The journey to Kalaw/Inle Lake by bus is excruciating. From every direction, it requires a bus journey of more than 9 hours. From Yangon it is in the realms of 12 hours and this may or may not including a change of transport in the small town of Meiktila at around 3:30am! The journey from Meiktila, through Thazi and up the hill is 5 hours of largely unpaved road that in the dry season becomes a dust bowl. And as most buses keep their windows and doors open, the colour of your skin changes to a dark brown and your lungs become clogged with the parched Earth. Yes, it is a hell. But on the bright side, Kalaw and Inle Lake are an excellent place to spend a week or so just relaxing and catching up with fellow travellers and sharing a yarn – and the trekking is memorable.
Kalaw is a nice place to rest for a few days after being completely broken by the state of the road to there. There isn’t much to see or do, except for perhaps the local cave with thousands of Buddhas. This was quite good and receives very little tourist traffic. We got the impression that most people stayed in Kalaw for just one night and started trekking the next day.
Most people Trek from Kalaw to Inle Lake and this seems to be the most sensible option given that the road from Kalaw to Inle Lake is also treacherous. Most people take the 3 day/2 night trekking option which generally provides for one night’s accommodation in a villager’s house and one night’s accommodation in a monastery.
For most people, the first day of trekking is quite strenuous because it is uphill for almost the whole day. But despite its difficult nature, there are plenty of rest breaks and total trekking time doesn’t exceed 5 hours. At the end of the day, the harshness is quickly forgotten. The second and third days are much easier and probably a little shorter.
Accommodation on the trek is basic, toilet facilities are clean, but very Asian (but better than almost all roadside toilets at home) and washing oneself is simply a scrub of the face and underarms because of the very public nature of the wash facilities. Costs vary from trek to trek, but we can recommend Sam’s Trekking service located at Sam’s Cafe. He’ll almost never have more than 4 in a group (we were 2) unlike some others that were trying to get us onto a group of 7!
Baggage can be sent ahead to your chosen guesthouse at Inle Lake for 3000 kyat, you are not required to carry your own bedding and the food provided on the trip is ample and of a great standard. You must trek!
Despite the charm of the Lake, the best reason to visit this area is to relax and chat with people about anything and everything. We spent 4 days here just sitting on the balcony of the fantastic Aquarius Inn – one of my favourite guesthouses anywhere.
Most people stay in Nyuang Shwe which is a good kilometre from the lake in the dry season and go on adventures from there. One day we cycled to some caves and then a winery (!), the other days we read endlessly and chatted about travel, sports and the meaning of life. Some people insist on seeing the sites of the lake, but almost universally they report that apart from the lake itself, the other activities are not good (such as the jumping cats).
So Inle Lake is really about relaxation and it is a fantastic place for this.
Despite the relaxed atmosphere of Kalaw and Inle Lake, they really serve as bookends to trekking through remote villages. I would seriously question visiting either of these places if trekking wasn’t part of the itinerary as the logistics of travel may just be too punishing. But then again, what else are you going to do in Myanmar except visit places at the end of treacherous roads? Does Myanmar sound exciting yet?