Kalaw, the starting point for Myanmar’s finest treks, was one of our favourite places in the country. We stopped by the alpine town for a couple of days to refresh our souls in the crisp highland air. Tucked away in the mountains that join the vast Himalayan range, it’s a surprisingly lively place. There’re plenty of restaurants to replenish your energy before heading out for a few days on the hoof, some of them cheap – try one of the Shan tea houses – some of them pricey – check out the Everest Nepali Food Centre for curries bursting with flavour, but only if your wallet’s full of Kyat and you can bear the company of rich Westerners on luxury tours. There was more than enough to keep us entertained for a few days, between the large market, speakeasy style bars and the wonderful Sprouting Seeds cafe, which not only has a cracking selection of board games and serves the best guacamole in Myanmar, also helps young children learn catering and hospitality skills.
Our main reason for heading to Kalaw was to take a trek to Inle Lake, about 70km West of the town. Having checked a few travel guides, we wandered around to price up the different treks offered by the many tour companies in town. At our first stop, the Golden Lily Guest House, we were welcomed in by Robin, a 70 year old Sikh with a gentle smile. He talked us through his 3 day trek, walking about 20-25km each day, with two overnight stays in mountain villages along the way. All together, including 3 meals a day (but not water) and a boat trip at the end, the trek cost about £65 for both of us, with an extra $10 fee each for our entry to the Inle Lake region, payed at the border. With prices this good and a seemingly unsurpassable knowledge of the area – Robin’s been doing this trek since the 90’s and has walked the equivalent distance of circumnavigating the world 3 times – we signed up without bothering to schlep around town and haggle with anyone else.
The first thing you should know if you’re considering trekking from Kalaw to Inle Lake is that this part of Myanmar (sort of North East-ish) is astoundingly cold in the cool season (November – February). This took us by surprise when we stepped off of our night bus from the burning hot, sweat patch South at 8:00am, wearing only flip flops, shorts and T-shirts in the 3 degree chill. If you do head out to these silent mountains, take some warm clothes and be prepared to shiver, especially at night. It’s not always cold, though. By about 11am when the searing sun takes its place in the tropical sky, the temperature rises to 30 degrees and higher, a change in temperature totally bewildering to the body. During the hot season (March – May), Robin told us that it gets unbearably hot and the air thick with insects. This doesn’t put him off though – he does the treks all year round, unless the monsoon season (June – October) makes the paths impassable. Crazy.
With cheap coats, gloves and hats purchased at the market, we set out on our trek. Our backpacks would be sent on to Inle Lake by truck, leaving us with our daypacks full of changes of clothes, sugary snacks for energy and our passports. Take as little with you as you possibly can. One hiker we met along the way had packed his laptop for fear of it being nabbed on route, by day 2 he was regretting carrying the extra weight.
We walked straight out of town with our gang of hikers, just us, a honeymooning couple from Chile and three chatty Australian bro’s prepping for a trek to Everest basecamp. Strolling down country lanes, past avocado trees, old colonial houses and soon-to-be hotels, we were struck by a false optimism that the trek wouldn’t be too hard. Robin seemed pretty relaxed, certainly a lot more aged than all of us, and there was a distinct lack of hurry about the whole thing.
The first day took us through an area of conservation forest, out to stunning mountain passes, ridged with tea plantations and citrus orchards. Cunning Burmese farmers have perfected companion planting, and these cash crops are often grown side by side, benefiting each other with their pest resistance. This helps to keep their agriculture about 90% organic. Not bad for a country under intense pressure from neighbours like China to buy in to the agrochemical market.
Thanks to the British, ahem, influence of Burmese agriculture, we gazed at patches of celery, strawberries, broccoli and cauliflower, as well as the expected rice paddies that keep the farmers fed. The hike was hilly in places, but Robin would pause while we caught our breath to show us a root of ginger, or a sprig of herb that can cure diarrhoea. We had a luxury lunch of curry and chapati in a remote village, all washed down with cupfuls of organic tea, grown and dried in the very same village. The afternoon was spent mostly walking along the train line that runs from Thazi to Inle Lake, with no fear of being run down by the trains with a top speed of 15kph. As an aside, the slow train from Inle Lake to Thazi is a spectacular journey and the best 11 hour train ride we’ve ever taken.
By the time we reached our first homestay, we were tired but not exhausted, aching but not in agony, and things were going well. We sat down to a Burmese banquet, joined by a few other people trekking the same route. We feasted on delicately stewed vegetables, lightly spiced meat and plates of rice. We slept under the light of the moon that leaked through the farmhouse window, wrapped in several blankets to keep the cold at bay.
