Walking up and down the undulating hills in the picturesque Shan Highlands is one of the best ways to arrive at Inle Lake. The trek between Kalaw and Inle Lake travels through mountain villages and between farms. Getting to see rural Myanmar and its people going about their day is the best part of this hike. The picturesque mountain scenery makes it even better.
The quaint town of Kalaw is the starting point for a popular 3-day trek to Inle Lake. Although the towns are 60 km apart traveling by foot is a fascinating way to see the countryside.
Situated in the mountains, 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. Located at 1,300 m, the air is much cooler than you’d expect in Myanmar. Mornings and evenings were very chilly, near 7 or 8 °C in February.
Day 1 – 22 km, just over 7 hours trekking with a few breaks
The trek began right from our hotel in Kalaw and headed out of town. On the edge of town we entered a dense, protected forest. We were surprised to see a lot of pine trees. Our guide told us they were planted by the British in colonial times and have now taken over the landscape. There were also many of the important Bodhi trees. These trees are huge with large limbs extending both up and out giving a lot of shade. Buddha was enlightened while sitting under a Bodhi tree making the trees revered by Buddhists.
As we walked through the forest we saw many local women collecting wood for their home fires. They carried the bundles of collected wood in bamboo baskets back to their homes. It made us appreciate our well-equiped home in Canada.
During the 3 days we passed villages from 3 different tribes: Palaung, Danu and Paoh (Pa-O). Each tribe farmed different vegetables based on their elevation, soil and water source. Even though these 3 tribes are only a few hours walk away from each other, they have completely different languages, attire and customs. The villagers we met were very friendly and often greeted us with a smile. Little kids would wave, give us high fives and blow us kisses. On the first day the tribes were Palaung and Danu.
After a couple of hours we reached the edge of the forest where an open view exposed the scenic landscapes of the Shan Highlands. The mountains are more like rolling hills than high rocky peaks, but they are still beautiful.
The land is covered in farms and the walking trails go through and beside these small farms and their neighbouring villages. First we passed tea and orange groves, and then fields of turmeric, ginger and rice.
The trek slowly gained elevation over the morning. By noon we reached the highest point of the day at 1,380 m where we stopped for lunch and had an excellent view of Elephant Mountain.
We stayed overnight in a family’s home in the small Danu village of Ywarbu. It was a very simple home, but they fed us a terrific meal and made us feel very welcome.
Day 2 – 23 km, 8 hours with a few breaks
On the second day we continued climbing up and down the hills passing many small farms. It was early in the morning and we saw many farmers tilling their land with buffalo-drawn wooden plows. Others were planting their crops by hand. We trekked passed rice fields and vegetable gardens growing cauliflower, celery, kale, ginger, turmeric and chilies.
The trail we were travelling on is regularly used by locals to get to and from their farms and villages. The route follows dirt roads, foot paths and even travels along railroad lines. On the second morning we met three school girls on their way to school carrying tin lunchboxes. They were very happy and curious to see strangers on their route to school.
On the second day the people were from the Danu and Paoh tribes. Paohs are easy to distinguish because they wear colourful turbans. Most of the people in the Shan Highlands are Buddhists and we passed a few Buddhist stupas over the three days.
The second night we stayed in the large village of Battu which has 2,000 residents. As we approached the village the mountains became more rocky and rugged instead of the previous gentle hills. When we arrived to Battu, villagers were coming home from working on their farms. 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 monks were playing hacky sack, called Chinlone in Myanmar language. It was interesting to see daily life in a typical farming village in the highlands.
We stayed overnight in a Paoh family’s home. It was a simple two or three room home with an outside dining area. The kitchen was in a small hut beside the house where the cooking was 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. This village had solar panels so we were lucky to have the lights turned on for dinner. But to save energy they were turned off at 7:30 pm.
Over the past two days we saw many buffalo-pulled plows, oxen carts and open fires for cooking. The hike felt like a walk through a living history museum.
Day 3 – 15 km, 3 1/2hours
We woke to a cool, misty morning. Layers of mountains were barely visible through the thick fog. It was a gorgeous morning walk.
The earth changed over the three days. On the first day the earth was mostly brown clay. By the last day it was as red as on Prince Edward Island. The difference in soil partly determined what crops were grown in their fields.
The final morning involved a slow climb to reach the highest point on the trek at 1,500 m. From here the trail is downhill most of the way to Inle Lake.
Not long before we reached Inle Lake we passed a group of people preparing for a funeral for an important monk. He was 86 and had been at the monastery for over 60 years. Villagers built a huge, colourful stupa made from bamboo. It was beautifully crafted and painted. The stupa had an open area in the centre for the monk’s body. That evening the stupa would be lit on fire to cremate his body. The ashes would go in a new stone stupa that was built especially for him. As we continued to walk to the lake we passed many villagers from the surrounding communities who were walking to the funeral.
The trek ended near a series of narrow channels that connected to to the open lake. We were staying in the small tourist town of Nyuang Shwe on the north end of Inle Lake. From where the trek ended we had a 1 ½ hr long-boat ride to get to Nyuang Shwe. The glimpses of life on the lake that we saw from the boat ride made us excited for our next few days at Inle Lake.
Getting to Kalaw
Overnight buses go to Kalaw from Bagan (5 1/2 hrs), Mandalay (4 1/2 hrs) and Yangon (9 hrs). There are also mini-buses traveling during the day from Bagan and Mandalay. He Hoe Airport (50 min) serves Kalaw and Nyuang Shwe.
A guide is not required, but since there are no signs, hotels or restaurants on the trek and the people don’t speak English, it would be very difficult to go without a guide. We did the 3-days 2-night option. You can also do 2-days 1-night trek where your guide will drive you part way. We used the trekking company A1, based in Kalaw and were very pleased with them. Our guide, Sithu, was excellent. He has extensive knowledge of the people, their customs and their farming techniques and speaks excellent English. A1 took our large bags/suitcases ahead to our hotel in Nyuang Shwe so we only carried small packs with enough to get us through the 3 days. All meals were provided, and the food was all delicious. They prepared so much food for each meal, we may have gained weight on the hike! Our long-boat ride was included in the trekking company fee.
The trek is always completed from Kalaw to Inle Lake. Some guide books, including Lonely Planet, indicate that it goes in the opposite direction, which is wrong.
Coming Next – Extraordinary Sites on Inle Lake
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For more of our treks click here, or go directly to Phuktal Gompa (Zanskar), Markha Valley Trek (Ladakh), Kashmir’s Great Lakes (Kashmir), Source of the Ganges, Kuari Pass (Uttarakhand), Hampta Pass (Himachal Pradesh), Everest 3 Passes, Manaslu Circuit, Upper Mustang (Nepal), Jumolhari Yaksa Trek (Bhutan), Pinnacles Trek (Borneo), Carstenz Pyramid (Indonesia), Annapurna Circuit (Nepal), Alpamayo Circuit (Peru), Sunshine to Assiniboine (Canada), Rockwall (Canada), Dolomite Peak (Canada).