During our time in the wonderful country of Myanmar we had some of the most memorable, eye opening and unique experiences of our time in South East Asia. A stand out trip for us was the route we took from the small mountain town of Kalaw to the well known, stilt house lined Lake Inle. We decided instead of taking a bus that we could walk, yeah, you read that correctly! Accompanied by a local villager we walked over 80km / 50 miles over 3 days, staying on the floors of tribal homes in small villages, washing in buckets and discovering the unique way of life in rural Myanmar. We trekked over mountains and rice fields, tried local food and drink, hitchhiked and dodged buffalo carts along the dusty tracks. For us, this was one of the most rewarding experiences of Asia and just another reason we fell in love with Myanmar. Here is our kalaw to inle lake trek experience and advice!
Day One: Getting to know our guide and heading into the rice fields and our homestay
Day one we all met up at Sam’s and were divided into smaller groups, this would be who we were spending the next 3 days with! Luckily we were put into a small group, just us two and two others, a couple of lovely women from France who we would get to know well and become freinds with through our shared experience of this wonderful place. The atmosphere at Sam’s was one of trepidation, we were excited to begin what felt like had the potential to be a memorable adventure, but the thought of the kalaw to inle lake trek over 3 days was a little worrying!
The kalaw to inle lake trek began right in the town and behind Sam’s shop, it felt strange to know we would be walking all the way to our next destination, the beautiful Lake Inle. Being in such a small group it was easy to get talking as we went, learning all about local traditions, foods and the way of life out here was we walked.
It was nice to have such a close connection to the community for those three days, Htet Htet (ထက်ထက်) was from a local girl from one of the Pa’O tribal villages, along the way we would call in and meet her mother, sister and many cousins, nieces and nephews who still live a very traditional life. She told us of how she had left the village and was attending university eventually to become an English teacher.
As we strolled through countless bamboo villages and tiny farming communities, where people shouted “mingalaba” warmly over at us and waved, she explained how proud she was of her heritage, but how she longed for a different life. The start of the kalaw to inle lake trek was already intense!
It was refreshing to see how a country such as Myanmar, closed off for so many years and perceived as very conservative, allows girls even from such a remote and poor corners of the country opportunities that other generations could never imagine. Many here are still happy to marry young, become the head of a beautiful communal family and nurture their very special and unique traditions. But there was also no rejection when those like Htet Htet longed for something else.
After 15 miles trekking along remote train tracks, traversing steep rice terraces as we passed by herds of buffalo and locals, with babies strapped to their backs, tilling the field by hands, we arrived in our home for the night. A simple bamboo stilt house in a remote village up in the cold air of the mountains. Here there was no electricity, just a car battery, no running water and local transport consisted of a buffalos attached to wooden carts. This was exactly what we came on the kalaw to inle lake trek for!
We showered in the ice cold water straight out of a bucket and sat in the low light of a single flickering bulb with our host and his family. Sharing stories of our homes and way of life and even swapping tattoo stories, our host had a large hand tapped tribal design on his back which is was proud to show me once he noticed by artwork!
It was humbling to see such a simple way of life on the kalaw to inle lake trek, without many of the things we take for granted and yet as the children’s laugher, the jovial singing and the chorus of animal calls echoed through the landscape we knew this was a happy place.
Day Two: Trekking through many remote tribal villages and getting to know local life
Waking up we could see the our breath against the cold morning air, it was a shock to the system after the dry and hot days down in Bagan but also provided a refreshing temperature from which to start our steep hike. After a hearty breakfast we said goodbye to our hosts for the night and began our trek which would take us a further 20km through many remote and isolated villages often only accessible by carts or walking. Time for day two of our kalaw to inle lake trek!
The second day was one where we interacted much more with the local people, stopping to chat to those who shouted us over in the small villages where many have never seen western faces as well as those working away in the fields and many by the riverside tending to their buffaloes. Through Htet Htet we were able to get a much deeper picture of life here as she translated their questions and answers as we quizzed each other with just as much enthusiasm to learn about one anothers vastly different culture.
Along the way came one of the highlights of the kalaw to inle lake trek, we called in at Htet Htet’s family home in the village she grew up in. Surrounded by her Grand children her beautiful mother invited us into her simple but homely bamboo abode for tea and local snacks.
Htet Htet’s sister also joined us, both of them wearing the traditional patterned orange headscarf of the Pa’o tribe they belonged to, however her mother would wear it differently being married and having children. Her sister spoke no English at all and through Htet Htet told us how she desired to stay in the tiny village and raise a family here, she was due to be married in the next few months, a very different life than the one Htet Htet had planned out for herself.
However the mother was proud of both girls and their choices and it really did fill me with happiness for them both that even from such a small and remote village great ambitions can be achieved but also that traditions are still being nurtured. Whilst here her mother was keen to let us try on some traditional clothing, she giggled as she dressed us head to toe in the finest Pa’O clothing and proclaimed us part of the tribe!
That night once again we arrived at an even smaller and more traditional tribal village. The farmers house where we stayed was surrounded by wonderful scenes of animals grazing and children playing as the bright orange sun set in the distance. Staying in such a wonderful community was another reason we were so keen to do the kalaw to inle lake trek!
