When you have just shy of two weeks with which to explore a new country, it’s almost impossible to find the time to stray very far from the well-trodden tourist trail.
I find myself torn between wanting to visit some of the country’s most notable sights and attractions (there is a reason travellers flock to Peru to hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu or to Bolivia to see the world’s largest salt flat) and wanting to have a unique and authentic experience.
My trip to Myanmar was no different. I simply couldn’t miss the chance to marvel at the magnificent Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, or to gaze across the incredible temple-dotted landscapes of Bagan, and I desperately wanted to see the floating gardens and stilt-house villages of Inle Lake.
But I also wanted to experience rural life in Myanmar; a different kind of civilisation far from other tourists.
And that’s exactly what I found during my three-day trek from Kalaw to Inle Lake.
Located on the western edge of the Shan Plateau, at an altitude of 1320 metres above sea level, Kalaw (ကေလာ) was founded as a hill station by British civil servants wanting to escape the heat of the lowland plains.
It’s a laid back (if a little chilly at night; pack a fleece!) little town and its surrounding hills are the only place in Myanmar where travellers can trek overnight without prior permission to do so.
I did hours of research in an attempt to find a trekking agency that would offer us a unique and authentic experience with a guide who was enthusiastic, knowledgeable, professional, and fun. After emailing Alex from Eagle Trekking, and receiving prompt and helpful responses, I felt sure I’d found them. So we reserved our places on the trek and agreed to pay the balance upon our arrival into Kalaw.
Our bus dropped us in Kalaw around mid-afternoon the day before our trek was due to start, and having checked into our clean, comfortable, and spacious room at Natureland II, we headed into town to find the Eagle Trekking office.
We arrived at the office to find a small group of young men sitting outside playing guitar, singing, and enjoying the last few rays of sunshine that illuminated the gilded gold stupa of the temple behind them.
Alex had popped out and we were asked to return in around half an hour, so we joined the locals in a little tea shop across the road (I’d been introduced to Myanmar’s fantastic tea shop culture just days before in Yangon), and sure enough when we returned 30 minutes later Alex was there to greet us with a smile.
He talked us through the route we’d be taking (with the aid of a huge map on the wall beside him) and the tribes we’d be meeting, before taking us through the logistics of the trip and helping us to purchase some spare batteries for our torches from the tiny little hardware emporium down the road.
When we paid our deposit we were the only two people booked on to the trek, but when we returned the next morning we were pleased to discover that we’d be joined by three others (a Frenchman and two Canadian students), saving us $15 each on the price of our trek.
Kalaw to Inle Lake Trek – Day One
Our first day started with an steady uphill climb out of town. We chatted amongst ourselves as we walked, learning a little about the lives of those we’d be spending the next few days in the company of. Our guide was called Rhythm, a cute little 23-year-old Burmese guy who made Stu feel like he was of average height (he’s 5’5) and made the Frenchman and the two Canadian girls feel like giants.
At 9am the temperature was comfortably warm and there was a pleasant breeze all around us, but as the day wore on the terrain became more uneven and the heat grew increasingly oppressive. We left the tarmac roads of Kalaw and followed dusty tracks through rice paddies, our morning culminating in a steep climb through shaded forests, the rising humidity causing beads of sweat to trickle down our backs.
When we finally emerged above the tree line, I stood in awe at the views that greeted us.
Dotted across the hills were hundreds of green tea and mandarin plants. Green tea is consumed in huge quantities in Myanmar, with a massive 78 million kilograms produced each year.
We stopped for lunch at a rustic little cafe perched on top of one of these hills. Bottomless flasks of green tea accompanied a spread of lentil soup, chapati with a small serving of Indian curry/pickle, a huge avocado salad, and platefuls of fresh dragon fruit, Burmese pear, mandarin (of course!) and banana.
It was one of the best lunches I ate in the whole of Myanmar.
And these are the kind of vistas we could gaze upon whilst munching on our dragon fruit.
We continued our hike along the edge of the valley, snapping photograph after photograph of the incredible views, and of the tiny little villages that dotted the hillsides.
The first of these villages that we passed through was Hinn Kha Gone, home to the Palaung tribe.
We hadn’t got any further than the grounds of the local monastery when a bunch of Burmese youths approached us and encouraged us to pose for numerous photographs shot on each of their mobile phones in turn.
I always find it so strange that, in spite of their isolation in these villages from civilisation, and therefore from the technology of the modern world, each village resident is not without his or her own smartphone. I guess it becomes an essential form of communication when you’re hours from the nearest local market or medical centre.
There was a school in the village though, but the children were far more interested in sneaking a curious peek at the passing tourists than they were in their schoolwork. We lingered just long enough to catch a few shy smiles from them before continuing on our way.
I found it fascinating to discover that no matter how basic the houses were in the villages we passed (think wooden huts with corrugated iron roofs), and how small the villages were, each one would have a beautifully well-kept and ornate glittering gold pagoda at its centre.
The latter part of the afternoon saw us following the train tracks to Myint Dide, where we took a break in the little tea shop at the train station and enjoyed some sweet fragrant milky tea and a selection of Indian sweets.
