Kalaw, a former British hill station located nearby Inle Lake, is an area perfect for walks and treks where you can discover numerous minorities living around the lake. Kalaw is well known for its pleasant climate and stunning landscapes that attracted the British to escape hot summers during their colonial rule. The city blends the influences of cuisines and cultures of Nepali Ghurkas, Indian Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims that arrived in Kalaw together with the British and settled there since then.
This place is usually overlooked by most sightseers to this side of Myanmar and prefers to visit Inle to the east. The majority of the people who do really stop here, only do so to begin trekking to the lake - unquestionably one of the high points of visiting Myanmar, and also a great way to experience local minority culture. Except for some religious monuments, there really isn’t much to see in Kalaw itself, however, its sluggish, light-hearted air frequently entices guests to remain for a couple of days extra, taking some leisurely strolls on the hill tracks surrounding the town, and taking full advantage of some lovely culinary chances.
Some the things people find appealing about Kalaw is its refreshing climate - this is one place where you won't be needing air-conditioning in your room. Actually, evenings during winter can become particularly frosty, and you will probably have to put on something with long sleeves. The town is about 1300m above sea level, and like similarly lofty areas across Southeast Asia, it was utilised as a hill station retreat by worked up Europeans throughout the colonial era; a small population of Indians and Nepalis, that were hired to build roads and rails during that period, remain in the town.
Trekking to Inle Lake
A must-do activity for anyone visiting Eastern Myanmar is to take a multi-day trek to Inle Lake from Kalaw. All the more pleasurable than going on a boat ride on the lake proper, it provides you with a moderate workout, outstanding views of the countryside and a glimpse into minority culture, all in one. Even though one can possibly stroll from the lake to Kalaw, not a single person does it this way - travelling from west to east, the path is mostly downhill, and you are rewarded with the lake finally.
Because of the distance, you need to make arrangements for your trek through an agency, whose tours at all times include three meals per full day, a guide, and a monastery or super-simple village or farmhouse accommodation. The two major choices before you would be whether to go for a two-day or three-day trip; these are basically the same except the first day of the three-day option, with those on two-day trips typically transported to the trailhead by vehicle. There are a few operators that offer four-day options, but three is usually sufficient for the majority of travellers. In addition, consider where you would prefer to end the journey; the western side of Inle Lake has many endpoints.
It is a long but easy walk, so what you require is decent footwear - during the dry period, otherwise, you can do the walk in flip-flops. Sunblock, a hat and mosquito repellent (at the time of writing, the area was free from malaria, but it’s better to be safe than sorry)are also useful. Finally, you will need a torch for when you make your night-time toilet visits, as well as a towel to dry your body after what passes for a shower in these areas.
The people on three-day courses will spend their first day on a curved route about town. This covers the only actual forest on the path, a small portion that gets tricky only after it rains. As soon as you have completed this, you will emerge into an area of tea plantations, and interlace from one village to another along country trails –the people of Danu and Pa-O are plenteous in this parts. Activities on the second day (or the first, if you are on a two-day tour) is typically flat, there are more villages to call on and lots of agrarian activity to spot: chilli, rice, potato and sesame are some of the crops cultivated in these areas, however, if you are fortunate you might be capable of culling your own delicious treat from a sugarcane patch or tamarind tree. On the last day, you see the big drop down into Inle, with water buffalo noticeable along the dusty trails, and the lake itself can be seen from some of the walks.
Aung Chan ThaZedi
Prodding up from the very heart of town, the Aung Chan ThaZedi is by far the most obvious stupa in Kalaw. It is very attention-grabbing, enclosed from tip to toe in decorative mirrors which shine wonderfully all through the sunset and sunrise hours. After all that has been said, there is really no need to go into the corroded gates safeguarding the complex; you’ll get a good enough view from the Morning Star tea house.
Kalaw's market is situated immediately after the Aung Chan ThaZedi and is worth dashing into on any weekday. The best time to visit is when the circus of Shan State rotating market are in town which is every fifth day, and on such events, the stalls spill out onto nearby streets.
For a mild workout, take a stroll up the enclosed staircase that leads to the Thein Taung Kyaung, a little monastery looking over the town. Besides a few friendly monks, some barking or sleeping dogs and the mandatory “foot-wearing prohibited” signs, there isn’t much to see when you have made the climb; except for a small “museum” featuring samples of Buddhist scripts, although this is not awfully stimulating. Nevertheless, the views from the monastery are certainly good, and you also get to choose whether to take off into the hills on tracks that lead to the complex.
Kalaw has a couple of entertaining sights on its mountainous periphery; luckily, it is easy to visit in only two hours even by walking. You can visit the loop counter-clockwise or clockwise, however heading first for the Shwe Oo Min Paya is easier, through the otherwise ordinary Christ the King Church, and end with the Hnee Pagoda. A sequence of gates, barbed wire and walls will show that most of the area between the pagoda and the cave is a military zone – it’s actually, one out of the only two locations in the land (the other being Pyin Oo Lwin) where fortunate Burmese brass is capable of rising significantly to the level of general. The above-mentioned gates are open almost at all times, although closed occasionally so as to let an unavoidably chubby general peacefully play the final hole of the spookily empty golf course.
Shwe Oo Min Paya
Just above 1km southwards, the Shwe Oo Min Paya is very much worth the trouble of visiting, particularly if you did not plan to visit Pindaya. Like the town’s eponymous complex, one very interesting aspect of this complex is a cave packed full with gold coated Buddha statues. There are several hundreds of them there already, and more are still being added continually, it is almost like a warehouse of Buddha; the pathway bends around 150m into the hill, with sparkling, excellent views at each turn.
The attractive Hnee Pagoda is situated around 2.5km south-west of central Kalaw, among progressing countryside that just pleads to be explored. Named after a Buddha statue, the “Bamboo Pagoda” is produced from such material (and currently heavy with gold leaf obviously); it is believed to be over 500 years old. Or else, the complex is quite modest but boasts of good views. Linger long enough and you will probably be presented with some delicious green tea, and some eatable tea leaves to go with it; take some walk around the area, and you will see where the tea itself is being grown.
Shan State markets
Several markets in Shan State function on a revolving 5-day cycle, with 3 or 4 markets happening concurrently on each day. Except probably the very crowded Ywama “floating market”, they are captivating places - especially at break of day where persons from distant villages trade their livestock or produce and purchase vital goods. The timetable provided here was accurate at the time of research, with the last place listed for every day either on or around Inle Lake, nevertheless, hotel staff, guides and tour operators, ought to be aware of any changes. The products sold at almost all the markets are typically targeted at locals - vegetables, fruit, fishing equipment, clothing and so on. Nonetheless, you will surely get plenty of fabrics to buy, as well as longyi and the headscarves made use of by local minority ladies, and the more tourist-focused markets will have silver implements and cheesy keepsakes as well.