it broadens out and there, perched high on a rocky bluff, are the thatch-roof bungalows of the Malikha Lodge.

    That such a beautifully appointed auberge - designed by Belgian-born, Kuala Lumpur-based resort designer Jean-Michel Gathy of Aman Resorts fame - is here at all is a wonder, as is the fact that, after being dunked in the chilly river while rafting, guests will arrive back at their bungalows to find their private teak hot tubs filled with hot water and flower petals by the cheerful staff.

    Beautifully constructed out of local hardwood and roofed with traditional palm frond thatching, each of the lodge's 12 private bungalows is equipped with its own espresso maker, hot tub, wood-burning stove and outdoor terrace. The lodge is open for business from October through April.

    Because most of the region still lives in a pre-electrical age, the lodge is powered by its own generator, and when the power goes off each night, the darkness feels primal; the stars overhead shine with such dazzling brilliance that they seem almost unnatural, even psychedelic.

    Here, local people tend to retire and rise with the sun. When the sun bursts forth to limn the frieze of jagged, snow-capped peaks behind the forested foothills, it is, indeed, like being present at creation.

    For guests at Malikha Lodge, there is a fascinating early morning outdoor market in Putao to visit, elephants to ride, rapids to shoot, treks to remote villages to go on and wild orchids to find.

    Or one can just enjoy some remedial lounging, a lunch in the lodge's excellent restaurant, some quiet reading around the fire in the main lounge, a little restorative napping in one's elegantly canopied bed or a massage (the first of which is gratis for every guest).

    Affiliated with the Aureum Palace Hotels & Resorts and Myanmar Treasure Resorts, a confederation of five-star properties controlled by the Htoo Group, whose chairman is prominent businessman Tay Za, the Malikha Lodge has the benefit of being connected to what is perhaps the best-run network of high-end hotels and resorts in Myanmar.

    The Htoo Group's chain of resorts and hotels, which covers the breadth of Myanmar, comprises 12 properties. These include some of Myanmar's best-known hotels and resorts, from the elegant Kandawgyi Palace in Yangon and the Popa Mountain Resort near Bagan to the singular Malikha Lodge.

    Unlike other popular Asian tourist destinations like China, Singapore, Hong Kong and South Korea, which have become theme-park-like experiences leached of authenticity, in Myanmar, it is still possible for visitors to become lost in a culturally varied and vibrant indigenous society.

    For now, strolling through the beguiling small town of Mulashidi just outside the gates of the Malikha Lodge, one still gets the feeling of being immersed in an earlier time when people made their own houses out of local rattan and thatch, kept a yard full of chickens and a pig, cultivated their own fruit and vegetables, rose with their roosters in the morning, and then smiled to neighbours as they walked to work or school.