Trekking is becoming a popular activity in Myanmar and the Kalaw to Inle Lake trek is now almost considered a must-do on any travel itinerary. The trek is around 60km and can be done over two or three days (although the two day trekkers are driven a part of the way). It takes in the rolling hills, farmlands and local villages in western Shan State and gives trekkers a small insight into the Pa’o culture along the way.
The trek begins in a town called Kalaw, a six hour windy and scenic bus ride from Bagan. Although there’s not much to the town itself, the surrounding area offers plenty of hiking and viewpoints over the area. Most people spend little time in the town itself and admittedly so did I. I stayed one night before heading out the next morning on the three day trek to Inle Lake.
The afternoon before leaving I walked around Kalaw to the few trekking agencies that have popped up. The oldest and most known is Uncle Sam’s Trekking and I was already leaning towards going with them. However, another popular agency, Jungle King, seemed much more friendly and offered a set price no matter how many people joined. On the other hand, Uncle Sam had a more ‘let’s get down to business’ attitude and the price depended on the group numbers and he couldn’t guarantee how many people he would get. The other sticking point was that they stayed at homestays both nights of the trek, whereas Jungle King stayed at a homestay the first night and then a monastery the second night and I thought staying at a monastery would be an interesting experience. So after my typical deliberating I went with Jungle King Trekking and was extremely happy with my choice.
There were 14 people in total signed up for the three day trek and so the company broke us into two groups, one of six and the other of eight. I went with the group of eight which had, a young Polish guy, two friends from Sweden, an older couple from the Netherlands and a couple from France, although the guy was actually Italian. So we had quite a diverse group and along with our 20 year old guide, Pedro, we made for great company.
For the first day we climbed away from Kalaw and up over the hills. We followed a little trail for most of the morning until we came to our lunch break at a little wooden restaurant. The other group from Jungle King were just behind us and we ended up sharing accommodation and meal stops with each other for the remainder of the trek. We had very plain and basic vermicelli noodles and we were all thinking that if the rest of the food is like that it would be a disappointing trek. Most of us had done a trek in Hsipaw where the food had been some of the best I’d had in a while, so we had high expectations.
After lunch, we climbed the hills a little more and this time were rewarded with beautiful views over the valley below. We passed through small villages where children would run towards us yelling, “Mingalaba” or “Hello” in Burmese.
We followed the ridgeline of the hills for a while, undulating up and down. The whole area has been cultivated by the local people and the hills were covered in a patchwork of crops. Chilli is a popular spice in Myanmar and we could see large tarps of chillies drying in the sun. In fact, it was chilli harvesting time in the whole region and it seemed like every house that we passed had its own tarp of chillies out to dry.
We arrived at the village where we would spend the night, Kyauk Su, an ethnically Pa’o village. Pa’O is the seventh largest ethnic group in Myanmar and are characterised by the women’s traditional dress of wearing black clothing with a bright coloured towel on their head. The locals were coming in from their day in the field and they all smiled and greeted us. As soon as the sun set, however, the temperature dropped along with it and we all rugged up as best we could.
The family’s home where we slept was a large wooden, two storey house and we all slept on the top floor, on thin mats that had been laid down for us. We were all excited for dinner and were hoping it was better than our lunch. We were rewarded with a delicious home cooked meal of rice and numerous dishes made with pumpkin, eggplant, beans, leafy greens and some non-veg dishes with chicken and fish.
We woke up to a beautiful view of low-lying fog over the hills below us and the orange glow of the morning sun. Breakfast was equally good and we set off for the day at around 8.30am. We passed more farms growing eggplant, leafy green vegetables and of course, chilli. The walking was mostly flat for the morning and we used dirt roads rather than skinny trails.
We stopped for lunch just as the sun was starting to heat up and we rested for around an hour. After lunch, we continued along a mostly flat road passing through villages and more farmlands. Of course, we wouldn’t get away with an easy day and we had a very steep climb up to the top of a mountain for beautiful views of the valley and rice fields below. We stopped for a break in the late afternoon for a beer and Pedro found a guitar and played some tunes for us. We watched as the local people were heading in from their day in the fields riding their buffalos, carrying huge pieces of bamboo between two people and baskets full of the day’s harvest on their backs.
We arrived at the monastery just as the sun had set and found the young novice monks all sitting inside and chanting to the Buddha in the centre of the room. There were a few other trekking groups sharing the space and we were all to sleep together on the thin mats laid out on the floor for us.
It was Christmas Eve and although the other groups went to bed quite early after the delicious dinner, my group stayed up until late. Pedro introduced us to a new take on the game, Chinese Whispers, where one person has to whisper a sentence to the next person and they have to pass it on to the next person until it gets back to the first person. The point of the game is that usually the sentence has completely changed by the time it gets back to the first person. However, Pedro’s twist was that the person who started had to say the sentence in their native language and everyone has to pass it on in that language. With our diverse group we had French, Italian, Burmese, Pa’O, Dutch, German, Polish, Swedish and of course English between us. Well, we ended the night in tears and fits of laughter as we all attempted to pass on sentences in foreign languages that we had no idea how it was pronounced or what we were actually saying. The funniest one was when a sentence started off in German and ended up in English?! We’re still not sure how that happened. So with a little bit of local whiskey, a beautifully cooked dinner and a hilariously fun game, it was a great Christmas Eve to remember.
