Hiking through the mountainous countryside was top on my list of things to do in Myanmar. Carefully planning my route prior to arriving, I managed to fit two treks into my jam-packed itinerary. Although I saw stunning scenery and met nice people in both, I clearly had a favourite of the two.
Kalaw to Inle Lake (27th May – 30th May)
The 65km hike from the small town of Kalaw to the serene Inle Lake is a tourist hotspot in Myanmar. As always I was reluctant to follow the crowds, however sometimes it’s worth seeing what the hype is about.
As mentioned in my previous post the bus rides are somewhat interesting. My journey to Kalaw was no different, as I was dropped off in the tiny town centre at 3.30am. With limited sleep I found a wooden bench to try napping on before I finally gave in and sat with a group of people in the same predicament. It was this group of people that I ended up on the three day, two night hike with. After waiting four hours for the trekking company Eversmile to open, we finally began our hike around 9am. The beginning saw us on a gradual incline to the top of the mountains, overlooking incredible views. After walking for three hours we stopped for lunch near the peak of the mountain. It was during lunch that the heavens opened and it rained solidly for the next four hours. Limited sleep combined with the rain, I was trying my hardest to stay positive. In the last hour of our trek the rain thankfully stopped. I was in such an in depth conversation with two of the guys I didn’t even realise the rain had stopped. We finally arrived at our homestay for the evening, which also happened to be our guide So’s family house. Finally putting on dry clothes, we all had a few shots of rum before dinner to warm us up. The rest of the evening consisted of drinking beer, eating amazing vegetarian food, then a few group games before an early night.
The next morning we left the house at 7.30am to begin our nine hour trek. The lack of sleep the night before drastically caught up on me, making the uphill ascent extremely tough. Despite that I still took everything in my stride (excuse the pun), lapping up the landscape, villages and the simplistic ways of the locals living in the countryside. The next day was fairly similar, however I felt so much better. Within a few hours we arrived at the border of Inle Lake, where we had to pay a $10 entrance fee. This wasn’t the first or last place I had to pay fees to enter an area – seems the government has clocked onto the power of tourism. Going over our last mountain and making our descent down to the village, we arrived around 1.30pm (I arrived shoeless because my blisters were so bad) at our final stop. Overall I did really enjoy the hike, however I felt it was a bit too fast paced which meant I didn’t have enough time to stop and take in the sights. Additionally, it felt like a tourist hike, rather than a insight into the local community. Saying that, the group I was with definitely made the rain and heat much more fun.
Hsipaw (1st June – 2nd June)
With my feet wrecked and my shoes still soaking wet I was slightly hesitant about doing another hike. Arriving in Hsipaw at Mr Charles guesthouse (following my incredible train journey), I decided to sleep on the idea of a one day or two day/one night trek. I bit the bullet and ended up on the two day.
With a smaller group of people than Inle Lake, as Hsipaw is less touristy, we began our hike. 20 minutes into our walk, our guide O’Moung stopped us to explain the importance of a huge fig tree, which are sacred in Buddhism. This is because it is believed that under a fig tree, Buddha attained enlightenment.
Further into our walk, O’Moung also stopped us to firstly try small green chilli’s (which were exceptionally hot) and to pick mint that we washed in a small river and added to our water bottles. It was such a simple idea, but made our water taste yummy. The sun was shining (with a sudden downpour hitting us for 15 minutes), the landscape was so beautiful and we were all enjoying each other’s company, as well as O’Moung’s abundance of information. Walking up and up the mountain, we eventually reached the top, arriving at a village called Pankam. This village was home to the Palaung hill tribe, who moved here over 300 years ago, to escape the conflict from the lower land. A quick walk through the village we came across a fairly new water system, which had been funded by the UN. Previously the women of the village had to walk 40 minutes to the closest river to collect water.
Asking a variety of questions, we eventually found out that it was not only our guide who had written to the UN to help with the water system, but that he was also head of Pankam village, as well as two other hill tribes. Already in awe of this amazing man, we were all blown away. It turns out that the villages elected him into the position. O’Moung then welcomed us into his home, where we met his wife and youngest daughter. It was there we stayed by for the evening. When the midday heat had passed, O’Moung took us on a tour of his village. Our first stop was a massive tree, which was planted when the tribe arrived over 300 years ago. We then wandered through the green tea plantation, which O’Moung picks when he isn’t being a tour guide (or mayor of three villages). Interestingly, the green tea leaves regrow every 8 days, so it’s a full time job to keep them pruned. Heading back into the main village, O’Moung explained to us how men court women in the village. At night, the boys find a long stick, which they take to the house of the girl they like. Finding the girl’s room, they push the stick through the gaps in the house to prod the girl. Once she acknowledges them, they say who they are and that they like her. O’Moung funnily had an awkward experience where he actually poked his now wife’s grandmother. Moving further around the village, we interacted with many of the local kids who were beyond excited to meet us. This little boy wanted to take as many photos as possible, bless him. O’Moung explained to us the importance of education in the village, taking us to the small school which taught kids between the age of 6-11. Each age group are taught in a corner of the room, which as you could imagine, is highly distracting. Because of this, O’Moung was in the process of extending the building. Unfortunately though if families wanted further education for their kids, they would have to send them to Hsipaw or an even larger city/town. On the way back to O’Moung’s home, we passed his parents house. Very kindly they invited us in for a cup of green tea. O’Moung’s father had lived in this house his whole life, also raising his own family there. It felt very special to be welcomed into their home. In the evening we quickly popped next door to O’Moung’s house to a monastery, where we watched the monks pray. This was followed by dinner and an early night. The following day I woke up super early, so sat outside with my green tea watching the village waking up. Everyone who walked by smiled or waved at me. Our hike back down the mountain was fairly easy.
Before lunch and the end of our hike, we stopped at a waterfall for a little swim – well it was more a shower. It was very slippery, but was a lot of fun climbing up. Reflecting on the trek, it was truly an incredible and immersive experience. As you can probably tell, I learnt so much from our unbelievable guide. In fact th two days were a highlight of my whole time in Myanmar 😊.
Jessica Storm ✌️