The verdant hill station of Kalaw is not famed for sublime sunrise outcrops. However when staying at the folksy Thitaw Lay House, one can wake up early to join the charming proprietor Marc and follow in the footsteps of ancient Shan monks in attempting to predict the future and identify auspicious signs in the celestial movement above. On cloudless nights, both Venus and Mars are visible from the garden of Kalaw’s Thi Taw Lay House.
As well as being an avid star gazer, Marc, who hails from Belgium, is also a proficient baker, and when not pressing his eye up against his telescope can be found most mornings kneading loaves of bread for the hotel’s large stone oven. The smell of Marc’s rustic bakery is likely to bring slumbering guests grasping their way through drapes of mosquito net towards the fluffy, freshly baked loaves alongside banana bread (strictly Muttis recipe) and a wide assortment of the jams of Kalaw.
Those wishing to go local can instead try Hin Tho at the central market: a bundle of steamed and sticky rice with chicken or pork and a smattering of spring onions and chili neatly wrapped up in banana leaves. Indeed, breakfast or not, one of the nicest things to do in Kalaw is visit the market when the 5 Day Rotating Market is in town and the stalls spill out onto the surrounding streets with fruit, vegetables, and the colourful Shan tote bags popular throughout the country. As with all of the 5 Day Rotating Markets of Shan State, the one in Kalaw is a fantastic opportunity to rub shoulders with a variety of the diverse ethnic groups that populate the region. The fiery orange head-dresses of the Pa’O and the rings the Palaung women wear around their waists enliven the predominantly Shan town of Kalaw and as the British author and administrator Sir George Scott poetically put it, remind one of ‘wind-stirred tulip beds or a stir about of rainbows.’
The hill tribes of Burma were always of great interest to British scholars however it was with the aim to bring the Shan people securely into the British Empire that first brought the colonialists to Kalaw. After the fall of Mandalay in 1885, through a certain amount of coercion and cajoling, all the sabwas (the Shan princes) eventually came to accept British rule. The imperialists soon set about establishing hill stations throughout the temperate Shan State. The jungle was fought back and subdued with the same vigour used against dissident natives and Kalaw, like other small Shan towns, was transformed into, as the author Andrew Marshall puts it, ‘a hot -season retreat, where pretty bungalows nestled among cool pine forests and the water was so pure that every month the train carried a great supply back down to the Governor in Rangoon.’
After the coup of 1962, along with the grand administrative buildings of Rangoon and Moulmein, Kalaw slid into neglect and disrepair and suffered at the hands of the repressive Burmese Tatmadaw armed forces. Towards the end of the century however its potential as a tourism hot spot was seized upon and the town saw itself spruced up once more. An easy and friendly town for tourists, Kalaw is quickly becoming one of the country’s most popular destinations.
Most travellers to this part of Shan State find time to visit the great Shwe Umin (Golden Cave) Pagoda in Pindaya. When wondering what to do in Kalaw, tourists could do worse than visit the town’s own Shwe Umin, ignoring the self-deprecation with which locals from Kalaw refer to it - “nothing like Pindaya … only a small cave...”. The twists and turns of the passage through the cave, coupled with the modesty of locals, means that one constantly believes they have reached the end of this ‘small cave’, only to take a turning and be faced with a yet larger cavern, every inch of which is bedecked with glistening Buddha images.
Over the other side of the golf course from Shwe Umin up the Tekkatho Road is the Christ the King Church. It is worth trying to visit when a service is taking place, so as to witness Kalaw’s small but hearty congregation belting out lessons with the same gusto that Burmese school children learn English by writ. Next to the church is a military training camp outside at the gates of which will usually be a young and surly soldier, sullenly tracking your movements.
Returning to the town, visitors to Kalaw are recommended to try a cup of the local Shan coffee which is not only momentously better than the three-in-one coffee mix so popular with the natives but it is also less grainy than that from Chin State and not so bitter as that of the Karen. The more daring traveller may wish to take their coffee with a quid of betel, the nut from the areca palm known as ‘gon yah’ in Burmese. Betel is said to deliver a buzz equivalent to up to 6 cups of coffee and is chewed and spat with great fervour throughout the country. The inexperienced usually struggle to keep the lump together in the side of their mouth leading to dribbles of blood-red droplets and splinters of nut. Betel’s carcinogenic properties and the unsightly effect continuous use has on the teeth does not endear it to many tourists. However, the Kalaw ‘gon yah’ is said to be the most favourable to a Western palate, due to the addition of green papaya and coconut and the practice of slightly roasting the nut itself.
The shimmering stupa of Aung Chan Tha glitters at the centre of the town due to the tessellated mirrors which it has been bedecked in from base to tip. One need not enter the pagoda itself, but instead can settle down at the Morning Star teahouse for a cuppa with accoutrements of traditional Indian sweets and fresh chapati puri. Kalaw boasts one of the finest selections of Indian restaurants in Myanmar, the owners being descendants of the rail workers brought over by the British. When in Kalaw, we would also recommend the paneer masala at Everest on Aung Chan Tha Road and the greasy snacks at Butar Road’s Ma Hnin Si.
The Indian cuisine is undoubtedly the tastiest legacy of the British in Kalaw, the quaintest being the red-brick railway station to the southeast of the town. The station is still in mint condition and looks like it has been plucked straight out of a story by Nesbit or Blyton. However instead of ruddy-faced station masters and caucasian scamps with ringlets, the quiet station at Kalaw is for most hours of the day attended by little more than large sacks of produce, waiting stoically in a pile on the platform for the daily train to Shwe Nyaung.
Other architectural gems are to be found. The town manages to strike a balance between captivating bustle and provincial tranquility and for this reason losing oneself along its streets is one of the nicest things to do in Kalaw during the last few hours of sunlight. Tourists are not yet so common, and so are still greeted cheerily and with excitement by most of the inhabitants, whether it be children wobbling past on oversized bicycles or old men in teashops sitting amongst the fuzzy hubbub of the Premier League.
The town is bordered by a ring of pine trees and acting as a navigating point at the northern end of Kalaw rises the grand Thein Taung Pagoda. Those with energy left may wish to climb Thein Taung and from the monastery at the top, in the company of meandering canines and monks hanging up their washing, watch the sun set over Kalaw.
As evening descends, make your way to Thirigayhar restaurant, also known as ‘Seven Sisters.’ The wide selection of Burmese, Shan, Chinese and European dishes on offer warrant Thirigayhar’s high rating on TripAdvisor. The USP of the restaurant is settling down with a papaya lassi for dessert and listening to the Shan proprietress tell of her Irish grandfather who had fought in Burma against the Japanese during WW2. Black and white photographs of her grandparents adorn the restaurant walls alongside the visiting cards of travelling businessmen of consequence. (With varying success, Sampan Travel submit their cards to be pinned up each time we are there).
There is not much of a nightlife scene in Kalaw but bars such as Hi Bar indicate that things are changing. Hi Bar is the hippest bar in town. In fact by many people’s definition it is the only bar in town. When not knowing what to do in Kalaw after light’s out, this is your best bet. Slightly ungenerously, Lonely Planet describes it as the ‘size of a closet’. Indeed, it is not big. Guests will be rubbing shoulders with whoever your fellow punters are that evening. This is not necessarily a bad thing. With the clandestine ambience of a speakeasy, as you sip your rum, you can be content with the knowledge that you are one of a select, in-the-know elite.
We cannot predict the future, but if the celestial stars seen through Marc’s telescope say anything, it is that such things will not stay so secret for long.