It took 16 hours on the bus but we made it from Mawlamyine to Kalaw. Kalaw is a former British hill-station in the Shan state and a lovely small town. From here we started a 3-day hike to Inle Lake about 65km away. An unforgettable experience and one of the absolute highlights of all my years of travelling!
View from the bus on the drive up to Kalaw.
If you are reading this to know more about which company to do the hike with, please click here.
We arrived around midday in Kalaw and were dropped off on the main street. Several people from different guesthouses were standing there with signs but none of them approached us until everyone got their bags and had time to orientate themselves. What a difference with any other country in South East Asia where you quite often almost get attacked by touts trying to get you to stay in a certain guesthouse so they can get commission. Some of the people approached us but none of the guesthouses were within our budget so we friendly declined and all of them just smiled, like everyone seems to do in Myanmar.
I had found one guesthouse that couldn’t be booked online but looked really nice, had hot water (a luxury for us but needed in Kalaw as it gets very cold at night) and breakfast included and we walked there in 2 minutes to check it out. It was slightly more expensive than what we would normally pay, but it was luxurious compared with other places we had stayed in so far and I would highly recommend this guesthouse (Eastern Paradise Hotel).
After we had a shower we went to a nearby bakery to get a pastry (Poe Poe Bakery). Totally unexpected did this bakery have the best bread in pastries we tasted in the whole of Myanmar. And that in Kalaw, the smallest town we visited in Myanmar! Kalaw is full of surprises and that’s why we liked it a lot. The rest of the afternoon we walked around and quite soon we decided that enough time had passed between the snack and it was time for dinner.
Typical street in Kalaw.
The food in Myanmar is not that special or great and what luck, it turned out a brand new, fancy looking Italian restaurant had just opened up a few months ago in Kalaw. Anyone who knows me, knows that I can’t really survive too long without Italian food so we had to eat at the Italian restaurant. The friendly Italian owner was really nice, the food outstanding and I had a red wine from the nearby Red Mountain Estate (so at least I had a local beverage).
At breakfast the next morning Harry got talking to an older Englishman who was travelling by himself and had seen a golf course in town if Harry was up for a round of golf. The best question ever for Harry as he loves gold and half an hour later he was off to the golf course, which was less than 30 minutes walk from town. I went to the Saturday market, which was great and in the afternoon I visited pretty much every hiking company in town to find out what they had to offer. Later that afternoon, Pari and Nick (who are a couple we are friends with from London and are also travelling around Asia and we were going to do the trek with) arrived and I ran them through my findings and we decided to go with Ever Smile Trekking. When we went to the office to sign up for the hike starting the next day, we found the girls that all work as guides for the company, dancing around the office and we knew straight away we picked the right company, they for sure liked to have fun!
Harry and his caddies.
Market day in Kalaw.
Hiking day 1
The first day we started from the Ever Smile Trekking office at 9am. There were 3 groups of about 12 people each. Two groups were doing the 3-day hike and one group was just doing a 2-day hike. Our big bags were put in a tuktuk as they were transported to Nyaungshwe, the town where we would finish the hike on the northern shore of Inle Lake.
Our group had two guides, Aki (18, she led her first hike when she was 11 and her mom owns the company), one of the lovely girls who we met the day before when we signed up and Mo Mo (19), another girl who was in training. The other hikers in the group were a couple from Ireland, a couple from the US, one guy from France, one guy from Germany and a guy from the UK so 11 of us in total and 2 guides.
From Kalaw we straightaway were walking in the countryside. At one point Aki told us all the clap when we walked through some high grass and we asked why, she didn’t say anything at first but then later she said she does it to scare the snakes. Ehm… ok. Well it helped, no one got bitten by a snake. Soon it got hillier and we started to get some pretty amazing views. We stopped for a delicious lunch with a view that was just stunning. Everyone’s favourite dish was the avocado salad (guacamole) and we were lucky as we got this avocado salad every lunch and dinner!
Only a few kilometers in and we reached this lake.
