Myanmar

A taste of Burmese mountain life: a 3 day hike from Kalaw to Inle Lake, Myanmar

The tingling sound of a bell informs people and animals alike that a train is approaching. It is a slow train that blasts its horn several times as it crawls towards the platform. A buffalo steps away from the track just in time.

Until some minutes ago, the small train stop had been completely deserted. But now, locals are preparing for sales and arrive with brightly coloured scarfs and baskets on their backs, carrying ginger, fruits and other wares. Bunches of red and purple flowers are displayed on a wooden shelve, cabbages are laid down next to them.

As the train comes to a halt, the tranquil, quiet train station transforms into a bustling market place. Train passengers take a good look a the wares on offer from the open train windows. Ladies carrying their goods walk along the carriages to promote and sell their goods.

Colours, smells, voices and laughter blend into a perfect mix. This moment is a photographer’s dream that makes me smile from ear to ear. Excited, I walk around in the midst of all the hustle. What a pleasure to have arrived at this train stop some time before the train arrived so that we can witness this important trading moment in the daily lives of the local people living in the mountain villages close to Kalaw.

The scene takes place on the first of three days walking through farmland from Kalaw to Inle Lake, Myanmar. We had been following the deserted train track through the forest for quite some time and had already concernedly asked our guide if he was sure that it was safe to walk on the tracks. He laughed and said we needn’t worry as the Myanmar trains are slow and noisy and so we would hear it coming from miles away. That answer did not completely take our worries away but he was right in the end. And what a true joy to see the actual train itself, not from the bushes next to the track hiding for the vehicle, but at the right time at the right spot – Myin Dike station.

Getting to know local life and meeting the hard-working and smiling people of the mountain villages is what makes this hike so different than any other hike I have walked before.

We see farmers taking their buffalos to the water for a refreshing bath, ploughing fields, weaving bamboo baskets and cutting down grass. We take an up close look in a field where two women and a man are harvesting lentils, squatting as they pick the branches of the field. Bunches of lentils that have already been picked lay between them in the sun to dry. A young man that we encounter on the dirt road between villages is crouching down the side of the road to pick up goods that have fallen out of the torn bag on the back of his motorcycle. We stop to help him pick up the trail of kurkuma he has spilled on the verge of the road.

In the shade of an old tree, we have a special encounter with Pa’O women. They are taking a rest on their way from their village to another to attend a funeral, and wear their traditional dress for the occasion. We marvel at the smooth black fabric of their outfit and their beautifully lined faces. In turn, they curiously inspect our skin, holding our arms and stroking the bright white surface. It is a rare and unique encounter for both parties.

Pa’O woman in traditional dress

We spend two nights with local families, who host us in their own home which for us means going back to basics. Our beds are thin mattresses on the floor of wooden bamboo huts, the toilet is a latrine outside and the shower is as much as a low walled cubicle with a bucket and a bowl to take the cold water out and pour it over our sweating bodies. After the bucket shower, we join our host family and cook sitting on the kitchen floor. The food is warm and plentiful, as are their welcoming smiles.

We wake up to foggy skies in the valley. It is a combination of morning dew and smoke that still lingers from the fire last night. The area is known for its slash-and-burn method of farming through which new crops are allowed to grow on land previously used for other crops. There’s a lot of debate about this farming technique and its environmental impact but what occupies my mind in the early morning is the smell that goes with it – which is not the crisp morning air one would expect to find in the mountains. The smoke does however add to the photographic charm of the landscape as it creates a mystique atmosphere in the early morning sunlight.

Getting up early and starting our hike at sunrise gives us a bit of a head-start to the burning heat of the Myanmar sun. I feel incredible respect for the locals working in the fields who carry out physically exhausting work in the merciless mid-day heat. We are happy to spend the hottest hours of the day having lunch and relaxing our feet, since the temperature rises to steep heights the moment the softening morning glow becomes a bright light. During these hours we take in the atmosphere of the village – mountain settlements of basic two-tiered bamboo houses, dusty roads and a well maintained brick monastry. Children curiously ask me what I am writing down in my notebook and are eager to write down their own names in it. I am surprised by their English language skills and happy to realize that us tourists visiting their village is at least having the positive effect of linguistic development.

Apart from the heat, the hike itself is a leisurely one, with easy hiking trails through rolling hills of farmland and rice terraces. We take in the beautiful golden hour both in the morning and afternoon, and it is then that the yellow and brownish tones of the harvested and ploughed fields are at their best. The colours that brighten up the earth-toned landscape are from the dresses of the local women, and occassionally of the flowers they carry. We meet a beautifully aged Burmese lady who is sitting behind a manual weaving machine, creating a colourful bag. The scarfs she has woven previously are laid out in front of her, on display for visitors stopping by. I fall in love with a green yellow piece and even though I have to carry it around for the rest of the hike I am happy to support this lady by buying it from her for a fair price (and giving myself this lovely souvenir). She wraps it around my head like the locals wear it, but I dont’t accomplish wearing it as gracefully as the old lady nor the young woman we encounter on our way to our bed for the night. She strods the fields lightly in the golden light with a bunch of flowers in her hand and carrying a bamboo basket filled with vegetables on a head band as if it is featherlight.

