Trekking from Kalaw to Inle Lake: What to expect

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The countryside around Kalaw
The countryside around Kalaw

One of the highlights for many travelers in Myanmar is definitely the trekking from Kalaw to Inle Lake. Doable either during the dry and the monsoon season, it’s easy to see why foreigners love it so much. The hills around Kalaw and Inle Lake are so green during the rainy season, that you wouldn’t believe your eyes! Traditional villages, bamboo houses, rice paddies, Pa-O tribes and an authentic non-touristy feeling: This is what you’ll find during this trekking. Do you want to know more? Just read the article and check our photos!

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Kalaw: A quiet, breezy town

Kalaw is the starting point of the trekking routes to Inle Lake. It’s a nice, quiet but lively town, with fresh air and pine trees everywhere: The perfect retreat from the hot weather of Myanmar’s central plain. Check the map below: Kalaw is around 270km from Bagan (in the upper left corner of the picture), and 60km from Nyaung Shwe, the main town on Inle Lake.

Where is Kalaw google maps
Source: Google Maps

We spent an afternoon and a night in Kalaw. If you want to kill your time there, you should head to the local market: It’s open everyday from early morning to 5PM. The market is a true one, not a tourist mass of souvenir shops: That means that you can buy different kinds of food, sweets, cheroots (traditional Myanmar cigars), clothes and a lot of other stuff for incredibly cheap prices! There is also a cave not far from the town. We didn’t check but they told us that it’s pretty nice.

How to get there

We came to Kalaw from Bagan by bus. It took around 6 hours, and it was the best way to get there. In general, buses are quite comfortable in Myanmar, and the roads are well maintained. Well, after our trip in Nepal, we got trained in tolerating long-life journeys and crazy drivers. Check our post 10 Fun facts about Nepal and you’ll see what we mean. So, from that moment, any other trip in Asia, even the longest one, isn’t painful for us!

They are not very fast, that’s true, but see the positive out of it: You can enjoy better the scenery from your window. Trains are even slower and very bumpy, so we preferred to use buses.

Which trekking agency to choose from?

Buffalo cart Kalaw
Be ready for the traditional rural life!

Kalaw is really small, but you’ll find dozens of agencies there, ready to guide you to Inle Lake. The differences between them are in the activities they offer, the type of stay, and the prices (although the prices are more or less the same everywhere). First, you can choose between two kinds of trekking: 2 nights – 3 days, or 1 night – 2 days. We went for the shortest one, because we just had 2 weeks in Myanmar. Then, you can do your trekking alone, or in a group: Usually the groups are made of maximum 6-7 people, but unfortunately some agencies put together up to 12. As you can imagine that’s not good, so make it clear to the agency you’re choosing from.

Our requirements were simple: We wanted to sleep in a traditional bamboo house, with a local family, in order to get closer to the traditional rural life of the tribes in the hills of the Shan State. Plus, we preferred to stay in a small group, to get to know someone else and to save money. Some agencies offer accommodation in these homestays, others bring people to monasteries. It’s up to you what to choose. There’s no need to book the trekking more than 1 day in advance. Just show up at the agency the afternoon before the trekking, and you’ll be fine.

At the end, we choose Sam’s Family. It’s the oldest agency in Kalaw and they looked trustworthy. Plus, they promised us to keep the group small. Now we can say that it was a good choice! We were with another couple and our guide was attentive, fun and most important a good cook!

Trekking from Kalaw to Inle Lake

water Buffalo during your trekking from Kalaw to Inle Lake
You’ll meet many water Buffalo during your trekking from Kalaw to Inle Lake

Being on the 2 days – 1 night trek, the car brought us to the starting point, some 40′ driving outside Kalaw. From there, our walk started in a green and red landscape. The paddle fields were so green that it was hard to believe we were in Myanmar. The terrain is dark, rusty red. The contrast of these two colors accompanied us for two days and it was so beautiful: Now, if we think about Myanmar, we think about these brilliant colors.

Inle lake trekking countryside
Red and green

Day 1: From Kalaw to Pa-O village

During the first day of trekking we walked around 5 hours, split in two parts. It’s a pleasant walk, not really hard, in the hills around Kalaw. We saw many traditional cultivation: Ginger, cauliflower, potatoes and so on. After the first 2 hours and a half, we stopped in a small village for lunch. A simple but tasty meal was waiting for us: Mustard soup, fried noodles with vegetables, a traditional salad with tomatoes and fried dried beans, and many plates of delicious fresh fruits. Speaking of which, when visiting Myanmar you should absolutely try mangoes: They are the best in the world!

Bamboo house - lunch break
Bamboo house – lunch break

After lunch we continued our trekking from Kalaw to Inle Lake. The path in this second part is a bit more tiring, with some long uphills that challenged us, because of the extremely hot weather. After 2 hours and a half, we arrived at the destination. A traditional Pa-O village, with a monastery, school, and bamboo houses surrounded by green mountains all around. Oh, and most importantly, a shop that was selling cold beers!

We enjoyed watching the rural life of the village, before getting ready for dinner. The accommodation was Spartan but comfortable. Don’t expect luxury; we slept on the bamboo ground, with some blankets and a small mattress for the night. The “shower” is a bucket one, no hot water. Our guide prepared plenty of dishes for us, accompanied by steamed rice: Fresh salads, fried vegetables, a soup, eggs and fruits. In the village there’s no electricity: That means that at 7.30PM it’s night. Deep, dark, impenetrable silent night. The family where we stayed had a generator engine, so we actually had some light until 9 pm. Well… Actually at 8.30PM we were already sleeping!

