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Trekking Kalaw to Inle Lake is one of the best treks I have ever 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 in Myanmar between the small mountain town of Kalaw to Inle Lake 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 do some Myanmar trekking.
Unlike neighboring Thailand, where I had heard stories of treks between overly commercialized villages along with hundreds of other tourists, Myanmar offered a more authentic trekking experience, and I had heard a lot of great things about trekking from Kalaw to Inle Lake.
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 Kalaw to Inle Lake trek option and paid my $36 which would include the guide, food, and accommodation for three days. It even included the boat trip 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.
Myanmar Trekking: Trekking From Kalaw to Inle Lake
Trekking Kalaw to Inle Lake – Day One
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 traveling in Myanmar and Thailand on a holiday from work.
Naama and Matan, the young Israeli couple, were traveling through Asia after finishing their military duty back home.
The Catalan couple, Ivan and Adriana, spoke little English but were friendly and always smiling.
This group of people would become my family for the next three days on our trek to Inle Lake.
The sun beat down on us as we followed a ridgeline, 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. Wildflowers 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 chili 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, homemade chapatis, fried rice, and pancakes – and it was all so good. I began to look forward to mealtimes 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 chili plants.
A muddy lake sat amongst patchwork fields, a jigsaw puzzle of browns and greens. We stopped to catch our breath 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 and played with a light bamboo ball.
Local farmers plowed their fields with water buffalo. Groups of villagers stopped to talk and laugh on the street.
We had hiked 19km, much further than I had hiked in 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 woolen blankets that smelt of lanolin were lined up next to each other against the wall, upstairs in our homestay. I slept like the dead.
Trekking Kalaw to Inle Lake – Day Two
The next morning we arose early to begin another full day of hiking.
Following the dirt road, we traveled 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 chilies 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 drank 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 and then spitting out the red liquid as I chewed. It was unusual, with so many textures and flavors, 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, that 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 our three days of hiking in Myanmar. Arriving at the two-story house, we took off our shoes and made our way upstairs where we were told to sit down on the colorful mats covering the floor.
The room was decorated with paper streamers and balloons. Nearly all of the guests were wearing brightly colored beach towels 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 loud 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 give them a wedding gift also.
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.
Needless to say, the second day of trekking in Myanmar was a good one.
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 that 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 4 am for their prayers.
Trekking Kalaw to Inle Lake – Day Three
We were roused early, before the sun had risen, to begin our last day of trekking Myanmar. 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 kilometers, 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 halfway 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 my nearly 20 years of living abroad and traveling, but my three days of hiking in Myanmar stand out as one of the highlights of all of my travels.
It is an experience I will treasure forever.
Have you been trekking in Myanmar? Would you do the Kalaw to Inle Lake trek?
Post updated in April 2023, I did the trek in December 2015.
What To Know For Your Kalaw To Inle Lake Trek
How To Get To Kalaw
I traveled to Kalaw from Bagan by bus. There are a couple of different bus and van trips per day, and you can book in advance through 12Go. The journey takes between six-eight hours.
You can also travel to Kalaw from Mandalay by bus which takes around seven hours, and from Yangon to Mandalay by night bus which takes around nine hours.
Where To Stay in Kalaw and Inle Lake
There aren’t a ton of accommodation options in Kalaw that you can book online but Hillock Villa and Hinode Hotel both have excellent reviews and are centrally located.
I stayed at Honey Pine Hotel but it appears to no longer be open.
Inle Lake Accommodation
There are a lot more accommodation options Inle Lake from budget-friendly to blow-your-budget luxurious.
If you want a friendly budget option, stay at Song of Travel Hostel which has dormitories and private rooms with air-conditioning, as well as free breakfast, snacks, and bikes to borrow.
For hotels, the best-rated budget and mid-ranged hotels are Inle Apex Hotel, Trinity Family Inn, and Inle Cottage Boutique Hotel. And if you really want to splurge for some luxury after your hike, stay at Villa Inle Boutique Resort where you can stay in a private villa overlooking the lake. There is also a spa, pool, and restaurant onsite.
How to Book the Trek to Inle Lake from Kalaw
I just turned up and went to Golden Lily Guesthouse in Kalaw to enquire about trekking through them but I actually trekked with Jungle King so I would go directly to them. If they don’t have availability, there are lots of other trekking companies in Kalaw.
Best Time of Year For Trekking Kalaw to Inle Lake
Treks are run year-round but the best time of year to trek is from October to January. This is the beginning of the dry season so everything is green but you hopefully won’t get rained on. I did the trek in December and had near-perfect weather.
Cost of Trekking Kalaw to Inle Lake
The cost of the three-day trek to Inle Lake from Kalaw when I did it at the end of 2015 was US$36 including meals, accommodation for two nights, our guide, and the boat across Inle Lake. From the research I have done, the price is still about the same. Please let me know if this is not the case.
This is the price if you join others that have signed up to do the trek to Inle Lake, if you want a private guide, the cost would increase by at least 50%.
What to Pack for Trekking Kalaw to Inle Lake
I highly recommend the Osprey Fairview or Farpoint 40L packs – they are the perfect size for a multi-day hiking trip, are comfortable and durable, and have lots of pockets to organize your gear. Use packing cubes for further organization.
Consider taking some trekking poles to help with the downhill – your knees will thank you! – and hiking boots rather than regular trainers.
