3-day Trek, Kalaw to Inle Lake, Myanmar

Most hikes to Inle Lake start at Kalaw, a township about an hour west of Inle Lake. Most buses stop at Kalaw on the way through dropping off tourists to do the hike. The tour company will take your pack and arrange for it to be waiting for you at your hotel at the other end.

But, if you’re like me and don’t like the idea of handing over your Macbook and other electronics to a random stranger hoping it will all appear at the other end, then the bus continues on to Nyaung Shwe, the main tourist town of Inle Lake. Once there you can find your hotel and make arrangements to have your things put in a locker before arranging a bus back to Kalaw.

wpid-myanmar-inlelake-2015-07-24-17-58.jpg

There are plenty of trekking guides in Kalaw but for some reason I was drawn past all the others to Sam’s Family Restaurant and Trekking. They gave me the options of different lengths of trek, from 1 to 3 days and the prices depending on number of people in the group, from 1 to 6 people. Of course, the more the people, the lower the price.

You are then asked to come back the night before the trek to meet the others in your group. With group treks it’s important to get the right group. The group I was to go with seemed nice people and were from all across Europe. We were given a vague trek plan and shown our route on a map. Here is a vague approximation of the route although ours was slightly different.

wpid-kalaw-t-map2-2015-07-24-17-58.jpg

Day 1

It had rained overnight, which didn’t bode well for the trek. On top of that, as my room at the guesthouse was above the kitchen, I was awakened at 4.30am by someone messing around with pots and pans. Then, as if to ensure I had no hope of getting back to sleep, the water pump beside the kitchen started. At least the rain had stopped.

After breakfast, I headed down to Sam’s Family Restaurant at the allotted 8.30am time to get ready for the trek. But when I got there I found that I’d been put into a different group. My new group did not seem as friendly as the other and contained three Israelis and two French girls.

We began walking through the streets of Kalaw, avoiding motorbikes as we went. We then headed out onto a dirt road through houses with plentiful flower gardens.

wpid-dscf7996-2015-07-24-17-58.jpg

I stopped to take photos as the rest of the group chatted away. This was when the realisation hit me that my five hiking companions were all talkers. So, I hung out at the back to try to enjoy the sounds of nature without having to listen to the constant dribble of human voices. This is, after all, why I started hiking alone all that time ago.

wpid-dscf8004-2015-07-24-17-58.jpg

Finally, after a short time we left the sound of engines and motorbikes behind and started out along a dirt trail. The track led us through an evergreen forest for an hour with several short climbs.

wpid-dscf8008-2015-07-24-17-58.jpg

As we went we passed a couple of rice paddies hidden among the trees.

wpid-dscf8016-2015-07-24-17-58.jpg

After an hour in the forest we arrived at a reservoir where we stopped to rest and watch some locals fishing.

wpid-dscf8027-2015-07-24-17-58.jpg

After our rest and a banana, we headed back into the forest for forty-five minutes with more climbing, although nothing too strenuous. We eventually reached a view-point high on the side of the hill above a green tea plantation.

wpid-dscf8032-2015-07-24-17-58.jpg

Ten minutes further on we stopped at a Nepali Restaurant which allowed more great views while we ate our vegetarian curries. After sitting briefly with my group, I discovered they preferred to chat together in their own languages. As I was the only native english speaker I decided to sit with my original group who were more willing to talk in a common language.

wpid-dscf8041-2015-07-24-17-58.jpg

After lunch we walked further along the ridge until we met a group of local ladies from the Paung tribe of the Hin Kai Kung village who were heading to work in the tea plantation. They were more than happy to pose for some photos with us.

wpid-dscf8043-2015-07-24-17-58.jpg

We walked around the end of the valley following a dirt road and came through their village nestled high on the hilltop opposite our viewpoint lunch spot.

wpid-dscf8045-2015-07-24-17-58.jpg

Once past the village, we descended downhill on the dirt road for nearly an hour. I was enjoying being out in nature again after so long and as I had for most of the day I dropped back far enough that I could barely hear the ongoing loud chatter of my group.

wpid-dscf8048-2015-07-24-17-58.jpg

We again passed several paddy fields on the way to the railway line. We then walked along the sleepers for forty minutes, not worried about oncoming trains as they move so slowly there would have been plenty of time to get out of the way.

