Kalaw, Inle Lake, and the Trek in Between

Highlights:

  • Day 2 of the 3 day/2 night trek (or day 1 of the 2 day/1 night trek) from Kalaw to Inle Lake.
  • Hiring a boat for a day on Inle Lake.

We finally arrived in Kalaw after a few hellish days of travel. Our overnight bus from Toungoo, which was supposed to arrive at 5 or 6am got in at 4 (this seems to always happen on overnight buses, along with the drop off point being too far from the center of town to walk, though this time we got lucky on that front). Fortunately, there was someone up at our hotel when we arrived and we were able to check in (for 1/3 the price of a normal night – totally worth it for a few hours of sleep). Our hotel (Railroad Hotel) was one of the nicest we stayed in during our time in Myanmar, with views from both our room and the breakfast area overlooking the mountains. After taking our free breakfast and chatting with an older German couple for a while, we headed out to set up our trek for the next few days.

The main reason that people stop in Kalaw (other than the pretty mountain scenery and the cooler weather) is for trekking. We were planning to do a 60 km, 3 day/2 night trek (the most popular) from Kalaw to Inle Lake, one of Myanmar’s top tourist destinations. Before we came to Myanmar, Dave had spoken to a friend of his who recommended a local guide that she’d used a few months before. We had been in contact with him for a few weeks before our arrival, but quickly realized that his prices were higher than they should be, possibly because with him we would have likely been trekking on our own, rather than in a group. We prefer trekking in groups because you get to meet new people from all over the place, usually with interesting stories and great travel advice. We had spoken to several people in Yangon who had already completed the trek and gave us the low down. Everyone used a company called Sam’s (the most popular in town and also recommended by our guide book) and they paid about 45,000 kyat (around $30) for the three day trek, which included accommodation, food, luggage transfer from Kalaw to Nyuang Shwe (the “backpacker town” in Inle Lake), and also an hour long boat trip from the bottom of Inle Lake to Nyuang Shwe. The guide that had been recommended to us wanted to charge $75 for the three days, not including the boat transfer for another $15pp or so. We told him we could negotiate a bit, but in the end he was unable to get a group together (we didn’t want to trek alone) and we learned that he actually worked for Sam’s anyway so it all worked out ok.

We got to Sam’s (FYI, they don’t seem to have a website or any way to arrange the treks beforehand, but this is not something you have to plan in advance – they have multiple groups going every day, at least in the high season) and got the rundown for the next three days. The trek sounded great, so we signed up and gave our 10,000 kyat deposit to reserve our spot. We met one couple doing the trek on their own without a guide to save some money, but with all of the forks in the road along the way, I can’t imagine it was easy, so we wouldn’t recommend this. The trek is really cheap as it is, so not really worth having to deal with finding your own way, food, and accommodation.

We spent the rest of the day exploring Kalaw. We checked out the local market and bought some hats and gloves for the trek – we naively thought that just because we were in SE Asia and not hiking up a mountain that it would be warm, but we were very wrong… it was freezing at night (which we learned when we showed up at 4am in shorts and tshirts!), then walked all around the town. It was a pretty relaxing day (we figured we deserved a little relaxation before a three day trek) spent exploring and preparing for the following morning.

Our one night in Kalaw happened to be Xmas eve, so we wanted to go out and celebrate a little. Our book talked about a “speakeasy” type bar serving a rum drink that they describe by saying that “you haven’t been to Kalaw unless you’ve tried it.” Well, after reading that, we had to try it, so we went to Hi Bar (on the corner of the same street as Sam’s) for the famous rum sour. It was a pretty cool spot with graffiti on the walls and lots of locals. As soon as we walked in, the owner told us about the special drink (they should call it the Lonely Planet special instead of the rum special, as he said the same thing to all the foreigners that entered, their books/”bibles” in tow), and when he told us they were 1500 kyat a pop (about $1) we could not protest. As soon as we got our drinks, another couple walked in and sat down next to us. We ended up talking to them over another round or two, and then also going to dinner together at one of the only restaurants in town, also on the same street as Sam’s called Everest (Nepalese food). The food and the company were both good, and we ended up having a much later night than anticipated, heading home at about 10:30pm (I know, we’re party animals).

