What's the best way to start the first trip together? Start it with an adventure!
Darsh comes up with a first route proposal for our South East Asian trip, and one of her suggestions, a three day, two nights trek from Kalaw to Inle Lake, turns out a real gem and one of the highlights of my four weeks there. It's probably one of my all-time favourite travel experiences too.
After spending two nights in Yangon, we catch a night bus to the mountain village of Kalaw. I've read praises about the Myanmar VIP buses before. However, the full blast A/C in our front row seats still gives me chills to this day. On the other hand, it prepares us for two chilly nights to come. And truth be told I've had worse bus trips by far.
We arrive in Kalaw around 5 am and make our way to the office of Eagle Trekking. Lucky for us, they let us in and sleep on two benches for the short rest of the night. We have a filling breakfast at the Morningstar Cafe next door before Eagle Trekking's owner explains the route ahead of us. 21 km on the first day, 27 on the second and 17 on the third. According to my GPS, it turns out slightly less. It's still a relentless 60k of hiking over three days.
Our guides are Star and his wife Snow. Everyone in Myanmar, who does business with tourists, has been given an English name to make it easier to pronounce and remember. It sure works, but I still feel sorry not trying harder to memorise their “real” names.
A couple of French hikers joins our group last minute, and we start a bit late around 10 am slowly trotting upwards out of Kalaw. After sunrise, the temperature changes quickly and I decide to change my clothes only a couple of minutes into the trek. Shorts and t-shirt should proof fine during the day, everything we've brought along was just barely warm enough during night time.
Star tells us he is not entirely fit after a night of Whisky drinking with another tourist group and also recovering from a motorcycle accident. Still, he sets a good, fast and relentless pace across the Burmese landscape.
What strikes me most about the Trek is the ever-changing landscape. From lush rainforest-like vegetation to endless hills and plains of literally every crop and plant you can imagine. Oranges, chillis, green tea, potatoes, pumpkins, rice and several dozens more grow all along our way, enclosed by some of the most beautiful flowers and trees so old and massive, that you wonder what stories they could share with you. After every turn, behind every hill, a new surprise awaits us. Each one is more amazing and beautiful than the one before.
Every day sees one long break for lunch and a couple of shorter ones, where our guides and the locals usually treat us with Myanmar green tea (my new favourite), nuts and some sweets. Snow prepares breakfast, lunch and dinner with ingredients she brought along and fresh vegetables they buy from locals along the way. The meals are always a highlight of the day. First of all, because they're delicious, they also offer the opportunity to relax, reflect and take in the experience.
We sleep in the villages along the way, a simple lifestyle, with no running water and pit toilets some 30 meters off the house. I wouldn't want it any other way. I have a lot of admiration for the hard-working, friendly villagers we meet. They probably earn a nice bonus from hosting tourists, but there's a great sense of pride and honesty. It's not a big tourist industry (at least it doesn't feel like it yet). In contrast to many other trips, you don't feel a gap between us “rich people from rich countries” and the “simple” locals. I try to meet everyone on equal footing and not have these prejudices, but you feel like the locals consider you as coming from a “better” country in some places. To make matters “worse”, they behave and treat you like it too. Not here. We are guests welcomed in their village, and we are all just human beings. Every way of life is justified, and none is better than the other.
“Look at the stars”
Darsh says, and I realise the most beautiful view of the sky I've seen in a long time. No air pollution, no light pollution, no noise pollution, just an endless pattern of light and beauty on a pitch-black sky. The locals sit by the fire for some time, after that it gets dark, quiet – and cold.
The lowest temperature I measure is 8 degrees, but it probably gets even colder than that during the night (let alone colder seasons). Our beds are simple but sufficient. We sleep on a thin mattress right on the floor, and the cold comes from all sides, including below. We put on every bit of clothing we have (long compression socks, hat, various layers of pants and shirts, etc.), but since Darsh and I are pretty exhausted from walking every day, we still have a good sleep. It's also something you could get used to rather quickly if you sleep like this for a couple of days.
Star's English is relatively basic (Snow's even more so), but we manage to get some conversation going and find out a little bit about their life, their families and Myanmar in general. Most of all, we enjoy Star's open, joyous and playful attitude towards life. He hops around singing local tunes, teaches us to sing along, picks flowers for his wife along the way or plays some little pranks on her (and us).
Time flies and early on the third day, we enter the Inle lake zone. We pay our $10 fee each and say goodbye to the calm- and loneliness of the last two days. I'm not sure if we caught up with a larger group or (more likely) some other tours doing shorter hikes from Nyaung Shwe. Either way, it gets a bit crowded on the last kilometres towards the canals leading to Inle lake. We feel a great sense of accomplishment and joy about our achievement, but mostly about what we have experienced.
We have a big feast, eating another round of local specialities before our guides lead us to one of the boats, which brings us across the lake to Nyaung Shwe.
The 20+ km boat ride is a grand finale for our 3-day adventure. The views from the lake are nothing short of breathtaking. Dreams of a comfy bed and no more hiking the next day fill my mind as we close a fantastic (first) chapter in the book of our travels.
We go for an evening stroll, have dinner and get a heart-warming surprise Christmas performance by a group of local kids with their teachers. It's one day before Christmas. Chiang Mai will be next.
During the many hours of walking, one thought was “Could it be done in a single day?". Well, I'm sure it's possible (people achieve much crazier things all the time), so the questions become “Could I do this in one day?” and “Do I want to?". The answers are “Probably” and “Yes, of course!” (but only because I've done the 3-day tour before. I wouldn't want to miss out on taking in the experience). Suppose you have similar ambitions, Eagle Trekking has you covered. To be fair there “Mega challenge” is “only” 48 km long, but it's still quite a feat if you can pull it off between sunrise and sunset.