[Travel Diary] Hiking from Kalaw to Inle Lake

One of the things I was most looking forward to on my two month solo adventure through Sri Lanka and Myanmar was definitely the three-day-long trek from Kalaw all the way to Inle Lake. For a passionate walker like myself, traveling by foot is just the best way to soak up the most of the beautiful landscapes, and meeting the locals in their villages allows you to truly explore a country.

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My newfound friend Laura and I arrived in Kalaw by bus from our motorbike trip in Kyaukme early in the morning and our first mission was to find our hiking agency’s office. We had actually booked a guide a few day earlier via phone through an agency recommended by a friend of mine, but don’t worry if you don’t have the time to make reservations in advance (at least in low season): As we got off the bus, several guide were already waiting for us, trying to sell their tours.

Once we found the agency, met our lovely guide, rearranged our back- and daypacks and had the best Indian breakfast at a local teahouse (after all, we came straight from the nightbus and had to regain forces), we were good to go: The walking is actually pretty easy most of the time and you will walk in mainly flat territories. Unfortunately, the trek is not even remotely as savage as I expected, and there are pretty decent paths most of the time. After a few hours of walking we arrived at the lunchspot, where about a dozen of other travelers were having lunch as well.

During those three days of walking, we passed several villages and saw a lot of different landscapes – from rainforests over pineforests to bamboo forests and from drier areas to waterholes. We walked through forests, on rails and along rivers. We met friendly locals, fellow travelers and many water buffalos. We talked about a lot of random stuff, but also took a lot of time for ourselves to enjoy the silence.

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We also tried to find out as much as possible about Myanmar and luckily, our guide was able to answer most of our questions. We got along very well with him (even though I think he was sometimes annoyed by the two girlies that we were ;)) and we even convinced him to let us chew some of his Betel. We were hoping to get high, but actually it was just disgusting…

We spent both nights with local families, where we always had the most delicious dinners, before falling into our “beds” super early and getting a good night’s rest. The beds were actually just blankets on the floor, but we were so tired from all the marching that we slept like babies anyways. (If you are as paranoid about bugs and spiders as we are, taking a little sleeping pill won’t hurt,…) In the mornings, we had a yummy, hearty breakfast before heading out quite early in order to beat the heat. The meals are actually prepared by a chef who follows you to each stop on his motorbike and were by far among some of the best I had in Myanmar.

While you do pass a lot of very small villages that feel trapped in another decade, you can definitely feel how tourism is ever growing in Myanmar, and that those villages are not quite that hidden anymore. I still recommend this trek though, as it’s a very good way to see more of this beautiful country and its beautiful people. And also because it just feels super rewarding to finally arrive at Inle Lake after three days and 70km of walking in the Burmese heat. Laura and I actually have not been drinking for the entire week, so I can tell you that the first beer after all this exercise felt very good. Almost as good as the first shower…

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Hiking To Inle Lake – What To Bring

Clothe-wise, basically all you need is a clean shirt and fresh underway for each day, a toothbrush and maybe a raincoat (depending on the season). Sunscreen and a hat are also a big plus. But the most important thing are without a doubt wet wipes (aka the-most-essential-thing-to-have-in-Myanmar): You will hardly encounter any fresh water during your three days of hiking and I most definitely wouldn’t count on seeing much toilet paper either. So again: You can leave your towel at home, but I promise that you will need those wipes! Food and accomodation are included in the trek, so apart from a bottle of water, you don’t need to worry about provisions.

Just keep in mind that you will have to carry your backpack for the whole three days, so you definitely don’t want for it to get too heavy! The rest of your belongings will be brought by car or motorbike to the final point of the hike, so make sure to really bring everything you may need. In addition to all the things mentioned above, I brought one pair of trousers/shorts to change according to the weather as well was my sneakers (for walking) and my flip flops (you will be happy to have those in the evenings). Since you walk for more than eight hours each day, headphones and music might be a good idea as well. A walking stick is a big plus.

Kalaw To Inle Lake – Good To Know

Expect to pay about 75USD for the three day tour. If time is scarce or you are physically unable to do the long tour, you can also opt for the shorter two day hike. Bring enough cash to buy water and maybe some snacks along the way, as this is not included in the tour. Do not forget to bring tips for your guide and your chef as well!

We went with A1 Agency and were very satisfied with our guide and chef. However, from what I saw and heard from other travelers, I think the prices/offers of all the companies are pretty much the same. So it might be a good idea to just show up in Kalaw, meet some of the guides and just go with whoever you like most.

