Trekking With Hill Tribes from Kalaw to Inle Lake – Myanmar

Steve, our Burmese guide Mai, and a farmer from one of the tribes.

One of the more popular activities to do along the Myanmar backpacking trail is trekking from Inle Lake to Kalaw and vice versa.  My friends & I decided to trek from Kalaw to Inle Lake after leaving Bagan, as we figured that ending our trek at the lake would be a nice reward for walking, walking, and walking even more.  So we started out in Kalaw, a tiny little mountain town that doesn’t really have much to it besides trekking companies, and headed off to Inle Lake.

Isle Lake, made famous by a recent article in National Geographic.

We used a company called Eversmile that I found on one of my favorite travel blogs,  I’d highly recommend it; our guide was awesome, it was easy to set up, and it was SUPER cheap.  A guide, accommodation in a village, and a ton of food was included for only $12US a day.  We opted for the 2-day 1-night option, but 3-day 2-night options are popular as well.

Early morning in the Eversmile trekking office

Confession – I didn’t really know what a “trek” was until I actually did one.  It’s exactly what it sounds like; walking, walking, walking, and more walking.  With some uphill walking in between.  So basically it’s the entire second installation of Lord of the Rings.


We got off our overnight bus from Bagan to Kalaw bright & early.  I don’t remember the exact price but I want to say that it cost us around $10, everything in Myanmar is pretty cheap.  The occasional downfall of an overnight bus – we awkwardly reached Kalaw around 2 AM, and banged on the door of the first hotel we could find so that we could sleep for a couple hours.  And we paid for a gross room where I could hear termites running around in the wooden post next to my head all night.  Beggars can’t be choosers.

Myanmar Travel Tip – ALWAYS get to the bus station super early.  The bus stations in Myanmar are absolutely freaking MASSIVE, and are completely unorganized.  The busses aren’t numbered, they’re parked by their company, so we spent a lot of time wandering around these huge night markets/bus stations trying to find out bus.

There’s not much to do in Kalaw, it’s just a pretty little mountain town that serves as a base for trekking.

Pre-trek breakfast in Kalaw


We walked through hills and rice paddies where tribes were farming.  It was really cool to see; they still use old-school farming methods, as in they use buffalos instead of tractors.  We also walked through several villages and got to see locals up close and personal.  We saw several village people doing local things like weaving bamboo baskets and harvesting sun-baked rice crackers from the fields.



This dude has baskets full of massive rice crackers.
Smiling for the camera – maybe not my camera, but still smiling for the camera.


A heads up if you decide to trek – don’t feed the local kids.  A lot of blogs I read before trekking advise bringing gifts for children, like candy and school scupplies.  Our guide told us not to give the children anything, because a) sugary things like candy ruin their teeth and b) it teaches the children to beg instead of study and grow up to actually work.


The trek was gorgeous, however unfortunately it’s dry harvest season in Myanmar, so it was very brown.  I’m sure the trek is much more beautiful when it’s green, perhaps after Myanmar’s rainy season.




The coolest part of our trek (probably because it didn’t involve a ton of walking) was staying in a village.  And by village I mean VILLAGE.  As in it was in the middle of nowhere; you can’t access it by public transportation whatsoever, and they’ve only had electricity since 2011.  I saw several children walking their buffalo and many girls fetching water from the river with baskets.




We stayed in a homestay, which basically means we slept in a village-person’s home.  They cooked us AMAZING Burmese food; which consisted of a bunch of different sautéed veggies and rice with peanuts.  The trek was surprisingly FREEZING at night, and scorching during the day, probably because we were in the hills.




Our guide for the trek was named Mai, and he was AWESOME.  He was from a different tribe in a different part of Myanmar.  He said his village takes 4 hours to walk to because you can’t access it via public transportation, and it’s actually too dangerous to visit right now because his tribe is at war with another tribe.

While Myanmar now is officially open to tourists, majority of the country is still inaccessible to tourists.  There is a government-backed genocide happening in the Northwest region, and there is civil war going on between different tribes.  I actually met another traveler who experience civil war first-hand on his trek in Myanmar.  He said that his group heard something explode; and that his guide said it was a mine.  Then his group heard non-stop gunfire from then until the next morning.  They weren’t trekking through the affected area; but they were close to the border.  I’m not sure how much of this story is true, but it is kind of a hard story to make up.

Mai was funny.  He spoke decent English, and said that he was the only person in his village to graduate from University.  He told us about his first time seeing a real city at 7 years old, his amazement when he first aw cars, and about life in his village.

My favorite story from Mai – so Mai is considered high-society in his village, as he’s the only one to graduate from University and he has a good job.  He explained that his people are very simple, and just want to live a simple, happy life.  So when little Mai trekked back to his village, carrying his basket full of a ton of random stuff and wearing brightly-colored clothes, his father said to him “Are you going to a festival?”

I died when he said that because that’s something MY FATHER WOULD SAY if he was a member of the pa-oh tribe.  “TINA we’re going to church, not a fashion show!”

Our trek ended at Inle Lake, where we were given a boat tour around the lake and transportation to our accommodation.  Inle Lake is known for the way its fisherman fish.  It’s very old-school; they use their feet to row while they catch fish with their hands.  It’s really something to watch.  Other than that we were dragged to a few craftsman/workshop/crap type things, and then it was all over.

Mai and some village people.




Seeing rural Myanmar on the trek was really something, and I’d definitely do it again.  It also is super rewarding when you get to Inle Lake and realize that you were able to walk 40 km uphill for 2 days.  10/10 would recommend trying.





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