Must-Have Guide for Hiking the Kalaw to Inle Lake Trek (+ Free Packing List)
Updated on September 15th, 2020
Today I have just arrived back to Australia after an incredible (let me say that again, incredible!) 4 months in Myanmar. If you are wondering how I was able to stay for 4-months, you can read about my move to Myanmar. I always find returning home after a trip very overwhelming, everyone is asking so many questions about what you loved most and I can honestly say, everywhere I went was exceptional. Although a standout of my Myanmar itinerary was the Kalaw to Inle Lake Trek.
This hike takes you through the rural countryside of Myanmar that you don’t see on the city highlight tours. On day 1 you’ll wander through farmlands and bear witness to locals labouring on the abundant crops. Say hello to the Pa’O tribe which is the largest ethnic group in the country. If you have just mastered mingalarbar, you’ll have to learn a whole new greeting for the tribespeople.
Day 2 takes you on a more remote track past a raging river in the wet season or thirsty barren landscapes in the dry. Learn about local culture with your guide and enjoy delicious meals at a homestay or monastery. Finish the hike at with lunch at the floating houses and a boat trip over Inle Lake
You know me and the love I have for hiking. When I first discovered this trek I knew I had to do it. There are two options for the trek; 2 days and 1 night or 3 days and 2 nights. This post will help you plan your trek with a reputable tour company, find the perfect accommodation in each town and prepare you with all the tips for trekking Kalaw to Inle Lake.
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Planning & preparing for the trek
First things first, let’s get you prepared and up to speed on the Kalaw to Inle Lake hike.
When is the best time to hike
I quizzed our guide on this question. He surprised me by saying that the tours run year-round – even in the wet season. Our guide who has been leading hikes for over 2 years he says the best time is from October to January.
This is when everything is greenest and prettiest. However, in October and November, you still might hit the tail end of the wet season. If you don’t want to get wet when hiking aim for December and January. You could also be expected to cross running rivers as we crossed a few that had dried up.
I hiked in mid-late February and thought it was a great time. I was concerned about the overnight temperatures getting really cold and not having enough space in my day pack for warm clothes. Although the temperatures were quite mild at this time of year. Everything was very dry and brown though.
Do you need a guide & which trekking company to choose
What makes the trek between Kalaw and Inle so great isn’t just the hiking but also the overnight accommodation, the stops along the way and the chats we had with our English speaking guide.
While I am sure experienced hikers could do the hike on their own (although there are no waymarkers or signs) I don’t recommend it. Having to organise a place to stay overnight would also be quite a challenge. The trek isn’t expensive with a guide and you will have insights into the local tribes and cultures.
I went with Jungle King Treks and highly recommend them. They are a great option for solo travellers as you only pay for yourself and will join a group. Many of the other trekking companies require you to pay for a guide and the price per person is cheaper if you get 5-6 people. Find them on Facebook here.
Kalaw to Inle Lake Trek cost
The total cost for 2 days and 1 night with Jungle King was 32.000 Kyat ($22 USD). This included 4 delicious meals, a night sleeping comfortably in a monastery, boat trip across Inle Lake and luggage transfer from Kalaw to Inle Lake.
The price actually seemed so cheap for everything we received, plus an experienced English speaking guide. The only things we had to buy during the hike was drinking water and any other beverages we wanted. Water was 500 Kyat for 1L.
The cost for 3 days, 2 nights is 38,000 Kyat ($26 USD).
Should you trek Kalaw to Inle Lake in 2 or 3 days?
Firstly, how much do you like hiking? Secondly, how much time do you have in Myanmar? If you have plenty of time to spare and love hiking then the 3 days, 2 nights would be a great option. You sleep in a homestay on the first night and a monastery on the second.
If you have the full month to spend in Myanmar why not head off the beaten track visit Myeik in the south and head out to explore the 800 islands of the Mergui Archipelago.
