I had read about Kalaw Trekking in Myanmar to Inle Lake while doing research. For some reason the idea of walking three days was not as appealing as taking a bus for a few hours, so I decided not to include it in my plans. After asking several people what their favorite part of their Myanmar trip was, the scale was leaning heavily in the direction of the Kalaw trek, so it made sense to experience it for myself, and I’m so glad I did!
The weird thing is, I really had no idea what the trek entailed. I knew it was fairly easy, we’d walk three days, and sleep in a village one night and a monastery the other. But the day to day schedule was a mystery. Where would we eat? What would we see? How far would we walk each day? Asking questions in Myanmar is kind of difficult. I don’t speak Burmese, and it isn’t common for someone to be fluent in English (unless you’re in a city). A simple question like “Where do we eat?” can be answered with “Yes, food” and a gesture in the direction we are walking.
Something I’ve learned is that making a schedule here will rarely work out the way you want. Often it will just lead to frustration. So I’ve put my trust in my guides and just hope everything works out. Usually it does. In fact, it probably works out better than if I tried to micro manage my days.
Driving to Kalaw
The trek started off in Kalaw, a small city in the mountains. The drive there was borderline nauseating. As far as I can tell, there are no rules of the road in Myanmar. People should drive on the right, however, driving in the center seems to be more common. Instead of using turning signals, people honk their horns. If a car is passing you, they honk their horn. If a car is approaching an intersection, they honk their horn. If a dog is in the road, they honk their horn. If a pedestrian is walking on the side of the road, they honk their horn. Basically if a driver sees or does anything while driving they honk their horn.
Now imagine going up a mountain on blind hairpin turns where you can’t see if a car is coming the other way. Your driver wants to do a steady 30mph without slowing down for anything, so you are constantly passing other cars despite being on a road that would normally have no passing allowed. At some point the driver says “seatbelts” and you all burst out laughing because there’s no way it could get worse ahead. That laughter slowly fades out as you realize, maybe it can. That’s the 5 hour drive to Kalaw. I’ve never been so happy to walk for three days rather than drive for an hour.
Kalaw Trekking Day 1
Our trek began after meeting our guide Moonsun. We were a group of six women: two young girls from France, two older women from France, my friend from the Netherlands, and me. We headed up towards the large rolling hills in the area. I found myself in the front of the group keeping pace with the guide. After spending a week in Bagan on a motorbike it was nice to walk. I was the least confident scooter driver out of my tour group, so I had been in back of the pack for days. It was nice to finally be in the front again. I realized one woman was lagging behind and decided to slow down and wait for her. I hated when no one waited for me on the bike, so I thought she’d appreciate the gesture.
After slowing down my pace, I fell back from the core group. Only the French woman was close by and even she was a bit far behind me. We walked up a hill, and I found myself enveloped in a forest of pine trees. I hadn’t seen a pine tree since I was home in New York. I stopped, closed my eyes, and let the sunshine break through the leaves to hit my face while taking a deep breath. For a second, I felt like I was back home and going to see my parents for dinner. The thought made me smile. I looked around one more time and decided I would walk slowly the rest of the trek. Taking my time to take it all in. I’m tired of going through life racing from point A to point B and missing out on all the little moments.
After what felt like a long time we stopped in Moonsun’s village. I was positive we would be sleeping there for the night, but realized I was sadly mistaken after looking at my phone and seeing it was only 2pm. We wouldn’t reach that village until 5pm. We were told to take a half hour nap which was unsuccessful. I decided to walk through the village instead. I found some kids sneaking a peak at us foreigners. Some of the people here have never left their village before, so we looked pretty weird to them. I took a photo of one boy who was brave enough to approach me and showed the camera to his mother who burst out with laughter at the sight of her son.
I showed the little boy his photo and poked him in the belly explaining that that was him in the photo. He giggled and all the other boys rushed over to take a look. I lifted the camera up and they all jumped up and down trying to get in the next shot. I showed them the photos and they all laughed and pointed at each other. After a photoshoot of each kid in the village and lots of giggling, it was time to take off again. The children yelled “hello” “bye bye” “thank you” and “no” with excitement as we left, throwing every English word they’d ever learned at us.
We hiked up and down through some steep fields and finally ended up at the village we would sleep in. We were introduced to our chef who met us at every dining location along the way. He began to cook a burmese feast while we washed up and rested. Washing up meant going behind a screened area with just a bucket of water.