We then stopped for a 15-minute break in the disused railway station of the Nyin Dirk village of the Daung people, which is now a cafe type eatery. After the rest we walked on through paddy fields towards our stopping point.

wpid-dscf8050-2015-07-24-17-58.jpg

With about an hour to go the sky opened up and it poured on us. This left us with a muddy climb through hills.

wpid-dscf8054-2015-07-24-17-58.jpg

This made the last part of the day longer and harder. Soaked through we eventually made it to the Sat Sky Kong village of the Daung Tribe where we were able to put our packs down and change into dry clothing. I grabbed a beer from the local store before dinner, which was amazing, several different plates with curries and other vegetable dishes, all with rice. After dinner, we hung out in the kitchen with our guide, the cook and two of the owners, drinking the local Myanmar rum. Then we sunk into a sleep at around 9.30pm.

Day 2

The roosters began at 5.00am but only for ten minutes before falling silent again. We continued to doze until 7am when breakfast was brought into our room consisting of french toast, fruit and coffee. I learned that the french call french toast ‘toast’ although Paen Perdu better describes what we know.

After breakfast we prepared to leave, stopping for some of the group to buy fresh water at the store while the rest of us looked out over the village paddy fields.

wpid-dscf8056-2015-07-24-17-58.jpg

We headed out of the Sat Sky Kong village around 8.30am on a wide dirt road, with some puddles.

wpid-dscf8060-2015-07-24-17-58.jpg

As we walked, we noted the plentiful paddy fields were in many stages of being planted. Some were being tilled and it was from this we learned the value of buffalo to these people. They can be a cheaper, self-sustaining but much slower version of the motorbike.

wpid-dscf8058-2015-07-24-17-58.jpg

But for the most part it is the strength of the buffalo that is treasured. A single buffalo can till a field quickly and easily while would take two oxen to do the same work in slower time. Buffalos are not cheap, each costing about US$2,500, so they are well looked after and usually not eaten. Here the farmer is giving his buffalo a bath and by the sounds coming from the buffalo, it was enjoying it immensely.

wpid-dscf8061-2015-07-24-17-58.jpg

After two and a half hours of walking we stopped for a green tea break in the Kyatsu village of the Baro tribe. Then it was off again along the dirt road through more paddy fields. After talking constantly and loudly throughout the first part of the day causing me to drop back again to be able to hear nature, the Israelis seemed to run out of things to talk about and decided to listen to music instead, singing along for the rest of the day.

wpid-dscf8066-2015-07-24-17-58.jpg

While it did not rain before lunch there was a low haze over the mountains. There is a sense of mystery about a landscape cloaked in clouds.

wpid-dscf8071-2015-07-24-17-58.jpg

We arrived in the Nan Dhin village of the Daung Yo tribe for lunch at a cafe-like eatery. There were two other groups there already, the group I had almost begun with and another I had not met before. I hung out with the french girls in my group and chatted as we ate.

It poured during lunch but thankfully the store sold rain ponchos. While I have a jacket it no longer resists the rain, as I learned during the last hour of day one. The rain poncho was too long, so I cut it down to a better size. This amused the staff although they were even more amused when several other members of the groups bought and cut down their ponchos as well. But as soon as we set out after lunch the rain stopped. We followed a red dirt road across more fields, the Israelis singing away loudly to the amusement of any locals we came across.

wpid-dscf8075-2015-07-24-17-58.jpg

Beyond stopping for an occasional five-minute break here and there, we did not take an afternoon break but plodded along the red dirt road towards the low mountains in the distance, passing small settlements and people working in the fields.

wpid-dscf8076-2015-07-24-17-58.jpg

About an hour before we were due to stop for the day we finally left the road and headed across some muddy tracks through paddy fields. It was around then that it began sporadically raining which caused the mud to be, well, more muddy. This put a damper on the last part of the day and made the mud sticky and heavy on tired legs.

wpid-dscf8082-2015-07-24-17-58.jpg

By the time we reached the Partu Park village of the Daung Th tribe most of us were over the day. We just wanted to get to the room, put our packs down, take our boots off and get a beer. So that was pretty much what we did. The other group had arrived before we had, so I joked around with them a little. Then over dinner, a fish curry and vegetables, the Israelis went off into a discussion in hebrew, the french girls went off in a discussion in french and I was left to myself. So, tired after the day I went to bed.

