Kalaw - A town worth leaving

Trip Start Mar 04, 2006
Trip End Apr 13, 2006

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Where I stayed
Golden Kalaw Guesthouse

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Sunday, March 19, 2006

Hi all. I'm not actually in Kalaw, and I'm backdating this post so that the entries make sense. No time for all the details tonight, but the short version is I arrived in Kalaw on the 18th, hung around till the 19th, during which I met the best group of people you could ever hope for (Emma, Jay, Neal, and especially Karen), a mixed bag of Americans and Brits. We put together a custom trek with Sam's Trekking in Kalaw, and spent 4 days trekking the highlands from Kalaw, back to Nyaungshwe, where I am now. Again. The folks at the Remember Inn nearly fell over when I walked back in. Two nights spent sleeping on the floor of tribal family houses, one night in a Buddhist monastery. Three and a half days of walking more than I thought my knees could take, only to have them hold up pretty well. We're all very glad to have arrived and don't plan to do anything more strenuous than bend our elbows for the next day or two. Overall, a fantastic experience that I highly recommend.

Off to dinner now with the trekking crew. Full post hopefully tomorrow.

Update with a few more details:
I left Nyaungshwe in a share taxi with Kathy, a patent attorney from Seattle, and Batina from Holland. We arrived in Kalaw and almost immediately parted company, as I headed for the Golden Kalaw Inn, and they opted for pricier (and better) accommodations.

The Golden Kalaw is a cheap, $5 a night guest house that shoots for rustic, but falls a little closer to dilapidated. The walls are cardboard thin, to the point you can hear your neighbors whispering next door, hot water is rare and short lived, and the bathrooms dark enough to make your headlamp a useful accessory. In other words, it's a $5 dollar guest house in a remote mountain town. Breakfast was decent though, and the coffee pretty damn good. I don't necessarily recommend the place, but if you're on a budget, it'll do.

Kalaw's one claim to fame is as a launching point for trekking among the various hill tribe villages that surround it. In the day and a half I spent there, I really couldn't find anything particularly redeeming about the town itself. In fact, I actually disliked the place. It seemed to have a strange, unwelcoming vibe, and it was a bit of a relief to actually leave.

After my lazy stay in Nyaungshwe, I really wasn't up for a serious trek, and arrived thinking I would just a day hike to the closest villages and move on. That's not quite how it turned out. My first night there, I headed down to Sam's for dinner, and met Karen, a terribly cute, witty, sarcastic Brit who I ended up having dinner and a beer with. She was looking for trekking partners to do the popular Kalaw to Inle Lake route, but didn't quite convince me to shake off my lethargy and join her. Yes, I am that dense sometimes. Since we were both staying at the same inn, I ran into her again at breakfast, along with Jay and Emma. The four of us hit it off immediately, what with Emma and Karen having grown up withing 10 miles of each other, and Jay being a certified photo geek and fly fisherman. Breakfast turned into four hours of finding common ground and bonding. As dense as I sometimes am, I was still able to recognize what had to be the most perfect randomly selected trekking crew of all time. And that's how I ended up spending four days walking somewhere around 40 miles from Kalaw, back to Nyaungshwe. The group ended up growing to five with the addition of Neal, an L.A. native who had spent the last 5 years teaching English in Japan. A nice enough guy, he unfortunately ended up kind of being the odd man out, after Karen and I hit it off. Two couples and Neal, the guy didn't really stand a chance of feeling a part of the group, I felt somewhat bad for him.

All in all, the trek was one of the best experiences of the trip so far. For everyone except Karen that is. She had started feeling a little unwell at breakfast the day we left, and it was all downhill from there. Day one was a quick four hour walk to the village where we would spend our first night, followed by a side trek to another village and climbing the tallest peak in the area. Karen opted to rest in the longhouse where we would spend the night, and seemed better once we returned, but was struggling by the middle of day two. Emma (an absolute fountain of cheerfulness, every trek should have an Emma) and I took turns walking with her, keeping her spirits up, and she made it through the day, probably about 5 hours of scenic walking through the highlands, with a fair amount of steep slopes. That night was spent in a bamboo stilt house, set among rice paddies. The family that hosted us was very nice, especially the mother, who seemed to be perpetually smiling or laughing. Day three was the killer. In order to provide us the best scenery, and allow us to stay our last night at a Buddhist monastery, our guide Schweko had left a lot of terrain to cover. We walked a solid 8 hours the last day, covering somewhere between 16 - 20 miles. It was rough for all of us, but must have seemed like an absolute death march to Karen. She was a bit dehydrated by then, but somehow managed to keep putting one foot in front of the other all the way to the monastery. Very tough girl, she impressed all of us. The last day was an easy half day trek to the canals surrounding Inle Lake where we hopped on a longtail boat and spent a blissful hour on our butts as we cruised across the lake to Nyaungshwe, where we've been recuperating for the last few days. The looks on the faces of the staff at the Remember Inn when I walked back in, 5 days after leaving, were priceless.

I've left out so much of what we saw and did during the trek as there's just too much to cover. It's a great experience, and one I highly recommend, along with our guide Shweko, our cook Mhosan, and Sam's Trekking. As seems to always be the case, the people made the experience what it was. Karen and I have opted to travel together for a bit, but tonight at dinner is probably the last time we'll see Jay and Emma, which sucks. They're great people, who made the trek a lot more than just a walk in the woods. Happy travels guys, enjoy Malasia, and maybe we will hook up for some fly fishing someday.

Karen and I have tickets for the bus to Mandalay, leaving tomorrow. So the next post should be from there. But then, you never know...
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