If however, you are on a short 2-week trip, the 2 days, 1 night is sufficient. Having done the latter I don’t feel like I missed out on anything.
Do you need to book ahead?
Nope. There are PLENTY of trekking companies based in Kalaw that you will definitely find a guide. If there is a particular company you would like to trek with it might be a good idea to email ahead.
As Jungle King Trekking groups travellers if the first group exceeds the maximum capacity they will get a second guide and split the group in two. Or like in my case, we were going to join the 3-day trekkers on their second day.
Kalaw to Inle Lake trekking (2-day experience)
Arriving in Kalaw
I hadn’t heard much about Kalaw other than it’s the place to start the hike. Which meant I decided it was only worthy of an overnight stay. If you have the time stay in Kalaw 2 nights!
Kalaw was such a cute town. It didn’t have a lot going on, but it would be the perfect place to chill out in a cafe and read a book or make future travel plans. There are even a few short walks that can be done around the town.
Getting to Kalaw by bus is really easy. Whether you are starting in Bagan, Mandalay or Inle Lake there are direct buses. I took a day bus from Mandalay which left at 9 am and was expected in at 4 pm but arrived at 3. Yipee. I find the best website for booking buses is Oway.
My friend I was meeting in Kalaw came from Bagan and was expected in at 5 pm and arrived just before me. Which meant we had a few hours to explore in the afternoon. We ended up going to the sunset viewpoint found on Maps.me and had some aggressive dogs chase us away. So I don’t recommend heading up there. It was a pretty scary experience.
Day 1: Kalaw to the monastery
The morning of our hike we had a great breakfast at the highly recommended Kalaw Vista Bed and Breakfast. See more about this beautiful boutique b&b below.
At 8:45 we were picked up by Jungle King and taken to their office in town. We did wait around at the office for a good 45 minutes to an hour before loading into the vehicles to take us to the starting point of our hike.
The drive took 45 minutes and we all had a good time getting to know each other and our guide. My friend and I were disappointed to find out as there were 10 of us, 2 more than the maximum we would be joining the 3-day trekkers on their second day.
The drive out had been fun and we’d already started building relationships with the anticipation of the trek ahead. As no one opposed the guide was fine to let us hike with the original crew.
The entire first day was mostly flat. We were dropped off in a small village and at 10:45 we made our way through the backstreets until we were walking through the farmland. Our guide frequently stopped to tell us about the different crops growing from chilli, sesame and ginger.
Our group kept a solid walking pace and it was nice to drop back and enjoy the countryside alone occasionally. After only a couple of hours, we stopped at Yekaung To village under some shade and brought out our lunch. Lunch was a simple noodle dish, a clear broth, tomatoes and watermelon served by the local villagers.
After lunch, we continued walking through crops past water buffalo and locals working in the fields for an hour until we came to a swimming spot by a river. We took a nice long swimming break here to cool off.
The last 2 hours of the day went by quickly through lusher landscapes and after a short ascent, we were arriving at the monastery in Teetain by 5 pm. There is a wonderful spot to watch the sunset another 15 minutes away. Make sure to head up here no matter how tired you feel -it’s totally worth it.
Dinner and the monastery
After lunch which was pretty bland, none of us was expecting much for dinner. Wow. We were so wrong. Dinner was delicious! The monastery prepared dishes of peanut tomato salad, smashed pumpkin, chicken and potato, a tofu veggie dish and some greens. We were given a sweet peanut snack for dessert served with green tea.
A lot of our group was vegetarian and were able to eat everything but the chicken dish. I believe these are also suitable for vegans.
Spending the night in the monastery was actually really cool. We slept in the same building as the young monks but had privacy screens set up around us. The mattress was about 5cm thick and we each had 2 really warm blankets. The next morning everyone awoke surprised at how well they had slept. Breakfast was served at 7 am, but as the monks awoke much earlier most of us were already awake.
