The best trek I have done – pretty big call huh? I can be prone to exaggeration but I promise you: this statement is not an exaggeration. The three days spent trekking between the small mountain town of Kalaw to serene Inle Lake in northern Myanmar was one of the best things I have ever done.
And it only cost me $36.
Walking through the quiet mountains, past small indigenous villages and surrounded by stunning scenery, I knew that I had made the right decision to trek in Myanmar. Unlike neighbouring Thailand, where I had heard stories of treks between overly commercialised villages along with hundreds of other tourists, Myanmar offered a more authentic trekking experience.
But I could never have imagined how amazing this experience would actually turn out to be.
After reading an article on Travelfish about the trek, I opted to book with Golden Lily Guesthouse. The author had a great experience booking through them and I liked the sound of trekking an alternative route that most of the other trekking companies don’t offer.
I chose the three day trekking option and paid my $36 that would include the guide, food and accommodation for three days. It even included the boat ride from where the trek ended on Inle Lake, over to the main tourist village of Nyaung Shwe.
Only $36, a mere $12 per day. I paid $600 for the four day trek to Machu Picchu in Peru and I didn’t even enjoy it. Trekking Kalaw to Inle Lake was a bargain!
After an afternoon and evening spent exploring sleepy Kalaw, I met my Guide, Sonny, at the Golden Lily Guesthouse bright and early.
Sonny is 23 years old and of Nepalese descent but grew up in one of the small villages nestled in the mountains that surround Kalaw. Also in my trekking group were a young Israeli couple and a Catalan couple from Barcelona. On the way out of town we picked up three more people from the Jungle King Trekking Office – Three guys: two Germans and a Colombian. And with that, our little group was complete.
As we headed out of the village and further into the mountains, everyone got to know each other better. Juan, the Colombian, was studying in Melbourne and had been a Financial Lawyer in New York in another life.
Manu is German and was living in California for over twenty years, but had recently left everything behind to pursue a life on the road.
Sebastian, also German and living in Berlin, was travelling in Myanmar and Thailand on a holiday from work.
Naama and Matan, the young Israeli couple, were travelling through Asia after finishing their military duty back home.
The Catalan couple, Ivan and Adriana, didn’t speak much English but were friendly and always smiling.
This group of people would become my family for the next three days.
The sun beat down on us as we followed a ridge line, surrounded by pine trees on the slopes above us and in the valley below. Sonny stopped to point out things of interest along the way. We tried gooseberries off a bush beside the path. They were very tart and firm but after drinking water, tasted sweeter.
The path turned and we were walking past rickety fences containing bright fields of canola flowers. Long grass grew unkempt against the weathered fence posts, reaching for the sky. Clouds of dust arose from the sun baked trail. Wild flowers dotted the landscape.
We reached the first village, a small settlement with sturdy cement and woven bamboo houses along a dusty road. I was surprised to see that a lot of the houses had satellite dishes.
Just out of town we stopped for lunch at a small shack. Lunch was served to us at a large wooden table in the shade of a giant tree; a salad of avocado, tomato and cucumber in a chilli sauce, a vegetable and noodle dish, and refreshing ginger soup. It was the first of many nutritious and wildly delicious meals we would be served over the next few days.
Our private Chef Don followed us by motorbike from place to place, serving us incredible meals, a lot of the time cooked simply over an open fire. Every meal was different and involved at least two or three dishes, mostly vegetarian.
We had fresh salads, noodle dishes, curries, home-made chapatis, fried rice, pancakes – and it was all so good. I began to look forward to meal times most of all.
After lunch and a nap on the hillside, the trek continued further uphill to the village where we would be spending our first night. We passed fields of luminous sunflowers and delicate red chilli plants.
A muddy lake sat amongst patchwork fields, a jigsaw puzzle of browns and greens. We stopped to catch our breaths at a beautiful viewpoint over the countryside.
Sonny showed us how to blow bubbles by breaking the middle stalk of a native plant, creating a gap which the gooey sap could be blown through. He always had something cool to show us.
Entering the village, life became busy again. Local villagers were everywhere. A group of kids played a ball game over a net that looked like a cross between hacky sack and volleyball, played with a light bamboo ball.
Local farmers ploughed their fields with water buffalo. Groups of villagers stopping to talk and laugh on the street.
We had hiked 19km, much further than I had hiked for a long time. It felt good to be exhausted; my head ached from the heat and my joints were stiff and sore. But I felt great.
After a delicious meal by candlelight in the kitchen house of our homestay, we retired to bed early. Thin mattresses with scratchy woollen blankets that smelt of lanolin were lined up next to each other against the wall, upstairs in our homestay. I slept like the dead.
The next morning we arose early to begin another full day of hiking.
Following the dirt road, we travelled through undulating countryside and quiet villages, some only comprising a handful of houses. In one of the villages where the locals dress head to toe in black, red chillies dried in the sun, laid out on large sheets of plastic.
A local woman swept dust out of her house, pausing to look up at us as we passed.
Along a long straight stretch of road, a group of adorably cute puppies ran out to greet us and I couldn’t resist picking one up for a cuddle. Our Guide made us keep walking, trying in vain to hold the puppies back who were eagerly trying to follow us.
Stopping for a break at a small store and restaurant, we drunk local tea and ate a type of Burmese donut, one that I found all over the country and ate more of than I can remember.
The Shopkeeper demonstrated how she made the sweet version of the very popular Kwun-ya, betel leaf spread with a wood paste, then wrapped around betel nut, coconut and jube sweets.
