Kalaw – The quaint town of Kalaw is the starting point for a popular 3-day trek to Inle Lake. Situated in the mountains in the Shan Highlands, Kalaw feels more like a town in Malaysia than Myanmar with its clean sidewalks and good restaurants. It’s a nice starting point for this trek. Being in the mountains, the air is much cooler than you’d expect in Myanmar. Mornings and evenings are very chilly, 7 – 8 °C in February.
The trek begins in a dense, protected forest where we passed a few locals collecting wood and carrying the bundles in bamboo baskets.
We were surprised to see a lot of pine trees here but learned that they were planted by the British and have now taken over. After a couple of hours, we were out of the forest and were treated to beautiful mountain views. The mountains are more like rolling hills than high rocky peaks, but they still are beautiful. The hills are covered in farmers’ fields and the trails for the next 3 days go through and beside these small farms and between villages. We first passed tea and orange groves, and then fields of turmeric, ginger, cauliflower, potatoes, celery, kale, chilies and rice. The earth changes over the three days as well. It starts as brown clay and in the end is as red as in Prince Edward Island.
We saw many large Banyan trees including the important Bodhi Banyan. These trees are huge with large limbs extending both up and out giving a large area of shade.
We stayed overnight both nights in villagers’ homes. The homes are simple two or three room homes with a dining area outside. The kitchen is in a small hut beside the house where the cooking is done over an open fire pit. For a bed we had a thin mattress on wood floors but plenty of blankets for the cool nights. They have solar panels so we had light for dinner, but the lights were turned off at 7:30.
The second night we stayed in the large village of Battu which has 2000 residents. We went for a walk around the village before dinner to see the villagers coming home from a day in the fields. There were ox-drawn carts and ladies carrying baskets on their heads full of wood and crops. There’s also a monastery in town where we saw the monks outside playing hacky sack (Chinlone in Myanmar language).
During the 3 days we passed villages from 3 different tribes: Palaung, Danu and Baoh. Each tribe farmed different vegetables based on their elevation, soil and water source. Even though these 3 tribes are a few hours walk away from each other they have completely different languages, attire and customs. The villagers we pass are very friendly and the little kids wave, give us high fives and blow us kisses.
With the old farming techniques, the kitchen fires and use of farm animals, this hike felt like a walk through a living history museum.
Not long before we reached the lake we passed a funeral for an important monk. The village made a huge colourful bamboo stupa. It was beautifully crafted and painted. There was an area in the center for the monk’s body. That evening they would light in on fire to cremate his body and the ashes would go in a new stone stupa that was built especially for him. He was 86 and was a monk at the monastery for over 60 years All of the villagers from the surrounding communities were going to the funeral, we passed several on our walk to the lake.
The trek ended at Inle Lake where we stayed in a small town of Nyuang Shwe on the north end of the lake. We had a 1 1 /2 hours long boat ride to get to our hotel. For the full details on the trek click here.
Inle Lake is a massive lake but is very shallow. At times you can see sea weed inches from the surface, even in the middle of the lake. The town of Nyuang Shwe is a cute village along the canals of Inle Lake. Here and in Kalaw, they seems to be the best prepared for tourists. They have signs in English, a good selection of restaurants and hotels, there are guides/boatmen ready for tours, and they have much needed laundry services. Somehow these two towns have been able to understand tourism before the rest of the country.
The main reason for us coming to Inle Lake was to see and experience the different ways of life here. We were amazed at the way these tribes mostly Inda, have learned to live on and near the lake and its watershed. You can see our short video on the sidebar.
We hired the same boatman to take us around this huge watershed. The main thing we wanted to see was the famous balancing basket fisherman. They are a dying breed as most of them now use nets, but both were fascinating to see. The fishermen stand on one leg, paddle with the other and cast the basket or net in to the lake all while balancing at end of their wooden dugouts. They move like they are dancing.
Much of the lake industry has moved from fishing to floating gardens. They have developed a unique solution to be able to plant vegetables on this shallow lake. These Floating Gardens are an incredible site. Farmers build garden beds by piling water hyacinth, seaweed and fine mud from the lake bottom. The result is hundreds of acres of vegetable garden beds floating above the lake bottom. The beds are 1 m thick, with 1/3 of it above the surface of the water. They grow tomatoes, various squash including gourdes, cucumber etc. The farmers get around these beds to plant and cultivate in their wooden dugouts.
We also toured several of the 20 small villages on the lake. Almost all the houses are on stilts and some are completely in the water, even during dry season, while others are partially on reclaimed land. Their whole life is on the lake.
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