Trekking has become a popular activity in Myanmar and the Kalaw to Inle Lake trek is considered a must-do on any Myanmar travel itinerary. The trek is around 60km and can be done over two or three days. It takes in the rolling hills, farmlands and local villages in western Shan State and gives trekkers an insight into the Pa’o culture along the way.
This guide to the Kalaw to Inle Lake trek will give you an idea of what to expect when planning to walk from Kalaw to Inle Lake in Myanmar.
The trek begins in a town called Kalaw, a six hour windy and scenic bus ride from Bagan. I took OK Bus Service for 15,000kyats which included a door to door service.
Although there’s not much to the town itself, the surrounding area offers plenty of hiking and viewpoints over the area. Most people spend little time in the town itself and admittedly so did I. I stayed one night before heading out the next morning on the three day trek to Inle Lake.
I stayed at Hostel Roma Inn, a couple of kilometres out of town and a beautiful place to relax. The owner’s were both beautiful people and some of the friendliest hosts I had in Myanmar. The room was spacious and clean, they had Wi-Fi and provided free breakfast and filtered water.
Search for Kalaw accommodation here.
Picking a Kalaw to Inle Lake trekking company
It’s highly recommended to do the trek with a trekking company from Kalaw. While it is possible to do it independently, it would be very difficult to know the way and organise the homestays yourself.
I walked around Kalaw to the few agencies that have popped up in town. The oldest and most well-known is Uncle Sam’s Trekking and I was already leaning towards going with them. However, another popular agency, Jungle King, seemed much more friendly and offered a set price no matter how many people joined. On the other hand, Uncle Sam’s price depended on the group numbers and he couldn’t guarantee how many people he would get.
The other sticking point was that they stayed at homestays both nights of the trek, whereas Jungle King stayed at a homestay the first night and then a monastery the second night. I thought staying at a monastery would be an interesting experience. So I decided to go with Jungle King Trekking and I was extremely happy with my choice.
Jungle King Trekking charged a flat rate of 45,000kyats or AUD$45 for the three day hike which is all inclusive (except water and the Inle Lake entrance fee USD$10). Uncle Sam’s Trekking started at around 48,000kyats and went up if there were less than six people in the group.
The trekking group
There were 14 people in total signed up for the three day trek and so the company broke us into two groups, one of six and the other of eight. I went with the group of eight which had, a young Polish guy, two friends from Sweden, an older couple from the Netherlands and a couple from France. So, we had quite a diverse group and along with our 20 year old local guide, Pedro, we made for great company.
What to pack for the Kalaw to Inle Lake Trek
All trekking services transport your main luggage to a hostel or hotel of your choice in Nyaung Shwe at Inle Lake, which means you are free to carry just a small backpack. I wore the same clothes for the three days and only took a change of clothes to sleep in, change of underwear and a jacket for night time when the temperature dropped. A headtorch, charged power bank and a sleeping liner are all good optional items.
There were a couple of small shops near the homestay and one shop near the monastery to buy snacks and drinks so it’s unnecessary to carry too much extra food. Otherwise, water could be bought at the lunch stops as well.
Day 1: Kalaw to Kyauk Su
For the first day we climbed away from Kalaw and up over the hills. We followed a little trail for most of the morning until we came to our lunch break at a little wooden restaurant. The other group from Jungle King were just behind us and we ended up sharing accommodation and meal stops with each other for the remainder of the trek.
After lunch, we climbed the hills a little more, but this time were rewarded with beautiful views over the valley below. We passed through small villages where children would run towards us yelling, “Mingalabar” or “Hello” in Burmese.
We followed the ridgeline of the hills for a while, undulating up and down. The whole area has been cultivated by the local people and the hills were covered in a patchwork of crops. Chilli is a popular spice in Myanmar and we could see large tarps of chillies drying in the sun. In fact, it was chilli harvesting time in the whole region and it seemed like every house that we passed had its own tarp of chillies out to dry.
We arrived at the village where we would spend the night, Kyauk Su, a Pa’o village. Pa’O is the seventh largest ethnic group in Myanmar and are characterised by the women’s traditional dress of wearing black clothing with a bright coloured towel on their head. The locals were coming in from their day in the field and they all smiled and greeted us. As soon as the sun set, however, the temperature dropped along with it and we all rugged up as best we could.
The family’s home where we slept was a large wooden, two storey house and we all slept on the top floor, on thin mats that had been laid down for us. We had a delicious home cooked meal of rice and numerous dishes made with pumpkin, eggplant, beans, leafy greens and some non-veg dishes with chicken and fish.
Day 2: Kyauk Su to Monastery
We woke up to a beautiful view of low-lying fog over the hills below us and the orange glow of the morning sun. Breakfast was as good as dinner and we set off for the day at around 8.30am. We passed more farms growing eggplant, leafy green vegetables and of course, chilli. The walking was mostly flat for the morning and we used dirt roads rather than skinny trails.
