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Great, it was 4 a.m. and we were standing on a pitch black street in Kalaw. It was freezing outside and our bus driver had just woken us up 5 minutes ago surprising us with the message that we had already arrived (we were told we would reach our destination around 6 in the morning). Everything was closed and we had no idea where to go. Eventually we decided to walk all the way to our guesthouse which was located 2 km away. After about 30 minutes of carrying our backpacks uphill and trying not to get attacked by one of the many street dogs, we got to our accomodation for the next night. With very little hope that anyone would be awake at this time we walked onto the property. Thankfully the family’s grandpa was already preparing breakfast and let us in. Even though he didn’t speak English we somehow figured out that we could relax in front of the hot chimney. The house reminded a lot of a cute wooden hut in the Austrian Alps. Absolutely not what we had expected. Within seconds we fell asleep on the comfy benches.
At 6 a.m we were woken up again and asked if we wanted to have some breakfast. We gladly accepted and soon found a table set up with a lovely brekkie in front of us. There was coffee, tea, homemade bread, fresh banana bread, rice and fresh fruits.
John and I were told that we could only check into our room around 9 a.m which is why we decided to check out the town first and gather some infos about trekking. Still half asleep we walked down the hill, crossed the railway tracks and finally reached the local market where lots of people were strolling around trying to get their daily food shopping done. We saw everything from meat loaded with flies, veggies and even souvenirs here. To our surprise yet again there were barely any tourist. After the market visit we walked around the streets and ended up talking to some people offering trekking tours. Some were super nice and had lots of information for us such as Uncle Sam’s and Eagle Trekking. Others on the other hand didn’t even want to talk to us which made the decision pretty easy. In the end we decided to book with Alex from Eagle Trekking because we wanted to go trekking with a small group and do mountain biking on our third day, which the others didn’t offer. He even closed his shop for a bit to drive us to his house where we could chose a proper mountain bike. We tried a few and Alex adjusted our saddles and pedals before dropping us off in the city centre again. Our 3 day trek would already start at 8.30 the next morning.
After we were finally able to check into our room we enjoyed hot showers and tried to keep ourselves awake by renting bicyles right after. Unfortunetly our bikes were compared to what Alex had to offer more what we expected to find in Myanmar: old & rusty without breakes and light. Nevertheless we kind of enjoyed exploring the area and eating our way through a few restaurants.
We went to bed early (like literally every night..) to be fit for our first day of trekking starting the next morning. After an excellent breakfast just as the day before we packed our backpacks and carried 25 kg each down the hill to Alex’ office where we were supposed to meet our guide. Alex would meet us on the third day to bring the mountainbikes to us and deliver our heavy luggage to Inle Lake. Now we each only had to carry what we needed for the upcoming days which wasn’t much. In my case only a warm sweater, something to sleep in, a bottle of water and some personal belongings such as my camera. For some reason John’s backpack was almost double the weight of mine and I was quite happy not having to carry it 25 km up and down the mountains for the next three days.
Alex introduced us to Rosie, our guide. She was only 20 years old and from a small village in the mountains. Her English wasn’t the best but good enough. Just a quick goodbye to Alex and we were already on our way to our first destination: a viewpoint on top of a mountain which we were supposed to reach around lunch time. It took us all morning to get there. On the way we walked past farms and through forests. When we first started this tour we were scared that there wouldn’t be enough food and we packed some banana bread and other snacks. To our surprise we got a huge meal served in a small hut on top of the mountain. There was naan bread, lentil curry, avocado and tomato salad, lots of fresh fruits and tea. Thankfully we only had to walk downhill with our stuffed bellies from that point on. We followed abondoned railway tracks, walked past more farms and saw plenty of cows and water buffalos until we finally reached a small village where we were going to spend our first night in. There were only a few houses, mostly owned by farmers. It was late afternoon when we got to the house we were staying at. Most people were still doing farm work a bit outside of town but our guest family was at home already and welcomed us with big smiles. No one here spoke English but Rosie was able to translate a little for us. She also showed us around our accomodation. While the family was staying upstairs, we were staying next to a big storage area in a small room. Inside the room there was only a wooden panel with some dusty blankets and pillows on it. No electricity, no fluent water. Our bathrrom was located in the backyard. It was a simple stracture with 3 concrete walls, no roof and a plastic curtain which was supposed to be the door. The shower was a tub with rainwater and a ladle.
Before the sun started to set we took 2 plastic chairs from the dining room and sat down in front of the house where we saw farmers returning from work. A guy that was living next door joined us with a beer and a cigarette, constantly spitting blood from chewing too much betelnut on the ground. He didn’t speak English at all and Rosie tried to translate again. He asked us plenty of questions and smiled at us with the few teeth he had left. We watched our neighbours play Sepak Takraw, a game with a bamboo ball that everyone tries to keep in the air with their feet. We also found out that sports bets are quite a big thing here. Literally everyone that has a few bucks left bets on European football games.
