In the morning I departed Mandalay for a day-long drive to Kalaw, a small town high in the mountains of Shan State. The first part of our journey was on a modern highway dubbed “The Great Road of China” by our driver. China is building a trading network and extending its influence in neighboring countries by investing billions of dollars in infrastructure, including this highway. The latter part of our journey was on a curvy mountain road surrounded by stunning scenery. We arrived in Kalaw early in the evening, allowing time for me to explore the hill town before meeting the others for dinner at a Nepalese restaurant.
Kalaw was popular with British civil servants during colonial rule, offering an escape from the heat of the plains. Nepali Gurkhas built the roads and railways, and today their descendants are a sizable portion of Kalaw’s population. Craving momos, I joined the others at the Everest Nepali Food Center for a nice change from Burmese food. After dinner we headed to Hi Snack & Drink, probably the best dive bar in Myanmar. The small bar doesn’t serve Myanmar Beer–only its trademark rum sour. Locals and travelers crowded around the bar to drink, sing, and be merry.
I awoke early next morning to check out Kalaw’s market, where villagers from the surrounding hills come to sell their goods. Then it was time for the activity that draws most travelers to Kalaw: trekking. Many trekkers spend three to four days walking to Inle Lake, but I opted for a single day of trekking in the hills outside of Kalaw. Our guide introduced himself to the trekking group as Obama, a nickname that he chose for himself because he’s black. It felt wrong calling my guide Obama, but I did since it’s the name he chooses to go by.
The trek started off in town, but soon we were walking up and down the hills surrounding Kalaw. We walked past pine tree forests, tea plantations, orange orchards, and small Palaung tribe villages nestled on hilltops. Villagers waved as we passed, and water buffaloes stared. As throughout much of Myanmar, drinking water was available in clay pots along the trail. Supplying and maintaining the water stations for thirsty passersby is a way for Buddhists to make merit. The temperature was perfect for trekking and I wished that I had opted for three days of hiking to Inle Lake.
As we walked through one of the Palaung hill tribe villages, we saw tea drying on the side of the road. Obama told us that the Palaung have switched from growing opium poppies to oranges and tea. The altitude of the Palaung tea plantations is around 6,000 feet, with an ideal climate for producing refined teas. After picking the tea leaves, they are steamed, rolled, and dried in the sun. Then baskets of tea leaves are placed in covered pits to ferment, which can last from a month to a year. The villagers sell the tea at the Kalaw market and elsewhere in Myanmar.
During the final part of the journey we walked through farms belonging Taung Yo tribe members. The Taung Yo grow all kinds of vegetables, including cauliflower, mustard greens, cilantro, strawberries, garlic, and leeks. Like the Palaung, they sell the vegetables at the Kalaw market.
After the eleven mile trek ended in Kalaw, I visited a teahouse and wondered if the tea was produced by a Palaung tea plantation. The trek through Kalaw’s beautiful hills was a highlight of the trip. While excited to depart for Inle Lake the next morning, I wished that I was trekking there instead of driving.