We stopped for lunch just as the sun was starting to heat up and we rested for around an hour. After lunch, we continued along a mostly flat road passing through villages and more farmlands. Of course, we wouldn’t get away with an easy day and we had a very steep climb up to the top of a mountain for beautiful views of the valley and rice fields below. We stopped for a break in the late afternoon for a beer and Pedro found a guitar and played some tunes for us. We watched as the local people were heading in from their day in the fields riding their buffalos, carrying huge pieces of bamboo and baskets full of the day’s harvest on their backs.
We arrived at the monastery just as the sun had set and found the young novice monks all sitting inside and chanting in the centre of the room. There were a few other trekking groups sharing the space and we were all to sleep together on the thin mats laid out on the floor for us.
It was Christmas Eve and although the other groups went to bed quite early after the delicious dinner, my group stayed up until late. Pedro introduced us to a new take on the game, Chinese Whispers, where one person has to whisper a sentence to the next person and they have to pass it on to the next person until it gets back to the first person. The point of the game is that usually the sentence has completely changed by the time it gets back to the first person. However, Pedro’s twist was that the person who started had to say the sentence in their native language and everyone had to pass it on in that language.
With our diverse group we had French, Italian, Burmese, Pa’O, Dutch, German, Polish, Swedish and of course English between us. We ended the night in fits of laughter as we all attempted to pass on sentences in foreign languages that we had no idea of the pronunciation or what we were actually saying. So with a little bit of local whiskey, a beautifully cooked dinner and a hilariously fun game, it was a great Christmas Eve to remember.
Day 3: Monastery to Inle Lake
We had been warned that the young monks would be our morning alarm and they weren’t wrong. At around 5.45am the monks entered into the monastery hall and started their morning chants. We all slowly got up and walked outside to the freezing, foggy Christmas morning. We were served millet pancakes and fruit salad for breakfast before we began our walk down to the lake.
We followed a paved road for most of the early morning and then a steeper trail that brought us down to sea level again. The last few kilometres, dragged on as we walked along a paved road to the edge of the lake. We were all feeling hungry and excited to finally make it to the end. We had lunch at a local home on the edge of the lake before taking a boat across the water to Nyaung Shwe, the main town on Inle Lake at the northern end.
We said goodbye to our guide, Pedro, who for his age and limited experience as a guide had been great fun and knowledgeable. He was equally as inquisitive about our cultures and countries as we were about his and we had some great conversations.
For an extra $1 each the boat could stop along the way and show us some of the many workshops that Inle Lake has to offer. We all decided that it was a good idea and we spent the few hours in the afternoon visiting the silversmith, lotus and silk weaving, wood carving and cigar making workshops. Although too tourist oriented for me and mostly demonstrations I’d seen in other countries before, it was nice to see that the Myanmar people were still not too pushy and were happy for us to sit and watch the explanation and demonstration without buying anything.
We finally made it to Nyaung Shwe just before dark and it was definitely time for a shower and some sleep. The trek had been a truly great experience and an interesting insight into rural life in Shan State. Despite the number of tourists now undertaking the trek, I was surprised to find that it still retains most of its authenticity and did not feel like an exploitative or superficial experience. How long it remains like that, however, is hard to predict.
Once in Nyaung Shwe, there is not a whole lot to do other than take another boat out onto the lake. However, the Mingalar Market in town is a good place to walk around for a couple of hours and also have some lunch. It’s not so much a tourist market and there are plenty of locals bargaining for things. However, you will find some silver jewellery stalls and they are much cheaper than the workshops on the lake.
I stayed at Sin Yaw Guesthouse in town, which was the cheapest place I found in Inle Lake (USD$5 per night) and the place is very clean and comfortable. They can also help arrange onward travel and give advice about the lake, however, it lacked a real backpacker vibe.
Search for Nyaung Shwe accommodation here.
Inle Lake sunset boat trip
Another trekker and I decided to take a boat back out onto the lake at sunset. We bargained for a while and managed to get it for 15,000kyats or AUD$15 in total for around three hours. It is a really relaxing way to spend an afternoon and the houses high on stilts and local fishermen out in their boats makes the lake very picturesque with the golden afternoon light.
The lake has become most famous, however, for the traditional fishermen and their old bamboo fishing nets that grace the cover of many Myanmar guide books. I had wanted to get a nice photo of these fishermen at sunset. However, it’s worth mentioning that they’re models posing for the tourist cameras. The old nets are not even really used anymore as more modern fishing equipment has made its way to the lake. So although I got my nice photos that I wanted, it’s not quite the same when they are staged rather than natural.
You can find local fishermen on the lake, using newer nets and not wearing traditional dress. They do still utilise the old technique of standing on one foot, so it’s still nice to watch them at work.
Leaving Nyaung Shwe
From Nyaung Shwe, I took an overnight bus to Hpa-An in the south of Myanmar and the jumping off point for the Thai border. The bus was mostly filled with other backpackers, most of which were heading to Thailand. The bus took 16 hours and stopped for both dinner and breakfast.
From Nyaung Shwe, there are bus companies servicing almost every city in Myanmar due to the place’s popularity.