Kalaw - Hiking in the Hills
Myanmar Beer Double Strong. Yet another reason to love this country, and Kalaw was the first (and only) place I had it, so even if there was nothing else memorable about Kalaw, I'd still have a positive impression of it.
Kalaw is a town in the hills about 50 kilometers west of Inle Lake. Located 4,200 feet above sea level, Kalaw is blessed with a moderate climate, perfect for hiking. The hills surrounding the town are full of villages populated by tribes of diverse ethnicities.
Hiking through the hills, you'll see terraced rice paddies, a huge variety of plant life, water buffaloes (still used for plowing), enormous banyan trees at trail junctions, and, as usual for Myanmar, lots of friendly, genuine smiles. Unfortunately, you'll also see slash-and-burn deforestation, farmers with pesticide backpacks spraying crops, and very little wildlife.
I was there in July 2011. The accuracy of the information below, particularly the prices, will degrade with time. Please check my blog for more pictures.
Train: I took the train from Shwe Nyaung, the train station closest to Inle Lake. The train ride had some decent scenery, but the best parts were the train stations along the way, which became instant markets as soon as the train pulled in. Women with goods ranging from potato chips to jack fruit balanced on their heads crowded around the train windows and did a brisk business.
The Kalaw train station is south of town, about a 10-minute walk. Check this site for updated fares and schedules.
Bus: Guesthouses and agents along the main highway (Union Road) sell bus tickets to Inle Lake, Bagan, Mandalay and Yangon. Tip - different types of buses depart on different days. I lucked out and got a big, relatively comfortable bus to Bagan. Some friends of mine were stuck with a cramped minibus. If your time is flexible, you may want to wait for a day when there is a large bus. The ticket to Bagan cost me 13,000 kyat and the trip took eight hours.
Foot: I wish I had trekked the 50 kilometers from Kalaw to Inle Lake. Because of bad planning, I visited Inle Lake before Kalaw. The trek takes three days and can be arranged through guesthouses and guide services. You only need to take what you need for those three days; the guide service will bring your bags to a guesthouse at Inle Lake. When asking about prices, make sure you clarify if there are extra charges for the bag transport and boat rides when you reach Inle Lake.
I stayed at the Golden Lily, a Lonely Planet recommendation. Definitely opt for the $5 rooms in the main building with the large patios in front. The $3 rooms with shared bathrooms are dirty, noisy, and offer no protection from mosquitoes. Do not exchange money at Golden Lily. They gave me a terrible rate of 700 kyat per USD when the market price was 750 kyat per USD.
The same rule applies here as it did at Inle Lake. If the Myanmar beer costs 2,000 kyat or more, it's an overpriced Lonely Planet restaurant. If the beer is 1,700 kyat or less, the food prices should be reasonable. When I was there, the delicious Myanmar Double Strong beer was cheaper than regular Myanmar beer.
For a literal hole-in-the-wall experience, I recommend the tiny restaurant on Merchant Street near the southwestern corner of Aung Chang Tha Zedi (the large stupa immediately west of the Market). It doesn't have an English name or sign, but there is an English menu in colorful letters hanging outside. It's owned by a Burmese guy and his Chinese wife. Two of their super-cute kids gave me an enthusiastic tour of the temple across the street and the Aung Chang Tha Zedi. If you like eating pig ears, I recommend the 凉拌猪头 (liang2 ban4 zhu1 tou2), or pig's head salad.
If you have any trouble finding the restaurant, ask the owner of Law Ka Nat Art Gallery on Aung Chantha Road a few doors down from the Internet cafe. He's friends with the owners.
All of the guesthouses either have their own guides or contracts with guide services. As usual, I recommend that you book your trek somewhere other than your guesthouse so that you can spread out the wealth. Same for bus tickets.
Definitely ask around at two to three places before you decide on a guide. Important things to consider are: cost, how many people will be in your group, the English ability of the guide, the difficulty of the route, how many meals you will get, where you will sleep, and what you will see. The going rate seemed to be 5,000 kyat per person for a day hike, and 10,000-12,000 kyat per person per day for a multi-day hike, depending on the size of the group.
I went with Robin, a relative of the Golden Lily owner. (Yes, I know. I need to take my own advice about spreading the wealth.) I paid 10,000 kyat per day for two days, and the group had five people. The food was really good, especially dinner. Robin's English was excellent, and he's full of interesting information. Though his specialty seems to be edible and psychotropic flora, he'll talk to you about anything.
I was disappointed that my second day was more like a half-day and the only meal I got was breakfast. If you do a two-day hike, make sure you pay a fair price for the second day. My second day was NOT worth 10,000 kyat.
Another tip – bring your own sleeping bag if possible. The blankets in the villages can be funky.
Sam's Family Restaurant, located on Aung Chantha Road, has a guide service that seemed pretty professional.
Most of the villages we visited did not have electricity and many did not have a constant water supply. The area is poor, but food security did not seem to be a problem. If you want to bring presents for the villagers, I recommend over-the-counter medicines like painkillers and Neosporin, as well as school supplies for the kids.
I regret not comparison shopping for guide services.
I regret not arguing with Golden Lily about the exchange rate, or comparison shopping for a better exchange rate. Yah, I'm a cheap bastard.
I regret not planning ahead and trekking to Inle Lake from Kalaw.
I regret not seeing the bamboo buddha sculpture at a nearby temple, several kilometers away. The locals said it's cool.
I regret not taking pictures of the restaurant owners' kids and writing down their address. Though it's a bit of trouble, I've learned that I actually enjoy mailing photos to people.