Kalaw to Inle Lake trek, Myanmar – With Ever Smile Trekking
The Kalaw to Inle Lake trek is a must-do experiences for travellers and backpackers in Myanmar. Instead of travelling straight from Bagan to Inle Lake by bus or plane, why not get off the bus at the sleepy town of Kalaw and spend three days trekking through the beautiful Myanmar countryside, visiting remote hill tribes and learning about their way of life? It’s not an easy trek though. It’s a long walk and, as we found out, it’s pretty hard on the feet. But an amazing experience. We’d recommend booking with Ever Smile Trekking. Read on for our Kalaw to Inle Lake trek story and information on how to get there and do it!
Trekking to Inle Lake – Three epic days of hill tribes and blisters
Finding Ever Smile trekking agency
As we strolled up to the Ever Smile trekking agency “office” in Kalaw, Myanmar, I have to admit that I’d already decided that we wouldn’t be using their services for our planned trek to Inle Lake. It was the combination of stray dogs, the completely dilapidated nature (even by Myanmar’s standards) of the house and the badly scrawled nameplate on the back of a Myanmar Lager box that put me off.
True to form, even after nearly six months doing this, my stupid prejudices were completely wrong and thirty minutes and a cup of green tea later, we’d signed up and were heading to a cash machine to get the 120,000 kyats necessary to secure our booking.
Toe Toe, the owner of Ever Smile, has been running trekking tours to Inle Lake for many, many years and is clearly passionate about the work. She leads the tours herself whenever she can, sharing the guiding and the “office chores” with her seventeen year old daughter. She happily confessed that she dislikes the office work and prefers to be guiding. Judging by the state of the office, I’d say her daughter doesn’t like it much either. Toe Toe also has a fourteen year old son but “men are lazy” and he doesn’t like any form of work and has therefore been banished to school until he bucks his ideas up.
Meeting our trekking crew
We weren’t exactly sure what we’d signed up for, but were confident in Toe Toe’s ability to organise something utterly brilliant for us. And so, 8:30 the next morning saw us foregoing most of the breakfast on offer at our hotel and bundling the kids into the back of the hotel owner’s battered car – there was already another random punter in the front seat who we never saw again – and being whisked back to the Ever Smile “office”.
We’d somehow formed the impression that there would only be us and three others on the trek and were therefore quite surprised to see a whole crowd of eager young trekking sorts and a fair bit of chaotic action going on when we arrived. And I’m sure that there were more dogs hanging around than the day before. Our bags were given a tag which almost identified our Inle Lake hotel and were then hurled onto the back of truck. Aung Aung our guide introduced himself, and the twelve members of our pack headed off at speed.
Next stop, Inle Lake..
Our expected group of seven people consisted of us four and eight others. A young, enthusiastic and very lovely British couple. Two bonkers Dutch girls, who gossiped and guffawed non-stop for the whole three days. And two French couples – one of which had to drop out after the first day due to a particularly vicious stomach bug.
Setting off towards Inle Lake
Aung Aung set a cracking pace out of Kalaw and we were soon lagging some way behind the pack. As we left the town and headed into the hills, our slowly slowly approach started to pay dividends. We passed most people and found ourselves at the front of the pack well before lunchtime. Well done kids, those eleven days trekking in Nepal was time well spent!
It took a lot longer to get out of Kalaw than I thought it would, but as soon as we stepped off the road and onto the tracks, we were transported to a completely different world. It’s staggeringly beautiful, with picture perfect paddy fields surrounded by jungle covered mountains. The scenery is amazing and the jungle is thick enough that you can never see where the path has come from, or where it’s taking you. One minute you’re balancing across bridges, made of bamboo if you’re lucky or a single log if you’re less lucky, and the next you stumble out of the jungle to a view across a huge valley covered in tea plantations and temples. It’s just beautiful, and the miles keep ticking up without you really noticing.
Hill tribes and blisters
We trekked through many, many villages, all of them isolated from each other and all with their own unique language, food, dress and traditions. Toe Toe had explained the tribes to us, but they were too many and too varied to take them all in. Aung Aung also explained stuff as we were going along but, again, short term memory loss kicked in and I haven’t got a clue about the names of the separate tribes we visited.
Well, I say “visited”. That’s perhaps going a bit far. We strolled through their lives, pointed at stuff, photographed most of it and were generally very impressed with how authentically rural and traditional they all were. I must admit to felling pretty awkward about it though and I was left with a feeling of participating in voyeuristic exploitation. Staying with the amazing Shiva Dia family in Nepal, we got some idea of their lives and got to know them as people. This felt much more like a walk through a safari park. Everyone we met, from the ladies weaving on handlooms, to the school kids showing off their skills with a skipping rope, to the guys playing chinlone after work seemed genuinely happy for us to be there, so I think I must be reading too much into the situation.
We slept in two villages on the trek. The first was tiny with just a handful of houses and a healthy supply of buffalo. It was a new moon, and the stars that night were just fantastic. I did try and get some photos, but the cold and the serious risk of sobriety brought me back to the house empty handed.