By the time we arrived into Taung Lar (where we would spend the night), the sun was beginning to dip behind the clouds.
We were greeted by the villagers (members of the Danu tribe) who then showed us up to the room that we’d be sleeping in. Normally used as the living quarters with a few bedrooms leading off to one side and a dangerously overloaded extension cable and television in the corner of the room, the space was large and open-plan with five colourful mattresses laying side by side on the floor.
Rhythm advised us that we’d be able to have a shower in the village before our dinner was served, so Stu and I grabbed our towels, shampoo bar, and torch and went in search of the facilities.
We expected a rudimentary shower cubicle with a small trickle of (not quite freezing) cold water above, but what we found were a couple of large containers filled with water and a plastic bucket. There were no walls; this was a completely open-plan ‘shower’ located in the middle of a gourd field. So we decided against stripping down to our birthday suits in favour of a quick wash of our underarms, feet, and hair. Quick being the operative word; the water was freezing!
One of the things you’ll notice about hiking in this area of Myanmar is that the sun is hot during the daytime but at night the temperatures really plummet and you’ll need plenty of layers to keep warm.
After we’d eaten our delicious dinner (I swear I’ve been addicted to broccoli stir-fried with garlic ever since this trip) we purchased a few beers from the local shop and joined the local families sat on tiny plastic stools around the village camp fire. One of the men had a guitar and between him, his friend, and our guide Rhythm, they serenaded us beautifully all night.
With the exception of one cover song (which Rhythm found the words to on his mobile phone, so that we could all sing along) and another song with a catchy chorus that ended with lots of “la la las” followed by the words “yee ha!”, everything was sung entirely in Burmese. But it didn’t matter: music has the amazing ability to transcend language. And it’s moments like our evening around the camp fire with a bunch of people we’d only just met and who did not know more than 10 words of English between them, that will stay with me forever.
Kalaw to Inle Lake Trek – Day Two
The next morning I awoke to the sounds of cocks crowing, and the smell of eggs cooking in the kitchen down below. We ate our breakfast, packed our bags, and said our goodbyes to the residents of Taung Lar village before continuing on foot along narrow ridges between fields of agricultural land dotted with gleaming gold pagodas.
Rhythym pointed out that the flashes of red we could see in the fields were actually chillies. Chillies, like green tea and mandarins, grow in abundance in this part of Myanmar, and when we didn’t see them on plants in the fields, we saw blankets of them drying in the sun.
Whilst we normally found pagodas in the actual villages themselves, we came across this beautiful one seemingly in the middle of nowhere. One of the stupas was decorated with eight windows around its base, and inside each window was a small buddha statue.
Rhythm explained that each of the eight Buddhas represented a day of the week in the Buddhist calendar. There’s Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday morning, Wednesday evening (after 6pm), Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Individuals pay their respects to the Buddha that corresponds with the day of their birth.
We continued on through fields of lush farmland, climbing steadily as we did so. Contrary to the previous day’s hike, there was very little shade to protect us from the heat of the sun overhead, and I was starting to wish I’d packed a hat and an extra bottle of water. Rhythm was still wearing his jumper and a scarf.
The top of our climb was marked by a simple blue and cream monastery, a couple of lime trees in its grounds and a tall pine tree indicating the start of our descent.
The patches of yellow you can see in the photos above are not actually sunflowers or oil seed rape, but sesame.
We passed a local man leading his buffalo back from the fields (there are no motorised agricultural vehicles used in this part of Myanmar; buffalo perform the job that a tractor otherwise would) before finding an actual sunflower. And a curly aubergine.
Rhythm even showed us how to blow bubbles using the sap from a papaya leaf stem. Genius.
And if you’re wondering what the yellowish-white substance Rhythm has spread across his cheeks in the photo above is, it’s called thanaka. Thanaka is a cosmetic paste made from ground tree bark. It’s supposed to be good for the skin and protects the user from sunburn. You’ll see it used by women (and also quite a few men) across Myanmar.
Once Rhythm had managed to drag us all away from the papaya leaves (hours of fun, take my word for it!), we made a quick stop at a small roadside cafe to enjoy one of the local snacks.
One of the most popular tofu dishes in Myanmar is To hpu gyaw (yellow tofu), which is cut into rectangular shapes, scored in the middle, and then deep fried and served with a spicy sour dip.
And this being Myanmar, it comes served – like everything else does – with tiny white porcelain cups filled with green tea.
A little further along we stopped at Pin Nwe village, where we watched a member of the PaO tribe using a kind of hand-held loom to weave scarves and bags. Some of these are used by the local people (all the small children use the woven satchels as school bags; it’s incredibly cute to observe) and some are sold to tourists for a nominal fee.
Rhythm explained that each of the scarves take approximately five days to make yet are sold for just 4000 KYAT (£2.37 / $2.89).
I chose a red and gold scarf because it will always remind me of the landscapes on this trek: the glimmering gold pagodas surrounded by an abundance of red chillies everywhere you look.
