From Inle Lake, our next stop was the small hill town of Kalaw. A very popular way to come to Kalaw from Inle Lake is by doing a 3-day trek through the hills that connect both cities; however, we opted to come to Kalaw by bus and take a one-day trek on the hills surrounding the town instead.
I met our guide Sithu the day before our trek. Born and raised in Kalaw, Sithu has been working as a guide for a year. Together, we discussed our itinerary options for the next day and we agreed to do the trek extending 20 km south of Kalaw, passing through two Palaung villages, the view-point on the border with the burmese Shan state and the reservoir for the military quarters.
We started the trek off bright and early next morning at our hotel. The first few hundred steps were still within the town limits – roads were paved and people would drive by. As we walked further and further away from the main market in the town center, roads started getting narrower and narrower until it was just a path in the woods. It was a slow walk into the wild and soon we found ourselves surrounded by hills covered in pine trees and subtropical vegetation.
The hills extended into the distance and once in a while we spotted green tea fields with locals working on the land. Preparing the land on the steep hills of Kalaw under the hot sun seemed like really hard work. It certainly made us appreciate the free green tea that was served in most restaurants in Myanmar afterwards.
Two hours into the trek and several green tea fields later, we reached the first Palaung village. With only a few hundred people in the entire village, it was one of the smallest we’ve been to yet – we could just about count all of the houses.
Villagers, just like ourselves, were very curious and very friendly, unabashedly smiling and waving to us. We even paid an impromptu visit to a local man’s house, where a pig had just given birth to six little piglets. They were the cutest tiny things ever struggling to walk and find milk!
The kids in the village made us feel like celebrities. As soon as they saw us, they would stop whatever they were doing and run as fast as they could towards us, waving their arms frantically and screaming hello with a big smile on their faces! It certainly filled our hearts with joy and we couldn’t help but smile and wave in response.
Sithu explained to us that the Palaung people have a very strict rule about no “outsiders” living in the village. If a Palaung marries someone from outside the village, they must leave their home for good and visits to their family are rare and short. This meant that the village would be kept authentic, with only truly Palaung people living there, but it could also lead to the extinction of the village as a whole.
Along the main road, still in the village, we spotted two other men loading a truck with baskets of oranges that have just been picked from the trees. The oranges were just about to go to the main market in Kalaw, where they would be sold to locals. The two men offered us a few oranges (they were sweet and delicious!) and in return we helped them with the last basket onto the the truck.
By noon we reached the viewpoint and the restaurant where we took a lunch break. The food served consisted of chapatis, a sweet potato curry, avocados and a mix of fruits – it was delicious and balanced, perfect for recharging our batteries but light enough to keep us going for the rest of the day. We enjoyed the meal along with the breathtaking view from our table, with the green-covered jagged limestone mountains cutting through the clouds and extending across the horizon.
It was also during lunch that we met two other travelers, Stefan and Sebastien (at Nomadic Boys), who just like us, quit their jobs in summer 2014 and have been traveling throughout Asia. We exchanged some goods travel stories, especially since we had similar itineraries but were doing it in reverse order. Even though it was a brief encounter, we really connected with them. As they say, it takes one to know one; no one really understands what we’re doing besides others who are doing the same thing. We also ran into them later on at the airport flying out of Myanmar, but we have so much to learn from them in terms of both travel tips as well as blogging. Safe travels, Nomadic Boys!
We continued the trek after lunch, making our way back to Kalaw through the jungle in a more closed path. This was when Sithu had the opportunity to show us the many trees and plants that grew in the region. From tiger balm to apples and tobacco to a supposedly deadly plant, we saw, smelled and touched each of them, as well as learned what they were good for and what could be made out of them. It was a very immersive experience, way more educational than any of my old biology classes in school.
The last main stop on the trek was a water reservoir for one of four military quarters near Kalaw. While it was undoubtedly man-made, the reservoir did add some shimmering blue colour to the otherwise green pine-covered hills of the trek. We stopped for a few moments to admire the view… and take a few selfies (of course).
While walking through some rice fields near the end of the trek, we encountered such an interesting sight. There was a primitive straw hut in the middle of a farm with nothing else around but trees. Yet even that small hut had a modern solar panel powering a satellite dish for the TV signal. It’s unbelievable how TV is such a priority nowadays over so many other needs, even in some of the most remote places in the world.
The trek ended back at our hotel in Kalaw just as the sun was setting. The best part of the trek, hands down, was having Sithu as our guide and chatting with him. More than the pretty scenery and the chance to trek through the area, it was learning about the locals – the way they live and do things – that we will take away with us forever. We often take what we have back home for granted, such as a hot shower, that is not the norm here. Even though most people in Myanmar live with less than $3 a day, they were some of the kindest and happiest people I’ve ever met in my entire life.
For more pictures from Kalaw, please visit the gallery!