Trekking from Kalaw to Inle Lake
The Inle Lake region is known for its trekking, where you can hike through the Shan hills and visit small villages. This has become one of highlights on the Myanmar tourist trail and is a must see when in Myanmar
From Mandalay, we took a night bus that left at 7pm. We shared a taxi with others from our guesthouse to the bus station which is located about 7km from central Mandalay. We were told the bus to Kalaw, which cost 14,000 kyatts ($14), would take about 9 hours to arrive in Kalaw, getting us there at 4am. We didn’t book a room for that night in Kalaw because of this. However, we ended up arriving in Kalaw at 1:45am which is obviously too early to try to stay awake and still be functioning the next day. We went to our guesthouse which we had booked for the following evening, called Eastern Paradise Motel, to see if we could get a place to sleep for the night. The owner was an amazingly kind woman and only charged us half the price ($15 rather than $30) for the night of arriving at 1:45am. We probably would’ve paid double if needed, so that was a nice welcome to Kalaw.
Kalaw is a small town used as the starting point for treks to Inle Lake. There honestly isn’t much to do there, but the cooler weather in the fresher mountain air served as a great place to relax for a day. After so many days of cloudless days in the dry heat in Myanmar, the cloudy, almost cold, weather was a nice change (although the weather in Kalaw would’ve been like a summer day compared to the weather back home!).
Treks from Kalaw can be 1 day, 2 days, or 3 days. 1 day will just get you around Kalaw to possibly a village. 2 days gets you to Inle Lake but requires a taxi transfer to start closer. The 3 day hike allows you to walk all the way from Kalaw to Inle Lake. Because we had the time and were up for the challenge of the 35 mile trek, we chose the 3 day tour. After searching around a bit, we went with Sam’s Trekking. It is by far the biggest of the guide companies there, and they seemed to be the most professional. Sam’s, along with most other tour groups, also are an incredible value. To reduce the cost, we requested to go along with 4 others, making us a group of 6 people. In total, I paid 40,000 kyatts ($40) which included a trekking guide for 3 days, 2 nights stay at homes in local villages, 7 meals, and a 1.5 hour boat ride on Inle Lake to the town of Nyaungshwe. I’m not sure if you can get much better value than this. This did not include the $10 government fee to enter Inle Lake that all foreign tourists must pay.
Trekking Kalaw to Inle Lake
We were grouped with two other couples who were traveling together and were both English/New Zealand couples. Luckily, they were great to be around. For almost 3 full days, we spent all of our time with them. They have all been to 6 continents and were experienced travelers, so it was fun to share travel stories and learn about new places. The good company was very important for the enjoyment of the tour. Spending that much time with someone could be painful if they don’t have good attitudes. But we had fun conversations and all around had a great time with them.
The trek leads through the Shan hills and cuts through several mountain villages, some speaking their own tribal language which is different than Burmese. Because the 2 day treks essentially cut off the first day of the 3 day trek, our first day was probably the most enjoyable. We only saw two or three other trekking groups throughout the day, and the village we stayed at felt like a normal village. At lunch of our second day, we saw at least 10 other tour groups. And as we were all walking the same direction, the hiking path was full of groups hiking through the hills.
In total, we hiked about 35 miles over the course of three days. The first day was about 6.5 hours of hiking, the second day about 7 hours, and the third day was about 4.5 hours. The accommodations are about what you’d expect for the price you pay. Being in small mountain villages in Myanmar, one can’t expect the Marriott. On both nights, we slept on the second floor of a family home on makeshift blanket mattresses which were set up on the floor. The temperatures dropped to about 45 or 50 degrees at night (8 degrees C), so we were provided with a good amount of blankets. Outhouses were the only types of toilets, and it was more of a urinal with a hole in the group rather than a toilet. Squatting in a bamboo outhouse is something one must expect to do on this tour.
There wasn’t as much interacting with locals as I had hoped, but it makes sense. Although we are staying in their houses, there is a language barrier which obviously makes it difficult. And when tour groups are coming through almost every night, I’m sure the families get so used to people coming and going that they don’t really care that much. A few times, we did have our guide, a 22 year old girl named Oma, translate for us and learn more about the local families. I imagine that, for many people in the village, it’s strange that people from all over the world are suddenly coming to their tiny villages.
