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Trekking from Kalaw to Inle Lake was definitely one of the highlights of our travels in Myanmar and I would highly recommend adding it to your travel itinerary, along with visiting the magical temples in Bagan. It is just the most fabulous experience! 50km over 2 days through hills and farmlands with breathtaking scenery, through little villages that have stood still in time. Wagon wheels and oxen carts, bamboo matted houses, no electricity – just light from solar panels, backbreaking manual labour in the fields of ginger, potatoes, rice, and chilies. It will take you back in time to the age before electricity, cars, tv and video games!
How Fit Must You Be?
You don’t have to be super fit, but a moderate level of fitness would be beneficial. The trek takes you over gently rolling hills so no steep ascents or descents. You will be hiking for 6-8 hours a day and covering up to 25km each day, so stamina will serve you more than strength. The hike itself is not strenuous, but the speed at which your group walks can make it easy or more difficult and depending on the time of year, the temperature can make a difference. Our group walked at a furious pace, but we had a lovely breeze blowing and my 10-year-old managed to keep up just fine.
Choosing a Trekking Company
Walking through the dusty, almost deserted streets of the quaint town of Kalaw, we saw a multitude of tour operators all offering Kalaw to Inle Lake treks, but after a bit of research, we decided to go with Ever Smile Tours. The size of the group was bigger, but at $30 per person, they were almost half the price of the other operators. They also gave me a reduction of only $18 for Tai!
The price included all food and accommodation for the two days, our guide, transfer by bus to the starting point, the final boat trip on Inle Lake and all the tea and snacks we enjoyed along the way. It also included the transfer of our luggage to our hotel in Inle Lake which meant we only had to carry a small daypack on the hike.
From start to finish the Ever Smile team looked after us with great care. Our guide was excellent and regaled us with fascinating information about Myanmar, its people, and its customs.
Trekking from Kalaw to Inle Lake
Early in the morning, we gathered at Ever Smile Tours offices, with our daypacks, containing a few essentials for an overnight stay. From here a 20minute drive to a local village outside of town, where we started the trek through the sprawling farmlands.
There were 12 of us in the group – British, Canadian, Austrian, German, French, Columbian and us from South Africa. Such wonderful people who embraced Tai’s enthusiasm and gave him free reign to entertain everyone with his endless stories and library of jokes.
The weather was hot, but there was a gentle breeze that made it bearable. It was March and April is their hottest month, so we were lucky with the weather. Being the dry season, the rice paddies were all brown stubble and although beautiful, we couldn’t help commenting on how stunning it would look in the wet season with bright green rice paddies as far as the eye could see. Then again, we had hard packed earth to walk on as opposed to wet, muddy paths, so…
At our first local Shan village, we were given a huge smiley welcome by a very elderly woman, who served us traditional green tea with sugar cane lumps that tasted like fudge! She then took up her hand loom and continued weaving cotton to make traditional cloth, to be used as scarves and sling bags.
The bags and scarves are traditional attire and worn by both men and women. This traditional form of weaving is a slow and intricate process with each metre of cloth taking up to a month to complete. The final cost is a drop in the ocean in relation to the endless hours and painstaking care required to produce it, which is why the practice is slowly dying with only elderly women still continuing the practice.
A few more hours on the trail and then a stop for lunch at another village. Seated in a large room with roughhewn wooden floors and a large low table, we were presented with delicious lemongrass soup, ginger and nut salad, steamed green beans, stir-fried chicken with vegetables and rice. A veritable feast and with bellies full, we all lay back and dozed for 20 minutes before pulling on our trainers and hats and heading out again.
The main crops in the area are ginger, peanuts and lemongrass, so it’s no wonder that the local dish is made up of those 3 things. Fresh and cool in the intense heat of the day, but the vast amount of ginger soon had my mouth on fire! Its a delicious combination with the added crunch of the peanuts. I first saw it on the menu in Kalaw and order it as my main meal, but it should really be a side dish shared amongst all the diners. It’s definitely a winner in my books, but perhaps not an entire plate to oneself!
We spent the night in a traditional house in one of the villages. There was no electricity, only solar panels enough to power a few light bulbs in the evening. No other forms of electricity meant no plugs which in turn meant nowhere to recharge our phones. Such a simple thing that we take so for granted in our modern day lives. The shower consisted of a big drum of water, placed within a 1.5m high wall, with a smaller scoop to throw water over one’s head. The upper level of the house was a big open area with single mattresses, a pillow, and duvet for each of us. Traditionally the first floor is where the animals live, but our homestay was using their space for storage.
We woke to find the village alive with activity. Cows being milked, animals being fed, goats herded, grain being crushed in a huge mortar and pestle and butter being churned. All the daily requirements to exist in a back to basics subsistence lifestyle.
We were greeted with huge big piles of steaming pancakes and bananas and coffee for breakfast and realising that the flour used to make our pancakes was all hand milled, made us appreciate them even more!