Wandering through the village we were able to see some wonderful snapshots of rural life in Myanmar.
We continued on through fields of chilli, sesame, black sesame, mustard, lime, and basil plants. Local women worked on the land and buffalo grazed in the fields.
A lunch of fried noodles and vegetables, and platefuls of fresh fruit was shared with the resident feline, who – when she wasn’t balancing preciously with her back legs on an old wooden stool and her front paws on the edge of a ceramic bowl filled with fresh milk – was sat by my side looking up expectantly at the plate of food in front of me.
From Khine Hla village we continued along narrow tracks through fields of tall sesame plants and agricultural land backed by craggy rocks, and began our climb up to what would be our base for the night – Put Tu Porkk village.
After a ‘quick’ walk to the local shop (which was actually about a 20-minute walk away through the pitch dark save for the few torch beams that lit our way), we sat down to a dinner of fried rice with an unlimited supply of fresh vegetables, and copious amounts of green tea.
Unfortunately there were no budding musicians at this village, but we did end up entertaining ourselves with game after game of Uno, played using a combination of rules from Canada, France, England, and Myanmar.
That’s another thing I love about travelling – the merging of cultures, thoughts, knowledge and ideas from across the globe. There was a significant age gap between the oldest one of us (Stu!) and the two Canadian students, and a significant cultural gap between Rhythm and those of us from the Western world. Yet we all managed to find some common ground upon which to relate to each other.
Kalaw to Inle Lake Trek – Day Three
I’d actually planned to wake up early in order to have a wander around the village with my camera at sunrise. However one of the consequences of completing a 27-kilometre hike in 35 degree heat is that you feel physically exhausted at the end of the day and your body needs sleep so much more than normal, in order to rejuvenate itself for the day ahead.
Couple that with the fact that I’d remembered to pack both ear plugs and an eye mask and it was almost impossible to wake me at all!
So, instead I snapped a few quick shots as we were leaving the village around 8am, including one of the lovely couple who hosted us for the night.
Today’s hike was a lot shorter than the previous two days’ and for the most part a lot flatter too. We wandered along a wide tarmac road for what seemed like forever, entertaining ourselves with games of “Eye Spy,” “Would You Rather?,” and “I Went to a Party and I Brought…”
Rhythm also took the time to point out some interesting plants that he spotted growing on the side of the road, along with a heart-shaped leaf. Ah, the little romantic 😉
Our arrival at Nan Yoke village signalled the first break of the morning. The tea shop here also appeared to be a major transport hub, with locals hopping on and off of crowded pick up trucks as they departed and arrived.
Sufficiently refuelled with green tea and peanut brittle we left the village, loyally followed by the scruffy-looking hound who had joined us a couple of hours beforehand.
It reminded me of our Colca Canyon experience in Peru, and as a result I found myself searching for water receptacles along the trail, so that I could offer him something to quench his thirst. The heat was relentless and I could only imagine how hot he must have been feeling beneath that fur coat of his.
The track we were following finally brought us to a huge Banyan tree, which provided some very welcome shade and ample climbing opportunities. I don’t think I’ll ever grow out of my fascination for climbing trees.
The ground beneath us was a rich rust colour, dusty and dry. We followed the track all the way to Inle Lake, squealing as we caught glimpses of it in the distance.
By the time we approached the lake the heat was suffocating, and if I stopped for any longer than a couple of seconds I’m sure I could actually feel my skin burning and sweat dripping out of every single pore.
But the landscapes were so beautiful that I found myself having to risk spontaneous combustion in order to capture a few of them on camera.
We enjoyed lunch in Tone Le village at an open-sided cafe overlooking the lake.
As much as I was looking forward to a couple of days of exploring Inle Lake, at the same time I couldn’t help feeling a little nostalgic.
Our 3-day trek was only just coming to an end, yet I found myself wishing I could turn back time and do it all over again.
- We booked our trek with Eagle Trekking. Their office is located on Aung Chan Tha Street, opposite the Parami Hotel. The cost of the 3 day/2 night trek will vary depending on how many people you are accompanied by. The trek runs with a minimum of two people for $70 each. As we were a group of five we paid $55 each. You can contact Alex at Eagle Trekking on this email address: firstname.lastname@example.org. In case you hadn’t gathered by the thoughts I’ve shared in this (ridiculously long!) post, yes I would thoroughly recommend them!
- I will be writing a post on what to pack for a trek like this soon, but essentials are factor 30 sunscreen at the very minimum (factor 50 if you’re fair-skinned like I am), a large water bottle (you can refill them at almost every village), and a torch and some spare batteries (the villages only have limited electricity at night)
- In Kalaw we stayed at the Natureland II Hotel. It’s located around a 5-10 minute walk from the centre of town and uphill. And whilst I can recommend it for every other reason (good views, clean, spacious rooms, hot showers, strong wifi, lovely staff and a delicious breakfast), if you’re only in Kalaw for one night, I’d stay in the centre of town. It’s just easier, trust me. The Honey Pine Hotel is one of a few centrally located options that I’ve heard good things about.
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