Intrepid trekkers are diverging from the well-trodden trails between Inle and Kalaw in search of Myanmar’s best routes. Sampan Travel offers four alternative places in Myanmar to explore the great outdoors on two feet.
With the Pa’O
The Inthar are most commonly associated with Inle, however a score of ethnic groups live on the banks of the lake, one of the largest being the Pa’O, famous for the fiery orange headdresses that some of the women wear.
The Pa’O Self Administered Zone extends over the southern part of Inle. From the Magyigone Jetty trek into the heart of Pa’O territory (not so long ago a no-go ‘black’ region) and stay the night at one of three villages now hosting international visitors.
When staying with the Pa’O visit the large monasteries that each village boasts. The Pa’O are renowned for being particularly devout and some of these humungous monasteries are inhabited by only a couple of monks and a handful of novices during the monsoon season, often to be found crowded around a small television placed in the corner of the ordination hall. If visiting in Autumn, an earthy smell crackles in the air, emitted from roasting of thetha-nat-phat leaf, used to make the iconic cheroot.
The food is most commonly vegetarian, and accommodation is simple but homely. Peace descends over the villages as the sunsets, unbroken by the barking of dogs, as is the case in other Myanmar villages. The Pa’O are known to regard dogs as a noisy nuisance that are best done without. Indeed, when Sampan was last staying with the Pa’O, upon hearing about the money and affection spent on canines in the West our host sniffed disapprovingly: “Why get a dog? Better to have a baby.”
With the Danu
In the other direction from Inle Lake, Pindaya town offers hikes through the land of the Danu. Trekking usually commences from the town’s ‘Shwe Umin,’ Myanmar’s Aladdin’s cave, where thousands of shimmering Buddha statues sit among sweating boulders and
stalactites. A giant model spider—the supposed former inhabitant of the cave, and from which the town takes its name—grimaces from outside the cavern, and adds to the kitschy atmosphere.
Over the tea-fields of the Danu, embark upon one to three night treks. The land is at its most verdant during the monsoon. The small sheds that pepper the tea fields serve as shelter from the frequent downpours, as well as cozy spots for picnics.
When taking shelter from a particularly ferocious rain shower last year, with great panache Sampan’s spry Pindaya guide presented cans of Myanmar Beer that he had stashed away in his rucksack, and proceeded to lead us in resounding choruses of local love ballads until
the clouds past. Such lunchtime activities can be not guaranteed, but seem to us indicative of Pindaya’s rambunctious approach to trekking.
If hiking in the summer, cool off after your trek by leaping into the Phone Tanoke Lake at the center of Pindaya. It is said to turn those who bathe in it beautiful. Consequently, you are likely to be one of many splashing about at dusk.
Hsipaw & Kyauk Me
Hsipaw in northern Shan State has for a few years been an increasingly popular destination for hiking, but the lengthy trip to the town (either along the traffic jam-prone Burma Road or upon the lumbering ‘Lashio Mail’ railway line) has deterred many travellers short on time. We believe the charming villages make it worth the journey. Although the sight of a foreign face is not as huge a novelty as it was three years ago, in contrast to the children on the Kalaw-Inle route who can commonly ask after your health in a handful of languages, the bairn of the Hsipaw hills display their inexperience in such matters, mixing up their ‘hellos’ and ‘goodbyes.’
Kyauk Me is just to the west of Hsipaw and is favored by those who consider Hsipaw too mainstream. Though treks between the two towns are no longer possible, two or three day treks in the hills of Kyauk Me are an option, and likely bring the opportunity of sipping tea with local militia.
Skirmishes between the Myanmar Army and ethnic armed groups continue to take place around both Hsipaw and Kyauk Me. Although it is still permitted to go trekking around both towns, ensure that you are travelling with a professional tour operator who can connect you with experienced local guides.
Chin State is fast becoming a favorite among adventurous Yangon residents, and for good reason. Its fissured landscape coupled with the hardy natives and thick, grainy coffee differentiates it from other parts of the country. The government also sees tourism as part of the solutions to solve Chin State’s poverty and stem its brain-drain, meaning that considerable investment is being put into the state in the form of guesthouses, improved roads, and Community Based Tourism (CBT) projects. All welcome news for travellers.
Traditionally, walking up the State’s highest peak, Mount Victoria, was the most popular activity in Chin. However the prevalence of motorbike taxis has wrecked the tranquility and scared off many of the indigenous birds. Even the resident rhododendrons appear startled. The longer route through the national park commences in Mindat, a three-day trek through Kyardoe and Madat villages. (The villagers of both are quiet poor. It is best to liaise with your trekking guide, but from our experience, sturdy shoes for the local children are a welcome gift.) The final day of the hike involves a steep climb, but is rewarded with stunning views over southern Chin State. On clear days, you may even be able to see Mt Popa.
Sampan Travel is a boutique and green tour operator based in Yangon, curating tailor-made journeys around Myanmar.