The home stay on the second night was in a much bigger village. Again my photography ambitions were thwarted, but this time it was by the street lights and the knowledge that the houses and streets all looked too similar for me to have a hope in hell of finding my way back again.
Both nights were brilliant fun. Much beer was drunk, cold bucket ‘showers’ were taken, and snoring kept some of us awake. Food magically appeared from smoke filled kitchens, and we all put off using the toilet facilities as long as humanly possible. And let’s face it, what’s not to love about sleeping on the floor in a wooden hut listening to sounds of pigs, buffalo and oxen snuffling around underneath you? And the views in the morning were just spectacular. Real National Geographic stuff.
I’ll always remember the view on the final morning, bamboo huts stretching out into the early morning fog coloured orange by the rising sun, with cows and buffalo wrapped in sacks to keep them warm tucking into breakfast as farmers prepared themselves for the day ahead. Just magical.
This brings us to the unhappy back story of the trek: the distance hiked and the terrible punishment handed out to Floss’s feet. Not a hint of a blister was seen on the eleven days trekking through the Himalayas to Annapurna Base Camp. One day on the flats of Myanmar and it was clear that things weren’t going to end well.
By lunch time on the second day, Floss was scared to take her boots off and survey the damage. Three hours later, blisters were popping with every step and drastic action was required. The boots came off to be replaced by high-tech hiking flip-flops. This didn’t help a great deal with the searing pain, but as the socks had come off with the boots, at least we weren’t fearing a visit from the fashion police.
Ambulances and long-tail boats
The final day was billed as an easy nine kilometre stroll down to the lake. So we thought the raggedy mess of Floss’s feet would be able to cope if we took it slowly. Three hours of agony later, and with the map still showing at least ten kilometres to go, an ambulance was called (ok, we found a man with a motorbike). Floss and her puss oozing feet were whisked down to the lake on the back of his bike, accompanied by two passing members of the tourist police who stopped them every now and again to point out the view and places of interest.
Us boys carried on through the trek, and frankly, it’s a bloody good job that Floss got out when the going was good. The last few miles were a very hard downhill slog along dried up river beds, through bamboo forests and past monastaries. It was really, really hard going in the mid-day heat. Even Sam, who had been invincible for the first two days, started to struggle. Evan had clearly had enough. Only the generous donation of some chocolate cookies from the Dutch girls kept him plugging along.
Getting to the restaurant at the end of the trek and finding that Floss has been delivered safely (and hadn’t been kidnapped and sold into slavery) was a very emotional time time for all of us. Floss was hobbling about and clearly in a lot of pain. Sam curled up and went straight to sleep. Evan grumbled about the celebration meal of cold noodles and greasy omelette. I wobbled around trying to take it all in, and failing not to have a bit of a sob.
The final part of our journey to the town of Nyaung Shwe by long-tail boat across the famous Inle Lake. I’ve never been so pleased to sit down.
The Kalaw to Inle Lake trek – Would we recommend it?
We had an utterly amazing time for the three days of the trek from Kalaw to Inle Lake. Floss has re-grown most of her toe-skin and is able to wear shoes again. I’m sure the toenail that fell off will come back eventually. We’d highly recommend going on this trek if you’re off to Myanmar. It’s one of the highlights of our time in Myanmar and we’re full of only happy memories of the time there.
We’d highly recommend trekking with Ever Smile trekking agency too, although we heard good things about other agencies too. FYI – We are not linked in any way to Ever Smile, we just had a good experience with them. Toe Toe will probably never know about this article, bless her!
Everyone we walked with was utterly brilliant, and they were all unreservedly positive and supportive of all of us when we were struggling. I’d personally sign up to do it all again without a moment’s hesitation. The people and the landscape are just pure perfection and Inle Lake itself is an amazing place to visit.
As with everything else we experienced in Myanmar, nothing prepares you for the reality of the place. Even the hardest and most uncomfortable of journeys leave you with happy memories that will stay with you forever. I just love the place and the time we got to spend there.
Love trekking. Love Myanmar. Love Ever Smile. Not so fond of blisters.
Finding somewhere to stay in Kalaw and Inle Lake
Being the most popular start point for the Inle Lake trek, Kalaw is seeing a surge in tourism. This brings a surge in new hotels and many are popping up in the town. They are mostly mid-budget hotels, with a few high end options further out of town. As the night bus drops tourists off at stupid o’clock in the morning, many are happy to have a bed ready for you to flop straight into for a few hours sleep before breakfast.
The closest town to Inle Lake and the top destination for travellers and tourists is the hip and happening Nyaung Shwe. There are loads of hotels and guesthouses here of varying quality and price. Some resorts can be found on the lake edge but they tend to be pricey and a long way from the cheaper bars and restaurants of Nyaung Shwe. The best guest houses and hotels tend to fill up pretty quickly, so it’s often an idea to book ahead – especially as dragging your blisters around the town trying to find somewhere to sleep might not be a good option.
When you’ve found somewhere to rest your weary feet, indulged in a cold beer and some local food, you can look back at your Kalaw to Inle Lake trek adventure with a smile.
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