Shan State is Myanmar's trekking paradise. Lower level than the big Himalayan treks, with a patchwork of farms and forests, and way off the beaten track. The Kalaw to Inle Lake trek is now a fairly common endeavour.
Ox carts and motorbikes compete for domination of the dirt tracks through farmland. Banana leaves shade the way in villages while tea plants stride the ridges, and cabbages, beans, and mustard plants dispute the higher fields. The water buffaloes who amble placidly knee-deep in the rich red lowland mud are not just animals - they're currency. Or at least, they were until recently.
The trek from Kalaw to Inle Lake is the most popular, usually walked in three or four days. It's relatively gentle trekking, much of it through fields of wheat or rice, past tea plantations or even potato patches. Some parts of the trek take paved roads, while other parts run on dirt track or footpaths. In one place, it even runs along a railway track where pedestrians simply step aside if a train comes along. Despite the fact that this isn't jungle or pristine wilderness, the landscape is really beautiful, and the first sight of Inle Lake glimmering in the distance is unforgettable.
There are a couple of major routes (one longer, one shorter) and quite a few variants, so every trekker's experience is a bit different.
Top Attractions in Shan State
Kalaw itself was a British hill station where civil servants fled the summer heat. Despite a lack of major sights, it's a charming and laid-back place to stay. There are a number of interesting single-day treks in the neighbourhood, while hilltop pagodas like Thein Taung Paya can be reached easily from the centre of town.
Near Kalaw, there's also an elephant camp - or rather, an elephant retirement home - that welcomes visitors. Elephants still do a lot of the heavy lifting in remote areas of Myanmar, and working elephants have similar lives to humans - they're in education till they hit 18, and when they get to 55 they're entitled to retirement. Their 'oozi' (caretaker) will continue to look after them - it's a lifetime job.
Pindaya is a sleepy lakeside town that has one big attraction, the Shwe Oo Min caves. Here, once upon a time, lived a monstrous spider. It was slain, as in all the best fairy tales, by a young prince who then married the princess he'd rescued from a cobwebby fate.
The caves, an easy hour's walk from the town, are full of Buddhas; literally, there are thousands of statues. The latest estimate is just under 9,000, but more Buddhas keep arriving all the time, brought by visitors or sponsored by Buddhist groups from all over the world. There are golden Buddhas, marble Buddhas, teak wood Buddhas; Buddhas painted, gilded, or simply the way the carver's chisel left them; big Buddhas, small Buddhas, huge Buddhas and minuscule Buddhas. It is an overwhelming sight.
There are also several smaller shrines worth exploring spread out along the ridge over Pone Taloke Lake. A beautiful wooden monastery with fine carving can be visited on the way back, and there's another teak wood temple at the other end of the lake.
Though Pindaya is not a big town, it has some other attractions. It's a centre for the manufacture of parasols, as well as mulberry-bark paper. Most of the workshops can be visited during working hours.
Pindaya is also a good centre for trekking the hill country and its remote Palaung and Danu villages. Though many houses now have corrugated iron roofs instead of the traditional thatch, they're still often built of huge teakwood beams and have open fires in the centre of the main room rather than a separate kitchen. The climate is cool here, and the terrain more rugged than elsewhere, but this is an area of intensive agriculture where people work the fields every day.
There's even a three or four-day trek from Pindaya to Kalaw, so hikers wanting a longer trip can walk all the way from here to Inle Lake in a week or so.
This charming town is the gateway to treks among the rugged hills of eastern Shan State. It's jam-packed with Buddhist temples and monasteries; gilded stupas compete for attention with the 20-metre tall Buddha who tops the ridge above the town. Like Kalaw, it's a former hill station, with some atmospheric old colonial buildings down by Nyaung Toung Lake, the centre of Kentung nightlife.
Eastern Shan State is close to northern Thailand. Ethnic groups include the related Tai peoples as well as Lahu, Palaung, Wa, Loi, and Akha. Many villages still have traditional wooden houses, and hilltop temples dot the hills - it's a lovely place to trek. Many of the locals have now adopted cheap and efficient western clothes and save their traditional robes for high days and holidays. However, they still live a traditional lifestyle.
Loi longhouses shelter as many as 20 families in a single huge building; each family has a separate sleeping area along the sides and a grimy, smoky stove in the hallway. Lahu villages, on the other hand, have small thatched houses built on stilts on the hillside, one for each family. Every few years, they move the whole village to a new site to take advantage of fresh, nutrient-rich soil for their fields.
In an Akha village, a local shaman knows where all the medicinal herbs are to be found. He also probably makes the best hooch in the village!