You may hear a lot of people say that Myanmar is an up and coming tourist destination and to get there before it changes. In Yangon and Mandalay I saw very few tourists, while Bagan was nearly exclusively tourists, though I expected more. However, if you want to find westerners, hit the trails between the village of Kalaw and Inle Lake. This hike has become wildly popular, but for good reason!
Getting to Kalaw
From Mandalay, we were able to arrange a ride in a van-like bus that Scooby Doo and crew may use to investigate a mystery. Although the bus was suffering from age-related wear and tear, the inside was decorated with Victorian era curtains. Once the bus was loaded up we started on our way and continuously stopped to pick up more passengers despite the lack of any available seats. We had a quick lunch pitstop and devoured some budget-friendly soup ($1 USD) made from what can only be described as the whole chicken…like all of the parts.
What is Kalaw Like?
Upon arriving in Kalaw, we were ready for a second lunch. Considering we were about to embark on a grueling 3 day trek, the only satisfactory fuel could come from a restaurant named Everest. Such a coincidental connection was not lost on us. We briefly explored the town and stocked up on some essentials for the trek like snacks and a bottle of water. Then it was time to eat again. You know how runners gorge on pasta before a big race (so I’ve heard…I’m no runner but I’m a sucker for spaghetti, penne, any shape really). Anyway, us hikers needed to get our pizza on.
Now, I consider myself well-traveled. Literally the entire world has pizza. It is everywhere. In Puno, Peru there were far more pizza offerings than anything local. The point is that I prefer to eat local cuisine when I travel, and the ONE TIME I require pizza to properly fuel my body before a physical task, THERE ISN’T ANY. We searched high and low and I ended up having to eat my favorite Burmese tomato salad, blargh. Not pizza. However, there is hope for future trekkers. We spotted a pizza oven at an Italian restaurant. It was new and not in use yet (we asked!) Which means, soon there should be pizza available worldwide, including Kalaw. As you may deduce, there isn’t much to do in Kalaw besides eat and leave for your trek. There are also a couple of temples and markets to check out.
Which Trekking Company Did You Use?
Another order of business upon arriving in Kalaw was to meet with our trekking company, Eversmile. We had booked our 3 day 2 night trek over the phone just a couple of days prior to arrival. They also offer 2 day 1 night treks if you are shorter on time (you will be driven to meet the group of 3 day trekkers on day 2 of their hike). We paid 40,000 kyat (~$30 USD) which included meals, 2 nights accommodation, an English-speaking guide, bag transfer to Inle Lake, a boat ride in Inle lake, and pick up before the trek. You can’t beat that price! The company was professional, relatively organized and made the whole experience worthwhile.
What Will You See on the Hike?
Well if this isn’t the perfect segue to post a bunch of photos, I don’t know what is.
Is the Trek Difficult?
The hike has several sets of challenges. The first two days require about seven hours of walking each and the final day is a bit shorter. There are some uphill components, extremely muddy patches (season dependent), and unsteady river crossings. There are also alternative routes, so you can decide as a group to take a potentially easier path. I found some of my group members walked faster than me and some slower. We took breaks every hour or so to regroup, drink water and tea, and catch our breath. The trek is very doable for any fitness level and the elements pose a greater challenge than the trek itself. For instance, the uphill would not have been so difficult if it hadn’t just started pouring and become extremely slippery. And my blisters would not be forming if I hadn’t stepped in a huge puddle and gotten my feet wet. If you are worried about your level of fitness, I still encourage you to try. We were able to all go at our own pace and the guide was good about checking on everyone.
How is the Food and Accommodations?
The food is delicious. We had a mix of what could be classified as Nepali, Chinese, and Burmese dishes. I don’t know how this always happen, but French fries got thrown in the mix as well one night, just like on my trek in Vietnam. I thought those were from France! Myanmar has two salads that I grew completely obsessed with. One is the tomato salad (aka NOT pizza) which is simply tomato, onion, lime, and peanuts and the other is Burmese Tea Leaf salad. You will likely experience both of these on the trek. Each night we all stayed together (seven of us the first night and ten the second) in one room of a family’s home. There was a mattress for each of us on the floor with a pillow and plenty of blankets. The toilets were squatters and there were large buckets of water for showers (not baths, don’t get in the big bucket).
Is There Anything to Watch Out For?
Um, yeah. Apparently there was a snake. I didn’t see it, phew. And there were some bigass spiders, including one directly above our bed the first night. The young woman who lived at the house bravely tapped the spider off the wall with the broom and picked it up in her bare hands. When we asked if it was poisonous, our guide responded, “sort of.” HA. There are also leeches, so definitely wear long socks and tuck your pants inside. Leeches are funny things. I had one on my ankle. Didn’t see it there, thank Jesus. But upon removing my sock I had a small bloody area that wouldn’t stop bleeding due to the anticoagulation agent leeches have in their mouths. If you do find a leech on your person, the Internet says to let it do its thing and fall off. HAHAHA, yeah right! You can also spray it with DEET and it will retreat immediately. Beyond these little predators, just watch out for how slippery it can be!
What Happens When You Arrive to Inle Lake?
On the final day of the trek there is about four hours worth of walking. Your feet are begging for this to end. And then it does! Before you know it, it is lunchtime and then you set sail in a long skinny canoe-type boat across the lake to where most of the accommodations are located. You may want to take a tuk tuk or taxi to your hotel to minimize any additional walking. If luck is on your side, your big bags will be there waiting. If not, they can easily be tracked down.
Is the Trek Worth it?
From a value standpoint alone, yes, so worth it. You are saving on transportation costs by walking, plus you have meals and accommodations covered for a great price. On top of that, you will see some gorgeous scenery, meet lovely local people as well as fellow hikers, get some exercise, and experience local village life. I cannot recommend this experience enough.
What Else Do I Need to Know?
There is a $10 entry fee to the Inle Lake region which is not covered in the trek price. You would have to pay this whether you came by bus or by foot and it applies to all tourists.
- Hiking boots: from my experience, sneakers are not advised. You can buy cheap boots in Kalaw for about $3 USD
- Flip flops or a change of shoes for the evenings
- Towel and shower essentials (like soap maybe, lets face it, you’re not gonna bother washing your hair)
- Sweatshirt: it can get chilly in the evening (hence why you won’t want to wash your hair)
- Bug spray: to kill leeches…jk there are mosquitos
- Toilet paper
- Change of clothes: my pants got pretty muddy to the point where I could not re-wear them if I wanted to
- Hat, sunglasses, sunscreen
- One liter of water (to start, you can buy more along the way)
- First aid kit: because blisters
- Snacks: everyone loves snacks
Beyond that, try not to bring anything else because you are responsible for carrying that weight. Your big bag will meet you in Inle Lake. Make sure you have an accommodation booked in Inle so they can bring your bags straight there.
Overall, it is a beautiful hike. And when you are home and the vacation has ended and people ask how you got from Kalaw to Inle Lake, it sounds pretty damn cool to say you walked!