A former hill station, set high in the cool, rolling countryside, Kalaw is a precious gem, but of the unpolished variety. Quite unlike anywhere else, a holiday in Kalaw is charmingly authentic and unsophisticated.
Time has almost stood still in Kalaw, where agriculture and subsistence farming are the norm, along with the horse and trap.
First founded by British civil servants fleeing the heat of the plains, the town is today also notable for its population of Nepali Gurkhas and Indian Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims, whose ancestors came here to build the roads and railway during the colonial era.
Your hotel in Kalaw Myanmar may not be as sophisticated as other more cosmopolitan luxury hotels in Myanmar, but you’ll witness rural scenes that haven’t changed for generations, with buffalo used to draw the plough, as well as a few eccentric tractors locally known as ‘Chinese Buffalo’.
Markets are a common theme in Burma and you’ll encounter many along the way. We have two favourites, and Kalaw is one of them. Known locally as the ‘five days market’ (the days of the week are ignored and the market just rolls every every days, with one day off), it is a unique and colourful scene.
Women in their distinctive tribal dress – you’ll quickly learn to recognise the Pa’O from the Palaung and the Danu from the Shan – bartering their wares. Men hauling huge sacks – bigger and heavier than themselves – of root vegetables, fragrant ginger and pungent garlic for wholesale.
One friendly old man gestured to us to try lifting a sack. We failed abjectly and the old man smiled, saying he was yet to see a foreigner succeed, before toting the load and wandering off with a grin.
Kalaw is the starting point of most overnight treks, owing to its high location. Treks typically descend (phew what a relief that was as we gazed at the towering peaks around us), heading towards the lowlands around Inle Lake. En route, they take in rolling hillsides, watering holes for livestock and remote villages where the children run out to greet visitors.
Most overnight stays will be in the most amazing but simple teak monasteries, sleeping on the floor and being lulled to sleep by the gentle chanting of the monks. It’s at moments like this you really know that you’re Yonder. The spartan accommodation pales into insignificance compared with the matchless wealth of the experience.
Kalaw is a former hill station surrounded by lush fields and rolling hill sides. The town itself is small and, other than the dazzling mirrored pagoda and the five-day market, has a quiet, sleepy field to it. There are a few surrounding sites such as the Shwe Oo Min Paya cave which your driver and guide will help you to explore.
One of the main reasons for coming to Kalaw is to experience the cool hillside air and to go for gentle walks along the country roads. And if you’re up to an exciting trek deep into the Burmese countryside, this is the place to do it.
We’ve done some truly fantastic treks which have seen us walk through villages where old women weave traditional baskets, bullock carts are the only form of transport and where the children smile with undisguised curiosity at visitors.
In keeping with the quiet nature of the town, there isn’t much in the way of notable dining. There are a couple of restaurants where you can experience local cuisine, some of which is delicious, but it isn’t to everyone’s taste as many of the curries contain a rather pungent dried fish. They’re an experience if you’re out and about and looking for lunch, but for dinner we’d recommend the relatively sophisticated environs of your hotel.
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