KALAW, Shan State — The trek from Kalaw to Inle Lake is one for those who value journeying through a lived-in landscape.
The trip begins at the hill town once enjoyed by British colonialists for its cooler weather, and heads through the southwestern end of Shan State, with its richly varied agriculture,ethnically diverse local inhabitants and photogenic vistas.
Buses to Kalaw are easily booked from Yangon or Mandalay, or you can take what is reputedly a scenic train ride. I attempted to take the latter option, but slept through the 3 am change of lines at Thazi after my three Japanese cabin mates and I decided cheap local whiskey could make up for our lack of a common language.
Kalaw itself has a few no-frills hotels and some decent Myanmar and Indian eateries around the main market. The surrounding hills and a monastery provide about one slow-paced day of entertainment, while you wait to embark upon the trek.
A number of well-signed tour guide stalls are also dotted around the market, all offering about the same deal. Traveling alone, it wasn’t difficult to latch onto a group trek, and the standard price was 15,000 kyat, or about US$15, for each day of trekking. The 31-mile (50-km) trip takes about two-and-a-half days of walking, spending a night each in a homestay and a monastery—where you might want to bring an extra blanket, depending on the season. Meals of hearty local curries and salads are included in the cost, and drinks can be bought at small shops along the way.
The long days of walking could be described as challenging, depending on your fitness, but the path is never especially steep. Footwear is often a good indicator of these things: One fellow walker did the trip solely in flip flops without too much trouble, but the walk wore large holes in my aging pair of Converse.
If you have less time or want an easier option, you can simply catch a motorbike taxi and start halfway, as I did.
Travelers report mixed experiences with their guides, some of whom were founts of botanical and ethnographic insight, while others could offer little more than perfunctory observations. They should all at least be able to point out a rice terrace here or a Pa-O headdress there, however.
They might even venture into local politics, as mine did, explaining that local ethnic families are given cash incentives to send their kids to the Myanmar-language government school. As in all ethnic areas, official education in minority languages is not an option.
The trek itself takes you over hills, through fields of a stunning variety of crops, along ridges and across small streams. Then, as you approach the valley in which lies your goal, Inle Lake, the lush green of the higher altitudes recedes. The path descends into avalley with a rocky,dry river bed pitted with bright green succulents.
The trip can be done in reverse, but that means more uphill walking and eliminates the joy of being rewarded for your labor by the sight of the lake, enclosed by high green slopes on both sides. The trek ends at a river jetty, where you pay the tourist fee for the Inle Lake area (about 10,000 kyat) and board a comfortable boat that speeds through a series of small weirs.
After about an hour on the water, past the lake’s famous fishers, you arrive at Nyaung Shwe, with its charming guesthouses, great food and drink options, and even the chance of a massage for tired legs.
This story first appeared in the February 2014 issue of The Irrawaddy’s print magazine.