- Climate: Mild – generally warm and temperate
- Location: Southeast Asia
- Borders: Shan State, Kayin State, and Thailand
- State Size: 11,670 sq km / 4,506 sq miles
- State Capital: Loikaw
- Population: 286,627 (2014)
- Lineage: 9 different tribes including Kayah, Kayin and Padaung but primarily inhabited by the Karenni ethnic group also known as Red Karen or Kayah, a Sino-Tibetan people.
- Languages: Kayah Li, Myanmar/Burmese, limited English
- Religions: Catholicism, Buddhism, Christianity, Baptism & Animism
Kayah was known as Karenni State until late 1905 before it was renamed Kayah State. Its various tribes and clans also spread into neighboring states, this, coupled with its remoteness and incredible ethnic texture has endowed kayah and its populace with a fascinating heritage of historical intrigue. Myanmar’s smallest state is quite probably the most culturally diverse. Visitors can choose to simply enjoy local hospitality or dive deeper into its unique history.
Closed for over half a century, recently opened to visitors and finally accessible by air and road, Kayah is one of Southeast Asia’s last frontiers for inspiring authentic travel. Its tranquil yet appealing capital, Loikaw, is usually the base for visitors. Small local villages offer the perfect insight into the traditional way of community life. The scenery is a natural tapestry of forest and mountains. Visitors will enjoy breathtaking, unspoiled views, especially in its south.
While visitors will find Kayah’s lush landscapes, a weave of cultures visually enchanting, experiencing the endearing warmth of the people, their sense of humor and passion to share their traditions, crafts, and music are what sets Kayah apart from other destinations. The state is rich in teak and other hard-woods and bamboos. Many of these natural resources are used to make musical instruments, cooking utensils and handicrafts.
The capital of Kayah state, Loikaw, was named by the Shan, to describe the dividing point between two mountains: the Shwe Taung and Thiri Mingalar Taung. Loi means mountain and Kaw mean separate in their own language, the Kayah call Loikaw “Siridaw”, meaning an auspicious settlement. The town’s most iconic site is Taung Kwe Pagoda, also known as Broken Mountain, which offers stunning panoramic views of the urban area and surrounding mountains. The reclining Buddha, the colorful, bustling market, the museum, churches, and traditional craft and product workshop are also worth visiting.
Exploring local villagers is, for most visitors, the highlight, of their trip to Kayah. Communities such as Hta Nee La Lah and Pan Pet offer vibrant contrasts of customs, costume, Languages and local dishes. Villagers can be shy at first but take some time to discover and share in their way of life and their traditions. You can find that they are gentle, fun-loving and friendly folk. Hta Nee La Lah (a 45-minute drive from Loikaw) and Pan Pet (a 1-hour drive from Loikaw) offer extraordinary insights into the culture of the Kayah and Kayan ethnic communities respectively.
Kayah’s landscape is a wave of fields, rolling hills, and lush forests. Those who enjoy soft adventure trekking, accompanied by local guides. These inspiring characters have lived with the forest since childhood. Their deep knowledge of wild foods, natural dyes, herbal medicines, and local legends helps to bring the relationships between nature and local people alive, adding insight to adventure. Additionally, there are scenic lakes, waterfalls, and caves to visit many of which remain very rural and untouched.
For travelers seeking a deeper connection, Kayah’s charm is experienced in the warmth, friendly curiosity and passion of the people who are proud to share their fascinating traditions and way of life including local crafts, artistry, music and tribal costumes. There is a rich heritage of beliefs known as “Kaetoebu” and legendary forest skills around which activities revolve.
Follow the “trial of ancestors” with local villagers as guides and sample local cuisine at a “jungle picnic” or a Kayah barbecue by the scenic lakes. Any trip to the state gives visitors the opportunity to enjoy rare cultural insight and experiences as well as encourage locals to continue to preserve their long-held customs.
Handicrafts play an important role in domestic, artistic and spiritual life. Bamboo is a basic raw material for local communities in Kayah. Several unusual musical instruments are crafted from bamboo and other woods. Villagers are skilled, not only at creating woven bamboo items like baskets but also at weaving traditional fabric on the loom. Visit the local workshops to see how indigenous products are made and purchase souvenirs. Many items are for sale, while others (like the frog drums) are considered highly sacred, and only played on special occasions.
Kayah’s cuisine is simple, fresh and healthy. Enjoy exploring the vibrant wet markets selling fresh local produce and try local dishes and snacks. The small producer also makes a variety of specialties of which Kayah sausage is the region’s most famous.
These tasty, meat sausages are seasoned with Kayah pepper, which is harvested in the surroundings of De Maw Soe and Pan Pet villages. The pepper’s unique flavor imbues the sausages with a fragrant aroma of herbs and spices. Millet wine (known locally as “rice wine”) is definitely worth trying too.
There are two kinds of traditional Kayah festivals: some are social feasts, while others are related to spirituality. The most important festival is “Kaehtoebo Tagundaing”, held annually in April. On this occasion, traditional offerings are made to the spirit guardian. This festival is held to request “peace for the region, fair weather and successful, bountiful harvest, free from all dangers”. In October “ kawhyin htoke” festival (glutinous rice wrapping) takes place. Other important festivals are held for hunting, house-warming, and funerals.