It’s in the blogs. It’s in Lonely Planet. Trekking in Myanmar is a Must Do! That’s not up for debate. But, which trekking route is the best? Kalaw to Inle Lake is the most popular trekking route in Myanmar, meaning it can often be crowded. Pindaya and Putao are also popular routes. Then there’s the well traveled hills around Hsipaw (See-paw). We were actually headed to Hsipaw when we met a fellow traveler who practically threw us off the train a few stops before Hsipaw in Kyaukme (Chow-May). He urged us to buck the more traveled route. He had been to both Hsipaw and Kyaukme just a few years earlier and knew the hidden gem that we were about to encounter. We’re so thankful for the experience his advice to us.
So now, to pay it forward, I offer this traveler’s tip to you. Get off the well beaten path. Take the wild train ride across the Gokteik Viaduct, hop off in Kyaukme, and trek in the nearby untouched hills.
You may see other trekkers in Kyaukme, but no tourists. It’s simply not as well known along the Myanmar tourist route. It’s an industrial hub for the Shan State of eastern Myanmar. The surrounding hills are a trekkers wonderland, having been untouched by Myanmar’s recent introduction to western influence. In fact, there’s still civil war going on between tribes and the government in Shan State. This is a very interesting area and great place to learn about the history and current political climate of Myanmar.
Through a series of somewhat comical events, that include Rob riding on the back of a motorbike with a stranger into the Burmese countryside, we ended up at the house of a 20 year old named Johnny. I highly recommend using Johnny as your guide. If he can’t take you he will find someone who can. There are a few guides operating in the area and they are all connected through a gentleman name Thura who is sort of the godfather of Kyaukme trekking guides. Most importantly, Kyaukme and the surrounding hills are home to these guys. They want to share it as much as they want to preserve it. Going with them ensures you’ll get an informative, safe and socially responsible tour.
While traditional trekking is possible from Kyaukme, to get deeper into the hills it’s best to do part of the trek on motorbike. That’s right… motorbike trekking. The route you walk or ride is essentially the same. However, doing 3-5 hours on motorbikes takes you along dirt roads that are more fun to ride than walk. It allows you more time to get to some of the better vantage points and stay in a more remote villages. This is especially true if you’re only doing a 2 day 1 night trip. If you’re not comfortable with your riding skills, you can ride with a guide. Adding the motorbiking makes for a real adventure and something different than just a basic trek. Had we not been riding motorbikes on this trek, we probably would not have been able to see this monk riding his motorbike and then later have him invite us into his temple for tea and cookies.
Once you park the bikes and begin your trek, you pass through small villages where the Shan people live much as they always have. Your guide will point out how to tell the different tribes apart by what they are wearing. Across all the tribes, most are living in timber and bamboo homes, usually with extended family. They work the fields – farming rice, tea and cheroot leaves (which are used to roll cigarettes). The adventure of motorbiking, the culturally rich village life, and taking in the gorgeous vista points along the trek all make for an amazing journey.
The homestay was awesome. It was as authentic as it gets. The house was rustic, but comfortable. We slept on the main room’s floor while the family stayed in rooms right next to us. They prepared dinner around an open fire. Johnny picked up some ingredients before we left Kyuakme, but picked up the rest in the village. So, the meal is fresh and authentic. The tea leaf salad we had was awesome but my favorite part was the black sesame and sticky rice cakes Johnny prepared for us. Great flavor and texture. After dinner we all took a step outside to take in a night sky full of stars. We felt that we were in a special place and in a spot a lot of travelers will never experience. It was truly special.
In the morning we woke to machine gun clad Shan Military officers (read: rebels) walking through the village. Johnny assured us that we weren’t in any danger, but that we shouldn’t go running out in the trail to ask for a photo with them. We watched them patrol the village from the window of the house. Once they were gone we headed back out onto the trail. We hiked for 4 hours back down to our motorbikes via a different trail, stopping in villages to check out small shrines and temples. Trekking in the hills of Myanmar gave us an opportunity to experience something undeniably special – encountering children in remote villages. They’re either deathly afraid of the strangely dressed and weird looking aliens that we are, or insatiably curious and loving (depending on their age). And if they don’t know how to say “I love you” in English, they sure know how to make a heart sign with their hands.
Once back at our bikes, we headed back down the windy dirt mountain paths, passing water buffaloes grazing next to rice terraces, before making it back to the pastoral land surrounding Kyaukme.
All in all, I think it would be tough to find a better trekking experience. Even if you’ve only got a couple days. It had a bit of everything – motorbikes, hiking, culture, nature, delicious local food, and our favorite guide of all time. Johnny was a wealth of information. At just 20, he knew a lot about his culture, his home and the people who lived in it. He was smart, funny, happy, and spoke very good English – he was the total package. Kari had an especially good time while riding on the back of his bike chatting about Myanmar versus American pop-culture and helping him suss out English slang phrases. At one point the conversation went like this:
Johnny: “What does hook a brother mean?”
Kari: “Hook a brother? In what context?”
Johnny: “I heard it in a movie. A guy said it to his friend, but he wasn’t his brother.”
Kari: “Hm, let me think about it…Oooohhhh, Hook a brother up? I get it. It means you want your friend to help you.”
Johnny is a very good guide and nice dude. His contact information is below. I would highly recommend him. He can accommodate groups of any size. If you are a larger group, more notice will help.
I have no stake in Myanmar, only a responsibility to you, our readers. I am telling you, trekking in Myanmar is an absolute must do! And if you’re going to be trekking in Myanmar, you should be trekking in Kyaukme.
Kyaukme wasn’t the only trekking in Myanmar we did. We also had a lovely trek through the Eastern Hills above Inle Lake. Also considered was the popular route to Kalaw, but were advised by our local guide to head in a different direction instead. We also loved this trek, and highly recommend it if you have the time to trek more than once while in Myanmar. We saw beautiful countryside, visited a local school, ate dinner & stayed in a local home, visited a monastary (complete with a meditation cave), and watched the sunset over the lake. There are tons of guides in Inle Lake, find one that speaks good English, has a good demeanor, and is willing to take you off the beaten path.
Contact Information for Trekking in Myanmar
Recommended Trekking Guide in Kyaukme: Johnny Dai
Phone: +959960623300 and +95931669293