Kalaw, the Mountain Village that Stole my Heart

I’ll go right ahead and say it: I adored Kalaw. This little mountain town may have a steady influx of tourists since it’s the launching point for treks to Inle Lake, but in the quiet moments it’s still a calm village full of friendly Myanmar people and surrounded by the kind of hills you can’t help but want to explore. At this point it should be no surprise that I instantly felt comfortable in this place, having fully accepted that small mountain towns make me happy, so it didn’t take long to extend my stay an extra day.

When I arrived I had planned to do a day trek the next day and possibly leave on the night bus that night for Yangon. I found a guesthouse, Golden Lily, with a reasonably priced $7/night room and a nice two-level deck. I looked around me and already started to doubt my next-day departure. It was pretty here, peaceful, and so much cheaper than Yangon would be. I decided to think about it over food, so I ventured into town and had one of the best meals of my trip at Everest Nepali Food Centre. I have to go to Nepal if just for the food. Spectacular.

Now I was even more convinced to stay another night, but first I needed to figure out my trekking options. As luck would have it, another solo girl was doing the same thing at the same time, and she knew somewhere that already had another solo girl interested (more people means a cheaper price), and they wanted to do the route I wanted to do, so we signed up together for the next day. Almost convinced.

I went back to the guest house. Then I wrote this:
“I’m sitting upstairs on the deck writing, looking out over the town and hills around it. Downstairs someone has started playing acoustic guitar and singing. “Calling, yes I am calling, you through the night.” I made the final decision then and there to stay another day here after trekking. I will never waver on the fact that the mountains make me happy, and this little jam session, after writing about the amazing time I had in Shambhala, was all I could have ever asked for as the sun begins to set. This is great.”

The following day I swung by the Five Days Market – a market that rotates through towns, where all the surrounding villages come with their produce and things to sell, so it’s huge – on my way to meet up with my trekking group. The three of us and our guide, a 19-year-old girl from Kalaw, spent the next 6 hours trekking up and around the hills surrounding Kalaw. Our guide started out quiet, but when she discovered that she and I had the same pace a ways ahead of the other two she meekly turned to me: “Can I ask you questions?” “Yes, of course!” And that broke the ice. We talked about family, travel, food, and where we both came from. At first she was embarrassed by her English but I told her it was great. It was nice to break through the guide/tourist barrier and get to know this girl. She was so sweet.

First we hiked up into the mountains, passing tea plantations, orange fields, a variety of trees growing things like figs and papaya, and stopping for green tea at one of the local villages (population 150). It was a nice hike to me but apparently nothing compared to how it looks in the rainy season, which is also when most of the harvesting is done; I’ll just have to come back for that. We stopped for lunch on the top of the hill at our guide’s parents’ restaurant for delicious Indian-Myanmar food, including her wonderful avocado salad that we had talked about on the walk, with a fantastic view that went on for miles.

After lunch it was all downhill, first through a forest – my favorite part – then past a reservoir that is the source of Kalaw’s drinking water, and eventually through farmland. We actually walked through the crops – strawberries, mustard, garlic, celery, lettuce, kale, and more I can’t remember – which was a beautiful and pretty cool way to end the trek; much better than seeing them from afar.

We got back to town tired but pleased with the day. I made plans to meet up with Beth for a drink at what I’d heard was the best bar in town (of the two bars I saw), Hi Snack & Drink. This is now one of my favorite bars I’ve been to on this trip. It’s a tiny place with a U-shaped bar that seats no more than 15 people and a jovial owner. When we first got there it was all locals enjoying the house specialty – rum sour – and singing along to Myanmar songs being played on an acoustic guitar. We left for dinner and returned to find the U-bar packed with Westerners, but there were still locals in the corner playing and singing, everyone happily coexisting with their rum sours.

I stayed there longer than planned with a couple Brits, Germans and one more American. It was a fun night of conversation – look for mentions of the Buddha rave cave in the upcoming book “Ben the German” – and camaraderie, the kind you find when everyone is simply happy to be in such a low-key, welcoming little place. The owner told us a story: Christmas 2008 an Irishman grabbed an empty Chivas Regal box and put money in it to be donated to the local hospital. The owner kept it up, in his name, and personally hands over all money that is donated in the box directly to the hospital. We were all touched, and instantly contributed. I loved this place. Soon the night came to end, and even though nothing particularly exciting happened, it will always be a fond memory for me.

The next day was the extra one I’d added, with the purpose of having a relaxing “weekend” day as I called it (it was Tuesday, but when you’re traveling any day can be Saturday). I wrote this:
“Golden Lily emptied out as soon as the treks started. I had the place to myself. I danced along to music as I typed up some blog posts on the wonderful country of Myanmar. This was definitely the right decision, the downtime I needed before my final big Southeast Asian city and the craziness I was anticipating India would be.”

Reading, writing, meditating, a final meal at the Nepalese restaurant, and some good old fashioned downtime. It was just what I needed. I left that night on a night bus to Yangon – I had chosen the cheapest bus, which was a 2-by-2 VIP bus, but somehow ended up on a 1-by-2 sleeper bus that handed out snacks, blankets, and neck pillows, score! – and once I arrived I was relieved I had spent my spare day in Kalaw instead of that hectic big city.

Kalaw was my biggest surprise of Myanmar. I knew I’d be blown away by Bagan and enjoy some time on the water in Inle, but I never expected that I would be happiest in the small pass-through town of Kalaw. Life is full of surprises, and I’ll take a happy one like this any day.

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