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Before arriving in Myanmar I already knew I wanted to head off grid and do some trekking.
The Kalaw to Inle Lake trek is one of Myanmar’s most popular and an essential on many backpacker’s itineraries. Kalaw is a small countryside town known for little else than being the starting point of the trek, and Inle Lake is one of the country’s most famous spots – floating markets and fishermen with their rounded nets conjure up iconic images of the country.
The Kalaw to Inle Lake trek journeys through the countryside over the course of three days (a two-day option is available for those pushed for time) and includes overnight stays with local villagers. I’d yet to ever stay at a local’s home so I was excited – although not expecting a whole load in the way of comfort.
Arriving in Kalaw
A friend had recommended Sam’s Family to me, a small tour company based in Kalaw. Currently they have no online presence so my plan was to arrive and track them down. I was on a bit on a time schedule with only 12 days in Myanmar and, with nothing much to see or do in Kalaw, I was hoping I’d make it onto a trek departing the next day.
I rocked up in Kalaw around 3pm and found myself conveniently dropped off right outside my guesthouse. There aren’t any hostels in Kalaw but splitting a hotel room between two usually works out the same price. I was travelling alone so it worked out a bit more for me but food and transport costs are very low in Myanmar so I could cut back in other ways – plus it meant having my own room for once; quite the luxury as most budget backpackers can tell you.
Once I’d checked in I was pointed down the road to Sam’s Family – a tour company cum restaurant run by none other than Sam and his fam. I enquired about the next day’s tour and was told to come back a few hours later with my money for a briefing session. Later that evening I was craving a banana pancake so I returned a third time for dessert. If Sam and co were sick of the sight of me by then, they didn’t show it.
Setting off on the trek
With zero evening activities in sleepy Kalaw I got in my eight hours before meeting back at the restaurant at 7am to begin our three-day hike. Myself, a young German couple and two American ladies in their 40s would be trekking together for the next three days led by a guide named Joe-min and an 18-year-old chef who was sweet but very shy and couldn’t speak much English.
The trek started out well and we admired sweeping tea plantations and rice fields where women in signature bamboo hats filled their baskets in the afternoon heat.
Joe-min kept us entertained from the start telling us his baby daughter had been born on the 1st of November so was therefore called ‘no one’. An odd choice, but who were we to question Joe-min’s wishes?
I couldn’t believe how cheap our tour was – I paid £18 for the three days and two nights away which included our accommodation and all of our meals. Myanmar is one of the best Asian countries for really getting bargains as the tourist industry is still yet to fully develop – in popular Thailand and Malaysia you’d pay three times the price for a similar tour.
The suncream debacle
The heat of the day started to prove a problem as I began burning. It was weird – I’m fair but get pretty tanned and never burn through sun cream. I was slathering it on and it was just wasn’t helping. I soon realised what the issue was – the sun cream I’d bought travelling with me had recently run out so for about a dollar I’d bought a local make.
Note to self/everyone – don’t.do.that! Most Asian people don’t need to use sun cream so I guess there’s not a huge market demand, and the kind I was applying was as effective as moisturiser.
Now if I’d learnt this lesson any other time I’d probably have not been too far from some kind of shop. Out in the countryside, trekking for eight hours a day in the blistering heat was probably the worst time this could have happened. It was also one of the only times I’ve ever felt let down by other travellers. Usually we’re a friendly lot – we’re all in the same boat and would go out of our way to help a brother out.
I asked the boy from the young German couple if I could use the tiniest, weeniest drop of my sun cream just for my nose (why is that always the worst bit?) and he said….. NO!!
Holy hell. What a thing to say when you have to hang out with that person for the next few days. As the mornings and afternoons went on and I lost most of the skin on my face, he had to watch the whole thing, all whilst applying his own regularly.
I managed to get the smallest smidgen ever from the American friends who had very tiny tubes and seemed slightly begrudging. The whole experience shocked me but luckily the warm and generous Asian culture saved the day again.
Joe-min began felling trees, extracting the sap and mixing it with water to create a paste called ‘thanaka’ that is used as sun cream by the Burmese. In fact, it’s used for fashion as well as function – the women dot in on their skin or paint patterns on their faces; I think it’s like our version of makeup.
