Kalaw and Trekking to Inle Lake

Kalaw and Trekking to Inle Lake

After 7 hours travelling by night bus from Taungoo we arrived in Kalaw. It is a beautiful, chilled-out mountain town – very popular starting point for the trek to Inle Lake. Many people arrive by night buses, around 4 o’clock in the morning. The first thing that hits you when you leave the bus is a cold air. You can get a thermal shock if you are travelling only with your shorts and t-shirt. The guesthouses owners seem to know the bus timetable as they are waiting outside the bus stop for “new arrivals”. We were approached by an owner of Golden Lily. Actually, I had a feeling that I dissolved into thin air or somehow I was invisible as he was ignoring me, not looking into my eyes and he was only talking to the representative of male sex – Kevin. Nobody is perfect, perhaps he also didn’t get enough sleep or possibly his wife became a nuisance to him the same evening. In fact, maybe he was even right not looking into my eyes – females can be very sneaky creatures! 🙂  We read before that Golden Lily is one of the cheapest options and you can pay half the price if you are coming early in the morning. We didn’t sleep much on the bus and were quite tired so we decided to ignore the weird behaviour of the guy, paid 10 dollars and went to the room. Few hours later, instead of bird songs (that kind of noises I expected in the countryside), we were woken by loud cars beeping and other traffic sounds. The door was open – I guess with all that tiredness we didn’t realize that the lock on the door doesn’t actually work. Inside the room we had little visitors that maybe also weren’t happy about the street noise and decided to come to our room instead – ants, lizards and other creatures. The owner still decided to ignore my presence. We went to look for some other accommodation. We were lucky enough to find a space in Mya Sabai Inn – a beautiful guesthouse, for the same price as Golden Lily, still in the town centre, but far from the busy street noise. The owner and his parents were very helpful and they made our stay memorable. He also recommended a local restaurant Pyae Pyae, where for 1 euro you can eat Shan noodle style soup – delicious!

Kalaw has everything every backpacker needs – a laid back atmosphere, beautiful landscape, few activities around and good, local restaurants. It is located at 1,320 meters and it is a perfect place to escape from the blistering heat. There is a big local market in the centre. It is open every day, but every 5 days there are people from different regions of Shan state coming here to sell their goods. You can see here women from Pa’O tribe that I mentioned before. Ladies in black with colorful scarves around their head – the dream of every Burmese guy as they won’t have to do anything if they will marry them. 🙂 You can buy everything here – from fruits, veggies, spices to clothes, shoes and souvenirs. For me it was such a great time to simply walk around and watch local life.

First day we decided to be lazy and spend it walking a bit around town and sit on the terrace of Red House Bar and Restaurant. It is owned by a friendly Italian guy who came to Myanmar a while ago and he loved it so much that he got married to a lady from Kalaw and they decided to open up this restaurant. We didn’t really eat there as it wasn’t in our price range – we preferred to eat in local places. They serve pizza here and other Italian dishes. It is also perfect if you just want to relax, drink cold beer and have a lovely chat with the owner. If you are coffee addict – they also have really good coffee here.

After a while we moved to another terrace – this time in Golden Kalaw Inn. It is a very popular hotel here and many backpackers end up staying here a night or two. The staff are friendly and helpful, rooms are clean and the most important – they have a rooftop! The lady who owns the place is an amazing person – even though we were staying in another guesthouse, she told us a few stories about her hometown and gave us a hand-written map – with all the attractions, restaurants and a walking path to the hill nearby. She also invited us to the rooftop to admire the sunset. After that we went for a dinner to Pyae Pyae with the people that we met there.

Next day we decided to be a little bit more active. We went for a hike up to the hill recommended by the lady in Golden Kalaw Inn. It starts at Thien Taung monastery. The views are breathtaking and we felt like we were in the middle of nowhere – we only passed 2 people while hiking. On the top of the hill there is another monastery – Ma’Nor’ A’Hla. Burmese people come here to relax and meditate. We met a lady who came to the monastery with the group of people from Yangon – they wanted to forget about busy life in the city and stayed here for few night.

After that active morning it was a time for FOOD. We went to Thu Maung Restaurant. It is a traditional Burmese restaurant, where they serve tasty curries coupled with dips, pickles and sides. It looks like it is a very popular restaurant amongst Burmese tourists as it is common to see the big buses parking in front of the restaurant and big groups of people coming here. We spent the evening with the owners of our guesthouse. They offered us a cup of tea, cakes and showed us a collection of their photos.