When the sun started to set we moved over to the kitchen which was also located outside and more just a fire pit where way too many cats were living. The family prepared dinner for us which we enjoyed a lot after a long and exhausting day and slept surprisingly well on our uncomfortable bed until we were woken up by Rosie at 6.30 the next morning.
After a quick breakfast and saying goodbye to our lovely hosts we hurried up the hill and made it to the top only an hour later. I was already super exhausted and the blisters from the day before that were covering my feet weren’t helping. But another 25 km were on today’s program and there was no time for whining. We walked past chili and ginger plantations and even witnessed the daily morning ritual of a local elementary school. All kids were lined up singing the national anthem. Afterwards a teacher was holding a speach and everybody was heading into the class rooms and starting to pray to Buddha. We walked past more farms and monestries before stopping in some sort of cafe where we got tea and rice crackers. Rosie used the break to turn us into locals by providing us with a burmese styling and makeup session. I got a scarf wrapped around my hair and my whole face got painted with Thanaka. Some sort of golden paste made from ground bark. I looked absolutely ridiculous and so did John wearing a skirt, the same makeup and a farmers hat. The whole village seemed to enjoy seeing us this way. We’ve had such a good laugh that we didn’t even realize how much time had past already and so we rushed to our next stop. We were again on a hill top for lunch overviewing chili farms and again more food than we could ever eat was on the table. Only a little less than 4 hours were left until we would reach our second homestay. The hardest part of the trek was already behind us and now we only had an easy walk through beautiful landscape left. We truly enjoyed the warm sun and good conversations until reaching the village. This place was completely different to our first accomodation. The village was probably twice the size of the one before and our house was completely made of wood with lots of holes in the roof and walls. The whole floor was shaking when we walked upstairs where we were going to sleep. There was just a large room which was living room, dining room and kitchen all in one. Our bed (a super thin mattress) was put up in a corner underneath a buddhist shrine and covered in dust. The bathroom was a bin filled with rain waiter and a ladle surrounded by plastic foil which was a hip high. Meaning literally everyone in the village could watch you bathe. We decided to skip the shower that day and directly head to bed after dinner that night. Unfortunately the super annoying kid living there destroyed that plan by constantly trying to steal our stuff. In the end we slept quite well until we were woken up by our lovely neighbours burning stuff. The smoke was filling our whole house and we headed towards the front of the house only to see that literally every family was lighting up fires. The whole valley was filled with a thick layer of smoke which first looked like fog. Even though we had a super early morning, we were stoked of what was ahead of us: only one hour of hiking and then we would finally get to ride our mountain bikes downhill to Inle Lake and have a warm shower and a Wifi connection again. The hike wasn’t the hardest we had done in the last 3 days and we got to the top of the hill where we were supposed to meet Alex without any problems. Only minutes after us he arrived there. He prepared our bikes while we were paying the entrance fee for the Inle Lake area. Shortly later we were cruising down the sandy streets overtaking trucks and cars. It was incredibly much fun but unfortunately lasted way too short. Instead of the two hours that were actually planned for this distance we made it in almost half of that time. I almost drove into a cow at some point but John and I both made it safely down to a little restaurant located right at the river where we were having lunch with Rosie and Alex before saying goodbye and jumping into a small boat which brought us to our hotel. On the way we saw floating gardens, houses build into the water and local fishermen. In the late afternoon and after a short tuk tuk drive we finally got to our destination and were already looking forward to a comfortable bed and a warm shower.
WHAT TO DO IN KALAW
Trekking: the reason everybody is visiting this little town. There are plenty of companies organizing all kind of trips.
Local market: stroll around the small market streets where you can find souvenirs, fresh fruits and all kinds of locally grown veggies.
Cooking class: Shan state is kown for its delicious food. Learn how to prepare local dishes in a traditional way either here or in Inle Lake. Most cooking classes start early in the morning and you have to sign up a day in advance. Unfortunately we missed our opportunity because we didn’t know before arriving in Kalaw and only stayed there for one day.
Bicycle tour: Rent a bicycle and explore the area around Kalaw. There is a cute cafe located on top of a hill nearby town which has a good view onto Kalaw. It’s called Cafe Kalaw, quite original right?
HOW TO GET THERE
There are buses leaving from almost every bigger city to Kalaw on a daily basis. Most of them run over night and will get you there super early in the morning. Let your hotel or guest house know so that someoe can open the door for you. There is also a train station in Kalaw but trains are super slow in Myanmar.
HOW TO GET AROUND
There are some places in town where you can rent bicycles, e-scooters and even cars. Make sure you check if the breakes are working to avoid risking your live going downhill. You can easily walk around town though, it’s quite small.
WHERE TO STAY
Thipaw Lay House was our accomodation and probably thebest one we have had in Myanmar. The rooms are quite simple but there is hot water, wifi and the family owning the place is absolutely amazing and speaks English really well. They even bake their own bread which is super yum!