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The landscape looks much more fertile the closer you get to Inle Lake

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You will arrive at Inle Lake in the afternoon on the third day, from where you will get to the city of Nyaung Shwe by boat – not before getting a custom tour on the beautiful lake. The ticket for the small boat is paid in advance to your tour guide. Most backpackers don’t have their accomodation in Inle Lake sorted beforehand, so don’t worry: There are plenty of guesthouse and you will be able to figure it all out once you arrive in Nyaung Shwe.

[Sountrack Of My Life] Tame Impala – Feels Like We Only Go Backwards

This beautiful piece of music was released when I was stuck in a particularly hopeless love affair and I listened to it oh so many times, feeling happy that – even if not the guy in question – at least somebody understood how I felt. Three years later, this affair is a thing of the past and life is generally pretty good. However, sometimes I still feel that for every step I take in the right direction, I take two steps back. The gloomy weather is not particularly helping me fight this autumn blues. But luckily, two days from now I will be sitting on a plane towards Argentina. I am done feeling emo. Spring is coming!

Links I Like #12

Jim Morrisson, roadtrips, amusement parks and a lot of boobs: My favourite web picks.

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I have been wanting to go back to beautiful Amsterdam for so many years, and I will make sure to get inspiration from this guide upon my next trip: A Time Traveler’s Guide to Amsterdam.

Time for some rock’n’roll romanticism: Last Known Photos of Jim Morrison in Paris on June 28, 1971. Long live the lizard king.

While Broadly, the recently launched feminist subsidiary of Vice, features a lot of pretentious/useless articles (just like its big sister), they still publish a lot of smart stuff as well and the website has quickly become one of my favourite read for my daily dose of girlpower. For example: The History of Toplessness.

And speaking of toplessness – I also really enjoyed this photo piece: Downtime At The Whorehouse: When Bunny Ranch’s Working Girls Are Off The Clock.

There is something magical about roadtrips and one day I will drive around the US Thema-and-Louise-style for sure. In the meantime, dreaming about those inspiring routes will have to do: Hit the Road: 11 Itineraries for the Ride of Your Life.

Another place I definitely have to visit one day is the abandoned amusement park in Chernobyl. There is just something creepily fascinating about Soviet entertainment sites. It might not be the best time for a vacation in Ukraine though, but a trip to Saint Petersburg and a visit to the Museum of Soviet Arcade Games sounds like a good alternative: The Alternate Universe Of Soviet Arcade Games (Don’t just look at the pictures though, the whole article on gaming culture in the USSR – or lack thereof – is worth reading!).

And speaking of amusement parks: I love Coney Island and hope to go back soon, as New York is obviously always worth a visit: 150 Years Of Coney Island Thrills In Photos.

[Travel Diary] A Burmese Cooking Class

As I already mentioned in my previous posts, there are so many things to do around Nyaung Shwe/Inle Lake: Shopping, eating, biking and even wine tasting, just to name a few. One of the girls I met at my cooking class in Sri Lanka was raving about the cooking class she took in Myanmar, so I knew just had to check this one out as well.

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And I was not disappointed. Our host at Bamboo Delight, Leslie, was the most welcoming person and the setup of the outdoor kitchen was super cute. Everything was very well organised and still, Leslie took the time to answer whatever question we had.

We learned how to cook Burmese curries, how to season the easiest yet yummiest grilled fish and how to fix the super delicious tomato salad (I had it as a side whenever it was available). Feel free to head over to their Facebook page to check out some recipes. But of course, the best part is not the cooking, but indulging on your homemade treats right afterwards hihi.

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Unfortunately, I started feeling unwell halfway into the class and couldn’t enjoy the cooking half as much as I would have loved to, thanks to a massive headache (probably some after effects of my massive hangover from the day before). But I still loved the class, the food we prepared and the people I met there.

I have mentioned my love for Nyaung Shwe and the entire area of Inle Lake already numerous times in my previous posts, and the cooking class just added to my fondness. Burmese food is not even remotely as delicious as Thai or Sri Lankan cuisine, but Leslie showed us how to fix some delicious dishes anyways. Food is such an important factor when getting to know foreign cultures and countries, and I can think of few better ways to meet fellow travelers than over sharing food you all prepared together.

[Travel Diary] Wine Tasting in Myanmar

As I already mentioned in my previous post, there are lots of great things to do in and around Nyaung Shwe/Inle Lake. While I was grateful for the relatively large choice (for Myanmar standards) of spas, restaurants, bars and shopping opportunities, one activity was quite unexpected: There is an actual vinyard just outside of Nyaung Shwe and you can go on a wine tasting in the middle of the Burmese dessert.

