An early morning arrival in Kalaw was the first of many "night" buses in Myanmar meant to get in at 6am rather than their 2am arrival. Trekking from Kalaw to Inle Lake, a three-day hike through the mountains and valleys of south-central Myanmar ended up being a highlight of my visit to this country. From the small, quaint town of Kalaw, to the mountain villages lacking electricity and running water, to the touristy city of Nyaungshwe around Inle Lake, this five day venture was a whole lot of fun...and some bits of not.
Our bus from Yangon was meant to arrive in the small trekking town of Kalaw around 5-6 in the morning; however, we found ourselves aimlessly walking the chilly town roads at 2ish, half asleep and unable to be bothered about finding a place to stay for cheap. Our bargaining skills were marginal at best this early and sleepy in the morning so we settled for a decently priced guesthouse for the three (+1 straggler) of us.
Kalaw is a very small town only recently popular due to its proximity to Inle Lake, a tourist hub in Myanmar. From Kalaw travelers are able to do one, two, or three day treks through the mountains to Inle, and villages welcome the backpackers at night for a local feast and their meager accommodations. I'd trekked in Southeast Asia before through Laos so wanted to give it another shot with some friends this time around. We spent a day in Kalaw organizing our trek and gearing up for three days of no wifi ahead, and we wandered around the small town a bit as well, exploring what we could in our limited time. We came across some mountaintop temples and markets in town and stocked up on all the necessities needed for the trek.
Our trek began early in the morning with Uncle Sam's trekking service. Uncle Sam himself is an elderly, friendly man willing to help anyone out wanting to hike, and the trek ran us very little money for the three days we would be away ($55 all in). Our group of six (four trekkers + two guides) was a perfect number for our few days away as it gave us a small enough group for some individual attention from the guides to ask questions about local life and customs as well as a large enough group as to not feel too overwhelmed by "guide time" the entire duration of the trip.
Along the three-day trek we stopped in two villages for the night and got a taste of local Burmese traditions (side note: though the country is now called Myanmar, the people are still referred to as Burmese and they also speak Burmese...along with several other languages). During our trek we hiked through miles of mountains, forests, several variations of crops (chilis, papaya, pineapple, rice, orange, coriander, tumeric, ginger, cabbage, garlic, flowers, tea, avocado, zucchini, mustard, gooseberry, banana, corn, tomato, and wheat to name a few), villages, arid flatlands, and rivers. I can honestly say we got a taste of just about every type of environment there is in Myanmar, making the trek well worth it.
Our guides along the way were also spectacular, full of knowledgeable tidbits about the country, area, and people, and it helped a lot that both of them were from the area originally. They were both from a group of people called the Palau in the area and spoke the of the Palau people language as their native tongue (along with traditional Burmese), making communication with the locals easy. I think everyone in our group would argue that our guides completely made our trip. We couldn't have asked for much more from them and they made the trek significantly more interesting.
After three days of trekking we finally made it to the Inle Lake area where we boarded a very narrow boat bound for the city of Nyaungshwe, the main town just north of Inle where the majority of the tourists and guesthouses reside. Our boat ride was an exciting, pleasant, and cold change of pace from trekking as our entire last day was spent walking through off-and-on rain in the jungle sliding down slippery muddy and rocky paths. Seeing the boat was a relief as we were all very tired of walking at this point. The boat ride was quite exciting, though, as we cruised through the floating gardens and farms of the local villages, where we got a chance to witness some of the way the local people live. There were entire villages built in the middle of the lake, with all the homes floating atop the water and the gardens floating right next to their homes. It was really something.
Nyaungshwe is a decent size town of roughly 100,000 people (complete estimate, but that seems like a decent guess). We arrived in the late afternoon following our trek and were taken straight to our guesthouse in town. Our awesome guides walked us right to the door of our accommodation and we enjoyed one last goodbye and a picture before parting ways. After some much needed showers we made our way to a western restaurant for some beers and burgers! I hadn't had a burger in over a month so it felt well deserved.