The morning was misty and we drank our instant coffee overlooking the distant mountain ranges, hoping we wouldn’t be climbing them later. After a hearty breakfast of fresh fruit, omelettes and weary conversation, Robin explained our route and it seemed we would be scaling the mountains after all. A collective groan greeted this proposal and it became clear that we were all a little more fatigued than expected.
Day 2 was full of yet more gorgeous valleys, friendly villagers greeting us and, in one case, a group of lads showing off a squirrel they’d knocked out with a well aimed sling shot. The hills were much harder, our legs becoming rods of pain. We had blisters on our heels, on our soles, on our toes, between our toes, pretty much everywhere. By midday we were far too hot, and every step was a whole new world of pain.
A break for a roadside bowl of creamy Shan noodles, accompanied by samosas and tea, did little to soothe our woes. We still had a long way to go, and it felt like our bodies were giving up on us. Strangely, everyone else in our group still seemed rather alive, laughing and joking whilst managing to keep up with Robin, who had inexplicably doubled the speed of the previous day’s pace, still without breaking a sweat.
By 4pm, things were looking bleak. We had forgotten why we thought it would be a good idea to go on a 3 day trek when we could have just taken a bus and looked out of the window. The Australian lad banter was wearing thin. Robin’s promises of ‘just one more hill’ were repeatedly broken, just like our resolve. If we had access to WiFi we would have hailed an Uber. But we didn’t. In fact, the village we stayed at that night had no electricity (except for a couple of DC solar panels) and no running water. This made showering by bucket a risky business, not only because of the icy chill of the water in the blistering heat, but because when the bucket became empty, it meant a 2km walk to the nearest well.
That night, around 20 other travellers stopped by the village to rest their weary bones. There were folks from all over the world, a curious crowd of backpackers searching for the real Myanmar. In these highland valleys, with warm hearted locals, steaming tea and unbreakable language barriers, the general consensus was that we’d found it.
Myanmar is still a reasonably tricky country to travel around, with areas in the North closed off because this is where they grow lots of naughty crops, or as in the case of the Rakhine State to the West, because the UN believe there’s an ongoing genocide taking place (which is probably true). It’s illegal to host tourists without a hard to obtain licence, so you can’t just turn up at a village and hope to find a cheap hostel. Your movements are constantly tracked by the tourist police, making the whole notion of backpacking like a free spirit near impossible.
Even so, the villagers in the Shan mountains that are allowed to open their doors to foreigners do so with great pride, and passing through these villages gives you a true picture of life for many Burmese people. We saw children harvesting chillis with their mothers, hands burning from too much capsaicin. We stood around fires made from the discarded cores of corn on the cob to keep warm. We literally watched the cows come home at sunset, hundreds of bovine beasts tramping back from a hard day’s work in the fields, followed by hardy shepherds. Spending just a few days amongst these people, who live from the land and beam from ear to ear with the joy of self sufficiency, away from the coach parties who’ve paid far too much for a 2 week excursion, it was easy to forget that the luxury tourist industry was taking over the rest of accessible Myanmar.
Arriving at the national park checkpoint was a stark reminder that Myanmar is changing at a rapid pace. Having seen only 20 other tourists for 3 days, all of them backpackers, we naively expected to find an unspoiled lake with few foreign visitors. But things were different as soon as we reached the national park border. Suddenly we were joined on the road by several other trekking groups, our paths converging at this main point of entry. It became apparent that Robin’s promise that he had his own route, far from the tourist trail, was quite true. Now it was time for us to take that trail again.
For the last 10 kilometres or so, Robin had us taking the slopes down towards the lake at the speed of an intermediate inner city jogger. We leapt across dusty crags of burnt orange rocks, raced down rural roads at the risk of being run down by loggers and eventually made it to Indein village, famous for its ruined pagodas. We sat down to lunch at a lakeside restaurant, overjoyed to have reached our destination. We began to feel distinctly out of place, covered in dust, dripping with sweat and crying with relief that our huge hike was finally over. We were surrounded by wealthy Europeans in crisply ironed shirts, and bored Russians with nervous private guides, most of them on day trips from their nearby hotels.
We took a boat from this Southern village to Nyaungshwe at the North of the lake, where cheap but decent accommodation can be found. Passing boat loads of folks on luxury tours, snapping away at the sights of this fast changing country, it was clear that the best of Myanmar was behind us, shrouded in the blue mist of morning, with Robin one of the last true keepers of its keys.