As Burma continues to open up to visitors, so does its network of walking trails. Routes run through the whole of the country, from the Himalayan foothills in the north to the lower level rice fields of the south, with choices for hardy trekkers and occasional walkers alike. For more ardent walkers, a range of overnight treks exist, many with monasteries providing distinctive overnight accommodation. Compared with the rest of Southeast Asia, Burma’s trekking paths are yet to be overwhelmed by the footfall of tourism, and they give access to otherwise unreachable local tribal groups. On past treks, my guide and I have found long sections of footpaths all to ourselves.
Trekking from Inle Lake to Kalaw
If you’re a first-time visitor to Burma, more likely than not your itinerary will include time in and around Inle Lake, where communities live on floating villages.
As well as exploring the water by boat, I’d encourage you to take to the area’s paths on foot. I’d suggest spending at least a couple of hours meandering in the surrounding countryside and farmland of Shan State, a plateau that extends all the way from northeast of Mandalay to China.
As you ascend the lake and look back on views of the traditional fishing villages grouped around its shoreline, you start to appreciate its scale and serenity. With more time, you can trek for a full day, or even two. Heading west from Inle Lake, it’s possible to trek overnight to the former British hill station of Kalaw, or vice versa. On the route in-between, you’ll pass through the villages of the Palaung, Pa-O, Taungthu and Danu tribes.
Two-day trek from Pindaya
This pretty town, around a two-hour drive from Inle Lake, is best-known for its extensive cave network and the thousands of golden Buddha statues arranged inside. But, it’s also emerging as a walking and trekking destination. The trails from Pindaya provide gentle walks into quieter, often more shaded areas of the Shan Hills. This is an important distinction, as many of the other trekking areas are exposed and the midday sun can be punishing. A two day trek with a local guide takes you high into the steeper hills around Ya Za Gyi village. The steepest trail requires you to be fairly fit and a little more adventurous, but there are some gentler inclines – it’s worth discussing the options with your guide. The views down onto the surrounding settlements and Pindaya itself are the reward for your efforts.
Monastery trek from Hpa-An
In the southeast of the country, between Yangon and Mawlamyine, Hpa-An is a growing centre for walking and trekking. Rarely visited by outsiders to Burma, the capital of Kayin State is surrounded by limestone mountains, which hide caves holding devotional art in the guise of thousands of tiny clay Buddhas and carvings dating from the 7th century. The crown of Mount Zwekabin rises out of the undergrowth of the lower slopes, capped by the golden stupas of a monastery. Overlooking the town, this landmark is a pilgrimage site for local people. A reasonable degree of fitness is required to climb the steps to the monastery, but the walk is relatively short and takes around an hour. At the top, you’ll be welcomed by the monks and on a clear day, as it was in my case, a view you can trace along the Salween River out to the coast. Currently, there aren’t any overnight treks in this area, but this is likely to change in the not-too-distant future. In the meantime, if you have a full day your guide will be able to extend the Mount Zwekabin walk into a more challenging day trek.
Trekking around Hsipaw
A long-standing choice for walkers, the northern Shan town of Hsipaw lies on the Old Burma Road. This is a charming base from which to explore the surrounding hills on foot or you can venture out on boat trips stopping at local villages and riverside monasteries. Hsipaw was once the capital of an autonomous Shan state and still has a modest Shan palace.
Hsipaw sits in a valley, through which a river runs. The Hsipaw hills are stunning, with shades of yellow brightening the landscape. Corn and sesame are the main crops here and, until the end of November at least, the yellow “wild sunflower” adds to the colour palette.
It’s a five or six hour journey to the town from Mandalay, either by road or train via the Goteik Viaduct, which spans a 300 metre deep jungle gorge.