Nyaungshwe is the main town for any traveler hoping to see Inle Lake, one of the most popular (and overrated in my opinion) destinations for visitors to Myanmar. It's one of the "Top 10" things that Trip Advisor will tell you to do in Myanmar, and while the lake and surrounding area are stunning, I didn't really see what the appeal to the whole place was. In my eyes it was a busy, touristy, over priced, and heavily fabricated town with little authenticity to offer . Many people who visit will opt into doing a boat tour (which we did), and it didn't cost us much at all. We were promised ahead of time that we'd be visiting all of these various markets and temples around the lake for a real "authentic" Burmese feel, however the actual trip proved to be very different than what we'd been promised.
We left on our boat trip early in the morning and began making our way south down the lake. One of the things Inle is famous for is the way its fisherman fish. They use a unique (and no longer actually practiced) style of fishing where a large, netted, upside down bamboo basket is lowered into the water to trap the fish, all while the fisherman balances on one leg on the edge of a tiny, wooden boat. To see this with your own eyes is absolutely incredible, and though this way of fishing is no longer used (and all pictures or videos of it are staged), it is still an amazing thing to witness. Following our passing of the Inle fisherman we continued south down the lake passing other fisherman and long boats along the way making their way toward the markets as well. As we continued on our boat suddenly came to the halt with a big bang from the engine and we slowed to a stop in the middle of the lake. After a bit of investigation by our driver it was determined that our engine had blown up and we would be stranded in the middle of the lake until a new boat or motor could be brought out to us. Thank God for modern technology!
After about 45 minutes of waiting, we finally were brought a new boat (not sure what happened to the old one after we left it...), and continued on to the first of many markets. Unfortunately, this first market was just like all the others (and all the markets in Thailand), full of tourists looking for a cheap deal on a whole bunch of stuff claiming to be "hand made" that is actually just made in a factory. It's easy to tell these differences in goods as when you see the EXACT same product at 5-10 stands in a row, it becomes clear quite quickly that these are not all handmade by different people, happening to end up looking identical to one another time and time again. We continued our day at a number of other markets (with one side trip to a bunch of old temples which was actually pretty cool and we had to forge the boat upriver over mini waterfalls) before our group started getting quite irritated by the driver taking us to the same types of places time and time again. By the end of our day on the boat we were all pretty tired and irritated, and ready for a good nights sleep.
Our second day in Nyaungshwe I decided to rent a bicycle and explore the surrounding area a bit. Jon and Ben were feeling a bit under the weather so I ventured out on my own and came across some really spectacular scenery. The farmland around Inle lake is lush and green, and I came across a number of locals tending to their fields. I also stumbled upon a local winery where I stopped for a snack and glass of wine (which is another thing Inle is known for). The winery was in a beautiful spot high up on the hill overlooking the entire lake below, and I enjoyed the view for a couple of hours before making my way back to town to hop on a night bus bound for Bagan!
All-in-all, I had mixed feelings about Kalaw and Inle Lake. Our trek was amazing and something I won't soon forget from my travels. However, I was disappointed with the level of tourism that Nyaungshwe has succumbed to so quickly. Overall Myanmar has been quite a raw and authentic country, and this town was the first place here where I really felt like I was getting ripped off at every corner by locals who've learned from the Thai how they should sell their goods (being obnoxious and conniving). This wouldn't have irked me so much if I felt like the region deserved the level of tourism that was there, but unfortunately it didn't. I wasn't all that impressed with the markets or the lake or the town of Nyaungshwe, and I feel that this is just another place that Trip Advisor has helped ruin because of its "great reviews" of the place that everyone visiting Myanmar looks at and now has destroyed, or if this region has started to feel the influence of how Thailand approaches tourism and is quickly becoming another tourist trap. Either way, I fear for the future of Inle Lake and won't likely be coming back any time soon.