The trail led us through gentle hills and valleys of agricultural farmlands. No machinery here, just a few oxen and carts and the manual labour of the villagers. We watched ginger being planted, peanut bushes growing, chilies laid out to dry and garlic bulbs being taken to market. The modern world was a million miles away from this life and probably something that most of the villagers wouldn’t be able to comprehend. Big wagon wheels adorned the houses, each house had its own haystack and big jars for collecting rainwater. The handful of motorbikes we came across were all recklessly driven by youths, while the older folk still preferred oxen and carts for their mode of transport.
The Burmese people have a serious love of music and in our travels through the country we often came across groups of youths clustered around a guitar, singing all the latest English pop songs. At one of our local teahouse stops, we were treated to a fantastic singalong by some local youths. We recognised the tunes but thought they had reworked the lyrics to their local language. It was only later that we realised they had in fact been singing in English, albeit with rather weird accents!
The children in the villages wanted so badly to connect with us, but their shy nature and reserved upbringing made them hang back behind their parents. Occasionally, curiosity got the better of them and then came out to play or gave us a wave. Even when we couldn’t see people, we could feel them watching as our merry band of foreigners wandered through their village. No doubt we were staring equally as hard, drinking in this different way of life and marveling at their methods.
Being such a big group, there were the fast walkers and the slower walkers, but in the end, we all had to keep up with the frontrunners. As such the walk was done at a grueling pace and my heart is still bursting with pride at my little guy and his little 10-year-old legs that managed to keep up when even I was struggling!
Arriving at Inle Lake
Day two ended at Inle Lake where we gratefully took our hot, dusty trainers off and flopped down in deck chairs for a chilled lunch.
The tour usually ends with longtail boats ferrying you across the lake to the town of Nyuang Shwe, but one of our clever travel companions suggested we pay a little extra and see the sights at this side of the lake before going across to Nyuang Shwe. This turned out to be a fabulous idea and off we set to see the sights – Goldsmiths, Silversmiths, Long-neck Karen tribe women weaving traditional cloth, a parasol making factory and the Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda. Tai thought it incredibly funny that us women were not allowed into the central shrine and took great glee in pulling faces at us from the raised middle section.
The lake and surrounds are incredibly beautiful. Floating Gardens of vegetables on all sides of the canals, the one-legged fisherman who row with the oar in one leg which frees both their hands to manage the net, the ramshackle houses on stilts and the waterways so busy with long-tail boats busily ferrying tourists and locals alike.
It was an incredible jam packed 2 days, which is why we’ve barely left our room the next day – lol!
Can you do the trek on your own?
You absolutely can do the trek on your own, but obviously, it’s not as easy as following a guide. The paths are not signposted and each trekking company takes a different route so as to stay in different villages, so it’s not just one main route that everyone follows. If you don’t have a guide, you’ll need to stop often to ask directions from the locals in order to stay on track.
Please bear in mind that in Myanmar it’s forbidden to host tourists in your house without a proper license. On arrival in a village, you will need to ask the locals to direct you to a licensed homestay, where they are usually very accommodating.
Packing List for your Trek
If you consider that you’ll be walking for the better part of two days, you’ll understand the need for having the lightest daypack possible. Below is a list of things you will need to take. It may seem a little, but I can guarantee it will be all you’ll need.
- Two t-shirts, an extra pair of shorts and three pairs of socks
- A set of warm clothes for the evenings
- A pair of flipflops. Trust me… your feet will be dying to get out of trainers after a long days trek!
- A rainjacket
- A sarong. It’s much lighter and quicker drying than a towel and you’ll need it for swims in the river and your evening shower.
- Toiletries, but be minimalistic… you can wash your hair after the trek.
- Toilet paper and wet wipes
- A refillable water bottle
- Suntan lotion, to be reapplied often!
- Cash for teahouses, souvenirs, and tips.
- Powerbank for recharging phones and camera. There is no electricity or plug sockets in the villages
Where to Stay in Kalaw
There are a handful of guesthouses and hotels in Kalaw ranging from very basic to luxury. Here are a few recommendations:
For those looking for a little bit of luxury, why not try the Hotel – Kalaw Hill Hotel? A little bit out of town, but there is a free shuttle into town. Stunning views of the mountains, restaurants and a relaxing spa. Check out the latest prices.
The Kalaw Heritage Hotel is a beautiful old colonial style house that comes in at a middle of the range budget and is highly recommended. Check out the latest prices.
Budget Accommodation: Situated almost in the middle of town, the Golden Kalaw Inn offers clean and functional budget accommodation with friendly staff. Check out the latest prices.
The Final Word
Trekking from Kalaw to Inle Lake was without a doubt one of the highlights of our trip to Myanmar. I would highly recommend that you add this experience to your travel schedule so that you too can enjoy the wonders of this fabulous trek.