My Kingdom for
a (Teak) House:
How I Turned a Myanmar Mayor's Home into a Personal Pop-up Hotel
For less than $1,000, you can build a house that the world’s most expensive hotels would give their left arm to replicate.
Myanmar’s Shan state is littered with teak houses that effortlessly embody this simple but sought-after aesthetic: simple, clean, elegant, even Zen-like.
Stark lines, beautiful teak, simple décor—and most with a view of a mountain, or a valley ripe with some exotic fruit.
Where Time Moves Backwards
When I first set out on the eastern shore of Inle Lake into the Pa-O kingdom, I wasn’t sure what I was going to find.
The sanctions were still up, I was going into a place where the only known maps are hand drawn, and my task was a tall one: to ask locals to let us take over their houses for a night so they could be remade into pop-up hotels for foreigners.
Just imagine how you’d respond to that kind of request.
I recognized the vastness of the challenge, but I was undeterred. In my mind’s eye, I had grand ambitions: I wanted to design a trip where each couple would get their own teak house, which we would transform into a high-end boutique villa for a night.
We’d borrow beds, linens and various accouterments from some friends of mine at a local hotel, invite everyone in the village over for a barbecue, bring in our own cooking crew and ship in wine in huge wooden crates that look stolen from the set of Indiana Jones.
One night only, a truly experiential travel experience in our very own, uber-exclusive pop-up boutique hotel. It was going to be perfect.
But first I had to convince the local Chieftain. (The sort of places only findable by hand-drawn maps tend also to require permission from the local Chieftain.)
Fortunately I had an in with one of the Chieftain’s relatives, who took me by boat to a village on stilts. We disembarked and I wandered into the woods, accompanied by the relative, whose presence helped ensure the villagers would let me in; the whole experience evoked the distinct feeling of Shangri La.
In a country where time stands still, this place seemed to be moving backwards.
A Natural State
It’s our first day hiking into this forgotten kingdom and a palatable excitement fills the air. Do you remember that scene in Mary Poppins when they jump into the street painting and inhabit a cartoon world? The fourth wall disappears and there’s no longer a need to suspend disbelief, because there’s not a trace of it to be found.
At this moment, no one would be shocked if animals were suddenly able to speak.
In this kingdom there are no roads, only paths, many used for generations. The pace of life slows to match the main form of transportation – the foot – making it digestible, a pace that we can think with and don’t have to catch up to; a natural state.
In Australia the aboriginals have song lines, songs that go along with certain areas that you’re meant to sing every time you pass by. The song lines here are long and melodic. We hiked on a path, met with people heading in the opposite direction to the lake to bring things to sell at the market, and felt like a part of it. We weren’t just looking at this place, we were of it.
We passed into a little knoll and noticed something peculiar, hanging head-high from the trees. Boxes made of huge pieces of freshly cut bamboo dangled on branches; inside we found delicious curries and rice that evoked the true spirit of this place.
I had reached out to my friends at a nearby hotel and asked them to help cater lunch for us. We had a team of chefs and staff ahead of us by about an hour making sure everything was set and ready as we passed into the knoll. It was their idea to hang the boxed lunches from a Bodhi tree, so they’d be there waiting to greet us as a surprise—a bit of orchestrated magic.
It matched the surreal, magical feel of the place. That afternoon we continued up the path until we reached a village overlooking a vast valley. As we approached the village, we could hear music—drums and flute, from two children I hired to play as we arrived.
The villagers all came out to see who these people were.
I couldn’t blame them. Our accommodations for the night were the homes of the mayor and his brother, both of whom had graciously moved in with relatives a few doors down for the night.
Our team had brought in beds, sheets, mattresses, bathroom supplies, high-end products—the works. The houses had been transformed into pop-up hotels, set and ready for check in.
No one had ever seen anything quite like it.
The mayor was so pleased at the state of his house that he greeted us as we approached and became an impromptu concierge, showing us his property.
Once again the support staff and chefs arrived before us, this time with instructions to set up a barbecue for the village; they built a new table and chairs out of bamboo (that most versatile of materials) and set it up in the middle of the village for all of us to eat, talk, meet and be merry.
I had been a guide for more than 10 years and seen every trend come and go: dinner clubs, pop-up boutiques, one-night-only Michelin restaurants. This was a combination of it all.
That day (and well into night) we weren’t in the moment, we were the moment.
As Local as it Gets
If it seems simple, that’s the idea.
Sure, I’ll concede, the logistics are tough. You have to know at least one tribal relative who can grant you access to an ancient kingdom. And know how to read a hand-drawn map. And have friends at the local hotel.
But the idea, the feeling, is as pure as it gets: live like a local. Be king for a day.
Or at least a Chieftain.