Entering a village, we meet three men and a young boy working until the sun sets. In the soft afternoon light they continuously cut thin, long layers of a tall bamboo tree trunk and use them to weave strong baskets. It’s a nerve wrecking job to observe, as the knife and bamboo are both incredibly sharp and safety gloves are nowhere to be seen. At the same time, their skill and speed are so impressive that it is a pleasure to watch the process. We are once again aware of our own lack of practical skills and incapability to make a decent living outside the modern world. Here, building a house and tools with your own hands are crucial survival skills and business as usual at the same time.

On the last day of our hike, the heat is starting to get to me. The walk through barren fields means that there is nowhere to hide in the shade. I find it almost unbelievable that the mountain village people continue to inhabit these areas of extreme rain and mud in the monsoon season and extreme drought and heat in the dry months. Admittedly, I am happy to arrive at the end of the trail after just 2,5 days. We say goodbye to our guide and cook close to a tributary extending from Inle Lake. From here, we will take the waterway to arrive back to civilisation as we know it.

As the longboat slides through the canal, water sprays up from the sides of the boat. The vibration of the motor is a massage for my tired feet. Sitting back, feeling the comfortable heat of the afternoon sun shine on my face, and taking in the views of Inle Lake is a perfect reward for three days of hiking in the blazing heat.

We sail past water fields covered with green plants and sprawled with bamboo huts on poles. Once we enter the actual lake we are surprised by all the activity on the on the water. Hard-working fishermen propell their boat with their feet while they continue to fish. Others are pulling in seaweed and add it to the big pile that is on their boat already.

We make our way to Nyaung Shwe and as we enter the town, the riverside is bustling. Children are playing, women are doing the laundry and taking a bath themselves. – I am happy to have a proper shower tonight.

Fishermen on Inle Lake
Women doing the laundry and bathing in the river

Say yes to a taste of local Burmese life yourself! – Tips for hiking from Kalaw to Inle Lake

What is the best time to visit Kalaw and Inle?

You can hike both during wet (May to September) and dry season (October to May), and both will give you a completely different experience. The fields are vibrantly green during the rainy season, when the rice terraces create a lush landscape. Be aware though that the trails gets really muddy and slippery in the rain and that there’s a chance that leeches might join you on the trek. We visited Kalaw and Inle in March, which meant it was the dry season and the fields were golden and brown. Dry soil makes for easy walking, but the high temperatures and lack of shade made us sweat and crave for water.

Overall, the best time to visit Myanmar is November to February, when rain and temperature (about 27C) are both moderate.

Is it possible to hike Kalaw to Inle by yourself or do you need a guide or organized tour?

Depending on your preference, you can choose between a 2 day / 1 night or 3 day / 2 nights hike. Since you will be staying with a local family, you need join an organized tour. There are several trekking companies based in Kalaw and group sizes differ substantially. We were very happy to book with A1 Trekking as they ensure a maximum group of six people (unless you’re travelling as a group together already). A big plus as well was the cook that travelled along (by motorbike) and prepared our delicious lunches and dinners.

What can I expect in terms of facilities and accommodation during the Kalaw to Inle hike?

The answer is simple: this hike is all about going back to basics. You will be sleeping on a thin mattress on the first floor of a local family’s bamboo house, sharing the space with the other hikers in your group. Toilets are squat inside a basic, unlit cubicle. Showers are non-existent, but you can wash yourself by scooping water out of a barrel with a bowl and throwing it over your body. The walls surrounding the washing area are quite low so it requires some effort not to show off to the entire village if you’re taller than the average Burmese person – especially challenging for the ladies.

Going back to basics: the squat toilet

What to bring along on the Kalaw to Inle trek?

Checklist:

  • Camera + additional camera battery
  • Headlight
  • Power bank, ideally using solar energy
  • Sun glasses
  • Hat
  • Deet or other insect repellent
  • Sunscreen
  • Medication against diarrhea
  • Compeed for blisters
  • Raincoat (only in rainy season)
  • Hiking boots (required during rainy season, recommended in dry season when sneakers are also okay)
  • Hiking socks
  • Warm comfy socks to wear in the evening (you are not allowed to wear shoes inside)
  • Quick-dry towel
  • Swimming shorts for men (convenient when using the bucket shower)
  • Flip flops or sandals
  • Snacks (you will be served big plates of breakfast, lunch and dinner but you might want to take some snacks in between or right after you’ve finished the hike)
  • Water filter bottle (it is also possible to buy water on the way and you will definitely crave some real cold water right from the fridge, but it is of course far more sustainable to use a filter and reusable bottle instead)
  • Playing cards
  • Sleeping clothes
  • Hiking clothes
  • Long pants / long sleeves / vest for the evening
  • Toiletries
  • Dry shampoo if you have long hair (quicker and warmer than washing your hair)
  • Toilet paper
  • Clean wipes
  • Antibacterial hand gel

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