Pack the GRAYL Geopress Water Purifier to filter water from streams and taps at your accommodation, this saves you having to carry lots of water and is better for the environment. Also, pack a CamelBak to make it easier to hydrate while you are hiking and to store more water if needed.
It can get cold at night so make sure to pack thermal base layers, as well as a raincoat in case it rains.
Bedding is provided so don’t worry about packing a sleeping bag. Make sure to pack mosquito repellent and sunscreen, a power bank if you want to keep your phone charged, some snacks, a head torch, toilet paper, and wet wipes, and some cash to buy snacks and for tips.
A sun hat would also be a good idea.
Trekking Myanmar Tips
- Don’t take photos of villagers unless you ask first, it’s just rude. Be respectful.
- Make sure you get travel and health insurance before your trip. Safety Wing is my go-to and they are cheap and easy to claim with – it also auto-renews every month unless you turn it off so you don’t have to think about it.
The Best Insurance For Your Myanmar Trip
Make sure you get travel and health insurance before your Kalaw to Inle Lake trek, just to be on the safe side. Safety Wing is my go-to and they are cheap and easy to claim with.
You can choose a set time period or have it auto-renew every month for longer trips. You can also sign up when you are already traveling, unlike a lot of other travel insurance providers.
If you enjoyed this post, check out my other multi-day hiking posts:
- Tackling the Hike From Aspen to Crested Butte: The Best Hike in Colorado
- Hiking the Tongariro Northern Circuit: One of New Zealand’s Great Walks
- Pushing Myself to the Limit on the Kepler Track
- The Best Easy Hikes in Kauai
- Hiking to Abbot Pass Hut in the Canadian Rockies
- Hiking the Hillary Trail on Auckland’s Wild West Coast
- Hiking Between the Pueblos Mancomunados Villages in Mexico
- Dealing with Altitude Sickness on the World Famous Inca Trail in Peru
This trek looks awesome! To be honest, I’ve never gone to another country and gone trekking before! Your post was such an amazing read and I loved all of the photos!
You should do it Jasmine! It’s great going with a guide because it’s safer and you are supporting the local community.
Hiking is my absolute favourite thing to do when I travel and Myanmar has been on my list for so long. This is totally something I’d love to do. 100% pinning this so I can come back to it later 🙂
Thanks, I hope you make it there once we are all able to travel again 🙂
Your pictures are amazing! I’ve never been trekking before because I wasn’t sure of what to expect, but it looks like an absolute blast! Thanks for sharing this.
Thank you! If you are interested in trekking then something like the Kalaw to Inle Lake trek where you don’t have to carry much gear and have places to sleep is a good place to start
We were supposed to go to Myanmar earlier this year but had to postpone it. This is a great post…there’s even more to do there than I originally thought!
I hope you make it there after we are all able to travel again, I would love to go back one day.
Myanmar looks absolutely amazing! I would love to visit! Also how adorable is the puppy?!!!
I know, so cute!
Oh, that looks wonderful! I’ve never done a several-days-trek. I bet you wanted to take that puppy home! 😉
If you are interested in doing a multi-day trek, this is a great one because you don’t have to carry much gear. Yes, I wish I could have kept the puppy, and the tiny kitten that slept with me in the Monastry
Hey, this looks awesome (and cheap haha), thanks for sharing such an informative and useful post. I hope I cna finaly get there once we´re allowed to travel again 🙂
So cheap, and awesome! I hope you make it there in the future
This trek looks so amazing! We wanted to do this while we were in Myanmar but didn’t have the time! Might just have to go back in the future to do it!
Hi Marisa, I definitely think it is worth going back for – there are meant to be some great treks in Hpa-An too so I want to go back to trek there
What a unique trek! I also can’t believe that you did all of that for $36. Love your photos too. It’s also crazy that you got a long bus ride for that price.
I still can’t believe how cheap it was, and when I checked to see if the price has gone up since I did it in 2015 – it hadn’t. Such good value for money
Just WOW – what an amazing blog from a very talented writer. I was on that trek all the way. Beautiful writing telling exactly how it is.
Keep it up Katie
Thanks Mum 🙂
Hi! Love all of the information. I want to book with Lily’s Guesthouse ahead of time, but I can’t seem to find any information on how to book online. Did you book ahead of time, and how do I go about doing this? Thanks!
Hi Amy, I didn’t book in advance, I showed up the afternoon before I wanted to do my trek and went to Golden Lily to sign up with them then. I’m not sure if you can book online – they are a pretty basic operation so I don’t think they would do online bookings. Good luck!
I find myself unable to leave your blog! I can’t stop reading it! I must say you have a very unique voice in writing, which I personally appreciate. Thanks again Katie!
Where did you stay in kalaw?
Hi Ashley, I think it was called Honey Pine Hotel
I’m hoping to do a similar trek this November. Which company did you book this through, and how far in advance do you need to book it? Looks incredible!
Hi Kiara, I turned up the day before I wanted to trek at the Golden Lily Guesthouse and booked there. I think the actual name of the trekking company is Jungle King Trekking. I did the trek in December last year and there was no need to book further in advance than the day before but I’m not sure if that has changed. I recommend doing the three day alternative route, so amazing!
I can’t believe that you can get all that for $36!! That’s just insane!
I know – I agree! I couldn’t believe it when I heard how cheap it is
This trek looks amazing! I can’t believe how cheap it was
I know! I couldn’t believe it either. It probably won’t stay that cheap, the more tourists that come the price will surely go up