Up until this point in our journey through Myanmar, most of the sights we visited were temples and Buddha sculptures, some in caves, some on mountaintops and all of various shapes and sizes. After the staggering number of temples in Bagan, we were ready for a change. Instead of taking a bus directly to Inle Lake, we decided to stop short in Kalaw, a small hill station of a town that has the distinction of offering treks to Inle Lake. We heard about these treks before arriving in Myanmar, and Lucie and Isabelle, the French girls we met in Hpa-an, confirmed that this is the most scenic and enjoyable way to get to the lake. So we spent a day in Kalaw to find a guide and opted for a 3-day, 2-night trek through Sam’s Trekking company.
The next morning we rose early to watch the sunrise from our balcony. A man working for Sam arrived before breakfast to collect our large backpacks, which were being transported ahead of us to our guesthouse in Nyaung Shwe, one of the larger towns at Inle Lake. Though we wanted to pack light for the trek, the day bags we were carrying were still full, mainly out of concern that it may rain (and being it was the rainy season, it did).
Ambling downstairs, we devoured Golden Kalaw Inn’s free and filling Shan noodle breakfast. This guesthouse proved to be a solid choice for a whopping $12. After finishing breakfast and downing as much coffee as possible, we walked to Sam’s Family Restaurant to join the rest of our group: Nicole from Canada and Adrian, Anne Marie and Theo, all from Switzerland). We also met our English-speaking trekking leader, Do (as in: doe, a deer, a female deer), a veteran Kachin guide with more than 10 years of experience.
After everyone gathered up their things, we headed to the hills. The first hour or two was spent on well-worn roads and paths, but after that, we felt like we were the only foreigners hiking in the area. The night before, the group had voted to trek on a less strenuous route, though this meant we would skip tea plant plantations, a lake, a couple other villages and an ad hoc market that assembles for passing trains, but the cost for going this way meant hiking several hours longer. Even now, I am a little wistful we did not go that way, but Do and the group we traveled with more than made up for it.
Our group mingled well together. As we walked, we paired off for conversations, chiming in on larger exchanges while sometimes breaking off into smaller ones. Nicole and Adrian were traveling together, while Anne Marie and Theo were a couple. Everyone was traveling for an extended period of time, so most of what we talked about revolved around recommendations of places to go or tips for places we had been. With only seven people total, the group never felt too big, but we heard that some guides do not cap their groups. Trekking with a large group would have made the whole experience less enjoyable. Likewise, since you will be spending the next 72 hours with the group, it is probably best to get to know them a little before signing up for the trek.
Do was incredibly knowledgeable about the surroundings and, instead of inundating us with information, we would approach him with questions and he would walk and talk or stop the group to go into more detail. Surprisingly, he was pretty forthcoming about the level of difficulty to get a certificate to be a guide (initially, he paid a bribe to get it, but now it only requires him to renew it every few years) and the problems with the current tourism infrastructure (or as he admitted, the lack thereof in some places). When we stopped in villages, he introduced us to the members of the household we would be either eating in or eating and then sleeping in. Most of the people we met did not speak any English, so while it was fun to interact with the locals through gestures and smiles, our language barrier was significantly limiting.
The children seemed more adventurous than the adults and loved to approach us to get their picture taken. One group of children became memorized by my iPhone. I showed them how to record video and then played it back for them. Everywhere I have traveled, this is one of my favorite things to do. Children in developing countries and rural areas get nowhere near the same thrill from seeing a photo as they do from seeing video of themselves. Suddenly, they are Hollywood. This group of young village children had probably never used a touchscreen device, but after showing them how to shuffle through images and pinch to zoom, they quickly became pros. I needed a crowbar to pry them off and even then they begged me to play with it longer.
Most of the villages we visited did not have running water or electricity, though a couple homes had gas-powered generators for lights and low-consumption devices (that does not include washing machines and air conditioning units, though some homes had an older television). Instead, food was cooked by fire, out-house toilets were latrines and the villages as a whole had an air of self-sufficiency. Most of the villagers had never been to a major city and may live their entire lives without seeing one.
As more foreigners come through these villages, it will be interesting to see how the locals react and adjust. They may try to profit from trekkers – either by selling necessities or handicrafts – or become jaded and look at them as more of a nuisance. Some villages seemed welcoming while others were quite cool in their reception to us. Most interesting about the less friendly ones was that the houses had cement walls around them with barbed wire on top. When I asked Do about this, he said it was sign of status; more than likely these owners were not much wealthier than anyone else in the area, or even that village, but it gave the appearance of them having more money.
Back on the trail, the path alternated between flat landscapes and rolling hills, which kept things interesting and made us happy to be wearing proper shoes. Luckily, we followed a path that kept us high above the valleys, providing us with outstanding panoramic views. Most of the region is used for agriculture, so there were various fields being planted (some by hand and others by machine). Our timing coincided with the beginning of the rainy season, and the view hinted at what the hills would look like in a few months. Unfortunately for our time there, the terraced rice paddies were fields of cracked earth, waiting desperately for the sky to open.