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Those who know me know that I love wine way too much, so I knew I absolutely had to check out Myanmar’s homegrown Chardonnay. I hired a bike from one of the many stalls in town and set out there on my own. I somehow managed to make a bunch of new friends on this twenty minutes bike ride, which made cycling around the Burmese countryside even more fun.

Once you arrive at the vinyard, don’t expect a fancy chateau or anything the like: The waiters will prepare all the glasses for the entire group, give a micro introduction on the different wines and then leave you for yourself to taste the wines and enjoy the sweet view over the lake.

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And well, I guess Burmese wine will never be a big international hit and I don’t forecast for exports to drastically increase anytime soon: The four different wines we got to taste were just not good. At all. Not even a little. I am by no means an expert when it comes to this best of all beverages, but five years in France have made me raise my standards quite a bit and the Burmese wines were really pretty much undrinkable.

Nevertheless, riding the bike to the vinyard is super nice and a winetasting in the middle of Myanmar is just such an unexpected thing to do that it’s hard to resist.

With my newfound friends, we actually decided to continue our ride for a few more kilometers out of Nyaung Shwe, curious on where to road would lead us to. We were surprised by a heavy rainstorm and luckily found shelter in a tiny local shop/bar before stopping at the next bigger village, where we explored the magical lake and hung out with a bunch of local teenagers. It turned out their favourite song was “Shake It Off” by Taylor Swift, so we sure had a lot of stuff to talk about…

[Travel Diary] Nyaung Shwe / Inle Lake

Whereas tourism is still relatively calm in Myanmar, there is one destination that definitely feels like a real backpacker hotspot: Nyaung Shwe on the beautiful Inle Lake.

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Tomato plantations and villagers’ houses on Inle Lake

As one of my friends so beautifully and accurately put it: Inle Lake feels like a lazy Sunday in the Seventies. I originally intended to stay for just a night or two, but ended up hanging out for almost a week in this dreamy spot. The town’s laid-back atmosphere made it just the perfect place to refuel after almost six weeks of traveling, and particularly a dirty week filled with trekking (by foot and by motorbike), sleeping on floors and not taking showers.

Most travelers will arrive at Inle Lake by foot, after two or three days of non-stop walking all the way from Kalaw. In order to get to the town of Nyaung Shwe (which is where you want to go), the best and easiest way is to take one of the many small boats. This allows you to visit the fascinating ecosystem of the lake at the same time.

The boats drive all across the vast lake, and you will pass luxurious resorts located in the water and traditional family housing alike – as well as the floating gardens. It’s quite fascinating to see how vegetables such as tomatoes are cultivated literally in the water and how the lake is a vital resource in this otherwise dry area.

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Cruising Inle Lake after 70km of hiking with my friend Laura.
Cruising on Inle Lake after 70km of hiking with my friend Laura.

But be careful: Inle Lake is one of the most touristically developed regions of Myanmar and the Burmese have well found out how to get as much money out of the tourists as possible: While visiting the different manufacturies on the lake and seeing how things like silk and jewelry are produced the old fashioned way, the main purpose of those workshops is to sell those products for way too much money in the attached stores. You will be able to find the same products on the mainland for less than half of the price, so beware!

Once you arrive in Nyaung Shwe, you will immediately feel the backpacker’s vibe: Unlike anywhere else I have been in Myanmar, Nyaung Shwe is the only place that cultivates some kind of restaurant/bar/guesthouse scene. So if you feel like you deserve a break from – the delicous, yet ever present – Shan Noodles, Inle Lake will feel like paradise. I for myself have stuck to Shan Noodles for most dinners anyways, but can highly recommend the Indian place located behind the market as well as the pancake place for a Burmese take on this western staple (chocolate pineapple topping, anybody?). From what I heard, the Nepalese place is supposed to be yummy as well.

What To Do in Inle Lake

For a town this small, there are plenty of cool things to do, such as wine tastings (yes that’s right), hot springs (not recommended!!! How did I even think that hot springs were a good idea in the burning burmese sun and 40°C?????), spas…

But the best option might just be to hang out with your friends or a book in one of the many cafés, attend movie night at the French restaurant and have many a few drinks. And if you really feel like doing nothing at all: You can use the pool at Princess Garden Hotel for 10USD a day and sip on some fresh watermelon juice while working on your tan.

