Hot and physically demanding, trekking through Myanmar is also rewarding, inspiring and deeply spiritual. It is ideal for outdoor enthusiasts who aren’t afraid to rough it or immerse themselves in a completely different culture. If sponge baths, hiking all day and sleeping above the cows on hardwood floors next to people you only met that morning is an adventure you’re willing to take, then this trip is for you!
I’ve seen a lot of posts about three day two night treks from Kalaw to Lake Inle, but nothing that gave me all the details in one place. This article is the meat and potatoes and more of what you’ll need to know to plan your own trip. It includes information on the best trekking company, an itinerary of our three day two night trek, important things to know before getting to Myanmar, a packing guide, and specific information about the trek.
Facts to Know Before You Go
Myanmar does not like foreign money with creases, folds, tears, ink spots or any other minor flaws, so if your money doesn’t look like it just rolled off the press, they won’t be taking it. My advice is to to save yourself the trouble of an additional trek all over the city looking for someone who will take your money and just change your money as soon as you arrive in Myanmar.
Respect Buddha…or Else
With nearly 90% of its population practicing Buddhism, Myanmar is the most religious Buddhist country in terms of the proportion of monks in the population and proportion of income spent on religion. Buddhism in Myanmar stands at the very center of Burmese national identity. Respecting Buddha here is no joke! A Canadian tourist was arrested in Lake Inle for having a Buddha tattoo and a bar owner in Yangon served over a year in prison for posting a picture of Buddha wearing headphones.
The traditional garment for both men and women in Myanmar is the longyi, a sarong like garment that looks like a skirt. Most of Asia is conservative but Myanmar is even more so. I landed in Mandalay wearing a razor back tank top and shorts and couldn’t have felt more out of place. The local women wear longyis and usually long sleeves. Just be respectful and aware of their culture and dress accordingly while in Myanmar. For specific information on what to pack for trekking see the What to Pack list below.
In 1948 Burma became independent from the United Kingdom and changed its name to Myanmar. Shortly after obtaining their independence insurgencies began that have caused internal conflict within the country up till present. The conflict has been labeled as the world’s longest running civil war.
The Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) is a Rohingya Muslim insurgent group active in the northern Rakhine State. In August 2017 they launched coordinated attacks on 24 police posts and the 552nd Light Infantry Battalion army base, killing a dozen people. In response, the Myanmar Army (a.k.a Tatmadaw) launched “clearance operations” in the northern Rakhine State, which critics argue targeted Rohingya civilians rather than insurgents. An entire Rohinga village was burned and 10 male villagers were brutally executed and thrown into a shallow grave. Over 700,000 Rohingya people, fearing for their lives, have now fled to Bangladesh, totaling more than a million refugees now exiled there.
The trek from Kalaw to Lake Inle is located in the central part of the Shan State and as of February 2018 appeared stable. However, always check the most recent travel advisories before booking travel. Myanmar’s economy relies heavily on tourism and has been hit hard by the decline of tourists due to the conflicts in the Rakhine State. When we reached our hotel on Lake Inle we were the only people staying there for the first couple of days. A local confirmed that tourism was down by 88%.
Trekking Company Details
I went with Uncle Sam’s Trekking Company. They have a good reputation, great reviews and are also highly organized and friendly.
- Cost: 40,000 kyats per person ($30 USD) for a 3 day 2 night trek.
- Location: Central Shan State, Myanmar
- Address: 21 Aung Chan Thar Street, Kalaw
- Positives: I think Sam’s Trekking was great overall. Sam came out and gave a great introductory send off. The guides were very friendly and had a great sense of humor.
- Suggestions: We moved along at a fast clip so it made stopping to photograph difficult as I was always running to catch back up with the rest of the group. I would suggest taking short breaks more often. However, we had long days so I did appreciate the guides keeping us on track.
We started in the small northern mountain town of Kalaw and over the course of three days and two nights trekked 60 kilometers/37 miles through the mountains staying in remote villages along the way and ending at Lake Inle.
