Just before 8am, we wandered into Sam’s Restaurant. After adding our bags to the growing pile of backpacks left behind by other adventurous travellers, we sat down, waiting for our trek to begin.
We weren’t allowed to be late. I was travelling with an Englishman – Mark – who’s sense of being polite and courteous (along with any backlash he expected from his follow British travellers) ensured we walked in on time – an easy feat given the last few days of pre-dawn alarms in Bagan.
By about 8:30, our group of seven had arrived and we were ushered to the front of the building where Sam (now too old to be doing the treks himself) gave a brief rundown of the next three days. With a stern gaze he gave us strict instructions to wander around each of the villages and ask as many questions as possible.
After quick introductions to our guide (Kyaw Hla – pronounced Yolah) and our chef (Tun Tun), we were on our way.
Day One: Kalaw – Setkya Gone
Walking Time: 4 hours, 45 minutes
Lowest Elevation: 1,310m
Highest Elevation: 1,467m
Total ascent / descent: 975m / 917m
Beginning from right outside of Sam’s Restaurant, we set out through the streets of Kalaw and quickly entered the countryside.
With a quick stop by Sam’s house, we learnt that Sam hires many guides from the local villages, teaching many of them English and providing them with a home for when they’re not on a trek. Our own guide, Kyaw Hla, was introduced to the company by Sam’s daughter. He had met her during university and she’d invited him to become a guide – something that Kyaw Hla intends to do for a long time yet.
Although it felt as if we were constantly going uphill as we walked, we kept a good pace, and with the cooler temperatures at our altitude, things weren’t too difficult.
As we walked, we passed through a number of small villages – each being home to just several hundred people. It was almost like stepping back in time – houses typically made of bamboo (or cement bricks where the family could afford it), all scattered around small sandy roads. Generally, they were all two-storey buildings, although the ground floor often seemed to be used as storage, or even as the overnight home for the cows and buffalo (the main use of these animals being for transport).
Stopping at one such village – Hin Kha Gone – we experienced our first truly local meal. Sitting on the floor, our feet turned away from Buddha, we ate a smorgasbord of food, which always came with “extras”. The meal itself had been cooked over an open fire, and you could taste the extra flavours coming through the food from this – a burnt, ashy flavour which pleased some (but not me).
With each stop, we were told about the local people. Our lunch stop was with the Palong Tribe. As little as 40 years ago, this tribe was involved in the opium trade. Selling opium for as little as 300 kyats (about 30 cents) per kilogram, they had little money. Eventually, they moved into growing other items such as tea and oranges, and now make a better living.
Day Two: Setkya Gone – Pattupauk
Walking Time: 4 hours, 59 minutes
Lowest Elevation: 1,246m
Highest Elevation: 1,572m
Total ascent / descent: 877m / 912m
Waking up on day two, I thought I’d be feeling the strain of the previous day’s walking. Instead, what seemed to be of bigger concern for my muscles and bones seemed to be the sleeping conditions. In true homestay style – and just like the locals – we had slept on the floor!
We were each given a pillow and two blankets, with a third laid out on the floor and shared between two as a mattress of sorts. I’d chosen to use one of my blankets to add a little extra cushioning between myself and the floor, and consequently found that I continued to wake throughout the night as temperatures quickly dropped and I started getting cold – I wasn’t prepared for that sort of weather.
After getting up the following morning and braving the cool air to tackle the adventure that is an outdoor squat toilet, I returned to what warmth I had from my blankets. With little space available to change, I was using them as a cover to get back into my trekking clothes. Just as I began, with the usual “getting changed under the blankets” awkward movements taking place, the owner of the house wandered into our little makeshift room. To my horror, he kneeled next to me and commenced his daily morning religious ritual – I hope he didn’t notice what I was doing…
Setting out for the days walking, we ventured straight uphill, high above the village. Fortunately, this would be the worst of things for the day, with the rest of the day spent going over undulating terrain, but with nothing quite as steep or prolonged as that first quick climb.
With the combined effects of two days worth of walking, we were all starting to feel tired by the end of the day. It was a joy every moment we got to rest, especially when the only sounds we could hear were those of the leaves moving in the cool, refreshing breeze, a variety of birds, and the occasional grumbling of Neil’s extremely unhappy stomach (too much curry and beer he told me).
Day Three: Pattupauk – Nyaung Shwe
Walking Time: 3 hours, 33 minutes
Lowest Elevation: 874m
Highest Elevation: 1,452m
Total ascent / descent: 493m / 946m
Stiff, and feeling just a little sore, we set off on day three.
With a shorter distance, and a trek largely going downhill, I was looking forward to making it to Inle Lake and getting back to some of my creature comforts (and a big hearty (western) meal).
As with the previous days, we stopped in at a variety of villages and learned a lot about local life.
Over the days we learned of a number of ways in which the local people make a living. Generally, the people use the land for farming, with many growing coffee, tea, oranges and a variety of other goods. What varies, is the price the people get for each good. We learned about a few of the different prices, with coffee selling for around 3,500 kyats per kilo and tea leaves ranging from 2,000 kyats (old leaves) to 4,500 kyats (young leaves). What I wouldn’t want to be doing is the basket making – with just four baskets being made a day, and selling prices of 1,400 kyats each, there’s not a lot to be made from that venture.
Following all the downhill, we finally made it to the edges of the lake. After settling in for our final meal (and enjoying some bathroom facilities that had soap), we boarded our boat and headed north across the river and into Nyaung Shwe – ready for a shower and a good sleep in a bed.
These tours really need to be done with a guide – you’ll get lost without them and never learn a thing about local life (or meet some of the fascinating local people).
While I was told to book in advance, I had no problems with booking a tour on arrival, and actually preferred this given my choice in provider changed completely once I’d heard the selling spiel of the various companies.
The big ones you’ll find in town are A1 Trekking, Ever Smile (the cheapest) and Sam’s Trekking (who I went with). Prices range based on the number of people, with A1 charging USD$72 per person when it was just Mark and I (dropping with more people), Sam’s was 45,000 kyats with our group of 7, and Ever Smile as low as 40,000 kyats. The prices typically always include the guide, your meals (excluding breakfast on day one and dinner on day three), your accommodation, transport of baggage and the boat across Inle Lake. The price does not include the entrance fee to Inle Lake (12,500 kyats when I passed through).
With such low prices, these tours are a bargain, and definitely worth a little look into if you’re up for a few days worth of hiking in Myanmar.
Read More at: Myanmar Travel
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