We were staying in a woman’s home for the night and she was sitting on the ground in front of her house sorting through chili peppers. There were two piles. One clearly meant to keep or sell at market, and one to be thrown out or used for some other purpose. Emmy and I sat with the woman and helped her organize the chilis by going through the giant pile she’d collected in the field that day.
She didn’t speak much English but knew the word “beautiful.” She pointed at each of us and said the word slowly. We then pointed at her and repeated it back which made her laugh. We shared our names and continued to sort. She pretended to take a bite of the chili and waved her hand in front of her mouth showing how hot they were. Then she pointed to our mouth and we laughed and declined to try one. A few women in the village passed us, laughing at the sight of us helping out. Although they spoke another language, I imagined them jokingly saying, “Hired some new help, ey?”
We ate a feast of food for dinner. The best I’d had since arriving in Myanmar. There was eggplant, rice, fish, curry, vegetables, and even some dessert. After dinner, we had a bonfire and fell asleep early. Everyone was so exhausted that by 8pm it was lights out.
Kalaw Trekking Day 2
We woke up to an equally lovely breakfast and began to hike again. Day two was much easier. A small group of three men joined us (two from Germany and one from Spain). The day was pretty uneventful, but night time brought on a bit of excitement.
Overnight at the Monastery
We made it to the monastery where the monks in training were playing soccer out front. Over dinner, our guide informed us that sometimes jaguars come out at night. “Don’t worry. I have sling shot,” he said to calm us down. I think that statement only made us more afraid. Our dinner conversation also included a story about a snake in a toilet. Needless to say, none of us planned on going to the bathroom after 7pm, and I was a bit on edge.
I grabbed my flashlight and some toilet paper and walked to the toilet right as it got dark. I used my flashlight to check the outhouse before entering. As the light moved up the wall, I saw a giant tarantula and jumped. I moved on to the next outhouse which was connected. After doing a thorough search, I decided that one would suffice. Using a squat toilet isn’t generally that hard, but after hiking all day my legs were pretty sore. I teetered over the toilet when suddenly the tarantula appeared. It had crawled through the wall! I literally yelped, jumped up, and ran out the door back to the monastery while looking frantically around me to make sure there were no jaguars.
My new fear of tarantulas plus several other things in the monastery led to a night of little sleep. Someone had gotten food poisoning and had to get up throughout the night to run outside and throw up. Our “beds” were just thin pieces of foam on the floor and if I’m being honest, mine smelled pretty bad. I still had to pee but refused to go until morning. And of course, someone was snoring.
Kalaw Trekking Day 3
Although the hike the next day was easy, it still felt pretty rough. No one had really slept that night, and we looked like a group of zombies. We walked through fields and learned about the different crops. There was chili, ginger, mustard seed, corn, rice, and a few things I didn’t recognize. We crossed paths with cows, oxen, dogs, and cats. Luckily no jaguars. Moonsun showed us where he’d been bit by a king cobra which led to another bout of panic.
We reached a river with an ox in it and our guide joked that we would each take turns riding it across the water. We insisted he should go first. Then, we came across another village where women were building a stone dam by hand. They formed an assembly line and moved buckets of cement down a steep slope. We had all noticed that women here do the hard labor. We walked on further to find the men weaving baskets in the shade. One man can make five baskets a day. Each basket is sold at the market for 1500 kyat which is slightly more than one U.S. dollar. We were all amazed at how much work went into shaving the bamboo down and weaving it for just $1.
We made it to the end of our journey which finished with lunch and a boat ride across Inle Lake. There was a moment when we were on the water, where I couldn’t help but smile like a fool. I don’t know if I was just super happy to sit, or if seeing village life had made me more grateful for things I take for granted, but I looked out at the water and thought “Wow, this is my life.”
If you’re looking to do a trek from Kalaw to Inle Lake, I’d definitely recommend doing it with Jungle King. It cost about $30 for three days and two nights. It included all of the food and the boat ride at the end. It was one of the highlights of my trip, and I really felt like I got to experience the culture.
Thinking of doing the Kalaw Trekking Tour? Ask any questions in the comments.
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Michelle Della Giovanna
Writer at Full Time Explorer
I’m just your average New Yorker who quit her job in the fashion industry to explore the world. Come find out what it’s like to trade in five-inch heels for squat toilets.