The bus ride to Kalaw began with a stretch along a new Chinese-built highway, which was smooth, straight and completely deserted, presumably because it’s a toll road. After an hour or so we were back on ordinary single-lane roads and a few hours after that, as we started climbing and zigzagging towards Kalaw, I remembered how much I’d missed being in the mountains. Kalaw sits at an altitude of 1300m and despite being on a latitude closer to the Sudan than Switzerland, it did feel quite alpine. Lots of pine trees grow in the area, and although it follows the wet/dry season pattern like the rest of Myanmar, it did feel noticeably cooler. For this reason it was a popular destination for the British as a holiday retreat when Yangon was at its hottest and wettest, and it remains a popular holiday home spot for the Myanmar elite. The British architectural influence is noticeable here, but in a different way from Yangon; Yangon is full of imposing, imperialist official buildings – banks, hotels, government offices – while Kalaw reflects early 20th century domestic architecture – family homes with steep roofs and mock Tudor rendering. The climate and the surroundings felt oddly familiar in a way I wasn’t expecting at all, but it’s a pleasant town, quietly prospering as a popular hiking destination.
We experienced what the region had to offer the next day on our full day ‘trek’ (although what makes it a trek and not a walk or hike I have no idea) around the area to the west of the town. Our guide for the day was incredibly knowledgeable about all kinds of things, telling us first about the pine forest at the edge of the town, a protected ‘community forest’, which is being cleared regardless for house building as Kalaw grows. We stopped by a house belonging to an elderly couple, and were told how, as there is no pension system in Myanmar (apart from government employees), ‘retired’ people who do not have sufficient savings must either rely on their children, or make some kind of living for themselves. Many of these people in rural areas are able to grow crops in their gardens, like the couple we met who grow Chinese celery, which is used as a remedy for high blood pressure and is in high demand from city dwellers.
As we walked uphill and away from the outskirts of Kalaw, we found ourselves walking through steep farmland and could see the area’s main crops. International trade has been allowed in Myanmar since 2010, which has seen an explosion in demand for ginger and an increase in price from around 200 kyatts per kilo (about 12p/kilo) to 1200 kyatts (about 70p/kilo). It’s a reliable crop, with two harvests per year, and grow happily on the steep slopes of this area. Tea is another popular crop, specifically the Chinese variety, which is used to make green tea. In the rainy season, the leaves are picked, roasted, dried and packaged on site, all by hand, and sell for about 5000 kyatts per kilo (£2.80/kilo). Prior to 1975, when the government cracked down on opium production, opium was frequently grown in the area, and smuggled in tea shipments. The tainted tea leaves used in the smuggling were then sold as opium tea.
We didn’t see many animals in the area, and were told that most of the large mammals in the area have mostly been driven away. Tigers, for example, used to be seen often in the area, but they have now moved on to more remote places as humans have settled in the area and the habitat has shrunk. More direct means were used to remove monkeys from the forests, as they were eating the farmers’ crops. The solution the local monks came up with was pretty ingenious – they told farmers to catch as many monkeys as they could, dress them up in human clothes and makeup, and release them back into the wild. When the captured monkey found its group, the other monkeys wouldn’t recognise it and they would run away, and eventually the captured monkey would rid itself of the clothes and be reaccepted. It sounds like something from a children’s book, but apparently after repeating this as often as they could for several months, the monkeys left the area completely.
We walked through a village on our way, which was home to about 180 people of the Palaung tribe. Most of the men here work in a jade mine a little way from the village, so are away from home when they’re working but usually return in the rainy season. For this reason most of the farming is done by the women, with help from any children old enough to be useful.
It’s as tough a life as you’d expect being several hours horse and cart ride from healthcare or any other infrastructure. Many births are not registered, which makes it impossible to travel or vote, and there have been problems with army press-ganging in the past. But our guide was optimistic about the future, as there have been efforts in recent years to increase birth registration numbers, with officials visiting remote communities conducting censuses and infrastructure reviews. He was also optimistic, as everyone seems to be, that the Myanmar economy will grow under Aung San Suu Kyi’s leadership, and that this will lead to an increase in living standards for everyone.
We passed through a monastery before climbing up to our lunch spot with a view, and had probably the best meal so far. We then descended into the cool and shady rain forest and emerged at Kalaw’s reservoir before passing through more farmland. This time the farms were on flatter ground, so the main crop here was rice, with a few strawberries and other fruit and veg.
After a shower and dinner at a popular local Nepali restaurant, some of the group went for a drink at a tiny bar near the hotel. It was one room, about 10×30 feet, with a long bar in the centre of the room, and it was packed with about 25 people. A few people sat in the corner playing guitars and singing. After a little while the landlord got everyone’s attention to tell us about his charity project. He told us a story of how on Christmas Eve 12 years earlier, an Irishman got talking to the musicians and the landlord and they ended up organising a charity collection for education supplies for local children. The landlord has continued this every night since, and they now raise hundreds of thousands of kyatts each year from tourists, local people, and Burmese visitors from the big cities. I have noticed this kind of small scale charity project throughout the trip, and in some ways it is not surprising; the Buddhist culture puts a great emphasis on donations and offerings, and in the absence of a welfare state it is the monasteries that the destitute and desperate turn to. Put this together with the fact that only 5% of the country’s GDP is spent on education and it’s no wonder people feel the need to do something to help their local community. It will be fascinating to see what will happen under the new government later this year.