- Day 1: Kalaw to Sekkyagone (21 kilometers/13 miles)
- Day 2: Sekkyagone to Pattupauk (24 kilometers/15 miles)
- Day 3: Pattupauk to Lake Inle (15 kilomters/9.3 miles)
Important Information About Trekking in Myanmar
Most of Myanmar has a tropical monsoon climate with three seasons: cool, hot and rainy. In the cool and hot seasons you are unlikely to experience any rain. We went in February during the cool season but it was still very hot and dry during the day (high 80’s to mid 90’s). However, we were at higher elevations and the temperatures also dropped into the 30’s and mid 40’s at night. If you go in the rainy season prepare for lots of mud and bring an extra change of pants and a good rain coat.
- Cool – November to February is warm to hot during the day and the air is relatively dry.
- Hot – March to May is intensely hot in most of the country.
- Rainy – June to October is the monsoon season with high rainfall. From June to August rainfall can be constant for long periods of time, particularly on the Bay of Bengal coast and in Yangon and the Irrawaddy Delta. In September and October the rain is less intense and you will experience more sunshine.
Be prepared for steep ascents and eight hours/day of hiking. The people in our group were all young and physically fit so we maintained a very brisk pace. I stopped often to take pictures and had to run to catch up to the group. If you think you can make it, but just need to travel at a slower pace, make sure you let the trekking company know up front and ask them to put you in a group with similar physical abilities.
We took the 8:30am JJ Express bus from Bagan and it took about eight hours, included a lunch stop and cost $17.60 USD/person. The seats are comfortable and JJ Express offers routes from many cities within Myanmar and surrounding countries. However, there weren’t any good vegetarian options at the roadside stop so consider packing your own lunch if you have dietary restrictions or are a picky eater.
You will need to arrive in Kalaw the day before your trek begins. We stayed at the Railroad Hotel for $25/night and that included a good breakfast. The hotel was not heated, but they did provide plenty of warm blankets.
The food on our trip was awesome and nobody in our group got sick. However, most of us ate vegetarian while trekking. Make sure you let the trekking company know up front of any dietary needs. Sam’s Trekking Company was very accommodating.
Personal Hygiene & Privacy
After the first day of trekking about 13 miles in the hot sun we were all desperate for showers. Unfortunately, we discovered that the shower was a big bucket of water in the middle of the villager’s front yard with no privacy. The toilet wasn’t much better; just a dilapidated shack with a hole in the ground and a bucket of water beside it. The second night was only slightly better. The “shower” was a bucket behind a brick wall that offered minimal privacy, so sponge bath it was! Bring your own soap and a washrag.
Myanmar has some of the worst healthcare in the world. In recent years it has ranked 190th out of 191 countries. Get travel insurance and bring any medications you may need. Painkillers and diarrhea meds are a good start.
You’ll be staying in remote, small and very conservative Buddhist villages. Our hosts actually posted guidelines on how to be a good tourist and here are a few pointers to remember besides common sense and courtesy.
- Picture taking – These are real people trying to live their lives. Use discretion! If the shot will be up close, invasive of their privacy, or appear insensitive, then just ask if you may take their picture.
- Clothing – Dress modestly. Ladies, if you’re going to wear shorts wear very long shorts and cover your shoulders (no tank tops). I wore hiking pants that converted to capri length and quick dry synthetic shirts.
- Remove your shoes – The feet are considered unclean and it is offensive if you go into their living space with your shoes on.
- Another good reminder when staying in a Buddhist home is to not point your feet toward their shrines.
- Buddhists consider the head sacred because it’s where they believe the spirit lives, so don’t touch their heads (even children) and don’t sit on pillows. Sorry…your bum is not considered sacred.
- Village children are cute and will run out to meet you because many tourists have brought them candy or small gifts in the past. This has created a begging culture that the villagers do not appreciate so high five or wave instead.
What to Pack
When trekking for eight hours a day over mountains you’ll want to remain as light as possible. General rule of thumb is don’t haul anything other than absolute necessities. You’ll stop at multiple locations where bottled water is available so just ask your guides how far it is to the next stop. No need to carry extra water as it is heavy! Enjoy traveling light and living minimalistic for a few days!
- Convertible Hiking Pants – I wore my favorite pair of Hale Prana Hiking Pants that convert into capri length. They are a cute alternative to dorky zip off pants.
