Trekking in many parts of Southeast Asia, you have to battle leeches and dangerous terrain. But the trek from Kalaw to Inle Lake in the centre of Myanmar is one of the best treks I have done in this region. There were hardly any leeches and many trail options to choose from, ranging from easy to moderately difficult.
Kalaw is the Mecca for trekking aficionados or any travellers wanting to experience the beautiful countryside Myanmar has to offer. Based on great word of mouth and recommendation, I decided to go with Sam’s. I met other travellers in the guesthouse I was staying and the 8 of us decided to do it together. When we got there, Sam was leading a trek and hadn’t return, so we met one of the local guides, a very chatty lady named Thiri. Her bubbly personality and her knowledge of the region and the different tribes living there immediately won us over.
Because we were a group of 8, it pushed the per person price lower than I had budgeted for (under USD 40). This price included all meals, accommodations for 2 nights in the villages, English-speaking guide, and the transportation of our large backpacks to our guesthouses in Nyaung Shwe (Inle Lake town). (It is highly recommended to make room reservation in high season.)
The next day we started off around 8am and the trek was relatively easy. With our guide leading in front I fell behind as I preferred to take up the rear. Fortunately there were 2 helpers, who were carrying our rations for those 3 days, at the back of the group too, so I wasn’t afraid that I would get lost. But I missed out on Thiri expounding on the plants we saw along the way and their medicinal values. She was very good, according to those who were in front with her.
We hiked through pine forest, amazing landscapes, farmlands and indigenous villages. I saw farmers working on paddy fields without the aid of modern machinery; I saw women and men carrying basket bent over a field of chilies and I wondered how sore and painful their back must be. Then I heard soft singing floating in the air as we approached a sesame seed field and I realised that the workers were singing as they worked. It dawned on me that even though their work was physically much more laborious they were happier than many people who worked in an air-conditioned office.
We met some of the workers on the trail and each of them greeted us with such warm smile as if they were greeting friends. I saw children playing in the fields as their parents worked. They didn’t have any sophisticated toys or modern gadgets but their uninhibited laughter were melody that rang in unison to the sound of nature. In their laughter I heard genuine happiness and carefreeness. It kind of reminded me of my childhood: I did get to enjoy playing outdoor before the onslaught of gadgets that killed the imaginations.
We arrived at the village for our lunch. We were welcomed into the home of an older couple. There were no tables or chairs so we sat resting on the floor while Thiri and her 2 helpers cooked our lunch. I didn’t know if it was because we were tired and starving but the meal tasted fantastic, one of the best meals I had in Myanmar! They cooked a lot and kept asking if we needed more. What’s more, after the meal we could have a siesta. The Spanish girl in our group literally jumped for joy when the good news was announced. We were all glad to have a bit of rest.
The afternoon trek was harder and hotter. There was a bit of climbing but nothing to sweat about. Our guide ploughed ahead in quite a fast pace and I decided to do it at my own pace. The trail was quite straight forward and whenever I came across any crossroad, I just had to wait for the 2 helpers to catch up to me and tell me which road to take.
Just as I was enjoying the scenery and the serenity that only nature could bring, we arrived at our final stop for the day. The village of Sing-le, where we were spending our first night, is situated in a beautiful valley embraced on both sides by tall mountains. It’s a small village with about 20 odd houses and it seemed that each house has a patch of farm where they plant vegetables. At the end of the village there’s a Buddhist monastery with a few monks.
I took my camera and wandered around the villages. When the children saw me with my camera; they ran behind me and whenever I turned they would strike a pose for me to take photos of them. And when I showed them the photo they would roar with laughter, pointing at each other’s strange and exaggerated poses. Soon I was surrounded with all the children of the village wanting their photos taken. I had a great time playing and laughing with them.
When some of my group mates came I sneaked back to take a shower. The sun had lost its heat by then and the ‘bathroom’ was a well in the open (luckily I bought a longyi in Yangon). I’m no stranger to bathing outdoor but the cold was an uninvited guest. The cold water teased my whole body and I had a tingling sensation when I finished bathing; all my senses were awaken.