We lucked out on our first day because it only started pouring after we arrived at the house we were to stay the night in. The rain began in the early evening and continued through most the night, which made toilet runs to the outhouse a question of whether you wanted to get soaked or have your bladder explode. The next night, a similar situation happened in which we dodged a couple sprinkles during the day but a heavy rain came through after dark. This made for muddy trails in the mornings, so we delayed our morning start time to allow the sun to dry the paths.
For the most part, the trekking was easy, nothing too arduous, though it was a long 12-mile hike each day (6-7 hours of trekking). Our group walked at an above-average speed, according to Do, which allowed us more time during breaks and meals. The meals provided were lunch and dinner on the first day; breakfast, lunch and dinner on the second day; and breakfast and lunch on the third. The meals were basic (rice or noodles and fried vegetables and chicken/pork/meat) but filling and included coffee for breakfast and tea for all meals. We had brought water with us but went through it quickly. This was not a problem as village shops along the way sell goods at [mainly] reasonable prices. We also brought snacks, but due to the size of the meals never needed them. Sunblock and bug repellent were necessary items, but without shower facilities, it is up to you whether you want to bring anything to soap up for a bucket bath (I did, and it was a freezing but awesome way to wake up.).
Accommodations were equally basic but comfortable. Both nights we spent on the second-floor of a village house. This is another point of contention when deciding on which trekking company to go with. We read of guides looking to cut expenses by having their groups stay at monasteries, which during high season apparently become overcrowded nightmares. The houses we stayed in provided pillows, blankets and sleeping pads. We used our silk liners to guard against nighttime bugs since the houses are open and there were no mosquito nets. After a long day of trekking everyone seemed to fall asleep relatively quickly.
On our last day, we arrived at the southern end of Inle Lake. Included in our trek was the cost of an across-lake boat (to Nyaung Shwe), but for a couple dollars more per person we were able to “rent” our boat for a brief tour of surrounding sights. The lake itself is enormous and spectacular. Everywhere fishermen pole across the water using only their feet; it is a surreal sight. Those who do not trek to the lake must go out at least one day to see the floating gardens, where crops are grown on top of the lake, at the southern end. Another place to visit is a Buddhist monastery where the monks have trained cats to jump through rings. Sadly, they were not performing the day we visited. Instead, we were treated to fat cats lying around – nothing special there.
Ultimately, we spent two nights in Nyaung Shwe to enjoy other highlights in the area. This included bicycling to one of the two local wineries (this one was owned by a French owner, the other by a German). While the wine was nothing special, the vineyard and restaurant rest on the top of a hill that overlooks the lake. It is well worth the ride even just for the view and a few photos. We were tempted to stay for sunset, but with the roads leading back to our guesthouse lacking lights, we decided not to tempt fate.
Another worthy place to visit is the local hot springs, which in the summer heat can only be sold to crazy people like us. The bicycle ride there was bumpier and steeper, but it worth the visit. There was a choice of a private area with three small pools (the size of a Jacuzzi) or a “public” wading pool (separated by gender). We paid a couple thousand kyat more (7,700 kyats, ≈$8.69 USD, each versus 5,000 kyats, ≈ $5.64 USD) and had the private area to ourselves for the two hours we lounged in the therapeutic water. Impending rains had clouded the sky, which helped cool the air a bit, so the pools were actually quite enjoyable. The bicycle ride there was longer and more taxing than the ride to the winery, so if you head out, be prepared with lots of water.
The food in Nyaung Shwe was especially good, though we recommend sticking with Myanmar fare, as the prices for Western cuisine are quite high and the food unimpressive (we had our most expensive meal – pizza – in the whole country here). The Inle Lake fish should be sought out, as it is one of the most delicious meals we had in all of Myanmar. They can grill or bake it, make it in curry, stuff it, cook it inside a banana leaf or do anything else you can think of – and all of them will be good.
Inle Lake is a great place to unwind and relax, and trekking was an excellent option for getting there. Since we used buses versus planes for our primary means of transportation around Myanmar, it was nice to get out into the open air and walk from location to location. It was also well priced 36,000 kyats (≈ $40.63 USD) per person for the whole trek, which was inclusive of a guide, all meals, accommodation, luggage transfer and the Inle Lake boat crossing (the “tour” cost us an extra 1,000 kyats, ≈ $1.12 USD, per person in the form of a tip to the boat driver). Also, by going as a group we were able to interact with other travelers, something we really did not experience on our overnight bus rides. If you have the time, definitely take the 3-day, 2-night trek (though we heard that if you are persistent and ask around there are potentially longer routes). You will see a beautiful side of Myanmar that you would otherwise miss while driving through.
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