We had been warned that the young monks would be our morning alarm and they weren’t wrong. At around 5.45am the monks entered into the monastery hall and started their morning chants. We all slowly got up and walked outside to the freezing, foggy Christmas morning. We were served millet pancakes and fruit salad for breakfast before we began our walk down to the lake.
We followed a paved road for most of the early morning and then a steeper trail that brought us down to sea level again. The last few kilometres, again, dragged on as we walked along a paved road to the edge of the lake. We were all feeling hungry and were excited to finally make it to the end. We had lunch at a local home on the edge of the lake before taking a boat across the water to Nyaung Shwe, the main town on Inle Lake at the northern end.
We said goodbye to our guide, Pedro, who for his age and limited experience as a guide had been great fun and knowledgeable. He was equally as inquisitive about our cultures and countries as we were about his and we had great conversations from religious beliefs to dating and marriage norms.
For an extra $1 each the boat could stop along the way and show us some of the many workshops that Inle Lake has to offer. We all decided that it was a good idea and we spent the few hours in the afternoon visiting the silversmith, lotus and silk weaving, wood carving and cigar making workshops. Although too tourist oriented for me and mostly demonstrations I’d seen in other countries before, it was nice to see that the Myanmar people were still not too pushy and were happy for us to sit and watch the explanation and demonstration without buying anything.
We finally made it to Nyaung Shwe just before dark and it was definitely time for a shower and some sleep. The trek had been a truly great experience and an interesting insight into rural life in Shan State. Despite the number of tourists now undertaking the trek, I was surprised to find that it still retains most of its authenticity and did not feel like an exploitative or superficial experience. How long it remains like that, however, is hard to predict.
Nyaung Shwe and Inle Lake
Once in Nyaung Shwe, there is not a whole lot to do other than take another boat out onto the lake. However, the Mingalar Market in town is a good place to walk around for a couple of hours and also have some lunch. It’s not so much a tourist market and there are plenty of locals bargaining for things. However, you will find some silver jewellery stalls and they are much cheaper than the workshops on the lake.
A friend from the trekking group, another solo backpacker we met in town and I decided to take a boat onto the lake one afternoon so that we would be out there for sunset. We bargained for a while and managed to get it for 15,000kyats or AUD$15 in total for around three hours. It is a really relaxing way to spend an afternoon and the houses high on stilts and local fishermen out in their boats makes the lake very picturesque. The lake has become most famous, however, for the traditional fishermen and their old bamboo fishing nets that graces the cover of many Myanmar guide books. I had wanted to get a nice photo of these fishermen at sunset, however, little did I know that they were not actually real and in fact, just models posing for the tourist cameras. The nets are not even really used anymore as more modern fishing equipment has made its way to the lake. So although I got my nice photos that I wanted, it’s not quite the same when they are staged rather than natural.
Trekking and travel guide
Where I stayed
Hostel Roma Inn
Although a couple of kilometres out of town, it’s in a quiet area and is a beautiful place to relax. The owner’s were both beautiful people and some of the friendliest hosts I had in Myanmar. The room was spacious and clean, they had Wi-Fi and provided free breakfast and filtered water.
How I got in
I came to Kalaw from Bagan, where I took OK Bus Service for 15,000kyats which included a door to door service. It took around six hours.
How much did it cost
Jungle King Trekking charges a flat rate of 45,000kyats or AUD$45 for the three day hike which is all inclusive (except water and the Inle Lake entrance fee USD$10). Uncle Sam’s Trekking started at around 48,000kyats and went up if there were less than six people in the group.
What to bring
All trekking services transport your main luggage to a hostel or hotel of your choice in Nyaung Shwe, which means you are free to carry just a small backpack. I wore the same clothes for the three days and only took a change of clothes to sleep in, change of underwear and a jacket for night time when the temperature dropped. A headtorch, charged power bank and a sleeping liner are all good optional items.
There were a couple of small shops near the homestay and one shop near the monastery to buy snacks and drinks so it’s unnecessary to carry too much extra food. Otherwise, water could be brought at the lunch stops as well.
Group tour or solo adventure?
I had heard that a couple of people had completed the trek without a guide and that appealed to me at first. However, the trail is not marked and it would be difficult to know where to go and where to stay at night. Although, I believe the trails we used were all on Maps.Me. The guide also offered a lot of context and information about the people and region we were trekking in that you wouldn’t get on your own and it also gives employment to the young guides who usually only get a gig a few times a month.
Where I stayed
Sin Yaw Guesthouse
It was the cheapest place I found in Inle Lake (USD$5 per night) and the place is very clean and comfortable. They can also help arrange onward travel and give advice about the lake, however, it lacked a real backpacker vibe.
Where I ate
Apparently ranked #1 on TripAdvisor, however, I simply went for a dose of South Indian food and was not disappointed.
Probably one of my favourite meals in Myanmar. The night bazaar is a small, chilled market with a few tents selling noodles and fried rice and fresh juices plus a few souvenir stalls. The Shan Noodles for 1500kyats or $1.50 were delicious.
How I got out
From Nyaung Shwe, I took an overnight bus to Hpa-An in the south of Myanmar and the jumping off point for the Thai border. The bus was mostly filled with other backpackers, most of which were heading to Thailand, whereas I was sticking around in the area. The bus took 16 hours and stopped for both dinner and breakfast. From Nyaung Shwe, there are bus companies servicing almost every city in Myanmar due to the place’s popularity.