For the third leg of my Myanmar adventure, I had the company of two great women – Virva and Alex. We decided that a three day, 60km hike through the Burmese countryside was just the kind of bonding experience we were ready for after our time together in Bagan.
Our starting point for the trek to Inle Lake was Kalaw, a small town about 270km east of Bagan. You can do it the other way, but after a three day hike I can guarantee you, you will rather spend a few days chilling out in Inle Lake than Kalaw. There’s nothing wrong with Kalaw, it’s just quite a small town and there isn’t a lot to do there.
When the mini bus came to pick us up at our hostel in Bagan, it was about an hour late and there was a bit of confusion – they tried to tell us there wasn’t enough room on the bus for us all, and I would have to wait for a second bus. Clearly there were empty seats, and usually in Southeast Asia buses are packed full so it didn’t make a lot of sense. After a bit of back and forth, we all eventually got on the bus. About half an hour into the journey, we stopped to pick up three local guys, who wedged into the bus on plastic stools in the aisles…clearly there was room after all!
When we reached Kalaw in mid-afternoon, I was feeling a bit peaky after the bus ride – there were points on the drive through the winding and bumpy mountain passes that I am sure the wheels of the bus actually left the ground. But as soon as I was on solid ground with the mid-afternoon sun on my face, I felt better.
We checked into our hotel – the friendly and comfortable Golden Kalaw Inn – where the lady on reception gave us a quick rundown of where to book our hike and pick up supplies, including beers, which she told us we could drink on the roof of the hotel while watching the sunset. I liked her instantly. It was after 4pm at this point, so we wasted no time in getting ourselves down to the main street to book our hike.
It’s pretty easy to book the trek when you get there – the handful of agencies are all based on one street in Kalaw. A lot of blogs and fellow travellers had recommended Ever Smile, A1 and Sam’s. We did check out these places, but felt that the group sizes were a bit large and we decided to see what else was on offer. We ended up finding a small agency called Lucky Flower, run by Cookie, who is also the guide, and his wife, who manages the booking office. They explained that they take a different route to the other groups and pass through villages where we wouldn’t see other tourists. They also promised us a small group size. Feeling pretty good about the place on the whole, we decided to go with them. After a brief bit of haggling we got it for 55,000 kyat each (about €37). This included the three days of guided hiking, overnight stay in a monastery the first night and a village home the second night, all meals (cooked by an incredible chef who met us at each stop on his motorbike), the boat to Inle Lake, and transport of our luggage to our hostel on the other end. All in all, a pretty great deal for what turned out to be an excellent few days.
We picked up a few essential bits and bobs for the trip – toilet roll, sunscreen, bug spray – and some beers and snacks, and retreated to the roof of our hostel to watch the sunset. As with all the sunrises and sunsets I saw in Myanmar, it was pretty beautiful. After a nice Thai dinner and a couple of beers, it was time for packing and bed.
The next morning, we arrived at Lucky Flower at 8am and met Robert and Louis, cousins hailing from California and Taiwan respectively, who would be our trekking companions for the next three days. They were great company and I am forever grateful to them for the endless supply of hand sanitizer, wet wipes and potato chips they shared with us.
Our first day took us initially through pine forests as we crossed the train tracks out of Kalaw town and made our way up into the hills. Kalaw is higher up and a lot cooler than Bagan, and as we ascended into the forest the fresh air felt wonderful after days of dusty heat.
The route continued through meandering farmland and villages. Just as Cookie had said, this route appeared to be a pretty well kept secret, as we only passed two other hikers all day.
Whenever we walked through a village, the people we met saluted us warmly and seemed happy enough to see us passing through, which was a relief. The last thing you want as a visitor in someone’s town or village is to disrupt day-to-day life or get in the way. I think because we were a small group, and there weren’t others, it didn’t disturb things too much.
Most of the children we met were pretty excited and curious, and would come out into the road to wave or just to suss us out a bit. At one point, we stopped for a water break on a hill overlooking a few fields of crops. Below, there were a couple of women working in the fields with two young boys playing nearby. When the boys spotted us, they began running through the field and uphill towards us. They must have been a good 400m away, but they ran the whole way to us, just to say hi.