Lunch is being prepared and served, yum!
Lunch with a view!
After lunch we walked for another hour or so and then stopped at a small village were a lady invited us in her house for tea. A great experience as we could ask her anything we wanted and we found out a lot about life in the village and how you find a partner, marriage etc. She was particularly interested in the 3 single guys in our group that got nicknamed by her as ‘the big singles’ as you are a ‘big single’ in Myanmar when you are in your twenties and not married yet. After we asked her a lot of questions and drank all her tea and ate some Red Bull candy, I asked if she had any questions for us. Yes, one question: ‘Why are you white?’ Good question and we didn’t know what to answer so I said that we come from countries where we don’t get much sun. She looked as if she felt a bit sorry for us.
A few more hours of hiking through fields and along train tracks and we got to the village where our homestay was for the night. I did see one or two other groups in the village but it felt like we were the only tourists in the village. The homestay was a simple wooden structure on stilts and upstairs there was a big space with thin mattresses and thick blankets on the floor where we would sleep. All of us in the same room, except the 3 big singles, they got their own room separated from us by a curtain. There was one light bulb and the toilet was a squat toilet in a wooden shed in the garden and the shower was a bucket shower with freezing cold water in another wooden shed in the garden. The food was the best we had so far in Myanmar and there was so much food! After dinner we danced, sang and sat around a bonfire and most of us had an early night. I had to get up about 5 times that night and go out to the toilet in the freezing cold weather as my stomach was making all kinds of noises. At least I can say now I’m really good with squat toilets.
Hiking along the train tracks.
The house where our host family lived and in the background the building we slept in.
Dinner on day 1.
Hiking day 2
The previous night during dinner, Aki had given us a few options for our route on the second day. One of them was a route her and Mo Mo had only done once before by themselves but never with a group and it was harder than the other options but nicer and less tourists. But there was a chance we would get lost and not to blame her. Everyone in the group wanted this option. Pari and I weren’t too sure but went with what the majority of the group wanted and we have no regrets.
After breakfast we set off. The first 1,5 hour or so was up quite steep but the reward once we got to the top was worth it. What a view! After a short break to take in the view, we continued hiking. We hiked through fields full of red chili peppers and villages where they had mountains of them to dry. We saw some ladies picking them and Aki asked if we could help and we all picked 30 or so chillies, a fun experience!
The reward for going uphill was this amazing view.
Villages we would pass through all looked similar to this.
Never seen this many chili peppers in my life.
Ladies picking chili peppers.
We got to our lunch stop and again had amazing food. After lunch we hiked on flat terrain on a small dirt road through the fields to a river where we could swim and cool off a bit as it was really hot during the day. The water was freezing cold but nice. We had only about an hour more to go after the swim and got to the village of our second homestay in the late afternoon. Some local guys were playing this game you see all over Myanmar and it’s a bit like volleyball but then just with your feet rather than your hands. The boys in our group all joined in and soon it was the tourists against the locals. Great fun to watch.
A refreshing swim in the river.
The boys playing the foot-volleyball game.
Our homestay for the second night was very similar to the first one. The food again was amazing and thankfully this night I didn’t have to get up once to go to the toilet.
Hiking day 3
On the third and last day we were all a bit sad that it was already the last day. We had a great group and the hiking was amazing so we all wanted more. During breakfast (around 7am) we heard music coming from another village and as we started the hike for the day Aki told us it was music from a wedding and that we could go there if we wanted. Of course we wanted that! We didn’t know in which village exactly the wedding was we just had to follow paths that were going in the direction of the sound. As we got closer to the village the music got louder and louder and we saw more party goers from other villages going in that direction so we knew we were going the right way.
Cow posing like a model on our way to the village to attend the wedding.
