Ethnic Burmese account for more than two-thirds of the country’s 56 million people. A bewildering number of other groups make up the remaining third (from the Atsi to the Wa and the Zo, some say there are 100, others say it’s more like 200). Most of these minorities want independence from the central government or federalism. Self-determination is such an impassioned issue that many have their own armies. Indeed, it was initially because of internal warfare that the Burmese army because so powerful. A number of ceasefires with rebel groups have been holding since about the end of the 1990s, but there is still conflict in some areas – which are out of bounds to tourists – and more recently there have been reports of truces being broken in several previously peaceful places.

Description: Fields near Taungthaman Lake

Fields near Taungthaman Lake; the entrance to U Bein Bridge; the road to Bagaya Monastery, Inwa; downtime at a jade market in Mandalay

There have, however, been no reports of conflict in Kalaw and the surrounding region. That’s because of the Burmese soldiers there and the new tourist money coming in: the town is gently developing as a base for trekking. After a night in a spick-and-span guesthouse that had opened a few months previously, we set out with a guide on a day’s excursion. Following a red-mud track from the edge of town, we entered a land of abundance. This was plantation country, producing coffee, tea, fruit and vegetables. Enormous butterflies flitted by winding streams as we walked through great groves of oranges and preposterously large lemons. A civet cat bounded up a hill past rows of aubergines as we reached the outskirts of a Palaung village, where we stopped for cups of green tea and admired the local weaving. We continued over dramatic hills and through more Palaung villages before reaching the road where our car was waiting.

Description: Working the fields on the shores of Taungthaman Lake

Working the fields on the shores of Taungthaman Lake

Inle Lake, about three hours’ drive east, was our next port of call. On arriving in the area, we took a brief detour to see another plantation: one of Burma’s first vineyards. Set near the cheerful little town of Nyaung Shwe, Red Mountain Estate is largely the creation of resident French winemaker Francois Raynal, who started playing here in 2003. Sounds unlikely? Well, yes, but the results are very drinkable, particularly the Sauvignon Blanc. We explored the winery in a daze, looking out to distant pagodas over neat rows of vines. Then we proceeded to the lake itself.

Red Mountain Estate

Just over 13 miles long, this body of water presents some of Burma’s most dreamy scenery – and some of its most wonderfully quirky sights. The indigenous Intha people live over the water in houses on stilts. They grew wealthy (by Burmese standards) from farming their homemade floating islands and from fishing, for which they developed a curious method of rowing with one arm and a leg so as to keep the other arm free for manoeuvring nets. They now also make tidy sums from tourism. Visitors are taken around the lake by motorized longboat, their picturesque tours punctuated by plenty of retail opportunities, with stops at teak-panelled workshops on stilts: silversmith, cheroot-maker, papermaker. Most striking of all is the weaving outfit at the village of In Paw Khon. Here you step into a world of wooden looms, all worked by hand. I watched silk and cotton fabric taking form, then gazed spellbound as fibre was created, as if by magic, out of lotus plants. The stems are twisted to extract sap which is then rubbed into long strings of a silk-like substance. Once spun, this produces a delicate material of such quality that the Italian label Loro Piana introduced lotus-fibre pieces in its 2011 collection.

Description: Nyaung U Market in Bagan

Nyaung U Market in Bagan

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