It works as a sunblock more than anything as it adds an extra layer on top of your skin. Joe-min painted it on my burning face with a cool paintbrush (not sure where he got that from) whilst I thanked him and tried to process the whole situation in my mind.
Four Westerners with sun cream would rather watch me in pain than share, yet one Asian who would probably never afford a tube of Nivea in his life was happily felling the forest and breaking a sweat to ensure I was happy and comfortable – it was like some kind of sick riddle.
Back to the trek…
Luckily it didn’t ruin the experience. I’m pretty sure the whole thing was worth it for the incredible scenery alone. We walked through corn fields where the crops were taller than us and saw villages clustered on the sides of misty mountains.
Then we trekked through the forest where we experienced all kinds of weird and wonderful bugs, sniffed the tree that Tiger Balm comes from (it smelt exactly the same) and almost got trampled by a herd of wild cows.
Visiting a local school
We came to a basic schoolhouse where Joe-min encouraged us to poke our heads through the windows and said it was fine to take photos – something that would never fly in the Western world (one word: restraining order).
As you can see from the above photo, there were a few child monks in the classroom. I was really fascinated by this and Joe-min explained the situation to us. If parents can’t afford to look after their children, the monasteries will clothe, feed and house them instead and they’ll live the life of monks. In their teenage years they can give up their religious lives and leave the monastery if they choose, but many stay.
The kids were in the middle of an English lesson as we were passing. It was one of those moments where I realise how lucky we are to have English as a first language – here in the misty rice terraces of Myanmar away from Wi-Fi and mainstream civilisation, kids are desperate to learn English but when I was their age I’d never even heard of their country or language.
It was surreal to visit the schoolhouse and everyone smiled and waved as we passed. I’m sure the only foreigners they’d have ever seen before were the small number brought through on this particular tour.
Arriving at our first homestay
We walked along what seemed like an endless (and abandoned) railway track as the sun set on the first day. We arrived at the village we would be staying at for the night and were taken to our accommodation – a local home. Our hosts were so sweet and friendly.
A little old lady and gent with few teeth between them, no words of English and a snazzy graffiti style beanie for the granddad. His son, who spoke a little English, came to help translate but we mainly just smiled at each other and tried to show our gratitude for allowing us to stay in their home.
We may not have been able to communicate but I still felt warmly welcomed, and they were certainly characters. The grandma was so bent over from working in the rice fields that her lower back was the tallest part of her whilst she was upright, and the granddad apparently drunk an entire bottle of rum each night.
In their village there was so shop, no Wi-Fi, no phone signal, no public transport, no anything (maybe that explains the need for rum). They’d both been born there and neither had ever left the state, let alone the country. Visits to the next town to pick up supplies were the furthest they’d usually travel.
Once we’d had a delicious dinner cooked by our chef, we drunk a beer whilst looking out over the sleepy forest and rolled out our sleeping mats for the night. We slept on the wooden floor of the living room and were woken at 6am by the bright daylight, animal noises and the fact that everyone else was up for the day.
We had a tasty breakfast of fruit and fried eggs and headed off for day numero dos of trekking. We saw a ton more scenery, got caught in the rain and sheltered under a tin roof at lunchtime whilst our young chef prepared us another meal.
For each one, we sat around a table at the house of a local (usually a friend of our guide’s) and ate curries, rice, soups, fried noodles, cooked veg (morning glory is my favourite) and fruit. It was always an amazing spread that kept us going when the walking got tough.
By the end of day two, my feet were blistered and I was starting to struggle. As the light was fading we collapsed for a while on a hillside that gave way to amazing views (below you can see the rest of the group continuing to walk – I was at the back, a pretty standard occurrence). Every now and then we glimpsed another human, often riding his cow or being pulled along in a horse and cart.
It honestly felt like we’d gone back a hundred years in time. Never in places like Thailand or Vietnam where a tourist infrastructure is well established have I got quite the same sense of local life, or felt as off the beaten track. Surely in the handful of years tourists have been allowed in Myanmar following the end of their dictatorship only a couple of thousand, if that, can have walked these tracks.
