Trekking to the Hill Tribes of Kalaw and Hsipaw

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.

Kalaw

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…

Kalaw 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.

Hilltribe village

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.

Day 1

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.

Tea picking It's all about tea 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…

School Kids Schoolkids 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.

Kids gawk at the modern technology 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.

Preparing dinner

Day 2

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.

Station kalaw16 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.

kalaw20 kalaw11 kalaw21 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.

kalaw22 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.

Hsipaw

Hsipaw 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.

Day 1

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.

Alice and Jack muddle on Umbrellas are better than raincoats 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.

Pankam Homestay 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.

Is it a Gremlin?

Day 2

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.

Kids run off to school 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.

The day starts with some beautiful scenery

 

Trekking in Myanmar: Kalaw or Hsipaw?

More monasteries around Kalaw

More monasteries around Kalaw

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.

This entry was posted in Myanmar.

4 Comments

  1. Marcy September 17, 2015 at 6:55 am #

    Hello!
    I was a real pleasure to read your post, so much useful information!
    I was wondering after your trek in Kalaw, you went back to take the train to Shwe Nyaung.
    Do you remember of the departure time of the train? What time did you arrive in Inle Lake?
    How was the train ride? Is it worth it?
    I am hesitating to do the trek only in Kalaw and then take the train, or doing to trek Kalaw-Inle Lake…
    Knowing that if I do only Kalwa (+train to Inle Lake) I will have only 1 day and a half in Inle Lake. Will it be enough time to spend there?
    Thank you in advance for your advise !
    Marcy.

    • Domingo October 5, 2015 at 2:40 pm #

      Hello Marcy,

      Sorry for the late response. I don’t remember the exact time of the train but I think it was in the morning. The train ride is slow and shaky but certainly worth it for the experience alone 🙂 We had a delay because of a tree that fell on the tracks and had to be cleared away first. Take into account things like this (or derailments) can happen. So I don’t remember the exact duration either but it will be a couple of hours (3 or 4 maybe?).

      The 2-day trek in the countryside around Kalaw is certainly worth it, it’s Myanmar in its purest form. Inle Lake is more touristy. But nice to visit too. Choices, choices 🙂

      Good luck!

  2. Freddy Bogan December 10, 2016 at 10:55 am #

    Hi
    We are off up to Kalaw tomorrow
    Wonderful discription very helpful and interesting
    Freddy

    • Domingo December 13, 2016 at 4:26 am #

      Hi Freddy,

      Glad I could be helpfull with the post. Let me know how your trip was!

      Domingo

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