Flic and Nick are the travel bloggers behind the excellent website Lights-Camera-Backpack. If you’re thinking of visiting Myanmar, and looking for some travel ideas, the following article will be totally up your street. Check out their IQPlanner profile page here.
Kalaw, the starting point for Myanmar’s finest treks, was one of our favourite places in the country. We stopped by the alpine town for a couple of days to refresh our souls in the crisp highland air. Tucked away in the mountains that join the vast Himalayan range, it’s a surprisingly lively place.
There are plenty of restaurants to replenish your energy before heading out for a few days. Some of them are cheap, ie the Shan teahouses, but some of them can be pricey.
Take the Nepali Food Centre — its curries are bursting with flavour, but only if your wallet’s full of Kyat and you can bear the company of rich westerners on luxury tours.
What to see
There was more than enough to keep us entertained for a few days. Between the large market, and speakeasy style bars, there was also the wonderful Sprouting Seeds cafe.
It not only has a wide selection of board games and serves the best guacamole in Myanmar, but it also helps young children learn catering and hospitality skills.
Starting the trek to Inle Lake
Our main reason for heading to Kalaw was to trek to Inle Lake, which is about 70km west of the town. Having checked a few travel guides, we wandered around to compare the different treks offered by the many tour companies in town.
At our first stop, the Golden Lily Guest House, we were welcomed by Robin, a 70-year-old Sikh man with a gentle smile.
He talked us through his 3-day trek, walking about 20 to 25km each day, with two overnight stays in mountain villages along the way. The trek cost about £65 ($84/€77) for the 2 of us.
This included 3 meals a day (not water) and a boat trip at the end. On top of this, we paid an extra $10 (€10/£8) fee for entry to the Inle Lake region, which you can pay at the border.
With prices this good and a seemingly in-depth knowledge of the area, we signed up straight away. We also took faith in that our guide Robin has been doing this trek since the 1990’s, and has walked the equivalent distance of circumnavigating the world 3 times!
Things you need to know
The first thing you should know if you’re considering doing this trek, is that this part of Myanmar (north) is astoundingly cold in the cool season (November to February). This took us by surprise, as when we stepped off our night bus, it was scorchingly hot.
Imagine our discomfort when we were only wearing flip-flops, shorts and t-shirts in a 3-degree chill! If you do head out to these mountains, take some warm clothes and be prepared to shiver, especially at night.
It’s not always cold though. By about 11am when the sun takes its place in the tropical sky, the temperatures rise to 30 degrees and higher. It’s a change in climate that’s totally bewildering to the body.
During the hot season (March to May), Robin told us that it gets unbearably hot and the air is thick with insects. This doesn’t put him off however, and still continues the treks all year round, unless the monsoon season (June to October) makes the paths impassable. Crazy.
With cheap coats, gloves and hats purchased at the market, we set out on our trek. Our backpacks would be sent on to Inle Lake by truck, leaving us with our daypacks full of changes of clothes, sugary snacks for energy and our passports.
We walked straight out of town with our gang of hikers. Among the group were a honeymooning couple from Chile and 3 chatty Australian ‘bro’s’ prepping for a trek to Everest basecamp.
Strolling down country lanes, past avocado trees, old colonial houses and soon-to-be hotels, we were struck by a false optimism that the trek wouldn’t be too hard. Robin seemed pretty relaxed, certainly a lot more aged than all of us, and there was a distinct lack of hurry about the whole thing.
The first day took us through an area of conservation forest, out to stunning mountain passes, ridged with tea plantations and citrus orchards.
Cunning Burmese farmers have perfected companion planting, and these cash crops often grow side by side, benefiting each other with their pest resistance. This helps to keep their agriculture about 90% organic.
Not bad for a country under intense pressure from neighbours like China to buy in to the agrochemical market.
You can see signs of British colonial past and influence in the Burmese agriculture. We gazed at patches of celery, strawberries, broccoli and cauliflower, as well as the expected rice paddies that feed the farmers.
The hike is hilly in places, and Robin would pause while we caught our breath, to show us a root of ginger or different herbs.
We had a luxury lunch of curry and chapati in a remote village, all washed down with cupfuls of organic tea, grown and dried in the very same village.
The afternoon was spent mostly walking along the train line that runs from Thazi to Inle Lake, with no fear of being run down by the trains that have a top speed of 15kmh.
If you like trains, and particularly slow trains, the slow train from Inle Lake to Thazi is a spectacular journey. By far, it’s the best 11-hour train ride we’ve ever taken.