The next morning, we headed back over to Sam’s to start our trek. There happened to be a market in town (there’s a 5-day rotating market around the whole lake so it’s not in Kalaw all the time, though they do have a daily market which we visited the day before), so we set out early so we could check that out and pick up a local breakfast (one of the only ones of our trip – those damn free hotel breakfasts!!). We didn’t have that much time to walk around the market, but enough to do a quick lap before heading back to meet our group. There were 7 of us in total, a group of three girls who had met while traveling (one from America, one from Brazil, and one from Israel) and then two Chilean brothers, who we got off to a rocky start with after they arrived 30 minutes late. Luckily, we didn’t leave without them as Dave was suggesting, as we really hit it off with them. We also met our great guide, Zaw (if you ever want an awesome guide, email him at zawcherry@gmail.com).

The first day of the trek was not that impressive scenery-wise, but this is the day when you always get to talking with everyone in the group, so that makes it fun. I love learning everyone’s back story and hearing about where they’ve been and where they’re going (I guess the Thai ways are really rubbing off on me, as these are often the first questions that Thais ask after “Have you eaten yet?”).

The most interesting parts of the day were stopping in our guide’s village and at his house for lunch (fried noodles, soup, and lots of fruit) and getting to meet his very cute mom, and then walking down a railroad track for about an hour. The first day, we walked for about 4-5 hours, but with the stops we made in between, we didn’t get to the village we’d be staying in until around 5pm. This was the perfect time – not too much where you’re bored waiting around in the afternoon, but just enough to get settled before it gets dark. We all picked up some drinks at the local shop, had an early dinner (chicken curry with rice, veggies, guacamole – we quickly learned how abundant and cheap avocados are in Myanmar), and had a fun night of drinking and talking, before heading to sleep at about 9pm. The local home we stayed in had one room, which we all slept in, each on our own mattress, which were lined up in a row, one right next to the other. Maybe the biggest “bed” I’ve ever slept in.

After breakfast (coffee, eggs, toast, fruit, and guacamole), we headed out for day two of trekking. After walking for a couple of hours, we found ourselves behind a truck filled to the brim with bags of chili peppers (you could smell them from blocks away). All the sudden, one of the truck’s wheels got stuck in a ditch and it started rocking back and forth, almost tipping over. Dave and the Chilean brothers quickly jumped on the opposite side of the truck to stop it from tipping and we spent the next 30 minutes trying to brainstorm and help these poor guys get their truck out of the ditch. We had one idea about how they should do it, but they weren’t too keen on listening to us and wanted to do it their own way (I guess they probably do know better). So, they attached a rope to the front of the truck, attaching it to another vehicle that happened to be passing by, and then another to the side of the truck for a tug of war situation and then the other vehicle backed up while all the guys pulled. It didn’t seem like it was going to work, but somehow it did!

After that, we felt like we’d already had a whole day’s worth of excitement. Then, we crossed a road where Zaw told us the two day/one night trek begins (on this trek, instead of walking the first day, they take a car for 45 minutes to this spot), and this is also where the trek started to get really beautiful. For the rest of the day, we were walking through fields of all sorts of veggies from cabbage to onions to garlic to corn to most abundant, fields and fields of chili peppers. I’ve never seen chili peppers growing before, but it was beautiful. The whole 2nd day of the trek was gorgeous and definitely the highlight. I also had a very long and interesting chat with our tour guide about religion, his life, and how to save money.

For the second night night of the trek, many groups and tour companies stay at a monastery. Our guide, however, said that he doesn’t like the monastery because it’s crowded (about 50 people stay there) and you have to be quiet to respect the monks, so we stayed in another local home (which turned out to be a good decision on Zaw’s part, as we talked to a few other people who stayed in the monastery and didn’t like it). We had another good dinner (rice with a veggie curry, veggies, more avocado), more drinks, and this time a bonfire before heading to sleep.

Day three of the trek was shorter than the two other days and also a lot of it was on a main road. This was also the only day that seemed very crowded with other groups – throughout the rest of the trek, we didn’t run into many other people. At one point, we had to stop and pay the 13,000 kyat fee to enter Inle Lake, which was never checked by anyone during our stay there. We thought our guide probably could have pretty easily taken us out of the way to avoid this fee, but for him, I guess it’s not worth getting in trouble for. We made it to Tone Lay (NAME), the ending point of the trek in time for our final group lunch (fried rice with egg, guac, and fruit) and then took the hour long boat ride to Nyaung Shwe (NS).