A few of us decided to walk to have a look at the monastery. We were greeted by a monk and invited to have tea with him inside. He spoke some English and told us that he was the head monk there. He was very talkative and laughed a lot, but we soon realised that there might be something off with him; especially when he told us that his cats’ names were Rambo, Madonna and Michael Jackson. We kept giving him signs that we needed to get back for dinner but he kept talking and wouldn’t let us leave. He even took out a map of the world and asked each of us where we were from. Then he told us that we were his best friends. I guess he was just lonely and were happy to have foreign visitors.
Dinner was good and filling as we were hungry from a day of hiking. We were tired but we felt good. After the meal we decided to play some card games. Thiri wanted to play as well. We tried to teach her but she kept getting it wrong and cracked up. We didn’t know whether to get frustrated or joined her in her uninhibited laughing fit. Then we realised that she was drunk! And that become a nightly occurrence. But we didn’t mind because in the daytime she did her job and was a very good and knowledgeable guide. As we were playing cards, we noticed that there were more and more people in the house, the locals had come to see the foreigners. As much as we trek to these villages to see ‘them’, they were also curious about ‘us’.
There was no electricity so when the candles burnt out, it was time for bed. Nights in these villages were quite cold in winter time. They gave us plenty of blanket and we all slept like a log after an exhausting but satisfying day.
We woke up early the next day and after a very heavy breakfast we were revving to go. Some of the children came to say goodbye; they stood at the edge of their village and waved as we slowly disappear from their sights.
The mountain air and a good night sleep must have nourished us as we climbed the mountain without any problem and the guide was surprised at our speed. The terrain became more mountainous with large fields of flowers and paddy. As with the previous day, we saw farmers hard at work but all with such smiley face that I felt like joining them just so that I could part take in their joy. Sweet voices filled the air with songs where the women worked. Laughter wouldn’t be far away as children played nearby. A symphony in nature that only can be experienced in this trek.
As lunch time approached we arrived hill-tribe village. As soon as we stepped into the house the sky opened. Our timing couldn’t have been better. As Thiri and her helpers prepared our lunch, I played with a really cute child whose mother was glad that I was playing with her child because she was busy helping to cook lunch.
By the time we had eaten our lunch and had our siesta the rain had stopped. So we continued our journey. The rain didn’t cool the heat and the afternoon sun beat down on us and slowed our pace. We trekked on through terraced paddy fields and villages where chilies were spread on the ground to dry. Women in traditional clothes went about their business and we, who were just passing through, got a glimpse of their routine.
Thiri had told us that the 2nd day would be longer than the 1st and she was right. We arrived at our last stop for the day after 5pm. Initially we had wanted to spend the 2nd night sleeping in the monastery but Thiri told us that some people had complained about bed bugs just few days before so we were happy to change our mind.
When we got to the village, we stopped at a canteen and bought some drinks and snacks. There were other groups of travellers around as well. An older guy bought a pack of sweets and a swarm of children gathered around him screaming “Me! Me! Me!” I wondered whether that was a good thing to do. These children might grow up with the habit of asking for sweets from foreigners. And as they grow up, they might ask for other things. Would this instill in them the sense of dependency? I wonder…
That evening I took one of the coldest showers of my life as by the time I went to take my shower the sun had already set. When I was done, my teeth were clattering. I quickly went inside and warmed myself by the cooking fire.
Dinner was equally delicious and satisfying. After which we played a game but our guide was too drunk to join us this time. As with the previous nights, some locals came to ‘see’ us. They scratched their head and laughed at our games. I went to bed knowing that the next day we would return to ‘civilisation’. These 2 days had been amazing. I felt really cut off from the rest of the world. Even though physically exhausted from the trekking, I actually felt rested because there were no worries to cloud my mind.
The next day we woke up to a cold misty morning. After another hearty breakfast we started our final trek to Inle Lake. Just before our pit stop, there was a boy standing outside his house waving to each of us, repeating “goodbye” over and over again. I tried to talk to him but realised that, that was the only English word he knew. A really cute kid.
Descending to the lake was quite slippery so we were lucky it didn’t rain. We saw the lake as we were descending and that propelled us faster; hunger had something to do with it too. We got to the entrance of Inle Lake, where we had to pay an entrance fee, around midday and we were served noodle soup at the shacks there. When we had eaten, we were taken by boat to Nyaung Shwe (Inle Lake town).
It was one of the best trekking I’ve ever did. I would go back to Mynamar just to do the trek again, experience the unforgettable interactions with the children, the singing in the fields and the lack of modern distractions. This is the real Myanmar.