Day 3

At breakfast the discussion again split into the three language groups. This brought me to a decision to ask to walk with the other group. With several european nationalities among them including Denmark, Holland, Spain and Belgium they predominantly spoke in the common english language.

wpid-dscf8085-2015-07-24-17-58.jpg

Hiking with a friendly and inclusive group makes a lot of difference. This and the fact that much of the day was spent walking along trails through the mountains instead of dirt roads led me to regard day three the best day of the hike.

wpid-dscf8088-2015-07-24-17-58.jpg

We stopped briefly at another Kyatsu village for the Baro tribe before starting our descent towards the plateau where Inle Lake resides.

wpid-dscf8090-2015-07-24-17-58.jpg

We passed the Inle Region checkpoint where we had to pay US$10, but as I had already got a ticket on my initial visit I did not have to pay again. We stopped for a longer green tea break at the Nan Yart village of the Baro tribe where we saw two other groups that we had not seen before.

Then after the break we headed further down the valley to the first views of the lake.

wpid-dscf80911-2015-07-24-17-58.jpg

Along the way we passed this tree, a cousin to the Bodhi tree, the enlightened tree from India the buddha would sit under. This one is over one hundred and fifty years old.

wpid-dscf8094-2015-07-24-17-58.jpg

Then we headed through the pass to the plateau with views of the Inle Lake.

wpid-dscf8095-2015-07-24-17-58.jpg

We stopped for lunch at the Donenay village of the Innthar tribe where my original group was also having lunch. I sat with the group I’d walked with on day three and rested for thirty minutes before a ten minute walk to the boats that would take us across Inle Lake to the township of Nyaung Shwe.

wpid-dscf8096-2015-07-24-17-58.jpg

During the first part of the hour-long trip across the lake we saw fishermen laying nets and steering their boats with their feet.

wpid-dscf81001-2015-07-24-17-58.jpg

With the occasional boat similar to ours racing past.

wpid-dscf81041-2015-07-24-17-58.jpg

And mountains on both sides covered in ominous rain clouds.

wpid-dscf81051-2015-07-24-17-58.jpg

During the last half of the boat ride those ominous clouds opened up and it poured with rain, so we donned our cut-down ponchos until we were delivered to the jetty.

That evening I met up with my group from day 3 for pizza, european food after days of local food. I had the Tutti Pizza, which I call the ‘Monk Pizza’… one with everything.

Overall, other than ending up with the wrong group, the trek was not bad. The last day was definitely the highlight although the surroundings for most of the trek were amazing. It was great to be out in nature again as it’s been 18 months since my last hike which was to Ciudad Perdida in the Jungles of Northern Colombia.

Then with a heavily blistered foot and a little toe with an infection, I hung out in Nyaung Shwe for a couple of days before heading north to Mandalay.

The Lone Trail Wanderer

Advertisements

Bagan, Myanmar

Nestled in the curve of the Ayeyarwaddy river is Bagan, a city of beauty and wonder founded in the 9th century with the name Pagan. The city only survived four centuries, however, but during the final two hundred years more than 10,000 pagodas, temples and monasteries were built, 2,200 of which are still standing today.

wpid-myanmar-bagan-2015-07-15-16-321.jpg

After a nine-hour overnight bus ride north from Yangon I arrived in Bagan, paid the US$20 archaeological park entrance fee every visitor must pay and was delivered to my hostel at 4am. Unable to get into my dorm, I hired e-bikes with an american girl I met on the bus and we headed out to see the sunrise at one of the more popular pagodas.

wpid-dscf7892-2015-07-15-16-321.jpg

Tourists could once rent scooters in this region but the taxi lobby had them banned. Locals, however, found a way around this law by introducing e-bikes, which are simply electric scooters. Most don’t go fast, barely 20km/h, and don’t have a great range although they also don’t need gas. There are quicker ones, such as the one I rented, with speeds up to 45km/h. In a land as hot as Bagan, you really do want the wind flowing past to keep you cool whenever you can.

wpid-dscf7929-2015-07-15-16-321.jpg

When we arrived at the stupa in the dark there were only a handful of people there. But as sunrise grew nearer more people arrived to climb the large and popular pagoda. The rising of the sun gives great views across the landscape, which is mostly flat and littered with short trees.

wpid-dscf7871-2015-07-15-16-32.jpg

But you don’t really notice the vegetation as there are so many pagodas and temples scattered around, some merely twice my height, while others are massive structures covered in gold leaf that shine brilliantly in the sunshine. The amazing thing about this landscape is that no matter which way you look there are scattered pagodas. The vista is absolutely stunning, like nothing I’ve seen anywhere else in the world.

wpid-dscf7884-2015-07-15-16-32.jpg

The Bagan Archaeological area is surrounded by a bitumen road. Then crisscrossing the plains and providing access to the pagodas are wide dirt tracks. It does pay to be a little careful on these dirt tracks as there is often areas of sand which can make riding sometimes a little tricky.