- Base Layer Long Pants – I improvised because I pack light when traveling for three months. I wore my knee length workout pants with my knee high Sockwell Women’s Elevation Firm Graduated Compression Socks to stay warm at night. Another great option is the SmartWool Women’s NTS Mid 250 Bottom
- Base Layer Long Sleeve Shirt – Any moisture wicking synthetic shirt or Smartwool Baselayer Shirt is a good choice.
- Two Synthetic Fast Dry T-shirts – I took my Smartwool Merino Tee and another cheep synthetic t-shirt. You don’t have to spend a lot of money. Even Walmart sells workout tees that will work fine.
- One Light Weight Jacket – I took my Marmot PreCip jacket. It is ultralight, packs easily and layers well with a long sleeve synthetic base layer.
- Two Pair of Lightweight Underwear – I took my ExOfficio Give-N-Go Sport Mesh Hipkini underwear and will never wear anything else for travel! They are anti-microbial, incredibly comfortable, don’t ride and dry very fast.
- Three Pairs of Socks – Smartwool Socks are the best! I took my Women’s PhD Run Ultra Light Micro Socks.
- Bag – Take one small comfortable daypack that fits only the essentials. I saw a guy on the trail with a huge backpack and he looked MISERABLE! I took my Go Ruck Echo 16 litre backpack and had more than enough room.
- Good Hiking Shoes -When traveling for months at a time I only take one pare of all purpose shoes. I wore my merino wool All Birds which are great overall, but the tread was not aggressive enough and I fell in a slippery section. My Salomon X Ultra Mid 2 GTX Hiking Shoes would have been perfect for this!
- Headlamp or Flashlight – I took my Black Diamond Cosmo Headlamp.
- Lightweight Towel – I used my MSR microfleece towel but my husband uses the Youphoria Outdoors Quick Dry Travel Towel with Carry Bag and it works just as well and is more affordable.
- Hat – I didn’t take one, but wish I had. Look for hats that provide good ventilation and face coverage. With its crocheted raffia crown, The Tina Woven Cowboy Hat by Wallaroo Hat Company is a high-quality hat that provides an adjustable crown, great coverage and breathability. Not to mention it’s kind of cute!
- Sunglasses – The single most important thing to look for when buying sunglasses is a sticker or tag indicating that they block 100 percent of UV rays. These Wooden Wayfarer Polarized Bamboo Sunglasses by Cloudfield offer 100% UV protection and are durable, lightweight and sturdy.
- Toiletries – Toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant, soap, toilet paper and washrag. Skip the makeup ladies. It will melt off anyway!
- Mosquito Repellant – We used the Natrapel Mosquito, Tick and Insect Repellent Wipes. They’re effective, lightweight, spill proof, safer than deet, and don’t take up much space in your bag.
- Wipes – I took my Aveeno Ulta-Calming Wipes. They work great for sensitive skin and come in handy for washing your hands and face on the trail.
- Sunblock – You’ll spend hours every day hiking in the direct sun. Choose a sunblock that has at least SPF 30 and is sweat proof. The Neutrogena Cooldry Sport Stick Broad Spectrum SPF 50+ is only 1.5 ounces.
- First Aid Kit – A fellow hiker got huge blisters (as did my husband) and was miserable the last day of hiking. Make sure you at least have the basics like mole skin, bandages and anti-biotic ointment. The Lifeline Trail Light Dayhiker First Aid Kit is under $10, includes moleskin and only weighs 2.7 ounces.
- Medication – Painkiller and anti-inflammatories are a must. I use Aleve Liquid Gels as they absorb fast and provide 12 hours of pain relief.
- Camera or iPhone – I took my Cannon EOS M6, but if you don’t need production quality images I’d recommend taking only an iPhone. It will really cut down on the weight and you’ll still get fantastic images.
- GoPro – You can get some great footage with a GoPro Hero5 Session and is waterproof up to 33 ft without a housing. I took a cheap knock off, but if you’re not needing high-quality video stick with an iPhone.
- Binoculars – I took my small hiking binoculars but didn’t find much time to stop and use them. These SkyGenius Small Compact Lightweight Binoculars are a great option weighing in at just over 6oz.
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