Nyaung Shwe is also the perfect place for (souvenir) shopping: You can find many little treasures to bring back home on the busy market in the center of town, and I stocked up on longhis, spices, tea and postcards for my friends and family. I even got an artisanal tattoo needle and a handmade knife for my brother and some jewelry for myself.

The easiest way to get around is by renting a bike from one of the numerous stalls for around 1USD per day. Most hotels/hostels provide hand drawn yet accurate maps and it’s almost impossible to get lost. You can also stop in some of the other villages located on the lake and catch some stunning views.

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Where To Stay In Inle Lake

Unlike many other places in Myanmar, many travelers arrive in Nyaung Shwe from theirs treks without reservations for any accomodation, so it’s quite common to walk around and check out the different guesthouse, most of which are located close to each other. Personally, I stayed at the Aquarius Inn, which is popular among backpackers and has yummy breakfast which varies each day. The guesthouse has a nice garden with numerous sitting areas, and it’s the perfect spot to chill and dream away.

And if you now want to know what Inle Lake really looks like and what all the fuzz I am making is all about, I invite you to check out these pictures by this much more talented and ambitious photographer…

[Travel Diary] Beautiful Bagan – The Land of 2000 Pagodas

More than 2000 vintage temples and pagodas wait to be explored in this magical city in the middle of the Burmese desert.

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Sunrise over Bagan

This former royal capital is definitely one of the things you can’t miss out on on your trip to Myanmar. Sometimes referred to as Burma’s equivalent to Angkor Wat, every corner of this desert landmark is postcard material and many temples hide beautiful details inside, just waiting to be discovered.

But to be fair, while Bagan certainly is stunningly beautiful, I decided that two full days were enough for me and I actually left one night earlier than I had originally planned. I had already been travelling around Asia (mainly Sri Lanka) for about six weeks and by that time had a slight overdose of visiting temples old and new alike and statues of sitting, eating, sleeping or standing Buddhas.

Bagan: What to do

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Thatbyinnyu Temple (the highest in Bagan) as seen from another pagoda

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While Myanmar is generally known for its super warm climate, it gets even hotter in Bagan than in many other parts of the country: Temperatures reached up to 40° when I was there in May. Most people therefore get up really early in the morning, watch the sunrise from one of the Pagodas and drive around a bit more before temperatures climb high, before heading back to their hotels for breakfast at around 9am.

The easiest way to get around is without a doubt by renting an e-bike. Those miniature motorbikes might look intimidating at first, but are actually super easy to handle and definitely the best choice for exploring all the beautiful landmarks on your own. Bagan is too large and too hot for a normal bicycle and public transport is not an option for visiting all the far-apart pagodas. Plus planlessly driving around the beautiful scenery on your e-bike is just so much fun (maps are also available, but I found it cooler to just drive around and explore the place on my own route, knowing you can’t really get lost)!! Just inquire at your accommodation on where to rent a bike!

Once it gets too hot to devote yourself to any cultural activities, hanging out by the pool of one of the luxury hotels is your the best option. You will have to pay an entrance fee of 10USD at most places, but it’s so worth it. I really couldn’t have faced the thought of not jumping into a pool under the incredible heat.

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Bagan is also a good place to be if you feel like a change from the eternal Shan noodles, as you will be able to find a more diverse restaurant scene than in most places in Myanmar. If you are craving a burger or Pizza, Bagan is the place to be. I really recommend the vegetarian Be Kind To Animals – The Moon, for example.

Bagan: Where to stay

I was very lucky that for once, I didn’t need to do any research about my accomodation, as I joined my Dutch friend Thirsa there, who already arrived earlier and organised a room for us in Winner’s guesthouse. Our room was super tiny and basic, but at least we had a room on our own with our private bathroom, so I can’t complain. (And my first choice, Ostello Bello, was full anyways)

Bagan – Good to Know

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The city is situated along the Irrawaddy river, less than 200km from Mandalay. I initially really wanted to take the boat from Mandalay and Bagan, but unfortunately I was traveling in low season and also, the river was not carrying enough water for any boats to pass. I had no other choice than to go get there by nightbus, but I am not sad about it as all, as I otherwise would never have gone on my favourite Myanmar adventure: My motorbike trek around Kyaukme.

A popular option for foreigners to explore Bagan is from above via a hot air balloon. This does sound like a super fun thing to do, but was not an option for me, as I went in low season and also it was too hot for any balloon to rise. However, I heard that those hot air balloons are crazily expensive and I think you also get a very good view by simply climbing one of the higher pagodas for free!