wpid-dscf7935-2015-07-15-16-32.jpg

There are simply too many temples and pagodas to document and it took me a good two full days of exploring to get my fill. For some, however, like my american bus companion, one day was enough and she was off the very next morning. Crazy if you ask me as this place holds so many wonders.

wpid-dscf7898-2015-07-15-16-32.jpg

Sunset is a popular time to head out with a group, find a pagoda to climb and enjoy the view. In fact, sitting on ancient stonework with new friends as darkness floods the lands, is one of the more amazing aspects of this area. It was something I did on each night of my stay.

wpid-dscf7859-2015-07-15-16-32.jpg

When the darkness comes some of the larger stupas light up. For the rest they are simply dark silhouettes in the evening. There is beauty here even in the darkness where you can just sit and drink in the tranquility of Bagan and her surroundings.

wpid-dscf7949-2015-07-15-16-32.jpg

Began doesn’t have a UNESCO site rating as it was rebuilt by the military without using the original bricks, but the feel of the original city is still here. The military built other things in the area such as a golf course and a viewing tower. While these were looked down upon by the locals, the best view can be gained from the watchtower which stands out on the plains like some dark spire reaching towards the sky.

wpid-dscf7944-2015-07-15-16-32.jpg

The other way to get great views is via one of the balloon rides. These, however, do not operate in low season and cost a small fortune. But beyond this, low season is definitely a great time to come here, while it gets a little hot during the day, there are far less crowds.

wpid-dscf79041-2015-07-15-16-321.jpg

But there is more to the region than just a field full of pagodas. A 90-minute journey away is Popa Mountain where a series of stupas was built atop a rocky mountain. There are some pretty great views from the top, but the taxi will usually stop before the mountain for views of the mountain itself. There are 777 steps to the top, which can be fairly strenuous but also involves avoiding hordes of thieving monkeys. They seemed sated of their thievery when we were there so we had little issue with them.

wpid-dscf7908-2015-07-15-16-321.jpg

One day while exploring, I stopped at one of the handy map boards scattered around the plains and was approached by a local girl asking if I would like a tour of her village.

wpid-dscf7938-2015-07-15-16-32.jpg

As it happened it was exactly what I was hoping for and was happy to be led around the village. I met her family and neighbours, and saw how they weave their cloth, lacquer their bowls and spin cotton. This is her grandmother spinning cotton while her mother rolls cigars just out of picture to the left. They visit gave me plenty of insights into tribal life in the village, which helped me to detail the villages I’ve created in the novel I recently wrote.

wpid-dscf7942-2015-07-15-16-32.jpg

Overall, Bagan was an amazing place and I even extended my stay because I was enjoying the surroundings so much. I was even sad when I decided to move on but there were other places I wanted to see. There is something deeply spiritual about Bagan that gives you a deep sense of peace. No other place I have been to on this trip have had that effect. This has to be one of my favourite places in the world.

wpid-dscf7955-2015-07-15-16-321.jpg

Next I head across Myanmar to Inle Lake and a spot of hiking.

The Lone Trail Wanderer

Yangon, Myanmar

In 1989 the Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma became the Union of Myanmar. At the time it was a military dictatorship until it ceded to a democratic government in 2010. It was around this time that the borders opened and travellers such as myself began flocking to a country mostly untouched by the modern western world.

wpid-myanmar-yangon-2015-07-10-17-06.jpg

Five years later and it’s a very popular travel destination with many coming to the country to see it before it becomes the next Thailand, of which it borders.

Between 1974 and 1988 Myanmar was known as one of the world’s most impoverished countries. So, when I arrived in Yangon, formerly known as Rangoon and the country’s largest city, I was surprised to find it bustling with some large rich houses, many newer looking cars and a smart phone in most people’s hands. It seems the western world will not stay locked out for long as there is evidence of a slow seepage already occuring… There’s a KFC in the city, but only one, and it’s very popular with the locals. No doubt more will follow.

wpid-dscf7792-2015-07-10-17-06.jpg

Yangon is a very busy city with just too many cars for the infrastructure, but unlike the rest of South East Asia there is not a scooter to be seen. Because everyone seems to own a car there are traffic jams everywhere and catching a taxi can be a very slow process although at their cheap fixed prices, it’s a better way to get around the city if you have the time.

