Hill Tribes, Mud, and Determination: A Three-Day Trek in Myanmar

Trekking in Myanmar - The Atlas Heart

Last time I was in Southeast Asia, I heard constant stories from travelers in Chiang Mai or Hanoi about their recent treks with local tribes, through jungles and uneven terrain. It sounded adventurous and a tad exotic. Trekking through the jungle in Asia with locals? Yes, that sounds like me.

Unfortunately, that last trip was whirlwind and planned to the day. There wasn’t much room for random treks for two- or three-days, no matter how interesting they seemed. I never made it further then those northern cities in Thailand and Vietnam, and forgot all about trekking until I arrived in Myanmar.

Myanmar is another country that is known for its trekking options. The most popular options are the treks around Hsipaw and the Kalaw to Inle Lake route (or vice versa) – both in the hilly Shan State. We heard that the treks in Hsipaw had been put on hold recently due to the civil war that has been going on for years. So, we turned our eyes to the Kalaw to Inle Lake option, and contacted Ever Smile trekking company about signing up for one of their tours.

They said to simply come into their office the day before, and they could set us up with a two- or three-day tour by the next day. It sounded easy enough. We spent the next couple of weeks exploring the noisy streets of Yangon, the serene temples of Bagan, and then reached Mandalay for Christmas, and got horribly sick.

Mandalay was the start of our constant stomach issues in the country. Soon after Mandalay, I was bedridden for a week, and missed out on seeing Pyin oo Lwin and Hsipaw. I had only just started moving around again by New Year’s Eve, a couple of days before the start of the trek.

I contemplated not going on the trek at all since I wasn’t 100%, but I pushed aside my concerns and signed up anyway. This is how I wanted to start out the new year, and I was ready to stop at nothing to get away from closed-up rooms of sickness.

I went on a strenuous half-day hike the day before our trek to test myself, and to make sure that I could really last for three days. I passed with just a touch of struggle and felt more confident about the trek ahead.

I’m going to be honest and admit that I was pretty out of shape by this time for multi-day hiking. In Portland, I would go hiking once a week at least, but Portland was a long time ago now and those were always day hikes. The only other time I’d done a multi-day hike was in New Zealand for the Abel Tasman coastal track.

However, I heard from countless travelers how easy these treks were, and how they make them manageable  to appeal to everyone. Basically, anyone could do them.

And yet, there was one kicker with this particular trek. Somehow, even through my many years of hiking, I’d always managed to avoid the most abominable hindrance for easy hiking – mud.

Trekking in Myanmar - The Atlas Heart
Mud, just all mud.

Yes, mud is exactly what I found while trekking in Myanmar. And not just any kind of mud. This was slippery and sticky clay-like mud created from torrential rains, in an area that hadn’t had rain in a long time.

Trekking in Myanmar - The Atlas Heart
On day two of our trek – soaked to the bone and drinking copious amounts of hot green tea.

The only two days of the month that it decided to rain in this region of Myanmar was during our three day trek. And boy, did it rain. Which, brings me to my ultimate recommendation for trekking – check the weather ahead of time.

I honestly think that if it hadn’t rained, it would’ve been just as most travelers said, an easy three days. Instead, it took us hours longer to get to our next destination because it was so slippery and hard to walk. I’ve mentioned before how I’m no graceful human in snow, that’s laughable now when I think about how awkward I was in mud.

You know those cartoons where that guy looks like he’s running backwards in place on something like a banana peel, to keep from falling on his bum, but ultimately falls anyway? Yeah, that was me in mud.

Trekking in Myanmar - The Atlas Heart
Rainy days on the trail.

By the last day I actually had to take off my hiking shoes and walk barefoot through mud for hours, because my shoes were so destroyed. By that point, I was just slipping inside of them and they kept getting stuck in the mud.

Trekking in Myanmar - The Atlas Heart
Me done with shoes by the last day. Barefoot it is!

And even though the mud was horrible, I mean, really horrible. I still had a memorable and even enjoyable time on my trek. I learned the art of determination those few days in the hills of Myanmar. I met some interesting and friendly travelers, and I got to know our local guide Phyo more.

Phyo is the reason the trek wasn’t a negative experience. He didn’t allow it to be. He was constantly joking and engaging us even when we were stoney faced, soaking wet, and up to our calves in mud.

Trekking in Myanmar - The Atlas Heart
Me with our local guide, Phyo, after our last day of trekking. All smiles.

Proof that your mindset and the people you’re with can make all the difference in how you view your experience. And that, my friends, can be applied to travel or simply every day life.

I enjoyed the rain-washed scenery when I was able to take my eyes off of where I was stepping, the conversations, and learning about the local villages we briefly visited.

We walked through what looked like abandoned monasteries, around pagodas and other Buddhist structures, and met a group of excited local kids from one of the many hill tribes in the Shan territory.

Trekking in Myanmar - The Atlas Heart
A field of pagodas near the end of our trek.
Trekking in Myanmar - The Atlas Heart
Keeping it silly in our bright ponchos to get rid of any rainy blues.

We came across a woman who carried a basket by a strap that went across the top of her head. This way of carrying food and supplies is common with the tribes in this area. It’s a technique that uses the spine as opposed to the shoulders, and it allows you to carry a lot more weight with less strain – if your body is trained properly, that is.

