Ever since I did my first trek in Machu Picchu, I’ve come around to enjoy spending days out in the wilderness with nothing but a backpack and accepting the challenge of getting from point A to point B. People do it for their own personal reasons, but for me it’s an opportunity to capture the scenery, get some exercise and using the time for personal reflection. One this occasion, the trek from Kalaw to Inle Lake, also presented an opportunity to take a peek into village life of various indigenous tribes in Myanmar.
Located at an elevation of 1,300 metres in the Shan state, Kalaw is an old hill station town used by the British to escape the punishing Burmese heat. Located about 60km from Inle lake, its main function for tourism is to act as a starting point for trekking to the lake. I had first read about trekking from Kalaw to Inle Lake from Miles, who I had met in Bariloche, Argentina. For him it was one of the highlights of his time in Burma and by the time we were done with the Golden Rock, we were REALLY looking forward to getting to Kalaw’s cooler climate.
A self guided trek is next to impossible and actually prohibited due to certain restrictions on foreigners passing through certain villages. We decided that it would be a good idea to find a tour group that we could join. The benefit of this would be to reduce the individual cost significantly as well as having some other travel buddies for the three day journey. We eventually found three Spaniards from our guesthouse who was staying in our guesthouse who would were leaving the following day, so we decided to team up after a quick meeting with William the guide to quiz him on his knowledge of the trek, where we’d go to, eat, sleep and also get a grasp on his level of english.
After packing a small bag and having our bags arranged to be delivered to Inle Lake, we left on foot towards Inle Lake. It doesn’t take long to get to know our new Spanish amigos. Jen and I used the opportunity to re-acquaint ourselves with the Spanish language, learn a few more phrases as well as returning the favour by explaining some of the complexities of English. You really don’t realise how convoluted and confusing the english language can be until you have to answer their questions on sentence structure and grammar.
The trekking over the three days isn’t difficult at all. Although relatively flat, there are quite a few undulations with the overall the trek take us from 1,300m down to 900m elevation. The landscape varies distinctly over the three days. Day one, we trekked a decent part of it along a series of narrow trails under the protection and shade of a pine forest. The scent from the pine needles along with the cool shade was a pleasant surprise. Every now and then giant trees well over a hundred years old would provide shelter as we’d rest and drink tea provided by the locals.
All of our lunch stops and accommodation would be at local villagers homes. During our first lunch stop, we’d soon learn that we’d be incredibly spoilt for food for the remainder of the trek. All meals were to be provided and we had our own chef who would travel to the locations before us and prepare our meals. Each time we’d eat enjoy at least three to four courses, all cooked perfectly. I spent a good amount of time observing cooking time and having to cook all of the meals over the one wood burning fire was like a delicate balancing act. Somehow he managed to pull it off each time.
There’s no other trekkers around for most of the time except for one other group that we run into a couple of times. It turns out that the lead guide of the other group is William’s sister in law. He also tells me that the only reason that they’re able to perform the treks is due to the individual relationships that the tour guides have with certain villages. There are quite a few touring companies in Kalaw but the individual guides dictate the trekking route based on these relationships. Another reason as to why so much of the area is restricted to foreigners is that there’s still an opium trade run by the government which is amongst the top three corrupt governments in the world. Naturally, it would be quite foolish to wander off into one of these off limit areas.
Towards the end of the day, we’d emerge from the forest, overlooking the valley here we’d continue on briefly until we reach our homestay for the evening in a Pa-Oh village. The land here used to be a major opium growing region until the 1990’s. Nowadays, the only thing they grow are cabbage, potatoes, corn, rice, and canola. With larger amounts required to meet the same yield as opium, they’ve had to grow more which has an effect on the land.
We’d be spending the evening at William’s father in law’s home. As soon as we arrived, we received a bit of a surprise. It was garlic harvesting time and the cloves of garlic were spread all over the top-level where we were to sleep. After shovelling away a section of garlic, we had a small space to lay the mats and prepare for dinner.
The accommodation is as authentic as you can get. Squat toilets in the outhouse, no showering facilities except for a packet of wet wipes (Thanks for the loan Jen) and the bedding were just thick mats and a blanket. Don’t bother asking for a WiFi password or expect to charge your mobile devices as there is no electricity. If you can get over all of these lack of “luxuries” just for a couple of days then you can pretty much appreciate how you don’t need much to get by out here. It’s pretty much what we all signed up for and for the first time on any trek that I’ve been on, nobody in the group complained at all.
On day two, the landscape turned out to be flatter with a distinct lack of shade that we had the day prior. However, we’d cross more villages and farms. As far as the eye can see, cultivated farmlands blanket the landscape like a giant checkerboard as crab apple trees randomly grow in and around the fields used for their excellent burning capabilities in the kitchen. Having experienced intimidating landscapes and threatening weather throughout South America, the landscape here is inviting, made even friendlier by the warm curiosity hospitality of the village inhabitants.
The surroundings are now expansive with nothing but the gravel road beneath us that splits the landscape. Along the way were small villages, with homes made from bamboo thatched walls. Their criss cross patterns are a distinct feature from top to bottom as children would either yell out and wave from the windows or come running up to the wood fences for a closer look.
During our lunch break, the clouds would constantly move across the sky as though they were dancing and morphing into various shapes and changing the mood and feel of the overall landscape. Nacho and Igor, the two Spaniards went off for a walk and found themselves getting confused with the identical looking homes and yards but eventually found us again after an hour and half.
After lunch, I can sense the heat and lack of shade like the previous day taking somewhat of a toll and he enthusiasm levels wane as I start wondering if the knock off Nikes that I bought in Hanoi would last the distance. Towards the end of the another long day of walking, the site of limestone mountains and towering bamboo forests is the sign that we were approaching the village where we stay for the evening, opposite the monastery.
On the third and final day, after an ascent through a pine forest, we begin the long descent down to Inle lake. From afar we can see the lake and it’s site is a constant tease as we’re all eager to reach it as though it would somehow provide relief from the growing intensity of the heat as we descend from the cooler atmosphere. Towards the end, everybody’s pace increases and even though we now descend into a narrow and rocky path, some of the guys jokingly comment that we’d race down.
By the time we reach the entrance to the lake, it feels a lot more like the heat that we’ve come to know in the rest of Burma. A tank top was not the best choice of clothing as the sweat had pretty much washed off any sunscreen that I had applied earlier on in the morning and I was roasting like a peking duck. After two servings of lunch and a couple of icy cold Myanmar beers, we said our farewells to William, collected our bags and made our way to the boat that would take us across Inle lake to the town of Nyaungshwe.
Since I’ve done the trek, people have asked me what they should do in Inle Lake and I’ve told them they should definitely do the trek from Kalaw. Being able to see a countryside that isn’t as easily accessible by vehicle is one of the advantages of this trek along with a peaceful sense of isolation that won’t last forever as more and more tourists arrive which invariably changes the way locals will interact and treat foreigners. I tell them, go now before it all changes.