Hill Trekking: What Black Dragons, Red Chillies and Bamboo Rockets Have in Common

While Christoph went on his banana train adventure, I decided to join a two day trekking group and walk Myanmar’s most popular trekking route from Kalaw to Inle Lake.

Kalaw is a little town in the hills in Southern Shan State full of hostels and trekking agencies. It’s main draw is that it is the base camp for the many paths leading from Kalaw to Inle Lake. Two years ago there were only four agencies offering to guide guests through the hills to the more than charming lake. The hills are dotted with several villages where different ethnic minorities live.

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Chief among them are the Pa-O, where the women wear colourful checkered turbans in bright red or orange. The rest of their clothes are black and they usually wear pants instead of longyis. The Pa-O believe they are descendents of the black dragon. Thus all tribe members have dragon tattoos. The women have to get tattoos on their back by the time they turn 18. Men usually before that. The ink is done with bamboo needles which are supposedly quite painful. To the question whether they can chose not to get inked, our guide just laughs, shakes his head and says: no, no, they have to. And looking back across the village yard to the two old women chatting away, I can see thin lines creeping above the backs of their black shirts.

Our homestay host in the Pa-O village

Most of the tribes in the area of Southern Shan state are animist and some Buddhist. Ethnic and religious divides are very present, even in the now peaceful hills. (Some decades ago there was a lot of fighting between the minorities and the army. Most farmers in the area used to grow opium which has now moved further north towards the Chinese-Thai-Myanmar border.) For example people from different tribes do still not marry one another. If they want to get married the couple usually will have to elope and move to another place where they are both foreigners or have more tolerant relatives.

One thing that apparently several different groups can agree on, is the custom of shooting self-made bamboo (now iron) rockets into the air to pray for adequate rain. We passed by this huge ramp from which the biggest rockets fly up to 7 km according to our guide. The adjacent valley is apparently empty. Towards the end of our trek, we actually passed by a local rocket shooting contest! The participating men were shooting, betting, eating and ah-oh-ing into the blue sky.

Why joining a trek is totally amazing

The walk is beautiful. The hills are red with chillies and lush green crops. We passed sesame, ginger, peanut and rice fields. It is nice to see these plants grow and not just buy them in the supermarket.

Chillies drying in the sun and the hills

Definitely, join a trekking group! I met some amazing people in my group. When you walk for two days there is plenty of time to chat and make merry. Sure, theoretically, you could follow your GPS and stick to the major roads in the area. BUT, you are quite likely to get lost and end up in muddy ditches.

Plus, going with a good trekking agency ensures that the people in the villages can plan ahead as to how many people are staying overnight. The agencies also ensure the villagers have a say in how the tourists are hosted. At the moment they are trying to figure out how they can turn the whole venture into a more Community-based project. The agencies pay path fees to the villages to clear the paths and to compensate for any (accidental) trampling of crops. The trek is carved up between the different agencies, plus different guides use different routes (the last day those paths converge to some extend). All the guides have individual arrangements with different family houses, so you do not feel like you are part of a mass operation, but rather a more individual homestay. Some guides are from the villages and will even bring guests to their family houses. I went with Eversmile, A1 seems to be pretty good – they have small groups.

So despite this trekking route becoming a well-trodden attraction, the guides and agencies seem to be working together to make the routes a sustainable experience for the villagers as well as the tourists. The village we stayed in had probably 120 overnight guests (which sounds a lot, right?). However, since every group was housed with a different family, as a visitor you did not really notice the others much.

You can tell the villagers are used to the daily pilgrimage of people through their territory. They do not smile back like in the rest of Myanmar and they actively hide from cameras. However, the tourist season in Myanmar is fairly short with December and January being the peak months for trekking in the area. During the rainy season (June to November) you can not walk on the mud roads. So the villagers do not see any tourists for most of the year.

So to sum up, the landscape is nice, but not spectacular. The gentle rolling hills are an attractive background. The really cool thing about the trek is that you learn a lot about agriculture with a knowledgeable guide. Have you ever wondered how peanuts or sesame grows? How many ginger roots grow on one plant? A good guide can answer these life-changing questions. Plus, you also can ask tons of questions about Myanmar in general, since you walk and talk for two or three days.


Finally, after the long walk you cross Inle Lake on a motor canoe and get to chill in the sunset. Which is an absolutely fabulous ending!

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