Sikh hospitality in the hills

Trip Start Mar 03, 2005
Trip End Apr 08, 2006

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Sea Star
White House

Flag of Myanmar  , Shan State,
Saturday, January 21, 2006

I was half asleep, as I had been for more or less the entire 15 hour journey from Bago, when the bus driver shouted "Kalawkalawkalaw!". This was my stop, and to the displeasure of the locals sleeping in the isle, I had to climb over them to find my bag buried under the others at the back of the bus. This would have been difficult enough in the middle of the day in broad daylight, however a quick glance at my phone revealed the fact it was 5:25am. I had arrived at my next stop, which was the hill station of Kalaw.

I was one of about four people who departed the bus here as everyone else was headed for the town of Taunggyi, near Inle Lake. Kalaw was dead. It was pitch black and there was no-one about, however the most surprising thing was that it was so cold! Sure Kalaw is 1300m above sea level, but I'd never experienced temperatures like this in South East Asia before. I spent a minute or so digging to the bottom of my bag to find my jacket, which proves just how cold it was as I'd never usually do such a thing for a ten minute walk! I got a little lost trying to find the Golden Lily guesthouse, which received a rave review in the guidebook and was one of only two privately owned guesthouses in the town, but I soon found myself ringing a very loud doorbell in a dark, silent street before even the sun itself had woken!

My first day in Kalaw was a very quiet. Apart from a walk around the town and a short trip out for lunch and dinner I spent the entire day on the balcony outside my room reading and listening to music. This was just what I wanted though, after the long journey and a good sleep-in until 11am! Whether it was the change in climate, or the change in altitude I don't know, but I found myself with a mild cold and a migraine like I'd never had before. It was bad enough for me to ditch my plans of trekking to Inle Lake, which would take three days, and instead do a full day hike in the surrounding hills the following day.

The family who owned the Golden Lily were a wonderfully friendly Sikh family from Nepal. In all my travels, I can't think of more friendly and hospitable hosts. As in Rangoon and Kyaikhtiyo, breakfast was included in the price, but unlike the White House and Sea Sar (the guesthouses I stayed in in those places) friendly conversation from the owners was part of the deal. It was over breakfast that I met Harry, our trekking guide for the day and part of the family. Two German nurses, Jorg and Gregor, were joining us, and four seemed like a good number for a days hike.

We began by walking through a relatively new village on the towns outskirts. The people here were forced to move by the military, who wanted their original land to build a new barracks. The military's presence could be felt everywhere in Kalaw, due to the fact it was one of the major military towns in the Shan state. I found this story quite shocking, yet I knew it was just one of thousands in which the military oppressed the people in this country.

We continued trekking for a few hours over a dirt trail that gradually rose, past some tea plantations. The views north were very scenic, with forest covered hills. Rising above one of the tea plantations on a slope we had a rest for morning tea in the shade under a banyan tree. The view overlooked a small village and some spectacular mountain scenery. After having a bite to eat and a drink we continued down into the village to see some very colourful Pulaung women hard at work weaving silk. The next village we visited, just a short 15 minute walk through another tea plantation, was quite different in that there were about twenty children there waiting to harrass us to buy their hats and bags. I was quite surprised to see this, as it was the kind of thing I'd encountered in the tourist town of Sapa, in northern Vietnam. I wasn't expecting it in the Shan highlands of Burma!

We continued on around the side of a hill where we were met with magnificent view over a vast valley. Just a further twenty minutes on was the "Viewpoint", an aptly named makeshift restaurant run by a Nepali woman. I don't think I've ever eaten such delicious freshly cooked chapatis at such a scenic location! Harry had a few stories to tell here, and he proved to be one of three informative, funny and friendly guides I'd have in the country.

The walk back to Kalaw was a little less inspiring, following a route around the back of the hill we climbed in the morning. The highlights were some children playing a marbles-like game, an ancient buddha statue made of bamboo, numerous old British homesteads and an incident with a buffalo. Back in Kalaw, I heard a whine that wasn't too dissimilar from a cat's meow, which in fact turned out to be the whine of a buffalo that had got it's rope caught on a branch! The poor thing was in a bit of pain, so Harry saved the day by untangling it.

I enjoyed my two days in Kalaw, which was in part due to the subtle nature of the place. There were no real attractions in the town, apart from the small market and a few pagodas, but the serenity of the countryside and the wonderful people made it well worth a stop for a few days.
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