Once at the house where the wedding was we got invited into a big tent and served food. More food and more delicious food! We were totally uninvited but it didn’t seem to matter. Anyone who comes is welcome and will have to eat something. After the food we went into the house to sit with the couple and have tea with some of the wedding guests and family. The couple was very young, 17, and was sitting in the front of the room on the floor (everybody always sits on the floor, there is no furniture in any of the houses in these villages) under a gigantic banner of themselves. They didn’t smile and just sat there with a witness on either side of them. The family of the couple was very proud and happy to have us, western tourists, at the wedding and they kept giving us more snacks and tea. Eventually we had to go as we still had about 23 km to hike that day and actually more now we had made a detour to the village where the wedding was.
Food at the wedding.
The other guests in the food tent.
The happy couple.
The gift collectors.
Aki found the path back that we would follow for the day and we hiked for a few hours until we reached some steps and a paved road. This was the start of the Inle Lake area and where you normally have to pay an entrance fee (10USD). As we were much later than any other group, the ticket booth was empty already. The guys who work there probably thought all groups had passed already so we could continue hiking without paying. Brilliant as Aki and Mo Mo are quite convinced that the money we have to pay to enter the Inle Lake area is not being used for conservation or other good causes.
We hiked along the road and soon we reached a small school where the kids just had their playtime. As they were all outside we could play with them and they sang some songs for us and did a small dance performance. So cute! And another thing to add to this day of unexpected events. When we left the school we got stopped by two guys on a motorbike, they were the guys who normally sit at the ticket booth and someone told them about us and so we had to pay after all.
School kids getting ready for their performance.
Harry playing some football with the kids.
Lunchtime had already long passed but we still had some hours to go to the restaurant at the southern shore of Inle Lake where we were going to have lunch. It didn’t matter though as we had lots of food at the wedding and as we were late we got a chance to spend time playing with the kids at the school. The last few hours we could already see the immense Inle Lake in the distance but it never seemed to get closer. Finally though around 3:30pm we reached our lunch spot. We all had some well-earned drinks as the last 1,5 hours we would be going by boat through the canals and across the lake to Nyaungshwe on the northern shore of the lake. When we finished lunch we had to say goodbye to Aki and Mo Mo as they were going to take a motorbike back to Kalaw. We would definitely miss these two! Their enthusiasm, knowledge, laughs and good company is one of the things that made this hike so memorable!
First view of Inle Lake, almost there!
We made it to our lunch place!
With Aki & Mo Mo. We will miss these girls!
Our great group. Made some friends for life.
The rest of our group got divided over a few boats and sailed to Nyaungshwe. Normally this boat ride takes place around 2pm, but as our group got distracted that third day and only finished the hiking much later than that, we had a sunset boat on the lake. I’m not a big fan of boats, but this was the best boat ride in my life. Wow! So beautiful going through the floating villages at the south of the lake and then crossing the lake when the sun is setting behind the mountains we just hiked through for the past 3 days. I get emotional when I think back of it, words can’t describe how beautiful it was. And to top it off, some seagulls started flying with us.
Villagers living in the nearby floating village.
In the boat on our way to Nyaungshwe.
Breathtaking sunset over the lake.
Seagulls starting to fly alongside our boat, is this for real?
High on the amazing experiences from the last 3 days and the boat ride we arrived in Nyaungshwe, the main town on the shores of Inle Lake. It’s quite a touristy town and there are some very fancy hotels. We picked up our bags from the hotel they were transported to and checked into the hotel that the couple from the US had already booked and where they had still two more rooms available for us and Pari and Nick.
In the evening we went for dinner with Pari and Nick and drunk way too much wine from the nearby Red Mountain Estate winery. After dinner we met up with the Irish couple from our trek, Aoife and Liam, for some drinks and to celebrate that we all made it to the end of the hike.
The next morning I had a bad hangover but Harry, Pari and Nick all cycled to the Red Mountain Estate winery and had wines all afternoon. They met up with Aoife and Liam there and couldn’t stop telling me how good the food and the views were when they came back.
View over Inle Lake from Red Mountain Estate Winery.
We spent a few more days at Nyaungshwe to give our feet some rest before exploring Mandalay, Bagan and Yangon.