One of the main activities in Inle Lake is to rent a boat for a day, stopping at villages, shops, and other sights all around the lake. In order to save money, a lot of trekkers pay about 1,000 kyat each and have their boat take them to a few of these stops right on the way to Nyuang Shwe on the 3rd day of their trek. Originally, we wanted to do this because it didn’t seem to make sense to pay for the boat again the very next day, but luckily, the girls in our group didn’t want to do this so we couldn’t (instead, we made plans with the Chilean brothers to take a boat together the next day). I say luckily, because as you’ll read, our boat ride around the lake the following day ended up being one of the highlights of our trip.

After checking into our hotel, showering, and checking email for the first time in a few days (the hotel we originally booked told us when we arrived that their internet wasn’t working that day so we immediately switched hotels even though our hotel was non-refundable; of course Dave the lawyer got us out of it), we headed out to find our dinner spot for the night. Our book describes NS as one of the biggest backpacker towns in Myanmar. I wouldn’t quite call it a backpacker town, but they did at least have a few Western restaurants. After three days of trekking, you really just need a burger. Our dinner that night ended up being probably the worst meal of our trip (all the Burmese food was great!), but at least we got our burger.

For our first full day in Inle Lake, we met our Chilean friends and hired a boat for the day to take us all around the lake. For a whole day, from 9-5:30ish, we paid 25,000 kyat (or about $5 pp) for a day in one of the coolest places we’ve ever been. Throughout the day we stopped at (NAMES), but the truly amazing part (aside from seeing the quintessential early morning fisherman from every picture of Inle Lake) was just riding all around the lake through tons of villages, down waterways, and through what was really just a whole city right on the water. You felt like you were driving through neighborhoods, but instead of in a car on a street, you’re in a boat. It felt like I was transported to another time or maybe even another planet. Dave says that it reminded him of the movie “Water World” with Kevin Costner. This day on the lake was one of the best days we’ve had traveling and definitely one of the coolest places I’ve ever been. All day long, I couldn’t stop myself from saying “wow!” over and over again. So, as I mentioned before, we were definitely happy we waited to do this boat ride and gave it a full day, rather than just tacking it onto our boat ride after the trek. It was awesome.

We planned to meet up with the brothers again for our second day in Inle Lake, this time to bike around the lake, but when we met up in the morning, unfortunately, there was only one brother there. The other one hadn’t been feeling well and decided to take it easy for the day (their parents were meeting them in Bangkok a few days later, so he wanted to rest up for them) but the other brother would still be joining us. We started our biking day heading west around the lake, with (NAME) hot springs as our destination. We thought that we probably wouldn’t go into the springs (and then confirmed when we realized that they were $10pp and not even natural – pretty much just a few hot tubs). The ride to the hot springs took about an hour (we stopped at one view point along the way, the first time we were actually able to get a decent view of the lake!), but the best part was that from (NAME) village, we were able to take a another boat ride across the lake to (NAME) to finish our bike ride on the other side. We loved the lake so much that we were happy to get more time boating around it. We paid 8,000 kyat for the 30 minute ride across (not as good a deal as our trip the day before, but oh well).

The northeast part of the lake is where most of the nice resorts are. When we originally booked our hotel we thought that NS was actually on the lake, but it turns out that it’s about a 15 minute ride down a canal from the lake. We would have liked to have been able to have a drink or dinner overlooking the lake, but most of these hotels were a lot more expensive than the town where we were staying. Either way, Dave wanted to see how the other half was living in Inle Lake :). So we went into the first nice hotel we came upon (the Novotel) and the guys took a dip in the infinity pool overlooking the bungalows overlooking the lake. It was a pretty cool hotel. From there, we made our way to Red Mountain Winery to get one of their very cheap wine tastings. This place was packed to the brim with foreigners and the wine wasn’t that good (nor were our snobby Singaporean table-mates), but the scenery was beautiful and it was a perfect stop to end the day and our time in Inle Lake. Later that night, we got on an overnight bus to our next stop, Bagan, the temple capital of Myanmar.

We loved Inle Lake. It was our favorite place in Myanmar and our two days there were the highlight of our trip. Knowing what we know now, though two days was definitely enough to do everything we wanted to do, if we could do it all again with the same timing that we had, we would have spent an extra night here staying somewhere on the lake rather than spending so much time traveling between Yangon and Kalaw (I know, you’re sick of hearing me say how much we regret this by now). Oh well, on to Bagan!

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