Day 2: Monastery to Inle Lake
Breakfast was a type of rubbery crepe-like thing served with fruit coffee and tea. The worst part about the monastery were the toilets and most of us preferred to find a hidden area behind the trees. Around 8 am we left the monastery and walked a short distance up a hill to where we had to pay 15,000 Kyat for our entrance ticket into Inle Lake.
Today’s hike took us through completely different scenery. Instead of farmlands and crops, we traversed through narrow trails along dried-up riverbeds. There were quite a few sections of steeper uneven descent and the people with knee issues definitely felt it here.
As we neared the lake the dry red land turned to green rice paddies and the village homes grew in height with the stilts used to raise them over floodwaters in the wet season.
At 12:30 we arrived at the cutest little cafe/local home on the canals of the lake where we had lunch. Lunch was again delicious and we had a peanut curry, rice, tea leaf salad and watercress. Even though the day was short everyone was exhausted from 2 days of hiking in direct sunlight and a well deserved quick nap took place after lunch.
Lunch and the long-neck tribeswomen
As lunch was located on the canals we crammed straight into a longboat to take us to Nyaungshwe (the village north of Inle Lake where we were all staying). Fitting in the boat was a lot of fun and it was hilarious being directed as to the best way for us to all sit.
Once in, our guide gave us the option of heading straight to Nyaungshwe or visiting the long neck tribeswomen and a silver workshop first.
We all voted on seeing the tribeswomen which was something I had on my Myanmar bucket list. So it was shocking to arrive and feel so uncomfortable. There were 3 women from the tribe sitting behind a barricade. One of them was weaving and the other two sat on a wooden bench with a space between them for tourists to sit and pose for photos.
Myself and a few others walked out after only a few minutes as it felt like we were watching these women in a zoo. The whole experience was disturbing.
Boat ride and arriving in Nyaungshwe
From here it took an hour to cruise over the lake through canals, past floating houses and crops and over the main body. The beauty of the lake made us ‘almost’ forget the poor women.
Once we arrived at Nyaungshwe we said our goodbyes to our guide and walked to the BaobaBed Hostel. Everyone in our group really clicked and we ended up spending the afternoon, evening and following day together.
Frequently asked questions and tips for hiking Kalaw to Inle Lake
Kalaw to Inle Lake trek difficulty
The trek was not difficult and could be done by all fitness levels and ages. The greatest challenge would be the uneven ground and the descent on the second day.
The hike is also in direct sunlight so be prepared with plenty of water. During the wet season, there will also be a few rivers to cross. We made plenty of stops on both days and the longest we had to hike without a place to buy water was 3 hours.
Distance, time and elevation change
We were told day 1 was 22 km and day 2, 16km. Although I don’t believe the first was that many. It took just over 6 hours on the first day, but there were so many stops, total walking time was probably closer to 4. The second day was 3.5 hours and we made one quick stop for tea and snacks.
The trek ascended 302m and descended 754m.
What is the accommodation like?
The accommodation at the monastery was very basic but comfortable. As you enter the monastery there is one really large room. To the far left, they had partitioned off 3 areas for different groups with sheets. In each area, the mattresses were lined up side-by-side and fitted with clean sheets, blankets and a small pillow.
A few people in our group had sleeping bag liners but I felt it was fine without. Behind the monastery was a block where you could have a bucket shower – the weather was too cold for me to have a cold shower which I had anticipated and decided on a wet wipe shower instead.
What is the food like?
As you have probably already realised I loved the food! Other than that first lunch everything had so much flavour. I especially liked that all but one dish was suitable for vegetarians.
Some of the places we stopped along the route sold snacks and I never felt hungry once. Although if you are a big eater it could be a good idea to pack a few pieces of fruit or nuts.
Don’t forget to grab your free travel tips ebook
Is there access to wifi?
There isn’t any wifi along the way although there was only one tiny patch where I didn’t have service with Telenor. Phone data is really cheap in Myanmar and I swapped between a couple of service providers during my trip. FInd out which SIM card is the best for your destinations in Myanmar.
