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Trekking Kalaw to Inle Lake in Myanmar

Trekking Kalaw to Inle Lake is the best trek 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 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, and I had heard a lot of great things about trekking from Kalaw to Inle Lake.

Novice monks playing ball - seen while 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 that 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 from Kalaw to Inle Lake was a bargain!

Northern Myanmar countryside while trekking Kalaw

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 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 on our trek to Inle Lake.

Setting out on the trek to Inle Lake

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.

Trekking from Kalaw to Inle Lake in Myanmar

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.

Small village near Kalaw seen while we were trekking in Myanmar

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.

Lunch stop on the first day trekking Myanmar

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.

Patchwork fields while on our three day hike from Kalaw to Inle Lake

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.

Blowing bubbles during our three days trekking Kalaw to Inle Lake

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.

Homestay during our Kalaw to Inle Lake trek

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.

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 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.

Myanmar trekking scenes: Chillis drying outside a house while

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.

Cuddling puppies while trekking from Kalaw to Inle Lake

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.

Lunch on our Kalaw to Inle Lake trek

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-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 Wedding spread - a stop on our way from Kalaw to Inle Lake

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.

Wedding party - a stop during our Myanmar trekking trip

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.

Local ladies hiking between villages during our trek to Inle lake from Kalaw

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.

Northern Myanmar traffic jam while trekking from Kalaw to Inle Lake

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.

Monastery we stayed in on our Kalaw to Inle Lake trek

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.

Myanmar trekking kitty

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.

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.

Sun setting behind the mountains during our Kalaw to Inle Lake trek

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.

Nearly at Inle Lake on the last day of our Myanmar trekking adventure

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.

Marsh near Inle Lake on the last day of trekking Myanmar

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.

Village on tributary of Inle Lake - the end point of trekking in Myanmar

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 previous 12 years of living abroad and travelling, but my three days hiking in Myanmar stand out as a highlight of all of my travels. Even now, four years later, this is still a highlight 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 2020, 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 and expect to pay between $12 to $20. The journey takes between six – eight hours.

You can also travel to Kalaw from Mandalay by bus which takes around seven hours and costs approx. $8, and from Yangon to Mandalay by night bus which takes around nine hours and costs approx. $23.

Where to Stay in Kalaw and Inle Lake

Kalaw Accommodation

I stayed at Honey Pine Hotel in Kalaw and it was clean, comfortable and in a good location. I would also consider Golden Kalaw Inn which has fantastic reviews and a handy location.

If you want to meet other travelers, Hostel Roma Inn on the outskirts of Kalaw has excellent reviews and you can book trekking with Jungle King Trekking directly with them.

Inle Lake Accommodation

My Inle Lake accommodation when I was there was the Inle Star Hotel and I highly recommend it. The location is excellent and there is a rooftop restaurant with spectacular lake views.

There are also a number of highly rated hostels that have popped up in Inle Lake since I visited, check them out if you want to meet other travelers.

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. If they don’t have availability, there are lots of other trekking companies in Kalaw, but I would speak to Jungle King Trekking first.

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 as of the end of 2019.

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%.

Trekking Myanmar Tips

  • You don’t need to pack much and all bedding is provided, just make sure to bring something warm for the evenings, bug spray and sunscreen, a power bank if you want to keep your phone charged, some snacks, a headlamp, toilet paper and wet wipes, and some cash to buy snacks. A sun hat and walking poles would also be a good idea, as is a decent pair of hiking boots if possible.
  • 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.

Trekking from Kalaw to Inle Lake

If you enjoyed this post, check out my other multi-day hiking posts:

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31 Comments on Trekking Kalaw to Inle Lake: The BEST Trek I Have Ever Done

  1. 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!

  2. 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 🙂

    • 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

  3. 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!

  4. 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

  5. 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!

  6. 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!

    • 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!

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