Tuesday, April 02, 2013

Trekking To Kalaw

I received so many recommendations to go trekking through the hillside villages of Kalaw in Burma - and I must say, it's one of the most amazing travel experience I have had. An up close and authentic glimpse into rural, village life in Burma, and a chance to interact with locals like no

I left our guesthouse on Inle Lake, waving to my travel companions of the last few weeks, on a longboat with just a driver and a guide - I remember looking back ominously, wondering what I had just gotten myself into. As our boat stopped for directions on the Lake, and then I was dropped off at a nondescript spot, I was even more wary.

But here I met my bubbly Burmese guide, his younger brother who carried all of our food supplies for the next few days, and my Korean co-walker, and before I knew it, we were off on foot into the rural fields behind the Lake.

We started by following a track through a dry rice paddy, out to an old dirt road we shared with oxen and cart, and men working on the land on either side.

Before long, though, we started a climb that my guide assured me would be the worst climb. He clearly had his doubts about whether I would make it, as did I, whilst he told me of a story of an English traveller who only made it as far as the main road - and then grabbed a pick-up truck for the rest of the way. Determined not to be like that Pom, I powered on.

The next moment of doubt happened whilst on this first climb, when I discovered that the 2 days trek I thought I had signed up for was actually 3 days - 2 nights. Struggling with my lack of fitness, and wondering what on earth I thought I was doing signing up for such a crazy idea, this revelation almost had me curling up in a ball and calling it quits. 3 days of this!!?? Surely I won't make it!

Somehow, I did not have a heart attack on that hill, and made it to the top and the nearby village planned for lunch. Our boys set about cooking a noodle soup, while my Korean companion and I were led to a family's house and centre room for a rest. He proceeded to tell me in very limited English that he was very surprised that I made it up that hill - not as surprised as I was, I wanted to tell him!

The rest of the afternoon was filled with walking - flatter terrain this time - chatting and joking along with my Burmese guide, and taking in the countryside - we walked through paddocks, through forgotten paths, over roads dodging other traffic like motorbikes and more carts being pulled by oxen, work groups returning from their day in the fields, and people on foot commuting to other villages.

Each time we passed anyone, the locals were curious about these two Foreigners walking through their land, and a conversation about where we were from ensued. Smiles and laughs between us all were the norm, as the warm-hearted nature of the Burmese was ever-present in these areas.

We reached our stop for the first night before the sun sunk in the sky, and we arrived at our first homestay. The whole village seemed to stop their evening chores to check out their visitors, as we settled into the main room of an elderly man who hosted us. Our guides again set about cooking dinner, as my Korean companion and I soon wandered around the small village to see the work at the end of the day being done. The monastery lent us blankets for the night, and given that there was no electricity in the village, our night was an early one to bed, all 4 trekkers laid out in the main room, sharing with our host.

Setting off after a cooked breakfast, and a blessing from our homestay host, we dropped into the monastery to thank the head monk for the blankets and make a donation. The morning saw more walking, through fields, rice paddys, and seldom used roads, up and down the hills of the Kyauth Taone villages.

More smiles and moments between passing Pa-O people working the land, and coming up to inquire about us as we passed through. Our guide Mygu was so impressive with his knowledge of the local languages, as we passed through different areas and tribal regions, and therefore dialects. He managed to be our bridge with the locals we passed, and added to the fleeting connections made.

Being poles apart on fitness level, I certainly held back my superfit Korean trekking partner, however I helped him with the language gap and his English skills with our guides, and the need for a break led to some amazing experience with the locals.

At one point in this middle day I caught up to where he and Mgyu's brother were, to discover them sitting in front of a stilted home in a village. When Mgyu and I caught up, Mgyu relayed that the family watching us from their veranda were keen to invite us inside for green tea, and to join them in their celebration of the graduation from high school of their youngest daughter.

This tea stop was such a special time, as sweets and the delicious Burmese fermented tea salad and tea, were laid out, inside. We all took a spot on the mats of the family's main room, and translated conversations bounced around. Our graduate and her family were so proud - she is the first to have completed schooling this far, which is the equivalent of Year 9 back home. Smiles and laughs all round, as we congratulated her and talked of her future plans.

Back on the trail after our afternoon tea, we continued on the up and down slopes to reach our second night stop - a homestay with a family. When we arrived many of the village were still returning from their work, and I watched from the veranda as the animals were brought into the yard, feed and watered, and prepared to settle in for the night.

At this stop I was desperate for a shower, and despite our guide suggesting that surely I had one before I left for the trek, he managed to borrow a longyi from one of the women of the house, and I set out to the water well on the property to figure out how to shower in the open. With most of the family watching from the balcony, I managed to have a cursory wash without flashing too much flesh, and felt heaps better and ready for the final day.

Our night featured a bottle of local lemon vodka being shared by the man of the house, and much laughter and jokes between us all, with the help of our guides as interpreters. The house next to our family's had the only generator in the village, so we could see light and hear power being made next door, but again with no electricity, chats were held around candlelight before another early night.

Our last couple of hours of the trek from the village to reach the first glimpses of Kalaw was a morning filled with discussions about the final hill, and whether I wanted to take the pick-up truck option. Hell no, I had made it this far - I was determined to finish! I was assured that the hill was not as strenuous as the first one, and this held true.

One of the great moments of this final morning was coming across a group of villagers heading our way, on the way to the market in Kalaw - I shared some oranges I had in my pack with them, and so they sat and joined us for a rest stop. Such special interactions, these, in the middle of our walk and theirs.

I must say, spotting Kalaw below us when it showed itself through the trees, I was excited to reach the end of the 3 days walk - and yet this trek was so incredible. Such a rich cultural experience, mixing with the locals in their villages, their homes, and walking among their work fields. Seeing this side of Burma only enhanced my love of this country, and it's people; one of the best travel experiences I have had!


  1. I can see why this was such a memorable travel experience. The landscape alone really look awe-inspiring.

    1. Totally amazing! Thanks for the visit!

  2. Replies
    1. Thanks!
      I think this is also one of my favourite travel posts!


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