Are there luggage transfers?
Yes! This was a huge selling factor for me but seems to be a standard service. The bags were tags and we were required to show them before claiming. Buy a luggage lock to ensure the safekeeping of your belongings.
Are there transfers to your accommodation at the end of the hike?
You will be required to walk from the final boat stop to your hotel in Nyaungshwe. Nyaungshwe is a small town and you will only have your hiking pack. I stayed the furthest from the boat in our group and it was a 15-minute walk for me. After 2 days of hiking this distance is really minimal. Although if you wish there are tuk-tuks and taxis around to give you a lift.
Where to stay in Kalaw & Inle Lake
Accommodation at Kalaw
Where you must stay
Easily the best place I stayed in Myanmar was the Kalaw Vista B&B. It was just so DAMN cute! It was a little more expensive than other places and hostels I had been staying but worth every cent. During the week I had been travelling in Myanmar I had heard a lot of horror stories about accommodation in Kalaw. They were either really dirty, uncomfortable or cold.
The friend I trekked with had been recommended this hotel so we decided to book it as we knew it would be nice. We found it pretty amusing as we had only met the week before and felt like we were on a couples retreat. The owners live between Montana and Kalaw and their level of care and detail was very apparent.
We had free homemade breakfast, jams, bread and sundried tomatoes with yummy tea and coffee.
Accommodation at Inle Lake
What I didn’t realise is that the only accommodation on the shores of the lake is a few expensive resorts. The rest of the hotels are located in the village of Nyaungshwe. Nyaungshwe is a 15-20 minute boat ride along a canal from the lake.
In Bagan, I stayed at the BaobaBed hostel and booked the trek through them. They had a second BaobaBed hostel in Nyaungshwe and it made sense to stay with them.
The hostel was in a nice quiet location, had a cafe downstairs and an open rooftop area. They offered yoga in the morning and free rotating breakfast. The dorms are great because they have a privacy curtain with your own light and charging ports. I loved that they had free bikes and used them every day to ride to the lake.
If you’re not a hostel person, Motel Album is super cute and affordable. Each room is its own bungalow and is located halfway along the canal between the Lake and Nyaung Shwe. They have exceptional reviews on Booking with free breakfast and bicycle hire.
What to pack trekking from Kalaw to Inle Lake
Packing for the trek was actually really difficult. Nor just for myself but for most of the other travellers I met. Everyone had limited day packs some smaller than others and deciding how to maximise that small amount of space caused quite a challenge.
My biggest concern was getting cold during the night. Although I didn’t need to worry about this. The two provided blankets we were given were really warm and there were spares. The following day the temperature was already warm by 9 am.
So what to pack for the trek?
- One pair of leggings – can be hiked and slept in
- One pair of shorts – once the day warms up
- One or two lightweight shirts or tank tops for hiking – I wore the same shirt both days due to limited space as did most people in our group. Sleeves would be good as the sun is brutal.
- Hiking boots or joggers
- One pair of flip flops for at camp
- One warm jacket – if you don’t have anything overly warm pack 2. I wore a lightweight sweater and a wind/rain breaker jacket over the top
- One pair of socks (again, I reused)
- Waterproof jacket – If hiking in or around the wet season
- Wet wipes for a camp shower
- Hand sanitiser
- Power bank – keep your phone charged for photos. I seriously don’t know how I went without one of these for so long.
- Alternatively a camera
- Minimal toiletries – Toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant, face cream
- Sunscreen – important!
- Bug spray – I didn’t use mine, but they might be mad at another time of year
- Headlamp – I love my black diamond headlamp. It comes in handy ALL the time.
- Change of underwear
- Water bottle holding ideally 1L
- Hat – I didn’t have a hat, but having one would have been really nice.
- Enough cash for entry in Inle Lake, snacks and water. 20,000 Kyat is plenty.
Travelling to Myanmar soon?
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- Also, don’t forget travel insurance