Kalaw to Inle Lake

As previously mentioned in my North to Sapa post, I enjoy trekking in most of the countries that I visit. This may be difficult when I get to Singapore, but in Myanmar it’s a cinch. This is still a country with a lot of natural beauty that has not been spoiled by urban sprawl, over industry or too many eyesores on the landscape. There aren’t minimarts on every corner, box stores, mega highways or aggressive advertising (other than Myanmar Beer and due to my distaste in their tacky marketing choose to drink Mandalay Beer instead.)

IMG_4650Kalaw is a former British hill station and hub for the railroad. Nowadays, most foreigners go because it’s a hub for trekking in the nearby mountains. My travel buddy and I signed up with Sam’s, was given the low down on where the three day, two night trek was headed and the next morning set out in a group with five other people. Luckily the service took our large packs to the hotel that we would be staying at in Inle Lake, so we only had to carry the bare necessities in out smaller bags.

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We set out the first day with our two young guides along the road and eventually in the hills. We were really fortunate to have three perfect days of sun and fluffy white clouds. At almost every water break someone was slathering on the sunscreen as the sun was beating down hard and hot. So, entering the shady jungle was welcomed and we walked along the orange, clay trails, getting our shoes wet and muddy at the stream crossings.

IMG_4601The first day we ascended to where the villagers grow tea and oranges. This is where we had a nice lunch under the palapa-style canopies at the garden restaurant. The hills looked like they were covered with a patchwork quilt. Some fields grew chilies, cabbages or peppers, but my favorite were the fields yellow with sesame flower blooms. Our guide said that in the dry season the landscape is the same color, brown.  It didn’t rain once while we were out, but the paths were full of sticky mud, big puddles and stream overflow. During the rainy season I imaged it’s very foggy, damp and the red clay trails extremely difficult to walk on. The views really were stunning and I pictured this is how beautiful the world would look like everywhere if we didn’t build so much crap everywhere.

By late afternoon we reached our first homestay. The sunset was fiery and we were all ready to take our bucket baths, eat and jump into bed. The accommodation we were given was one large room in the family’s home. We were seven, so when we arrived there were seven blankets and pillows lined up on very thin mattresses on the floor. We were sleeping like the locals. I kept telling myself that I am tired enough to sleep anywhere and well, that it’s also probably good for my back.

IMG_4700Our dinner was typical Myanmar food, eaten Myanmar style. This means a lot of rice, several small dishes of vegetables and meat with spiced sauces as well as avocado and tomato salads. Tea accompanies every meal. I have learned to love to eat this way. Perhaps it suits my noncommittal personality. All the dishes are served family style, so if you don’t like something, no problem, there are many more tasty treats to choose from.

The bath was a large concrete container about 4ft high that sat on a slab in the back of the house. This is where people bathe, wash their clothes and I assume, even rinse the dishes off. The set up didn’t bother me, but the lack of privacy. There was no curtain or wall to separate you from passerbys or curious neighbors. The others took their bath half clothed, me, I waited till it was dark and had a proper bucket bath.

IMG_4737The night was fitful, but not too bad. We woke up early and had our breakfast of eggs and tea. Our guides led the way out as we said goodbye to our hosts. The second day was walking through the villages and fields and enjoying the scenery. We stopped in the afternoon to visit a weaving workshop and chat with the village kids. Part of the walk this day was on the railroad tracks. Anywhere else this would be dangerous or not permitted, but I think we were pretty safe considering that you can hear the squeaky trains coming from miles away. The train system was built by the British in the 1880s. They are old, very slow and have lots of local character. Most everyone who visits Myanmar aims to at least travel a few hours on the railroad. By late afternoon we finished our trek at a small store outside the village where we drank beer and smoked Burmese cigars made from leaves, corn and tobacco. We walked to the house where we were met with a very similar set up to the last. We ate our Burmese dinner and hit the sack.

IMG_4791Destination Inlay Lake. Day three, we encountered dynamic scenery changes. We woke up to a foggy morning, or as one of my trekking mates described it, as like being in the Lord of the Rings. The spider webs were all covered in dewdrops and I felt more like I was walking in the hills of Scotland than in a Southeast Asian country. But by midday the humidity had burned off and we were met again with beautiful limestone rock faces towering above yellow sesame fields. We were slipping and sliding down steep, muddy paths, then strolling along the main road, then on to navigating our way through cow pastures and finally down to a main village to eat and meet the boat to Inle Lake.

IMG_4810I didn’t know what to expect of the boatride, but they picked us up in one of the small canoe-like boats and all nine of got in and sat on the floor of the boat. They loaded our luggage and started the engine. The houses are built high on stilts right in the water in most places and people park their boats next to the houses Venice style. The experience was amazing as our captain steered us through the canals.

IMG_4804Inle Lake is a boat and water place. People get around by boat, they make their living from fishing, they build their homes above the water and they even grow their vegetables on gloating gardens. We enjoyed the views and watched the locals doing their thing.

It was about 45 minutes before we arrived at the dock in Nyaungshwe. We unloaded, thanked our guides, made plans for dinner and separated to find our respected guesthouses. The trek from Kalaw to Inle Lake, now a pleasant memory.


Traveler’s Notes:
Accommodation in Kalaw: Richard’s Inn is a clean, centrally located, budget hotel on the main road going into town. It’s hard to miss as it’s the large, white, doll house-looking building on the left as you enter Kalaw. Richard is a sweet older gentleman who speaks very good English. We found it on Agoda, but he doesn’t always publish online so it’s worth just dropping in.

Food: Everest Restaurant is amazing Nepalese food. You can pre-order mo mos for dinner, we also had mutton curry with all the tasty side dishes, chapati and oh so good masala tea. They also have a restaurant in Inle Lake, but I thought both the food and the atmosphere at the Kalaw location was better.

Trekking Service: We checked out four different places before deciding on Sam’s Family, whose offices are right across from Everest Restaurant. They explain where you’ll be going on a large, comprehensive map. Then you sign up and come back at around 6pm to see what other people have also signed up to create a group with guide. Two people from our group just showed up on the morning of and were added, so last minute can work out too. The price depends on how many people are in a group and for how many days you’ll be trekking. I thought the homestay accommodation was good, but basic and the food was delicious. They only give you meat on the first day because they can’t transport it more than a day into the village areas. Our guides were friendly, but could work on their conversational English more. All in all it was an awesome experience and I would recommend Sam’s.