Pedal your blues away

On our last day we decided to rent bikes and visit the surroundings of Kalaw. I would highly recommend spending one day just wandering around Kalaw’s countryside. You will be rewarded by beautiful scenery, discover random places and will get a chance to see a local life. We didn’t have any plan – just went with the flow. We were passing by golden fields, green meadows and herb gardens. I still remember a smell of herbs, which reminded me…Poland. We also found 60 Buddha Monastery and Meditation Centre on our way. We had a privilege to observe a preparation of young girls to step into life as a monk. After a few hours cycling around we decided to take a break and went for lunch to New Simple Life. It is a little Italian restaurant run by Sandar, a lovely lady who is very passionate about what’s she doing. The food is delicious and fresh. If you have a craving for a fresh salad and vegetables, cheese or pizza, this is the place to go! I would also recommend Kalaw Cafe. It’s very chilled place – perfect to sit down with your book or journal while sipping fresh juice. It is located in a beautiful garden with home-grown vegetables and fruits and they land straight on your plate.

The time has come and we had to leave Kalaw the next day. The idea was to trek to Inle Lake which is a very common activity here. It depends how much time you have, you can choose from 2 to 4-days trekking.  There are a lot of agencies here that organize it and you don’t really have to book in advance. Just do your research and talk to people that you meet here. We met a Canadian guy and his 2 German friends who also wanted to do a 2-day trek. We decided to book with Ever Smile. It is a good choice if you are on a budget and you don’t mind big groups. The next morning we were all set and ready for our trek to Inle Lake. And with us around 30 other people which were waiting in front of Ever Smile. Luckily, they divided us into 2 groups and we were ready to go! We only had necessary things with us. The bigger backpacks were taken by mini-van and were dropped into one of the hotels in Inle Lake, where we could collect them after. Our guide was a young, friendly woman, who was…expecting a baby.

First day we stopped in a village where the ethnic group Pa’O lives. For me it was a bit of a strange feeling – going into somebody’s village and houses like some sort of show – sort of new version of Big Brother. It had nothing to do with what we experienced in Taungoo, where people were inviting us to their houses and just wanted to spend time with us – it was all about business I guess. There was an older woman sitting on the ground and making scarves which you could buy as a souvenir. The kids weren’t really interested to play with us, but instead they were reaching out their hands and whispering:  “Money”. It’s not really a common thing in Myanmar, at least it was the first and the last time we’ve seen it here. Unfortunately, the bad influence of tourism came here too. If you think you are helping kids by giving them a dollar or two, you are wrong. In fact, you do something wrong. You encourage them to beg more as a way to earn money. Instead of supporting education, you show them that actually they don’t have to go to school – they can spend that time on the streets begging instead. Adults see the potential too and they often use kids as a money-making tool. What could you do instead to really help? In most countries there are established organizations working with the community to provide support for education, training and employment, access to health care and social support. Seek them out, support them and you will really be doing something positive.

The trek is really easy and it’s more downhill then uphill. We were there in dry season so it wasn’t as beautiful as we expected – our guide said that the landscape is so much different after rainy season. We could see people working in the fields. We also stopped for a little swim in the river. It was nice to walk and stay outdoors, but I think the most exciting situation while trekking was when one of the girls was chased by a buffalo. Fortunately, she managed to escaped, but for the rest of our trip she was looking at those creatures with distrustful gaze and fear in her eyes.

In the evening we arrived to another village where we were staying overnight with the local family. The toilet was outside (hole in the ground in the wooden cabin). Our shower was actually a bucket of cold water, it was also outside so you could forget about privacy. We were all sleeping in one room beside each other, on the bamboo mats. I have to say it was the highlight of the trekking trip for me! Staying with the local family, being able to experience how they live, eat their delicious, vegan food and stay in the countryside. After dinner we all just sat at the terrace, watched the stars and listened to the music of nature.

The next day we left at 7am, to avoid the heat. After 2 hours our guide said it is time for a tea break. Girls were drinking tea while guys decided to play a bit of football with the ball found in the nearby ditch. Around 12pm we arrived to the gate, where every tourist has to pay a fee to enter Inle Lake. It cost 10 dollars and it’s valid for a week.

We arrived in Inle Lake at 12, had a lunch there and took a boat to Nyaungshwe, where most tourists go. The town has a good choice of accommodation – for backpackers and the more luxurious too. There are also a lot of attractions – the most common are boat trips around the lake and to the local winery. People from our trek group split and went in their respective ways. We also went to look for accommodation and were happy for new adventures to come.

“Travel is as much a passion as ambition or love.” L.E.Landon

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Off The Beaten Track