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There is a prodigious smattering of colonial architecture still in mint condition, including the red brick railway station just south of the town centre, which might as well have been plucked straight out of an English village.
Up the Tekkatho Road is the Christ the King Church. If visiting when a service is taking place you will witness the small but hearty Catholic congregation belting out the hymns and lessons with a gusto that would startle any slumbering rector in the Yorkshire Dales.
Opposite the church is an attractive high school, one wall of which sports the curious motto, ‘The Only Way to Have a Thinking School is to be One’. This used to be the British army hospital and is as architecturally pleasing as the church.
Kalaw feels decidedly less chaotic than much of the country. The central market is buzzing without being chaotic, busy but not stifling. Pa’O bags and other ethnic goods can be purchased here, as can as a reviving bowl of Shan noodles for breakfast. For lunch and supper Kalaw specialises in Indian cuisine due to the large number of descendants of the rail workers the British employed from India and Nepal in the colonial era.
Kalaw also has its own Shwe Umin Golden Cave Pagoda. Not as famous as that in nearby Pindaya, locals will humbly tell you that it is not very large at all; however it is likely to prove larger than the majority of caves that most visitors have been to, and with its dazzling collection of Buddha Images, far more spectacular too. The locals’ modesty coupled with the curling shape of the cave leads one to habitually approach ‘false ends’, before turning a corner to find yet another sparkling cavern reveal itself.
Visitors to Kalaw should stop by the Nee Paya, walking up the stairs as opposed to driving up to the top. In this monastery there is a bamboo Buddha Image that is said to have survived unscathed the flames of a fire that burnt to the ground the village it was housed in 500 years ago.
Kalaw is about a two hour drive from Taunggyi, and passes the famous Bawa Thanthaya or ‘Life Cycle’ Bridge which connects Heho and Shwenyaung. If coming by this route, it is worth stopping at this juncture for a quick gander.
Bawa Tanthaya is a railway bridge built by the British in colonial times, that loops over the gorge twice, curling back upon itself. Today it takes its Burmese name from the widely popular film by U Thu Kha. The trains are infrequent, so you can feel safe enough joining enthusiastic locals taking selfies on the tracks of the bridge.
Just a 40 minute drive from Kalaw is the Green Hill Valley Elephant Camp where retired elephants from the timber trade are offered comfort and copious amounts of pumpkin in their twilight years. The camp was set up by a family with a long history of working with elephants both in the timber trade and as vets. The Green Hill Valley Elephant Camp is their way of giving something back to the animals they love.
Small groups are taken around the camp and allowed to feed and bathe the elephants. The management at the Green Hill Valley Elephant Camp insist that their first concern, always, is the well-being of the elephants, not the satisfaction of tourists. For that reason, if and when you visit the camp, riding an elephant may not be possible. However, feeding them certainly will be. As the staff like to joke, ‘An elephant only eats one meal a day. But the meal lasts 24 hours!’
With the camp as your starting point you can hike up into the hills and back to Kalaw ending up at the Thein Taung Pagoda (Cloudy Mountain Pagoda), offering optimum views over the town. Longer and more immersive two to three-day treks are possible where guides can lead you to surrounding villages of the Danu, Pa’O, the Silver Palaung (as opposed to the Golden Palaung in Kyaing Tong at the far east of Shan State) and Taung Yoe.
Cycle into the Pindaya valley. Follow the Coffee & Tea Trail to see the elephants of Kalaw.