These women have been doing this from a young age. If you were to try it yourself with the weight they generally carry, you would probably break your neck. At least that’s what Phyo said, and according to Phyo there’s a lot of things that can kill you on a trek, in Myanmar, and just in life in general. But seriously, don’t try that technique at home!

Trekking in Myanmar - The Atlas Heart
We even came across baby pigs!

We came across a family who was sifting tea leaves on a big black tarp. They allowed us grab a small pinch and smell the fresh tea. Their small boy looked up at us and quickly back to the leaves, anxious to get back to work while our guide explained about the tea.

Trekking in Myanmar - The Atlas Heart
Phyo with local village kids during our trek.

It was eye-opening to see the daily lives of the local tribespeople, even if they’ve been touched by a lot of tourism in the past six years. Everyone was patient and kind as our guide would explain about another cultural aspect of their lives. I only wish I had more time to talk with them through our guide and learn more about their lives.

For both nights, we stayed in a local village that was along our trek. We slept on thin mats on the floor with everyone together in a big room, all 10 of us. I would’ve liked to get to know the locals we stayed with on the two separate nights better, but I know that every trekking group experience is different.

Trekking in Myanmar - The Atlas Heart
When my feet were still “clean” after the first day, before the mud.

The other downside was just how crowded the trek felt as a whole. There were so many groups trekking that you were constantly running into each other, and everyone seemed to eat at the same places for lunch.

It kind of took away from the feeling that you were out in the wilderness, when there were crowds of fellow travelers everywhere. To be fair, that is also to be expected when you pay such a low price for three days of a guided tour. Our tour only cost US$30 each for the three day excursion, including food and accommodation.

Trekking in Myanmar - The Atlas Heart
At the end of our first day, watching the rain come down in buckets. We knew we had a long journey ahead of us.

All in all, it was an experience that I would recommend and that I hope to have again (minus the mud!). Myanmar has beautiful temples, scenery, and tasty food, but it’s important to not forget about the local hill and tribal people as well. With well over a hundred different ethnic tribes, they make up a very big chunk of what makes Myanmar such a fascinating country.

This is especially the case in present day Myanmar. Local tribes are dwindling and their way of life is becoming less common. And that is in large part to tourism and technology, which I know is hypocritical since this whole post is about a tourist activity that directly involves the local hill tribe people.

But, I do believe tourism can be both good and bad depending on a lot of factors. Trekking tourism has skyrocketed in Myanmar, especially in the Shan State, and not always for the better.

With that said, I felt comfortable with the tour company I was with. The company (and us as trekkers) respected the local way of life and had minimal interaction with it as tourists.

But again, it’s still tourism and it can be argued that no trekking of that size should be taking place in the region, because it disrupts the local way of life. Sadly, I think the rapid growth of technology is going to continue to do that anyway, and foreign tourists coming in are just one factor to why traditional culture is disappearing.

Trekking in Myanmar - The Atlas Heart
Local hill tribe woman weaving fabric.

When I asked Phyo about it, he agreed that the amount of tourism Myanmar has seen in the past few years has been both good and bad, but he believes it to be mostly good.

Tourism has given jobs to many more people like himself, where jobs like that never existed before. According to Phyo, the influx of tourism has helped to increase the steady growth and progress in the country, even with the negatives that come with tourism as well.

This trek gave me a small glimpse into the lives of  a few local hill tribes and for that, at least, I am grateful.

As a travel blogger, and travelers in general, however, I think it’s always important to ask ourselves if we’re taking part in the right kind of tourism. And allow your research, knowledge, and inner gut feeling guide you.

As a summary, here is what I learned from three days of trekking in Myanmar:

  • Check the weather ahead of time and if you see rain (or the chance of mud) run far, far away.
  • Bring a rain poncho in addition to a raincoat. I have a really nice raincoat, it still was soaking through by the second day because the rain was so heavy.
  • Research different trekking options in the area (or even areas that aren’t necessarily known for trekking), and think about spending more for a smaller tour or even a private tour. That is, if you don’t want to be surrounded by a lot of people out on the trail.
  • Be prepared for cold rain water showers. We literally just used a bucket of rain water at the end of the day to wash ourselves.
  • Make sure you have a dry bag for any electronics – especially if you’re in an area that has unpredictable weather.
  • Bring toilet paper! – I already thought that one through thankfully for the trek, but you don’t want to be left without any toilet paper for three days. Not fun.
Trekking in Myanmar - The Atlas Heart
Oh yeah – Myanmar is really freakin’ beautiful, in case you didn’t know.

I’m looking forward to trying out a trek or two again in other parts of Asia, and seeing how different the experience might or might not be. We’ll see how the next ones go!

Have you been trekking before? Do you enjoy multi-day hikes or this type of traveling? What’s your favorite way to get out in nature when you’re on the road? 

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Trekking in Myanmar, Kalaw to Inle Lake | The Atlas Heart

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Mimi McFadden
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Mimi McFadden

Travel Writer/Blogger at The Atlas Heart
Mimi founded The Atlas Heart to create a community of travelers inspired to see the world. The Atlas Heart is a space where you'll find anecdotes on slow travel, craft beer, outdoor adventures, and all the eccentric bits in between that this world has to offer.
Mimi McFadden
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