One of the best parts about traveling without a strict itinerary is the ability to add activities that may not have been on your radar before you reached your destination.
I’ve changed my plans countless times after swapping stories in hostels or meeting locals, and encourage you to allow yourself that type of breathing room in your travels. If I hadn’t, I would have missed out on so many cool experiences, including making the epic trek from Kalaw to Inle Lake in Myanmar.
Part of me never wanted to leave Bagan, but a new friend I met at sunrise on the top of Shwesandaw Pagoda reminded me that we still had so much more of the country to see. The rain made it a little easier to say goodbye as Ella and I hopped onto the early morning bus to Kalaw.
Sleeping and reading made the eight-hour journey go by fairly quickly, excitement rising as I learned more about the high-altitude hill town we were traveling to.
Located in Shan State at 1,320m above sea level, Kalaw is an old hill station with super laid back vibes, crisp climate, and picturesque views. The town itself is tiny, but most people only make the stop to trek through to somewhere else. Coined as the trekking mecca of Myanmar, Kalaw offers a large variety of options for exploration to witness the lives of the local hill tribes.
Hiking to Inle Lake is the most popular route, but you’ll find that local trekking companies offer a number of different routes. Ella and I stumbled upon Ever Smile Trekking Company and booked a two-day, one-night trek to Inle for just $20 per person. Talk about money well spent!
The hike to Inle typically takes three days, so ours started with a taxi ride to cut down on time. It was just Ella and myself, two boys from Denmark, and our lovely guide Puu Puu.
We got to know each other as we made our way through a small agricultural village that reminded me a lot of Sapa, though much less touristy. Tourism hasn’t hit Kalaw as hard as the hills of Sapa, which made the experience feel even more authentic. We spent time with a group of women from the Pa’O tribe, the seventh largest ethnic nationality in Myanmar. You may also get the opportunity to visit the Danu and Palalung tribes as well.
The language barrier made it hard to communicate with the tribes, though our guide Puu Puu did a great job of explaining their different customs and traditions.
She also told us a lot about her own life, and I became fascinated in learning more about her Buddhist background and commitment to following the 10 precepts. She surprised me with her willingness to speak against the military, even after expressing fear that they have her information from the last election. It gave me hope that the future of Myanmar would be in good hands if more and more young people had the level of awareness that she had.
We trekked for about six hours the first day, stopping for a Nepali-style lunch on top of a mountain before reaching Ywa Pu village to spend the night in a simple farmhouse.
By then we’d become good friends with the Danish guys, Morten and Søren, and stayed up half the night playing drinking games and sipping on cheap Myanmar beer. Totally worth it, but definitely made our 7am call time a little difficult.
Feet (and head!) throbbing, we trekked through rain and mud for nearly four hours until we finally reached the famous Inle Lake. You can imagine the satisfaction we felt to have walked the entire 43 miles to reach our destination! But we weren’t there quite yet.
We still needed to get to the little town of Nyaung Shwe, the main access point to Inle and a total backpacker haven. A little taxi boat was waiting to take us across the lake, past floating villages, traditional fishermen, and the gorgeous surrounding landscape.
We could’ve taken a train or bus to reach Nyaung Shwe, but trekking made getting there so much sweeter. My time in Myanmar was quickly coming to an end, so I was determined to soak up as much as I could in the sleepy lakeside town.
While most activities are centered around the lake, there’s plenty to do on dry land too. I spent most of my days in cute cafes, writing and working away. The French Touch, Everest Nepali Food Center, and Belu Bar were among my favorites.
And you can’t miss visiting the Mingala Market. It’s great for people watching and picking up local handicrafts. The market winds down in mid- to late-afternoon, so get there early to get the full experience.
If I wasn’t working, I would have taken advantage of visiting the local Red Mountain Winery or exploring the nearby hot springs. Luckily, I still had time to get out on the lake a few times to visit the various floating gardens, temples, restaurants, and craft shops.
My time in Inle seems like somewhat of a blur now, but I’ll never forget one night when the power went out across the whole town. The streets were pitch black as far as the eye could see ~ nothing but the shimmering moon and stars guiding us overhead.
Ella and I spent that last night walking together in the darkness, eventually finding our way to My Parents ~ a family-owned massage spot ~ to get a traditional Inthar massage. Inle is home to the Inthar tribe, who I can tell you give a delightful massage. It was the perfect way to wind down an absolutely amazing adventure.
WHERE TO STAY
I honestly can’t remember the name of the guesthouse we stayed in in Nyaung Shwe, as we just picked the first one we found with open vacancy. It wasn’t anything to write home about anyway. For a return visit, I have my eye on the ViewPoint Ecolodge (hello floating villas!) or the stunning Inle Lake View Resort & Spa.
This post contains affiliate links. If you make a booking through these links, you’ll give me a little extra dough to support endeavors like this at no extra cost to you. I wouldn’t recommend it if it wasn’t 100% worth it!