Kalaw is a pleasant hill station, a market town that demands very little from the traveller, but gives a lot. I arrived on the ‘first class’ bus from dusty Bagan, and the cool retreat was just the tonic. The former British hill station has a considerable Nepali Gurkha, Hindu, Sikh and Muslim population, who originally came to over to help build roads and railway lines. Because of this, the food is excellent, and tourism is well-organised. It didn’t seem to belong in Burma. It was as though I was in Ella in Sri Lanka, or perhaps Sapa in Vietnam…..plenty of shops, restaurants and little bars catering to tourists….signs in English advertising guest houses, travel agencies everywhere. Perhaps these scenes are the future of Burma.
There were a few hotel touts at the bus drop-off point. I went with the Spanish couple, who seemed to be following my itinerary, to Golden Lily hotel, which was owed by a friendly Sikh family. Got a nice spacious room on the upper deck, overlooking the town, so the views were splendid. After checking in and gratefully supping the welcome tea, I enquired about treks to Inlay, and was given some useful information, but I wasn’t convinced. I don’t like putting all my eggs in one basket. Instead, I wandered into town, the air now becoming cool and crisp as the weak sun began surrendering to the icy moon.
Traders from neighbouring towns were beginning to pack up, though there was still a feel of hustle and bustle to the place. Simple wooden shacks with corrugated iron roofs lined the streets. Shan people were walking off to wherever they go, huge wicker baskets on their backs full of vegetables or flowers. Others were pushing crude wooden carts full of things to sell, or goods that had been bought. Small motorbikes buzzed up and down the streets, and their drones, like those of bees, added to, rather than distracted from, the ambience. Sometimes trucks piled high with cushions and mattresses, or crates of fruits and vegetables, trundled painfully up the narrow streets. Backpackers were wandering languidly up and down, occasionally asking how much something was, and turning their noses up if it seemed to be a few cents more than what was mentioned in the Lonely Planet.
It was pleasant.
There were a few pagodas here and there. And that was it, really. I found a place called Uncle Sam’s trekking, housed in Sam’s Family Restaurant. Uncle Sam himself was there to field my questions, and a jolly but no-nonsense character he was. A couple of Swiss guys were there too, around my age and keen on adventure. We all wanted to head off on a trek to Inlay Lake the next Day. Then the Spanish coupe showed up. I must have been dropping crumbs from samosa. Uncle Sam showed us some options for the trek. The ‘easy’ route. The ‘hard’ route. The hard route looked much more scenic. That would be the one then. We agreed unanimously. Uncle Sam agreed too. We would meet at 8am in the morning to begin the trek. There would be one other person in the party who was not present – a German lass. Uncle Sam assured us she seemed ‘nice.’ Uncle Sam himself wasn’t going to come, however. We’d have a guide from one of the local tribes. Our heavy backpacks would magically appear at a certain hotel in Inlay, and we were told to bring a small day pack for the 3 day trek.
It all sounded very exciting. To celebrate, I went to a Nepalese restaurant. There, I ate a sumptuous feast, curry, nan, a couple of big bottles of tiger beer. I was feeling a bit feverish, and the tiger beer cooled me down and sorted me right out. I returned to the hotel, and sat on the balcony in the cold air attempting to write down my thoughts, but tiredness overcame me and I crawled into bed. It was a shame. I’d only just arrived in Kalaw, and now I had to leave. Such is the bane of the traveller who has a job to go back to and a countdown ever-hanging over his head, forcing him to move onwards with no time to dwell or soak in the atmosphere or culture….but then again no time to get bored. I slept like a baby.