Prepare to have some cash ready upon arrival, as you will be charged an entrance fee (20USD if I remember correctly) in order to visit the city.

[Travel Diary] Motorbike Adventures in Kyaukme / Shan State

While I certainly did a lot of really cool things during my two months in Sri Lanka and Myanmar, going on a motorbike trek in Kyaukme was definitely one of my absolute highlights.

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Most travellers in Myanmar stick to the same route of visiting Yangon, Mandalay, Bagan and Inle Lake. Travelling to some more remote areas can either be a logistical hazzle (i.e. if you want to visit the coast) or requires specific governmental authorisations.

So Kyaukme was not originally on my bucket list. Luckily though, a fellow traveller we met in Yangon told us about this amazing motorbike trip he went on and my German friend Laura and I just knew we had to go there as well.

Kyaukme is a super small town in Chan state, with only two accomodations for foreigners (in Myanmar, hotels need special licences to host foreigners). We stayed at the Northern Rock Guesthouse, which was recommended to us by our travelling friend.

Upon arrival, a small local bus took us from the busstation into town. We had no idea where our guesthouse was and how to make ourselves understood, but we somehow managed to arrive there. The guesthouse is managed by a very nice local doctor and his family and while it’s far from being fancy, there really is no reason to complain.

The first thing we were really surprised about was the excellent level of English spoken by the locals in our guesthouse. We didn’t expect this from the countryside, as English is not spoken at all in Myanmar, not even in the the big cities. This is due to many decades of military rule, who didn’t bother investing too much in the people’s education.

We soon found out who was behind all of this: It turned out that a guy named Joy was not only our man when it comes to exploring the completely remote villages around Kyaukme by motorbike with us. He is also giving English lessons to the locals because – as opposed to the government – the local youth has well understood that speaking English (and Mandarin) is the key to a brighter future and better employment. Laura and I were more than impressed and even more eager to start our trek with this cool guy.

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Looking scarier than Hell’s Angels

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Our first new friend

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You can either drive on your own or just sit in the backseat. I do recommend going solo only to really experienced drivers. There are no roads and you will be driving up and down in the hills and in the woods the entire day. The trip was very exhausting even from “just” sitting in the back and while I would have never be able to drive on my own.

We spent our first day in Kyaukme just hanging out, walking around, eating and generally recovering from our hangover from the day before and the allnighter we pulled before taking a super early bus. The next morning, we were finally good to go on our two-day adventure.

Joy, Harry and another guy I forgot the name of came to pick up the three of us early in the morning (we invited another solo traveller we met in the guesthouse to join us for the trek), we went to the market to buy food and snacks for the next two days and then it was finally time to hit the road.

Our first stop was for a short hike up a hill, from which we had a nice view. And then, the really cool part started: We stopped by in a small town next to the hill and had tea and fruit with a local family. Joy didn’t arrange for this tea break – this is just how Myanmar works: People will be happy to share whatever they have with whoever is knocking on their door – and even if that is just some tea and a Papaya.

And this was pretty much what we did for the next two days: We drove from one village to the next, visiting pagodas and monasteries from time to time and stopping for food and tea with the locals. Many of the villages we visited are impossible to reach without a motorbike (as in: there are no actual roads for cars) and I am not sure that all of them are even on the map.

We spent the night in one of the mountain villages who lives off its tea plantations. We were kindly accomodated  by the “manager” of the tea pickers and his family, where we had a delicious dinner and slept among the tea leaves laid out to dry on the attic. Perfect for the tea addict that I am.

While Myanmar is a country still relatively untouched by tourism (compared to neighbouring Thailand, for example), the villages of Shan state really are pretty much unexplored territory (Joy also makes sure to varies his tours every time). It’s not uncommon to stumble upon kids who have never/rarely seen a foreigner and while the countryside certainly was pretty, it was the people we met who made this trip so special.

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Kyaukme – Good to know

When you arrive in Kyaukme, ask your way through to the guesthouse. The city center really is not that big and you should be able to find it within a few minutes.

And once you’re there, just ask for Joy. The hotel will arrange for him to drop by and you will be able to arrange a trip for however many days you want. Booking ahead might not be such a bad idea though, especially if you are visiting Myanmar in high season.

Also, everything you will need for the duration of your trip has to fit in a small backpack. Bring a sweater for the evening and wet wipes (I already mentioned that this is probably the single most important thing when traveling Myanmar). However, do not even bother to bring a towel, as you certainly won’t shower.