Chewing betel leaf is a long tradition in Myanmar, and it is used as a stimulant. I was the first to try it, chewing it into a pulp then spitting out the red liquid as I chewed. It was unusual, with so many textures and flavours, both sweet and minty at the same time: I rather liked it.
Chewing it on a regular basis can cause gum damage, tooth decay and even oral cancer so it isn’t something I would want to do often.
It was at this point, after one and a half days of trekking, we finally encountered the first other western tourists: a family group from the UK.
We saw them again a couple of hours later after hiking through the quiet countryside to a large village where we stopped for lunch. Eating in a local’s house where Don had laid out another appealing spread for lunch, they were sitting at a table next to us. They wouldn’t be the last westerners we would see on the trek.
The time of having the Myanmar countryside and its people to ourselves was over.
Sonny had a surprise for us before we continued on. One of his friends was getting married and he asked us all if we would like to attend the wedding, which was happening just down the road from where we were. A traditional wedding of a minority ethnic group in a remote village that is not on the tourist trail – obviously we said yes.
Attending the wedding was an absolute highlight of the three days of trekking. Arriving at the two-storey house, we took off our shoes and made our way upstairs where we were told to sit down on the colourful mats covering the floor.
The room was decorated with paper streamers and balloons. Nearly all of the guests were wearing brightly coloured beach towel or tea towel turbans on their heads, arranged in different styles. Yes – beach towels. They made them look quite stylish. The Bride and Groom were wearing suits of dark denim.
In front of us were small bowls containing chips, cake, biscuits and nuts along with pots of tea. Speeches had just begun when we arrived and one sassy lady, perhaps the MC or a family member, was speaking animatedly, punctuating each sentence with uproarious laughter. I wish I knew what she was saying because she had everyone in stitches.
Guests then went up one by one to give gifts of cash to the newly married couple; we pooled some money to also give them a wedding gift.
Leaving the wedding, we had the option of getting to the monastery we would be staying at via a swimming hole or by a slightly shorter route. Dark clouds had begun to gather and the temperature had dropped markedly so we went with the second option.
Thirty minutes later, the skies opened in a deluge that had us running for shelter. The rain didn’t last long but the dirt path was left sodden and slippery. A bunch of local ladies who were walking back to their village joined us on the muddy path. They deftly negotiated the steep and slippery rock stairs as we headed down into the valley, while we were taking it slow and still constantly slipping.
The valley was beautiful. We passed fields being worked by local farmers with the help of buffalo and wooden carts, before continuing on to the monastery at the top of a long winding road that led back into the mountains. A procession of carts pulled by buffalo caused a traffic jam as they slowly worked their way up the road, fully laden with what looked like wheat. This is what constitutes traffic in the mountains of Myanmar.
Finally, after 20km of walking, we arrived at the monastery. The monastery was dilapidated, run down and rusted with crumbling pathways and peeling paint. A group of young novice monks, their red and sienna robes tucked up between their legs like diapers, enthusiastically played football in the courtyard out the front.
We were shown where we would be sleeping, a line of thin mattresses against the wall. The sleeping arrangements were much like the night before, only this time it was in the ordination hall of a monastery rather than the upstairs of a family home.
There was a family of tabby cats that lived at the monastery and they came to investigate who had arrived on their turf. A playful kitten danced around the hall and let me pick her up for a cuddle.
Manu and I were keen to wash up and we were told there were showers. Apparently ‘showers’ is a loose term: it was a semi-private trough of water with a plastic container which you could use to ladle the water over yourself. Not that I was expecting much.
A couple of other groups were also staying there. We ate dinner in the dining room. Once the other groups left, we had an interesting talk with Sonny about politics and religion in Myanmar, something that couldn’t be spoken about in public, or at all really, during the oppressive military regime.
Even now, with the military still in charge before the elected democratic government take over, you have to be careful about what you say and to whom.
I didn’t sleep well. This was mostly because I had the teeniest tiniest kitten I have ever seen curled up beside me and I was afraid I might roll over and crush her in my sleep. She was so small that her whole body could curl up on my forearm, and I have small arms. I was already awake when monks quietly filed past us in the dark at 4am for their prayers.
We were roused early, before the sun had risen, to begin the last day of trekking. We hoped to beat the other groups and have the trail to ourselves.
The trail left the monastery and rose up above the village along a wide dirt road of red earth, affording excellent views of the valley below.
Entering the forest the trail narrowed and we began to encounter other groups of trekkers. It felt so busy compared to the first day and a half of trekking. At times we were walking in a procession, slowed down by the groups in front of us.
We passed a lot of the groups and were alone again. Gnarled trees fringed the path as it opened up into a vast plain, we followed a river for a couple of kilometres, edging closer to the lake.
Then suddenly we were at the swampy beginning of Inle Lake. The path turned and we followed another river past simple houses. The countryside was lush and green.
Arriving in a picturesque stilt village built on one of the tributaries of the lake, we had finally arrived at the end of our trek. We had walked 17km from where we had started at the monastery that morning.
Our last lunch together was at a local family’s home. We laughed and joked as we ate but it was bittersweet. It was time to farewell Sonny and Don who were heading back by motorbike to Kalaw; a boat was waiting to take us across to Nyaung Shwe.
I was less than half way through my three month trip through South East Asia and there were many adventures still to come, but I couldn’t help but feel that the best part of the trip was behind me as we silently cruised the still waters of the lake towards Nyaung Shwe.
Turns out I was right.
I have experienced many incredible things during the past 12 years of living abroad and travelling, but my three days trekking in the northern mountains of Myanmar stand out as a highlight of all of my travels. It is an experience I will treasure forever.
Have you trekked in Myanmar?