The view from our window kalaw inle lake
The view from our window

Day 2: From the village to Nyaung Shwe

In the countryside the life is simple, enjoyable but hard. Not really hard for us travelers, but surely for the villagers that have to take care of the animals. Anyway, we were woken up quite a few times before sunrise, by:

– the family cat, that at midnight wanted to showed us the mouse it’d just caught;
– again the cat, that a few hours later was looking for love. No way we could get rid of it, so we let it sleep on Zuzana’s legs;
– the cockerels in the houses around, that started singing before 6AM.

countryside Kalaw green fields
Green fields all around!

After a delicious breakfast made of pancakes, coffee and fresh fruits, we were ready to leave the house at 7AM.
During the second day of trekking to Inle Lake, we walked about 5 hours. The path is slightly harder than the previous day, but nothing to worry about. The landscape is as beautiful as the day before, and the bamboo forest that we crossed was really impressive. The bamboos were more than 3 meters high, providing us with fresh air under their green leaves.

After lunch, we arrived at the destination. There is a fee of 15.000 kyats (around 10 Euro) to pay for entering the area of Inle Lake. All the trekking routes end at a certain point, outside of the lake. From then, we were driven on a boat, through a canal, to Nyaung Shwe. The trip was around one hour, and truly beautiful. We had the first glimpse of the life on Inle Lake, seeing fishermen dancing on water with their traditional way of fishing.

fence and nature trekking
The Fence

In the next paragraph, you’ll get to know what to see in Inle Lake. Stay focused!

Nyaung Shwe – Inle Lake

Nyaung Shwe is the main town on the lake, where the guest houses, hotels and restaurants are. Most travelers choose to stay here, as the lake is easily accessible and the prices are affordable. Other resorts are located directly on the water, but the prices are often quite high. So, the town is the ideal starting point for visiting Inle Lake.

Traditional houses on Inle Lake
Traditional houses on Inle Lake

The lake is, together with Bagan, probably the most famous tourist spot of Myanmar. It means that, unfortunately, it’s full of tourist traps. We’re not saying that it’s not beautiful or not worth a visit, just you should be prepared and plan your trip carefully. Inle is a huge lake, with many things to see, some of them authentic and others not: You should choose what to see in advance with your boat driver, better with someone that speaks English well enough to understand you.

What we did in Inle Lake

During our lake sightseeing, our boatman drove us around and he stopped in (too) many tourist places:

1 – A workshop of clothes made of Lotus flower fibers. It might be interesting, but in the end there is a shop and they ask you to buy something. They’re not pushy, however. With a dozen of these workshops around the lake, and not many lotus flowers, we actually doubted that all the clothes made there were authentically done on the lake.

2 – A goldsmith, that we promptly skipped, telling the driver that we didn’t want to stop there.

3 – Sweet cheroots manufacturing: These cheroots are traditional cigars made of tobacco, spices, honey and dried fruits. Probably they’re made for tourists, but they are good!

4 – Indein village, an incredible place with hundreds of decaying pagodas that we loved. Check the photos on this guide!

5 – Long-Neck women. Here, we felt really uncomfortable. There were 3 women, one of them working on some clothes making, the other two doing nothing other than waiting for being photographed. These women belong to the tribes that are originally from the northern part of the country. It’s clear, and sad, that they brought some of them here for the sake of tourism. We left the place almost immediately.

6 – Jumping cat monastery: This teak monastery has been beautifully built directly on the lake. It takes its name from many years ago, when the monks were training the resident cats to jump inside rings. Since the training methods were harmful for the animal, it’s prohibited now to make them jump. So, the cats are not jumping anymore, although they’re grumpy and they like to scratch visitors (right, Enrico?). The place is worth a visit overall.

7 – Floating farms: It was interesting to see how people can actually grow tomatoes, aubergines and other vegetables on the water. You can pass through these farms and observe the human intelligence!

8 – Fishermen: Many fishermen populate the lake, and you will see them while doing your trip. The nice dressed fishermen, aren’t actually true ones. They are just acting for the tourists and waiting for their photos. It’s a way to live, guys! They’d pose for your photos in exchange for a few kyats. Other than that, you will see the true fishermen, dancing on the lake while paddling. They are not dressed as nicely as the fake ones, but surely more authentic.

Here is our Inle Lake gallery:

What we’d like to suggest you to do

So, what do we suggest you to do?

1 – Book your day trip to the lake in advance, and ask for an English speaking boatman. You can book through your hotel, agencies or directly at the pier.

2- Choose the agency carefully! The day after our boat trip, we discovered this restaurant called Paw Paw. The owner is a woman that employs local women in need and supports the communities promoting responsible tourism. She also organizes boat trips, tailor-made to your requests, and it would be the best way to see the authentic areas of Inle Lake.

3 – Let the driver know what you want to see and what you’d rather not. Be clear with that!

4 – If not interested, try to skip the tourist traps. Do not miss Indein pagodas, as well as the floating farms and the floating market, if it’ll take place on the day you are on the lake.

5 – Observe the daily life of the inhabitants. For us, it was the most fascinating thing. The way of living of these people is interesting to observe, and you can ask your driver to bring you to the floating villages.

In the end, we definitely recommend a tour of Inle Lake, if made in a conscious way. Unfortunately, no one ever told us that the lake is full of shops and activities for tourists; and if you look it up over the web, you wouldn’t find any info. So that’s why we’re here for you 🙂

Have you done the trekking from Kalaw to Inle Lake? Let us know your thoughts in the comment section below, and share the post on Facebook!

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