Our second homestay and meeting a politician
We had a similar sleeping set up for our second night, on the floor of another local’s house. This one was built on top of a cowshed so we could hear stamping and snuffling noises throughout the night.
We had the interesting experience of meeting a politician who was visiting the village promoting the policies of Aung San Suu Kyi as, at the time of writing, the long-awaited election was upcoming. For those who don’t know about Myanmar’s political situation, the country was ruled by a military dictatorship for many years and a life of oppression is only just starting to lift.
Female politician Aung San Suu Kyi campaigned for freedom for many years at expense of the repercussions and jail time it incurred for her. Her husband died of cancer overseas and she couldn’t say goodbye to him as leaving the country would mean no re-entry and she’d have left down her people.
Her representative who we spoke to explained many of her policies to us whilst sat on the wooden floor of our host home, most of which involved progress political change. I feel really pleased that just a couple of months after my visit Aung San Suu Kyi was voted into power – it was without question the hoped-for outcome of every local I spoke with!
A surprise dinner
The night took a drastic turn for the worse when an after dinner ‘treat’ was brought out – a bowl of live maggots. Our hosts were beaming with pride, proclaiming that they were a delicacy that are usually hard to come by. Oh hell.
On entrance, the maggots were alive and squirming, but after a few minutes of frying sounds from the kitchen we were presented with a bowl of stiff, dead specimens flavoured with butter and salt. A couple of members of the group (including Mr no sun cream) couldn’t get enough and made the rest of us look really ungrateful so I chowed down on one but couldn’t face the head.
It could have been worse – there wasn’t really an inside so the crispy outside coating flavoured with butter was the most flavoursome part. This is weird but there was a vaguely popcorn-like flavour to them. Who knew?
The final morning – blisters and beautiful views!
Day three was defo the worst as my feet were entirely coated in squashy blisters that kept popping. It was the shortest day thank God, Mary, Buddha and whoever else, and after only around four hours of walking, we stopped for a final lunch. Flies kept plaguing us for the fresh blood seeping through my socks so I wasn’t very popular at lunch SOZ, and finally we boarded a thin, motorised canoe for the final leg of the journey.
We began to see signs of life – homes on stilts in the water, wooden boats and fishermen – before arriving at Inle Lake town. Joe-min and our young chef said goodbye to us and I dragged my burnt, blistered self to my guesthouse where my big rucksack was waiting (another perk of the tour was that your luggage was delivered from the Sam’s Family office to your chosen destination in Inle Lake).
Had I had better sun cream and some proper walking boots (random trainers, you did your best) I reckon I could have explored the Burmese countryside a bit longer. However, as the only shower I’d had in three days was a quick wash with a bucket in the dark, I was elated to be able to use a shower and also lie in an actual bed.
It was a bit of post-festival vibe though with less live music, glitter and nachos and more rural villages, maggots and Burmese politicians. So some would say nothing alike, however I was pretty dirty and muddy so Glasto would be proud.
The next day I met a friendly German who shared all of her sun cream with me and faith was restored in humanity. I was asked if I wanted to go on a bike ride; I said I didn’t want to do anything that involved using my feet. That ruled out a lot of activities in town, but I could still sit aboard a wooden boat and visit floating markets and local industry workshops including silver making, weaving and textile factories.
The amazing thing about Inle Lake is that the majority of it is built on the water – boats roam watery ‘streets’ and most of the buildings are built on stilts. You can even choose to stay in a floating hotel (though my budget didn’t allow for that). It’s a place like no other and I’m so glad I factored in the time to spend a couple of days there post trek.
- There are some really rural places in this world and seeing them opens your mind in so many ways
- roll mats aren’t that uncomfortable
- maggots don’t taste that bad
- some people can be uber stingy with sun cream
- we take for granted a lot of the things that we have
- one thing I WISH I could take for granted all the time is travelling with a chef 😉
- Burmese politics is very interesting
- Local people in Myanmar are some of the sweetest and most friendly around
Over and out folks! I’d love to hear any of your stories if you’ve done a similar trek in Myanmar 🙂
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See you next time for more adventures,