Kalaw, a quiet village in central Myanmar, has not yet been hit by major tourism like nearby Inle Lake, famed for its floating villages and boatmen who row skiffs using one leg.
Kalaw is located in the Shan region, one of the country’s seven administrative districts where a war autonomy means some parts are military no-go areas. The much of Shan is now open and tourists have been discovering the fabulous hiking available in the region.
To get to Kalaw, one first has to endure a bumpy nine-hour ride from the former capital of Yangon in a coach where locals and tourists alike amuse themselves with karaoke singing all the way.
Finally, the bus gets there, and the owner of Sam’s Family Restaurant jokes to the new arrival that “the more strenuous part is now over. The hiking is child’s play by comparison.”
There are various trekking offers to choose from, depending on how much time one has, and one’s physical condition. The most popular route covers about 50 kilometers from Kalaw to Nyaung Shwe on Inle Lake. It takes three days, leading through a quiet wilderness.
On a recent day, the group that trekking guide James mustered consisted of four Swiss, two Austrians, and two Germans.
As James, 50, commented, that meant it was “German season.” He is assisted by Oscar, a trainee, and by three cooks, who ride ahead on the motor scooters, carrying pots and pans and food provisions. The sun is shining and the air smells of pine as the group gets going.
There are only a few other people out on the trail and the hiking pace is slow and easy. Right at the beginning there are a few hills to climb, but James assures the group that overall, the trek shouldn’t be too difficult.
“Kalaw is at 1,350 meters elevation, while our destination is 900 meters. So we’ll be going downhill.”
The first destination is a small monastery, while along the way there are many mountain panoramas and small villages. Children come rushing out, calling “Mingalaba!” – hello. The mothers are gathering the harvest while keeping an eye on the kids.
Electricity and electronics have not yet reached this region, and people get around on bicycles and ox-drawn carts.
By early afternoon, the group has reached a village where they will spend the night. Families who take in a traveller receive a modest payment.
Water is drawn from the village well for the travellers to wash off the dust and sweat of their hike. The water is ice-cold, but just perfect after such a day of hiking.
The air smells of fresh, exotic spices as the evening meal is being prepared. There is peanut-butter curry, bread and avocados. And, naturally, rice. The cooking is done over an open fire. And the food is very tasty.
The next day gets started with the crowing of a rooster. It was pretty chilly overnight and nearly everyone is shivering as they get up. But the sunrise beyond the mountains and the misty valleys compensates for it all.
The destination on this day can be seen in the form of a white speck with a golden roof in the far distance. It is the pagoda of the monastery, one of the countless golden temples found everywhere in the country.
The trail leads past fields being worked by the farmers and through wilderness areas devoid of any humans. Around noon, the group reaches a place to go swimming, a small river meandering through the valley.
The travellers are not alone there – a herdsman is washing his water buffalo. But, there is room for everyone and the buffalo is not disturbed by the bathers while being scrubbed down.
Later, the closer the group gets to the monastery, the more people are found on the trails. “Tonight there’s a full moon,” James explains. “The locals then head to the monastery to bring sacrificial offerings.”
By afternoon, the group has reached the monastery, located at the foot of the mountain.
It is also an orphanage, with more than 30 children living in it. After a football match – the monks against the tourists – the monks start accepting the offerings being brought by villagers from around the area. Then everyone joins in prayers, singing, and eating.
The final night is another cold one, but also short as the group arises at 4:30 am and, after breakfast, heads off to Inle Lake.
The landscape alternates between pine forests and rice paddies, and after a few hours, the group has reached the lake.
The trek ends here, and the weary travellers are taken by boat across Inle Lake, past its remarkable villages where fertile gardens float on the surface of the water, to Nyaung Shwe, where the bus can take them back to Yangon.