Of all the delights that SE Asia has to offer, one of the most precious is getting to spend some time with locals in their own setting. This is often hard to achieve when rolling through the usual stops, where tourism has taken up a stronghold. The best way to achieve this can be to book a trek through remote villages. I’ve done this in the neighboring countries of Thailand and Laos, and was looking forward to showing Tina the charms of remote village life here in Myanmar. A well established route from Kalaw to Inle Lake would be our chosen option, 57km over 3 days and 2 nights, passing through many remote villages along the way.
Before beginning, we had to find our way to Kalaw from Bagan. We booked a private driver and were treated to another SE Asia journey of terror. Along the way, we did have a nice stop at a local palm sugar processing region. Tina finally got a chance to put on the local make up that we see all the locals wear, called thanaka. A brown, chalky cream made from tree bark that the Myanmar women all wear on their face to function as both a sunscreen, and a make up. We also observed the process by which they make palm alcohol, and many types of palm sugar treats.
A few dozen blind corner passes of vehicles later, and some windy mountainside roads, we barely made it out alive and arrived in the quaint little town of Kalaw. Having a very mountain town feel to it, it reminded me more of Nepal than Myanmar. We checked in with our trekking group, Green Discovery, and staged our launch the next morning.
At the early hour of 8:30, we met our wonderful guide Ucho whom we would spent the next 3 days with. We headed out through town on what would be a 20Km day of hiking. It was lovely to get our bodies moving after some sloth like living in Bagan by the pool. It took a bit of time but we adjusted to Ucho’s accent, and he to ours, and we were able to communicate quite easily. He had been leading treks for 7 years and it was fascinating to hear how much things had changed and grown since the country opened up more easily to tourism. Just 2 years ago there were only half the guesthouses in Kalaw that were now present.
Tina’s Travel Tips
Only pack the essentials while trekking. You’ll be walking a long distance each day, and every pound counts.
The first 5km we made our way up some elevation and Tina had a mild moment of discomfort, realizing what she had gotten herself into. It did quickly pass however, and soon enough things leveled out. It was easy to walk through the beautiful scenes that we were treated to. Large cascading green fields with local villagers farming with water buffalo and old wooden equipment. It was a throw back to older times. Soon we hit our first break of the day and watched as farmers took their animals out to work in the fields.
The morning rolled on in much the same fashion, passing by field after field of farmers. Some dressed in local village clothing, some dressed in soccer jerseys and old Adidas track suits. A strange contrast, it seems to be the only clothing that makes it out to these villages! Many villagers also sported some red stained teeth, acquired from a hobby of chewing betel nut. A bit of an addiction of some different SE Asia countries, it offers a stimulant like effect, while helping to clean the teeth. Unfortunately, it has been linked to shocking levels of mouth cancer in the region, and less seriously, some giant red smiles.
At lunch we settled into a less remote village which was bustling with a market and home to large Buddhist temple named Shwe Oo Min Paya which was built on top of a deep limestone cave. After some delicious food made fresh by Ucho, we journeyed into the cave. With over 8000 different Buddha statues adorning the path it was a very cool site to see. It did get a bit stuffy and tight at times, but we kept on and soon were reunited with fresh air. After lunch I had a poorly timed, first bout of intestinal distress. I enjoyed the luxury of a public squat toilet to find my bearings and popped some antibiotics to be sure this would not last.
The afternoon swept by with what would become the familiar beautiful sights of the region. We had our moments of tiredness but kept our heads down, and before we knew it, another 10Km had passed, and we strolled leisurely into the village we would call home for the night, filled with the local tribe of the Da Nu people.
Tina’s Travel Tips
Make sure to bring some toilet paper. Most of the squat toilets in the villages will not have any western comforts.
We had our own room to ourselves in a bamboo thatched home. The locals partner with the trekking companies to house trekkers, and benefit with a bit of extra tourism cash to spread around. The companies make an effort to go through all the different villages, so as to not unfairly distribute this much needed cash flow.
Our weary joints settled in and after a nice cold bucket shower in the back yard, we were good as new. Strangely we even had high speed 4G internet on our phones, so it perhaps took a bit away from the feeling of being remote. That evening, we took a walk around the village, said mingalabar to the folks we saw, and after another delicious, fresh cooked meal, we laid our heads to rest. I was out cold fast, with some serious ear plugs, but Tina suffered some, as the locals seemed to be having a bit of a parade roaming around town. She did eventually catch some zzzz’s, thankfully, and morning soon came. (Tina: actually, I slept with one eye open pretty much all night. Creepy sounds, neighbors snoring and Myanmar folk song playing in the distance made me a bit skittish)
Morning in these villages is always quite special. Step 1 is realizing that you will rise with the sun, as that is what roosters do, and they like to let you know the day has begun. A house nearby also decided to play some lovely local tunes quite early, so just like that we were moving into the day. All in all, we got some good sleep given that we went to bed so early, and despite the music that was playing all night.
