The morning of our trek to Inle Lake in Kalaw, we arrived early to Ever Smilie Trekking, which we thoroughly recommend to anyone looking to trek from Kalaw to Inle. We were greeted by our friendly guide Chawsu who looked very lightly packed for our trek with one small satchel, only large enough to hold a medium sized water and a phone. Others on the trek had bags as big as our packs for the whole 12 month trip. We were then divided into two groups (based on nothing but proximity to each other) and we had no idea how lucky we were going to be with our group, which we nicknamed later, “team Meow Meow,” (at least that is how we were pronouncing it) or in Burmese, team Fast. We feel like it is necessary to name every person here because we all became so close during the trek and feel like we made a whole new group of friends around the world. Here we go…
- Stephanie – originally from Nashville but lived in Northern California for the last couple of years – remember that we met her on the canceled plane ride into Myanmar – we ended up spending about a week with her traveling, but more on that later!
- Ben – a 23 year old English guy with a heart of gold doing his gap year in South East Asia – we also ended up meeting up with him later for a night of debauchery in Hanoi
- Tim and Sharon – a couple from the Netherlands who were definitely the most seasoned trekkers; the duo had just gotten back from a 20 day trek in Nepal up the side of a mountain
- Romain – a French guy who had just gotten back from motor-biking around Northern Myanmar who we also ended up meeting later in Bangkok
- Tia – who was traveling solo and was on her first three days of her trip
- Lisa – who joined us later in the trek, a German nurse girl who was traveling in between her practical studies and starting her nursing career
- Row & Marissa – two USC pre-med-school grads who had just been accepted to Stanford med school who also joined us later in the trek
We had never done a trek before so we had no idea what to expect. Each day was going to be about 25 kilometers, with a total of 75 kilometers hiked by the end of the trip. Our big bags would be transported to our next hostel in Inle Lake. Day one of the trek started as soon as we said goodbye to our bags and headed out of town on foot. The first couple of kilometers we started to get to know each other while trying not to seem that out of shape or out of breath. Our first stop was a water reservoir that supplied the neighboring farming towns with water. As we continued walking, farmers and labors would yell up the hill at us “minga-la-ba”which means hello in Burmese, followed by, “where are you from”. Right away we noticed that these people were no trying to sell us anything or trick us, like other locations in Asia, but that they just wanted too say hi and were happy to have us in their country.
The next stop was at the top of two neighboring towns with crops in between where we stopped to have lunch, a delicious spread of Indian pancakes, daal and other spices. We then hiked around the rim of the two canyon and into the next town, where we were greeted by a traditional family (no not a placed family by the tour company) who manufactured tea by hand. The older generations sorted dried tea leaves by hand one by one for up to ten hours a day. The younger males in the family would set all of the tea leaves in the sun to dry, just as they had done centuries before. As we were leaving the town a young boy and his sister came out with huge genuine smiles on their faces to say minga-la-ba to these weird white people visiting their town. After a few rounds of high fives, we said goodbye and continued walking.
Our next stop was a town built next to the train tracks. Every time a train would into the town, a small farmers market would set up shop along the tracks for people on the train to buy fresh produce. Ignoring the squat potty at the last lunch spot, it was past time for Natalie to find a bathroom and this small town seemed like as good a place as any to see if there were any other alternative bathrooms. After grabbing the bathroom key from one of the shop keepers, Natalie realized that there was no such thing as a non-squat-potty in Myanmar. Unfortunately, what had to happen could not wait. She crossed the train tracks to a small hut/out house: inside was a squat toilet and two buckets full of water. Thankfully she had brought her own supply of TP. What came next was so long and big that it was stuck in the chute of the squatty potty. Success came in the form of finally having the courage (or maybe just the backlog) to poop in a squatty potty and after Natalie had to move on to the second bucket of water to get the log to finally get down the hole.
Feeling a little lighter, we followed the train tracks to our first home stay. Along the way we stopped to taste native berries and to learn about plant species on the path. We also learned that Chawsu, our incredible guide was four months pregnant. In a society where women are looked down upon for having a job that requires them to be away from their families for long periods of time, here was Chawsu doing 75 kilometer hikes with a baby on the way. A couple of kilometers later we arrived at our homestay with achey legs and feet. On day one we had seen rice paddies, farms, forests and sandy deserts. Although our adventure in Myanmar was far from being over. A traditional home in the village that we would call home for the night was two stories of woven bark. The first floor was dedicated to drying out ginger, the family’s main crop and the second floor was the sleeping area and where we would rest our heads. We had the pleasure of sleeping underneath the Buddha shrine that the family prayed to and gave offerings to. It is disrespectful to Buddha (which we will touch more on later) to face your feet towards Buddha. In a second structure was a kitchen and the bathroom and shower also had its own separate structures/spaces. The toilet was in the form of an outhouse (complete with squat potty of course) and the shower (along the same path to the toilet) consisted of four bamboo poles with tarps between them and a large bucket full of water to wash with.