Myanmar is still hanging on to its culture with fruit markets popping up everywhere as night rolls in. Most of the restaurants are what I call ‘plastic chair affairs’ – a stall set up with small plastic chairs scattered around short tables under the open sky. While mobile phones signs and satellite tv dishes are everywhere, it still feels very real and original. I’m sure this will change in time.

wpid-dscf7776-2015-07-10-17-06.jpg

One of the more fascinating cultural elements seen in the city is the dress. Many women wear clothing usually associated with Thailand, but that is not seen often in that country these days. They come in many colours and are very pretty. Both men and women tend to wear the Longyi, a thick fabric sarong often worn over the more western long shorts.

While there is some use of western cosmetics, most women and many men use a traditional cosmetic called the Thanaka made of a bark compound applied to the cheeks and sometimes the forehead. It has several good properties including a fragrance similar to sandalwood and it is used as a sunscreen. It certainly makes everyone stand out.

wpid-dscf7783-2015-07-10-17-06.jpg

This lovely young lady spoke excellent english as she harassed me to buy her postcards. I finally agreed after a bunch of haggling that included letting me take this photo.

During my visit, I got around the city to a few of the more popular tourist sites…

Shwedagon Pagoda
More than 2,500 years old, the pagoda enshrines strands of the buddha’s hair and several other holy relics. It is the most sacred buddhist pagoda in Myanmar, reaches 99 metres tall and is plated in gold leaf. At the top of the spire, an area known as the crown umbrella, there are 5448 diamonds and 2317 rubies. At the very top, a place called the diamond bud, there is a 75 carat diamond.

wpid-dscf7803-2015-07-10-17-06.jpg

The Shwedagon compound contain many different pagodas, stupas, shrines and statues. It is a very popular location with many groups of people in the different halls, praying and chanting. Most of the buildings are well maintained and often very shiny, like this silver one.

wpid-dscf7802-2015-07-10-17-06.jpg

Each corner of the compound has a great Bodhi tree, the so called tree of enlightenment buddha liked to sit under.

wpid-dscf7800-2015-07-10-17-06.jpg

Sule Pagoda
Said to be even older than the Shwedagon Pagoda, the smaller stupa is in the centre of the city. Standing at 45 metres tall and gilded in gold it stands out on the skyline of the city.

wpid-dscf7786-2015-07-10-17-06.jpg

Legend tells that it was once the home of a powerful spirit called a Nat and now houses a single strand of the buddha’s hair.

wpid-dscf7782-2015-07-10-17-06.jpg

Kantawgyi Gardens and Karaweik
Situated beside the Shwedagon Pagoda, the Kantawgyi gardens is a grand park area surrounding a small lake. It is a very popular place on weekends for the locals who come to enjoy the surroundings of nature in the middle of the city. There are many areas where people can hide away and just relax. It’s a beautiful place with a great view of the Shwedagon pagoda sparkling gold across the lake.

wpid-dscf7831-2015-07-10-17-06.jpg

But there’s another amazing sight in the park… Once floating, but now attached to one shore is Karaweik. It was an emperor’s palace, but is now a massive restaurant for the local elite.

wpid-dscf7851-2015-07-10-17-06.jpg

Chau Htat Gyi Pagoda
The Chau Htat Gyi Pagoda holds a much revered statue that is known as the six-story buddha because it is literally housed in a six-story warehouse. And it’s just down the road from the five-story buddha, although as the six-story is reclining, its overall length is far greater than the sitting five-story buddha.

wpid-dscf7825-2015-07-10-17-06.jpg

The site is over a century old and is even more massive than the golden reclining buddha at Wat Pho in Bangkok.

wpid-dscf7822-2015-07-10-17-06.jpg

Circle Train
At the cost of only US$1 you can board the circular train and ride it in a circle around the city returning three hours later to the central train station. It takes a long time not because Yangon is that large but because the train goes very slow.

wpid-dscf7816-2015-07-10-17-06.jpg

The train is a fairly popular tourist experience as it takes you out into the country side, through smaller townships and past some of the more impoverished parts of the city. The ride was interesting and while the views were similar to some I’ve seem from a train in Bangkok, it was watching the locals go about their daily business that was more interesting. There were even wandering fruit vendors carrying trays of fruit on their heads. Because the train goes so slow, it doesn’t usually stop at stations, people just get on as the train slowly moves past.

wpid-dscf7820-2015-07-10-17-06.jpg

After a few days in Yangon, I headed north to one of the great wonders of Myanmar, the Bagan Plains.

The World Wanderer