Ucho had prepared us some breakfast, again a shockingly large amount of food which we did our best to get through. We packed up our bags, splashed our faces in the bucket shower, and got ready to roll. Tina first had a special challenge. The remote squat toilets in this part of the world can be difficult to adjust to, and Tina had thought she might ‘withhold her offerings’ until we reached a western hotel in Inle Lake. I gently encouraged her to buck up, and face the new frontier with bravery, and she decided to go for it. Needless to say, she succeeded, and had leveled up to proper SE Asia back packer status :). (Tina: Seriously my worse fear on the trek. So, yaaassss!!! Can I get a high 5!!!? #2 in squat toilet conquered!)
A lovely 5Km later, and we were already on our first break of the day. We chilled off the path in the next village, and were greeted by a flock of children. They are one of the most endearing parts of these treks, seeing their happy little faces running around in the most modest of conditions. Western brats would never tough through the conditions these kids thrive in! This group however, seemed to have known that us tourists may have some treats for them. It is often frowned upon to give anything directly to the kids, as it fosters bad behavior for them, and unhealthy dependencies on tourism. We did have some Myanmar made palm sugar candies, and Ucho said it was ok to feed the little buggars. One little one leaned out and pointed to his mouth, so we caved and gave them a treat, and off we headed down the trail.
We walked by our familiar sights of farmers, fields of fresh chili peppers, sesame plants, and what was a shockingly diverse set of fruits and vegetables growing in the region. Ucho knew them all, and always pointed them out to us along the way. Lunchtime rolled around at the 10Km mark, and we had made some great time. We decided to take a 2 hour break, and rest up. We had our usual drink of tea, and what had become a regular can of coke. Followed by another great home cooked meal. During our break, Tina broke out the drone (aka Dravko) we had brought along for the first time. We got it setup and took a modest video looking down from high up on the village.
Tina’s Travel Tips
Be a considerate traveler. No PDA, wear appropriate clothing, don’t give money directly to children. Try to observe the culture without influencing it.
On our afternoon break, we had an interesting setting in a small store/house along the way. There were a handful of local guys hanging out drinking rice whiskey and chilling out. We tried to introduce ourselves and tell them where we were from and they were quite interested in Tina. They would speak in a local language to the village, and occasionally say the word “American”, followed by some giggles and full bellied laughs. The people in this part of the world are usually quite polite but it did seem they were having some sort of laugh commenting on Tina. Boys will be boys? We headed off, eager to wind out the day.
Wind out the day we did, and with one last push uphill settled into a Pa-oh village nestled in the valley of two mountains. It was a bit more upscale than the previous, featuring a store with some beverages. After settling into our lovely homestay, we enjoyed a well earned couple beers. A extremely satisfying treat after another 20Km day in the heat. Other trekkers rolled through, along with tired farmers coming home with herds of cattle and oxen. We took in a game of soccer at the local monastery, and some monks playing hackysack in their robes. It was a charming scene. Once again we had a bucket shower, albeit this one was in private so we could get a full wash in. Our host and Ucho did the meal prep in a side hut over a wood fire. The smell of wood smoke becoming a very familiar trend of the trip.
Our neighbors had some serious work underway, pounding out sacks of corn until the sun went down ( and possibly after ). They put their kids to work young in the villages, but we can hope that by day they were sending them to school. That night we struggled some to sleep as the wood fire had somewhat enveloped our room making the air stuffy, along with a freakishly loud snore from poor Ucho in the next room. We did squeeze in some sleep in the lulls and woke to the usual sounds of roosters and smells of wood smoke.
This would be our last day on the trek, and cover 17 more Km. We were getting a bit worn down, and some blisters were starting on our feet. These moments can be fleeting though, so we found some smiles and appreciation for where we had been, and where we had found ourselves on this lovely morning. The walk out included a pass through a 100 year old monastery, and some foggy trails. We didn’t rest much, only once at a roadside store to have a cookie and and a coke. We got a bit of finish line syndrome as we came close to the end, but finally had found our way to the edge of Inle Lake. Our journey was complete and our bags were safely waiting for us. We rested on the water and had some lunch before departing from our wonderful guide. Ucho had a been a lovely friend for 3 days, and I would highly recommend him to others. But just like that, we zipped off in a long tail onto the next adventure…
Steve and Tina