Chawsu is a woman of many talents (stay tuned as she wants to start her own cooking class) and she prepared a massive feast for us. We stayed up until what we thought must have been 3am drinking beers and swapping stories but when we retired to bed we realized it was only 9:45pm. As mentioned previously, we had been carrying around a mosquito net and it had saved us a number of times. When we retired to the room we began to set up our net and were met with intense laughter at our “fancy digs” while everyone around us was mattress to mattress with no cover from the many bugs that surely roamed the villages of Myanmar. Just as the giggling started to subside, we all began to say goodnight. With our headlamps on (another source of amusement for our fellow trekkers) we spotted a GIANT insect (it could have been a beetle, moth or any other winged beast) on the outside of net. Natalie let out a giant scream and the flying terror landed on Sharon and Tim’s bed. This led to another fit of giggles from our room and we went to bed with tears in our eyes from laughing so hard.
The next morning we woke up early to the smell of freshly brewed instant coffee and handmade crepes from (you guessed it) the wonderful Chawsu and we learned how to apply ‘thanaka’, a gold shimmery paste made from bark that many Burmese people wear for sun protection and the women also wear it for fashion. As we headed out of the town and said goodbye to our host family, we were joined by another friend, a dog who had been hanging out with us the night before. We thought he would just follow us out of town but he continued to keep our pace once the road became a path and homes were replaced with trees. An hour passed and the dog stayed with us, we nicknamed him Mascot. We eventually got to a hill and at the top, Mascot sent us on our way alone. We were all a little sad and made jokes about Mascot reappearing later in the trek after finding a shortcut! About 10 kilometers including farmers washing their bulls and women plowing the fields with babies on their backs, we were joined by three more people on a ‘one night, two day’ trek. We now had a group of 12 hikers. The three newbies were Lisa and Row and Marissa. Our original group was worried about how the new people would fit in and everyone was surprised when everyone got along great! By now, we nicknamed our group team Meow Meow (Fast) because every time we reached a checkpoint, we would be the first group to arrive. Our new people didn’t slow us down either!
Soon the day went from hot to stifling and everyone was drenched in sweat. We continued over huge hills of corn crops and dry rice paddies and stopped wherever possible for shade and water. Finally we arrived at our lunch stop, another picturesque stop on top of a hill. To escape the oppressive heat and to take a much needed break, we decided to take a two hour siesta after lunch. If someone had ventured into the lunch room, they would have thought that we all had died a stinky death. Bodies were splayed across the floor and we all smelled like teenage boys who hadn’t discovered deodorant yet.
After it had cooled down a few degrees, we decided to head back out to cooler climates with our final destination being a swimming hole. All of the navigation was done from Chawsu’s memory and we were positive that we would not have been able to make our way to Inle without her. Also, besides our few lunch destinations we rarely saw any other groups of hikers, even though the trek was one of the most popular things to do in Kalaw and Inle. (We would not recommend hiking from Inle to Kalaw because there is not much in Kalaw, besides Huggie of course and trekking that direction would be predominantly uphill). We paralleled a river where men were washing their water buffalos and bridges made of scary looking bamboo rods to our right and strawberry fields to our left. We eventually turned towards the river and took a dip with some water buffalo and both thought about the potential poop, mud and pee in the river. The local people wash their buffalos, a key part of the rice harvesting season, with grass and sticks. After our swim, we headed towards our second homestay, a village known for its half camel/half cow animals, ideal for pulling carts. This time the sleeping situation was similar except the bottom half of the house was for the family’s cows and the shower (this time the shower was visible from the top half of the house and the tarp to cover it was shorter). After more laughs and another great dinner (see below) we headed into bed exhausted at 8pm.
The last day was just as warm and we mostly stayed to the road. Almost everyone got sunburnt, even after our diligent sunscreen reapplications. The scenery again was different and spanned bamboo forests, red dirt and lush streams and foliage. After a sad goodbye to Chaswu, we hopped into speed canoes and went on a whirlwind shopping experience to silver shops, blacksmith shops, lotus flower fabric shops and cigar shops. Even in these shops, the people were not pushy like Thailand but it was still a culture shock after the last three days of freedom and nature.
Perhaps if we had done the same trek with the same company we would have had a different experience but the people on our trek made it one of the highlights of our entire trip. Every single person on the trip, from Chawsu to Stephenie and Ben (who we ended up spending more time with in Inle at our hostel) made the trek what it was and this was one of those experiences (cliche or not) that people say “it is not about where you go but who you meet along the way.”