We were greeted by several family members and enjoyed another traditional meal with the host and his children. Earlier on he helped Shorty into his traditional “Longyi” and in the morning Htet Htet applied natural makeup/ sunblock to my face which is common in Myanmar and we saw a lot on our kalaw to inle lake trek!
Day Three: A mountain hike and boat ride across Lake Inle
On the third day of hiking our legs were heavy, feet blistered and our bodies aching, but this was it, the final push and we had made it all the way from Kalaw to Lake Inle. This day was hard and hot, the green fields made way for the dry orange soil and it felt like hiking through a desert. It was painful going and our progress much slower than it had been on the previous days, but even now the unforgettable and local experiences would come thick and fast. Time for our last day on our kalaw to inle lake trek!
Bathing in a river alongside a local farmer washing her buffalo was something I never thought I would ever do! Stopping off at a local market it was fascinating to see the noise, energy, colour and of course smell of the place.
The creased faces of the elder women would become wildly animated bartering for the best deal, orange stained money would be thrown about as deals were struck for local produce. We, of course, turned heads and drew friendly looks, welcoming smiles and inquisitive glances! This close look at local life is was the main reason we wanted to do this memorable kalaw to inle lake trek.
It was here we decided to try chewing “bettle” a nut mixed with lime powder and tobacco and wrapped in a leaf (though we left out the tobacco). Almost everyone chew it here and its smell once you know it is very distinctive, as are the red splashed that paint the ground over here from people spitting it out.
It’s addictive and not exactly great for the health, but it is reported to provide the same energy boost as 7 cups of coffee and we were keen to give it a try as we had seen it all over the country… as well as needing the energy boost! It actually didn’t taste too bad, kind of menthol and it sure enough made us pick up the pace on our kalaw to inle lake trek!
However after the market we ended up hitchhiking a couple of KM to the next little village with a group of local tribes women were riding in the back of a pick up truck. This was another great opportunity not only to rest our legs but also to chat to and interact with more local people as well as experiencing how they usually get around!
Hiking with our backpacks now feeling heavy on our backs and our feet burning we finally caught sight of the great Lake Inle. It almost felt like a mirage in the seeing heat of the bright orange wilderness we had traversed for hours. But there it was, surrounded by picturesque rolling green hills and a complex network of “floating” stilt houses, markets and farms. We had completed our kalaw to inle lake trek!
Taking one of the traditional long boats over to Myanmar Treasure: Inle we all sat back with the cooling breeze blowing through our hair and despite being tired and dirty we knew we had experienced one of the greatest travel memories we will keep for the rest of our lives. Looking out on the lake we also knew we were in for many more just around the corner as Myanmar continued to amaze and enchant us!
How hard is the kalaw to inle lake trek, plus tips!
For us the hiking wasn’t too hard, the routes do include some hills but most are generally quite flat. However each day you will be walking around 25km / 15 miles so you must have a good level of fitness. Your guide will take regular rests depending on your comfort and pace and you will stop for a long break at lunch.
Pack lightly, you are carrying it all with you (your big bags will be dropped off for you)
Wear good shoes, comfortable underwear and clothing
Bring plasters for your feet and vaseline incase you chafe!
Bring along some wet wipes as the showers are just buckets and toilet paper too.
Bring along a head torch as the villages have limited electricity
Bring some warm clothing for the night time/ early morning and waterproofs and dry sacks just incase
Pack some energy snacks such as cereal bars, nuts and chocolate
How to do this amazing kalaw to inle lake trek:
One of the first questions that must come up in reading this post is how on earth would you go about doing something like this. In fact we only knew about the trek as a friend we had met travelling over in Bosnia was here before us and told us. For us travel often seems much more complicated than it is, you look at instructions and plans, see what others have done and imagine it to be much harder than it is, this is a prime example!
Getting to Kalaw
Firstly you need to get to Kalaw, its a small town that is not too far from Bagan and Mandalay and of course Lake Inle. From all of these locations buses are cheap and easy to book.In Myanmar often your accommodation can ring up the bus companies and reserve a seat for you, or you can go to the bus station the day before.
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Yangon to Kalaw is a lot further however there are buses leaving every night.
We took the bus from Bagan which took around 8 hours and left from Nyaung U, the bus from Mandalay should also take around 8 hours. Expect to pay around $12 for the bus but prices can vary, especially around the time of the water festival.
Organising the kalaw to inle lake trek
Once in Kalaw you should get accomodation for the night and try to book yourself on a trek as soon as you can.If might be that you have to wait a day to get at least a group of 6 or pay more.
We used one of the most recommended trekking companies called “Sam’s Family”. As suggested it is a family run business that organises treks from visitors. We have nothing bus positives to say about them and how they organised our trip as well as our guide. They also organise shorter trips too and not just the regular 2 night/ 3 day trek.
The kalaw to inle lake trek costs around $25 per person which includes a guide, meals and accommodation for 3 days/ 2 nights as well as the boat over to Nyaung Shwe across the Lake. You have to pay for your own drinks and additional snacks. This also includes transport for your luggage to your onwards accommodation.
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