Trekking in Kalaw, Shan State

Mark Levitin | Live the World

November 23, 2022

With its diverse and abundant nature, perfectly preserved tribal cultures, and wholehearted hospitality of its people, Myanmar begs to be trekked. But bureaucratic restrictions make it unnecessarily difficult - in fact, it is technically illegal for a foreign tourist to camp out anywhere in Myanmar without the company of a licensed guide. While this should not be treated too seriously, and if you strike out on your own with a tent, you are unlikely to encounter any problems, it is a mild risk. Plus, most European travelers are too law-obedient even to try. On the other hand, organised guided treks are hard to arrange - there are few provisions for that and almost no such tour programs on offer. One exception is Kalaw - a village-turned-tourist-hotspot in Shan State, famous as a launchpad for hikes in the vicinity, or longer jaunts to Inle Lake. Additionally, the area is believed to be one of the best in Myanmar for birdwatching.

Attractions in Kalaw

© istock/Images_By_Kenny

The idyllic, mellow vibe of a small Burmese market town in Kalaw has been notably diluted by the tourism industry, so the only worthy sights here are the temples. Thein Taung pagoda stands on a hill and is often used as a viewpoint - the panorama of farms and low ranges is indeed lovely, especially at sunset. Shwe Umin pagoda, slightly out of town, is an old temple set in a cave: expect the usual golden Buddha statues between stalactites. One relatively unique attraction is the Hnee pagoda, where the main Buddha image is woven out of bamboo stripes. The only other bamboo Buddha in Myanmar is located in Mawlamyine, far in the south.  

Kalaw to Inle

© istock/Jecky Bershteyn

The most famous trek from Kalaw is a three-day itinerary terminating at Inle Lake. The hike passes through a number of tribal villages, Shan and Palaung around Kalaw, Inwa and Pa-o closer to the lake. Pa-o usually wear distinct ethnic costumes, Inwa can be identified by their bright orange headscarves, while Shan and Palaung normally only dress up on festival days. March is when the Shan stage Shinbyu ceremonies, mass ordination of young boys in Buddhist monasteries, and unlike the Mon in South Myanmar, make it really big. Traditionally, 108 boys (a holy number in Buddhism) are paraded and ordained at once, meaning that a few villages have to join forces to organize it. The hike itself is easy, more of a stroll. The villages are cute, authentic, untouched by modernity. Homestays are available, a rare thing in Myanmar where locals need to register with the police before accommodating foreign guests. The views on the last day, as the trail descends gradually towards Inle Lake, are awesome. Birdwatching along this trek is reputed to be exceptionally good, too.  

Other hikes

© istock/mathess

There is no limit to possible treks from Kalaw, theoretically. One could make a loop, taking in the surrounding tribal villages and Buddhist temples, or hike all the way to Pindaya, for example - this route should pass through some beautiful scenery. Even longer treks would take you out of Shan State, perhaps to Loikaw in Kayah. Unfortunately, an only simple one- or two-day village treks are available as tours, and anything else would either have to be arranged at your own (high) expense or done independently (and illegally). In reality, none of the walks in this part of Myanmar require a guide for any purpose other than satisfying Burmese bureaucracy. However, if you do choose to head out on your own, do not inform the staff of your guesthouse: they will try to stop you and might even snitch on you. They cannot be blamed for this either - it is a common practice of the government in Myanmar to hold hotel owners responsible for every action of their foreign guests. If you need maps or any advice, get it under the guise of shopping around for a tour

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