By the time we reached our first homestay, we were tired but not exhausted, aching but not in agony, and looking forward to continuing. We sat down to a Burmese banquet, joined by a few other people trekking the same route.
We feasted on delicately stewed vegetables, lightly spiced meats and plates of rice. We slept under the light of the moon that leaked through the farmhouse window, wrapped in several blankets to keep the cold at bay.
The morning was misty and we drank our coffee overlooking the distant mountain ranges, hoping we wouldn’t be climbing them later.
After a hearty breakfast of fresh fruit, omelettes and weary conversation, Robin explained our route. It seemed we would be scaling the mountains after all. A collective groan greeted this proposal and it became clear that we were all a little more fatigued than expected.
The second day was full of more gorgeous valleys and friendly villagers greeting us. The hills were much harder, and our legs were becoming rods of pain.
We had blisters everywhere: our heels, soles and toes. By midday we were far too hot, and every step was a whole new world of pain.
A break for a roadside bowl of creamy Shan noodles, accompanied by samosas and tea, did little to soothe our tired selves. We still had a long way to go, and it felt like our bodies were giving up on us.
Everyone else in the group still seemed rather alive, laughing and joking while managing to keep up with Robin, who had inexplicably doubled the speed of the previous day’s pace, still without breaking a sweat.
By 4pm, things were looking bleak. We had forgotten why we thought it would be a good idea to go on a 3-day trek, when we could have just taken a bus and looked out of the window.
The Australian lads’ banter was wearing thin. Robin’s promises of ‘just one more hill’ were repeatedly broken, just like our resolve. If we had access to WiFi we would have hailed an Uber. But we didn’t.
In fact, the village we stayed at that night had no electricity (except for a couple of DC solar panels) and no running water.
This made showering by bucket a risky business, not only because of the icy chill of the water in the blistering heat, but because when the bucket became empty, it meant a 2km walk to the nearest well.
That night, around 20 other travellers stopped by the village to rest. There were folks from all over the world, a curious crowd of backpackers searching for the real Myanmar.
In these highland valleys, with warm hearted locals, steaming tea and unbreakable language barriers, the general consensus was that we’d found it.
Getting around Myanmar
Myanmar is still a reasonably tricky country to travel around. Political unrest is rife, with some states, ie, Rakhine State, not advisable for travellers.
It’s also illegal for Burmese people to host tourists without a licence (hard to obtain), so chances are slim of just turning up at a village and hoping to find a cheap hostel.
On top of this, your movements are constantly tracked by the tourist police, making the whole notion of backpacking like a free spirit near impossible.
Even so, the villagers in the Shan mountains that are allowed to open their doors to foreigners do so with great pride. Passing through these villages, you get a true picture of life for many Burmese people.
We saw children harvesting chilli peppers with their mothers, their hands burning from handling too much capsaicin.
We stood around fires made from the discarded cores of corn on the cob to keep warm. We literally watched the cows come home at sunset, hundreds of bovine beasts tramping back from a hard day’s work in the fields.
Spending a few days among these people, who live from the land and are self sufficient, it was easy to forget that the luxury tourist industry is slowly taking over the rest of accessible Myanmar.
More tourists than you might expect
Arriving at the national park checkpoint was a stark reminder that Myanmar is changing at a rapid pace. Having seen only 20 other tourists for 3 days — all of them backpackers — we naively expected to find an unspoiled lake with few foreign visitors.
But things were different as soon as we reached the national park border. Suddenly we were joined on the road by several other trekking groups, our paths converging at this main point of entry.
It became apparent that Robin’s promise that he had his own route, far from the tourist trail, was quite true. Now it was time for us to take that trail again.
The final stretch
For the last 10km or so, Robin took us down the slopes towards the lake, at the speed of an intermediate inner city runner.
We leapt across dusty crags of burnt orange rocks, raced down rural roads at the risk of being run down by loggers and eventually made it to Indein village, famous for it’s ruined pagodas.
We sat down to lunch at a lakeside restaurant, overjoyed to have reached our destination. We began to feel distinctly out of place, covered in dust, dripping with sweat and crying with relief that our huge hike was finally over.
Around us were wealthy Europeans in crisply ironed shirts, and bored Russians with nervous private guides, most of them on day trips from their nearby hotels.
The hike was over, but our journey wasn’t. We took a boat to Nyaung Shwe at the north of the lake, where you can find cheap but decent accommodation. Passing boat loads of folks on luxury tours — snapping everything along the way — it was clear that the best of Myanmar was behind us.
Shrouded in the blue mist of the morning, with Robin one of the last true keepers of its keys, it’s a memory we’ll forever cherish.
All photographs courtesy of Flic and Nick.