When it comes to trekking in Myanmar, the areas around Kalaw and Hsipaw are the easiest accessible and therefore the most popular. Now don’t think of any high altitude treks like in Nepal. Sure, Myanmar has Himalayas too but for now that part of the country is off-limits to foreigners. Trekking in Myanmar is more of a cultural walk through friendly countryside and along small hill tribe villages. Beforehand I couldn’t decide which area would be the nicest, Kalaw or Hsipaw, so I ended up checking them out both.
Coming from the hot plains of Bagan it’s a relief to breath in some cool mountain air in the hill station of Kalaw. The alpine feeling is complete when even our room in the Pine Breeze Hotel smells like… well… pine-trees. What’s in a name…
Relaxing as the atmosphere is, we’re here for a trekking. So what are the options? From Kalaw the most obvious trekking option is the 3D/2N trek to Inle Lake. It’s what most people do. But when I ask San Linn, who runs A1 Trekking, about his favorite he advises us to do the 2D/1N trek around Kalaw. Since there’s no far-away goal, such as reaching Inle Lake, it means there’s more time to visit hill tribe villages and explore the countryside.
San Linn explains the different treks on a wall map. The first day of both treks are basically the same and go from Kalaw to the tea plantations in the highlands. After day one the route to Inle Lake seems to go more or less straightforward towards the lake while the trek around Kalaw includes more villages and nicer paths through the countryside. The latter sounds more appealing so the decision is easy. We go for the trek around Kalaw. Besides that, once we’re back in Kalaw we can take the train to Shwe Nyaung (for Inle Lake) which is said to be a scenic ride. And, from what I’ve heard about it, trains in Myanmar are quite an experience on itself.
It’s monsoon season but today we’re lucky. The sun shines abundant when we start the trek. It’s a nice path winding through hills full of tea plantations. After the viewpoint we reach the first village. It’s a Palaung village. Or was it Pa O? Of course our guide San has told me but with so many Palaung, Danu, Pa O and Danaw ethnic groups in this area, I’ve sort of lost it. In most of the villages we see today it’s all about tea production and San explains about the various stadiums of the process.
After having an Indian lunch on a beautiful spot overlooking the green hilltops, we continue our trek. More villages follow and we visit a school. The kids in Myanmar already start to learn English at age of 5. But without tv, internet or even electricity, practicing their language skills is the biggest problem. Which means foreigners like us are immediately bombarded with questions…
After lots of basic conversations (“Hello, how are you? Where you from?”) with the local kids we move on. But soon we get caught in a downpour and need to find shelter. We’re invited in a local’s house and San shows the kids a music video on his smartphone. From the look on their faces you can tell that this is something special to them. Technology like this is not available in these villages. At least not for now. Maybe for the better. Instead of sitting behind a screen they are all playing outside with nothing but each other and a bamboo ball or an old tyre.
Tired but satisfied we reach our home stay. It’s in a nice old wooden house on stilts. Our mattresses are laid out on the floor of the communal area. Next to the Buddha shrine. All the action takes place in the kitchen where our cook, specially brought over by San, is busy preparing our dinner on an open fire. It’s amazing to see how he cooks at least a dozen different dishes under these basic circumstances. And it was without doubt the best dinner we’ve had in Myanmar.
More villages, schools and a monastery follow on day two. We have said goodbye to the trekking groups that are heading for Inle Lake and it seems we have the gorgeous countryside all to ourselves. We pause for a coffee at a lovely train station and watch the local life as it slowly passes by.
From every hilltop the scenery becomes more spectacular. I see rivers of rice paddies, farmers cooling their water buffalos after their hard work and groups of women in colorful costumes planting rice. Which is as much a social event as work. Life is simple on the Burmese countryside but everybody seems to be happy to be part of the well-organized community.
In the afternoon the monsoon finally catches us. We decide to take a shortcut instead of visiting a Buddha cave so the last two hours we more or less follow the mountain path back to Kalaw. There’s a pagoda on the way but for the rest, except for some beautiful views on the forests, there’s little interesting to see.
Muddy, soaked and tired, we’re happy that two of San’s colleagues are willing to pick us up on the motorbike just outside of Kalaw. Later that night we thank San and his agency. It was an excellent experience.
About a week later, with a couple of relaxing days at Inle Lake in between, I felt ready for another countryside trek. So we headed for Hsipaw, about six hours to the north-east of Mandalay. We base ourselves in Lily’s Guesthouse aka Lily The Home and are hugged a warm welcome by Lily herself. After shopping around a bit for what’s available on trekking options we find that both Mr Charles as Lily only offer the 2D/1N trek to Pankam.
The trek organized by Lily’s sounds more appealing because the overnight stay is in a village further up the mountain from Pankam. I decide to join a group from our guesthouse that’s leaving the next morning. Carina looks at the sky and thinks it’s better to skip the adventure. A wise decision.
Because from the moment we leave it rains. I’m with 4 other travelers – a British couple and two female friends from Germany. And of course our guide. I can remember from this day that we had nice conversations along the way and for the rest… it was muddy, wet and mostly uphill. And I learned that umbrella’s are better than rain coats.
There aren’t many villages on the way. The first is Pankam, a Palaung village, where we have lunch. From there it’s another two-hour uphill to the next village (which I unfortunately forgot the name of). Here’s where we will spent the night. The two German girls leave shortly after we get to our home stay. They only did the one-day trek and will go back to Lily’s in Hsipaw on the back of a motorbike. Probably quite an adventure on the muddy roads.
I stay behind with Alice and Jack, the British couple. They’re in their mid twenties but from living a traveling/working life for years, they already build up quite some life (and travel) experience. In a few months they’re about to start their first job as English teachers in China. Travel stories go back and forth and, with a little help from the rice whiskey, the evening flies by.
During the night it has rained non-stop but luckily in the morning it has finally stopped. Village life start as soon as the day breaks. Horses are taken care off, kids run off to school. We continue our trek through the village but we skip the school. I realize that, apart from the people we stayed with, there’s almost no interaction with villagers. A bit of a missed chance in my opinion.
After we leave the village we walk up and down through forested hills. The scenery is nice and it promises something for the day but unfortunately we soon leave the forest and end up walking along endless corn fields. According to our guide, who’s a local farmer himself, corn is very easy to grow. And, because of the huge demand from pig-loving China, very profitable.
Trekking in Myanmar: Kalaw or Hsipaw?
Based on my personal experiences I would say Kalaw. Of course, we had better luck with the weather but apart from that I think the variety of things to see around Kalaw is bigger. There’s a pleasant mix of hill tribe villages, monasteries, schools, pagoda’s, rice paddies and tea plantations. And it seems more densely populated than the Hsipaw area so in general there’s more activity and interaction. But perhaps the most important: we had an excellent guide!
That being said, I think Hsipaw deserves a second chance. I had a very good experience in Kalaw and compared to that, the trek to Pankam wasn’t that memorable (besides meeting my nice fellow travelers). Still, I would definitely come back to try a longer trek further into the Shan hills. The trek from Namhsan back to Hsipaw for instance. Because from what I’ve seen the scenery higher up in the mountains is gorgeous.
Most of the time a trek is about viewing nature and wilderness but on treks like these it’s all about seeing the life that happens within. Beautiful in it’s simplicity. For a good experience though, it’s essential to have a knowledgable guide. In my opinion, that’s what really makes a difference.