One fun experience we had was with the 8 year old daughter of the host family on our second evening. She had such a big smile and was studying English. She took a liking to Chika when we arrived, as she wrapped the traditional orange head scarves around Chika’s head. On the second morning, the girl was putting on her traditional Burmese makeup, called thanaka, and offered to put it on Chika as well. After mixing water with the ground tree bark, the young girl used a brush to almost apply the makeup to Chika cheeks, nose, and forehead, making almost a yellow color. Later in the day, a few locals thought that Chika was from a local village. I guess her Bike & Build shirt and hiking pants didn’t give it away!
The hiking was good throughout the three days. The inclines were never too steep, but we would walk for three of four hours at a time which made it tiring. Agriculture is very important in this region, as we saw fields of wheat, chilis, rice paddies, and ginger. The amount of chilis and ginger in our homestays were enormous. There would oftentimes be piles weighing probably 100 pounds of chilis and ginger.
Bamboo is plays an important part of life in this region. Baskets, hats, tables, chairs, and even houses are made from bamboo. The houses are interesting, looking more like a piece of art than a house. The bamboo tree is trimmed and then weaved, making a cool design but also serving the purpose of providing shelter. The cool thing about bamboo is that it grows so quickly, making it sustainable. Only needing a handful of months to grow to a useful size, it is cut and used for good uses and then left alone to grow again. Compare this to the years needed to grow a sizable tree.
On the third day, we arrived exhausted on the very southwest part of Inle Lake. From there, we took a long-tail boat to the northern edge of the lake to the town of Nyaungshwe. This ended the 3 day trek from Kalaw to Inle Lake. I’m not sure if you can get much more out of $40 than this trek!
Nyaungshwe and Inle Lake
Nyaungshwe is a good sized town and is the base for most tourism around Inle Lake. The town itself is not too impressive, but the lake and the surrounds are worth exploring. We stayed at the Aquarius Inn ($25 per night) which was a very nice place to stay including breakfast and even fruit and tea as an afternoon snack each day.
Our first full day in Nyaungshwe, we rented bicycles (1,500 kyatts or $1.50) for the day and rode west and south along the lake. The main attraction here is the hot springs. I really enjoyed thought of resting my aching muscles after the three days of hiking, so we made the 45 minute trip on bicycle. The hot springs have two different options, $10 for foreigners in a mixed hot springs area or $5 for a male or female only hot spring. I chose to do the male-only hot springs which was more popular for the locals. It was essentially a pool full of natural hot springs water. It was a nice place to relax for a bit.
In our second full day in Nyaungshwe, we took the typical boat tour around Inle Lake. A swarm of boat drivers swarm around the main pier, pestering every tourist about taking a boat tour. At about 7:30am, we walked to the pier looking for other tourists to share a boat. Each boat has a flat fee of 15,000 kyatts ($15). Naturally, we wanted to reduce our cost by going with others. We found three Germans and agreed to all go together. We each ended up paying $3 for a tour that started at 7:30am and ended at 3:30pm.
The tour took us all the way to the south part of Inle Lake around many parts. Villages are set up on the water with the houses using stills to hold themselves up. Here, boats transportation is the number one way to get around. In fact, most locals need boats to even get to their neighbors’ houses. Floating gardens are used to grow vegetables and the famers use teak canoes to survey their crops.
The boat tour took us around to different parts of the villages, including a large temple, a lotus weaving workshop, a silversmith workshop, a teak boat workshop, and a teak monastery. All of the workshops seemed cool at first, as you are given a tour of how everything is made and see the people actually making the different products. However, I am skeptical of if they actually do much work here. It seemed that the workers would start their jobs when tourists walked past and then stop as they left. I wonder how much of the work is actually done by locals in this fashion. They make it look like the work is done here to give tourists a good feeling of buying it from the shop, but I don’t think much of it is made there. Hopefully it’s actually made my locals, though, and not factories far away.
Each place was also used as a souvenir shop. For example, the canoe workshop had almost nothing going on but had a nice giftshop inside the home selling lacquer ware, cigars, and trinkets. It all seemed a bit like a tourist trap. If I had paid more for the tour, I would’ve been disappointed. But to spend $3 for a nice boat ride, seeing the village on the lake, and the floating gardens, I was satisfied.
Later that same evening, we set off towards the border of Myanmar and Thailand, ending our 3 weeks in Myanmar. I had mixed feelings about leaving, as the country has been incredible to see with so many cool things to see. But the nice thing about long-term travel is that there is always something new to look forward to. With a bit more Thailand and then Laos and Vietnam waiting for us, we have plenty to be excited for.