Leech Bites in Kalaw

Coming from Inle Lake; Kalaw is a haven, a safe space to rest the soul and clear the mind. Founded as a hill station by the British (we get around), the air is cool and refreshes those that visit, reminding travellers of the diverse climates within Myanmar.

There is little to do in the town itself, merely a crossing point for those going on wards to trek and hike around the region. There are a few caves dotted around Kalaw, hidden down streets and winding corners, however after being memorised by the magnificent caves in Hpa-an, I didn’t feel the need to visit any more. There’s also an elephant camp, 45 minutes outside of Kalaw called Green Hill Valley Elephant Camp, which rehabilitates elephants that are retired or orphan elephants. It would have been wonderful and rewarding to see, but entrance is 100 dollars into the camp and the taxi journey on top of that meant my budget could not afford that luxury.

I made the mistake of trying to organise a 1 night 2 day trek from Inle Lake to Kalaw, but as I was travelling in low season in September, alas I couldn’t find a hiking partner, as all travellers I met were hiking from Kalaw to Inle Lake instead. Shunning an 80 thousand kyat proposed individual trip by Ostello Bello in Inle Lake to Kalaw, and not wanting to backtrack my journey, I decided to head to Kalaw and organise a day trek.

Hiding my pangs of jealousy and regret, I warmly waved goodbye to the fellow travellers I met- about to hike for a number of days, already forming close bonds of companionship and unique memories, and followed the path of my female guide, Mandy. I was incredibly thankful to have a female guide, it is not a common occurrence in Asia that there are female guides. I have unfortunately had some shaky experiences with local men in Asia before, so walking for an entire day, miles away from anyone and totally alone with a man who was unused to western women, didn’t really appeal to me.

Mandy and I quickly explored how different our lifestyles, our countries cultures, and our traditions were, which was both fascinating and insightful- like did you know that women in Myanmar don’t get tattoos as they believe it makes them less feminine? Ouch. The day hike was a well trodden path, the first day of many whom trek to Inle Lake from Kalaw; so I was grateful to experience part of the journey I would be missing out on. Meandering past fragrant plantations and abundant orange fields, we carved alongside mountainous regions and struggled up steep hills (well, more like I struggled). Passing through local villages; I caught smiles from local women sitting and sharing gossip in open doorways, waved at awe struck children playing with simple toys in delight and grunting family pigs. The scenery was similar at times to Munnar in India, but the passing of monasteries filled with bald monks at the tender age of 5 quickly blew away my swirling thoughts of nostalgia and brought me back to reality with a bump. We hiked up to the viewpoint where we stopped for lunch (literally up in the clouds) and where a mass of crops merged with a patchwork of fields and local villages dotted along the landscape, as if interrupting the scenes of nature.

After snacking on warm chapati and fresh avocado salad (sourced from some nearby fields), I noticed my entire sock was a mauve colour and stinging in pain ever so slightly. As I pulled away my soggy sock that clung to my skin in terror, I noticed two small bites on the side of my ankle, as if a vampire had sucked my blood, or a hungry spider. Seeing blood continuously flow from my leg I asked Mandy what it could be? With one look she told me quickly “a leech”. The bastard had bitten me. But how? There were very little rivers nearby? “Grass leeches”. Yes! Grass leeches are a common insect you will find trekking in Myanmar and can be found anywhere you sit, stop, perch, or wander through long grass, so do be wary of these blighters! After attempting to stop the gushing blood, we descended into the jungle, slipping and sliding over tree boughs and mossy rocks, reaching a clearing at the outskirts of Kalaw.

The day trip was expensive in comparison to any other trek, at the price of 22 thousand kyats, as being a solo traveller and hiking on my own, the price rises dramatically. If you have the time, definitely book yourself into a two day one night trek at 33 thousand kyats, which includes food, accommodation and an informative guide. The only (and best place) you should book through is Ever Smile.

Staying in Kalaw, I chose Railroad Hotel after reading about the place on The Broke Backpacker website, and it lived up to its expectations. I was immediately given a room upgrade from dorm to private room at no extra cost due to another traveller arriving late at night and the manager thinking of my precious sleep. The rooms were clean and although basic, were comfortable and at a reasonable price of 11 thousand kyat a night. This included a large breakfast of pancakes; egg, toast, fresh fruit, tea and coffee- such a feast! What I really liked about this place was the personal touch they brought to it, with staff being informative and helpful, even lighting a campfire every night to encourage guests to socialise, a wonderful place.

After finding another Vicky (bizarrely who also worked in the same line of work as me and was the same age- what are the chances?!) we ate at the Nepalese restaurant I had eaten in at Inle lake- but the original in Kalaw, called Everest. After joining two other solo female travellers, we feasted on hefty portions of Dhal Bhat, with which the enriching flavours and textures brought me back to the numerous Dhal Bhats I had delightfully destroyed in the calming Himalayas of Nepal.

If you are planning to trek in Myanmar, Kalaw is the most popular destination to head to, then ending in Inle Lake. The route is moderate and takes you through local village life. It is possible to trek from Inle Lake to Kalaw, but only really in high season where there are others planning to do the same route. Hispaw is also a sought out destination for trekking and offers more of a challenging trek through sparsely populated hill tribes that are brimming with ancient traditions and authentic lifestyles. If heading to Hispaw, do take the train from Mandalay- the journey is supposed to be magical and offers unparalleled views of the Goitek Viaduct.