After a couple of hours and about 13km of walking, we stopped for lunch in a family home in one of the villages. We ate noodles and drank tea, and while the others slept I sat in companionable silence with our host. She didn’t speak English, and my Burmese is rusty to non-existent, but you would be amazed how far smiling and pointing can get you. When Cookie was around, he was able to translate a bit, and it turned out she is the same age as me. She wanted to know where I lived and worked and what my house looked like. Thanks to the magic of Google Earth, and to Robert for letting me use the wifi hotspot on his phone, I was able to show her photos of my home in Cork, and where I had worked in London. It was pretty cool to be able to (sort of) talk to her and share bits and pieces.
After we’d rested, we set off again as we still had about another 13km before we would reach the monastery where we were going to be sleeping. We continued through farmland and undulating hills, occasionally seeing people out working in the fields and tending to water buffalo – interestingly, it was mostly women we saw doing outdoor work, while the men we saw were doing handcrafts like basket weaving.
The last few kilometres took us through some beautiful rust coloured hills, just as the sun started to sink in the sky. The light on the hills and the colourful landscape distracted us from the aches in our legs as we wound towards our stop for the night.
When we reached the monastery, it was dusk and the monks were preparing to light a huge bamboo torch to mark the full moon. As we waited for dinner, we sat outside the monastery and stared up at the huge orange moon and the stars, enjoying the perfect quiet. We then had our delicious and plentiful evening meal by candlelight, in the main hall of the monastery. I felt like I had been transported through time.
Almost falling asleep in my bowl at around 8pm, I decided to call it a night. Myself, Alex and Virva crept by torchlight to the toilet and ‘washing area’ outside in the grounds of the monastery. Logisitically, we hadn’t totally thought through how as three women we would manage washing, drying and changing outside a monastery, with a barrel of water and metal pan, one towel and only the moon and a tiny torch for light, but somehow we managed it. It was a team effort, a unique bonding experience, and easily one of the most hilarious experiences of my trip so far.
The next morning, we were joined by Rosalind, a friendly Canadian woman who had come to join us for the last two days of our trip. As a six piece, we ate our breakfast and set off on our way.
Today’s hike wasn’t quite so long, but there was plenty of up and down involved so it didn’t exactly feel like a rest for the legs. It included a stop at a river, where as we rested on the riverbank, children from the nearby school came to go swimming on their lunch break.
By the time we stopped for lunch we were all pretty exhausted, and thankfully there was a room where we could sleep for an hour to escape the hottest part of the day. Once we were fed, rested and stocked up with water, we were on our way. The afternoon walk continued uphill and through some winding mountain roads with spectacular views.
Cookie took us on a slight detour on our way into the village we would be staying that night, up a steep hill to a Buddhist temple with amazing views for miles. We watched the sunset and wrapped up warm as we cooled down from our daylight hiking and the evening chill set in, It was beautiful and incredibly peaceful.
By the time we reached our home stay for the night, it was dark outside and the night sky was full of stars. As I climbed the steps leading into the house, I noticed dozens of pumpkins under the stairs. The lady who owns the house grows pumpkins, and I would later come to appreciate this immensely when served pumpkin soup for dinner and donuts with pumpkin jam for breakfast the next morning. Heaven!
Once again, we ate a huge and delicious meal and I felt totally exhausted. I went outside to the yard to brush my teeth – I decided I was too tired to worry about being clean – and as I did, I stared up at the stars. I had one of those moments where you stop and think how bizarre it is to be exactly where you are, doing exactly what you’re doing. In my case, that was brushing my teeth in a farmyard in the middle of Burma, with a cow looking at me, no sound for miles, and staring up at this breathtakingly big moon and blanket of stars. There’s no instagram filter that will capture that for you.
Our sleeping arrangements were pretty basic – mats and blankets on the floor – but honestly I think I would have fallen asleep in the pumpkin patch at this point I was so tired.
Day 3 (Shorter day)
The next morning, we were all pretty wrecked. Once we’d had breakfast and tea, we got our gear together, put on our least smelly clothes, and set of for the last leg of our trek. This section of the walk would take us through more woodland, and through some fairly flat agricultural spots.
We Must have been getting closer to town, as we even had a couple of dogs follow us for a while. They stuck with us for a good 10km and only gave up when we got on the boat. After the last few weary kilometres, we ate our last meal of the trek and hopped on the boat to take us to Inle Lake for the next part of our adventure.