MYANMAR, a country that was largely closed to foreign visitors for several decades until the 1990s, is a land of surprises.
It still has long stretches of unspoilt and pristine beaches (partly because the hordes of tourists haven't descended on them yet), majestic pagodas, and friendly village folk.
True, you can find such attractions in other idyllic parts of the world. But for a country that, in many ways, is caught in a time-warp of its own making, the beaches in Myanmar are cleaner, the pagodas more stately if not mysterious, and the villagers simpler still.
Breathaking scenes and friendly locals await visitors to Myanmar.
The simple life
Nowhere is the simple life more apparent than at the 22km Inle Lake, which lies in the middle of a great depression in Nyaungshwe valley, situated between two parallel mountain ranges that run north to south in Shan State.
I thought my trip the day before to the ancient city of Bagan was awesome enough, but Inle Lake turned out to be a charmer.
From Bagan, it took just a 35-minute flight to reach Heho, the airport nearest to Inle Lake. As luck would have it, my guide Myo told me that this happened to be the day when the five-day rotating market came to town. So we visited the market and enjoyed some local food.
The market was buzzing with activity when we arrived at mid-morning. Hill tribes people in traditional clothes gathered to peddle their wares.
Pockets of villagers spread their items, including perishables and home essentials, on makeshift mats on the floor. The villagers did not mind when I started snapping away with my camera. They even smiled for me.
From the market, we drove to Nyaungshwe on the edge of Inle Lake, where we hopped on to a boat and began our journey.
Home to some 70,000 Bamar, Danaw, Danu, Intha, Kayah, Pa-O, Shan, and Taungyo peoples, Inle Lake is the second largest lake in Myanmar. The predominant group is the non-indigenous Intha, which lives in 17 villages built on stilts around the lake. Fishing and agriculture are the main sources of livelihood.
A self-contained community, schools, monasteries, and cottage factories which produce hand-woven silk, jewellery and traditional umbrellas, can be found around the lake. While most of the cottage factories are "touristy", the owners and workers do not pester you to buy anything.
As Myo explained, the villagers are happy as long as there are visitors.
"These village folks, when they offer you a drink, do not expect anything in return. But if you buy, say a pearl necklace, from them, it will make their day."
Friendly locals await visitors to Myanmar.
Because of the searing heat in March, we made more stops on our journey than we had initially planned.
Each stop revealed more facets of the Intha lifestyle that would inevitably change around Inle Lake as more tourists come to unravel Myanmar's mystique.
At Nga Phe Kyang monastery or the Jumping Cat monastery, for instance, monks train cats to jump through hoops.
A monk said: "If a cat can be trained to jump through hoops, so can human beings be learned in Buddhist scriptures."
Whether you buy the explanation or not, the "jumping cat" gimmick works, as visitors make it a point to stop at this nondescript monastery and make the much-appreciated donation.
In another stop at a house which featured the long-necked Paduang hill tribe, the ingenious owner showed off four Paduang ladies as "models". One of them weaved bags and scarves while the other three mingled with visitors and allowed them to take pictures.
To the Paduang people and the owner of the house, this is a win-win partnership. The Paduang women earn an extra income while the house-owner attracts more visitors than his neighbours.
It seems inevitable that the day will come when Inle Lake, too, will lose its innocent charms to crass commercialism. That said, modernity isn't all that bad. My hotel accommodation at Myanmar Treasure Resort (Inle), with all its modern trappings, is an example of how to draw in the tourists.
Done to perfection, my suite opened to a picturesque view of Inle lake, with its waters so still that I felt as if I'd walked into a painting.
I opened the door to the balcony, stared into the sky, and there they were - millions of twinkling stars all smiling at me.
Life's a beach
Choice of accomodation includes picturesque resorts with all the creature comforts.
From idyllic Inle Lake, we were transported to Ngapali Beach, a world that is poles apart.
It's not far-fetched to say that Ngapali is a "paradise on earth" with its fine sand and commendable tourist infrastructure.
I stayed at the Aureum Palace Resort, there is Internet access, an extensive spa menu and also a chef who whips up seafood dishes all day long.
Strangely though, Ngapali beach does not belong to the locals as much as sun-loving foreigners. Even the name itself has no meaning in Burmese, as it comes from the Italian word for the city of Naples, Napoli.
The only way to catch a glimpse of the local life is to rent a bicycle and head towards the fishing villages. Here, villagers make do with spartan living conditions, and children scream with delight when they see their pictures captured on film. Such are the scenes you wish will belong to Myanmar forever.
The trip was made possible by Air Bagan and Myanmar Treasure Resorts.
Visit www.airbagan.com and www.treasuremyanmar.com
Also visit www.myanmarsincerity.com for additional information on Myanmar and related tour packages.