Into the hills

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January 20th 2013
Published: January 24th 2013
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13 January 2013

Falling asleep to the sound of monks chanting at the Buddhist monastery next door.. The air is cool and crisp and smoke from cooking fires is beginning to seep into our room.

Kalaw was once a hill town where the British colonials came to escape the heat and it still has a faded but gently colonial ( is that an oxymoron?) atmosphere. The people here are much more guarded. They are not too keen to talk to tourists - they have seen and done this all before. We are only approached by two people during our afternoon walk-about. The first is a Christian nun from the old church up the hill. She is selling blessings for donations and she takes us for prime christian donation candidates. Little does she know that our light skin doesn't automatically mean we are of a certain dark faith. She is sweet though, so we don't get into the discussion about child abuse and decline her offers to walk us up to see the old church. Instead we choose the station as our next destination; where we meet the only other person who speaks to us of his own accord. I think he is a little drunk, and is probably always a little drunk, but once again, he is sweet so we ask him some difficult questions about the train timetable and he points us in the direction of the station master to get rid of us.

The community here is a lot more mixed than other communities we have visited. During their uninvited stay here, the British brought in indentured labour from India and Nepal to build the railway line, and their descendants remain. The most obvious marks of these communities on the town is in the food, but they are also, understandably, far more aloof than the Burmese and so little Kalaw is a bit different to anywhere we have been up until now.

Our bus left Bagan at 07h30 in the morning, and far from being an opportunity to meet and chat with locals, it was full of tourists like us - so no real interaction. I find it quite amazing how we tourists try not to see each other. We all want to be the only travellers here, having special and unique experiences I suppose.

It's the first time we have travelled over land in Burma, and the dry, dusty acacia dotted plains outside Bagan are reminiscent of the Eastern Transvaal, now Mpumalanga, where I spent my childhood. It could be Africa but without the squalor.

This is also the first time we come face to face with a military presence. There are several check points on the road as well as large army bases. Government farms half heartedly growing eucalyptus trees flash by and then the large timber depots which are definitely not processing eucalyptus. Burma is losing its massive hardwood trees by the forest. Where are all these trees going?!!! A not so small forest worth of trees lies by the side of the road ( I'm not kidding - the wood lot is about 2 or 3 kms long and piled high!!), another forest worth is being carried off on trucks to the river - we pass them regularly on our way. Barges laden with teak and other hardwoods are constantly on the move down the river - they are the main river traffic in some areas..... Burma!! your trees!! It is heartbreaking.

I devour roadside snacks to take away the pain. At least, I think, my money is feeding a family. But the "Shan food" (crispy fried rice and bean paste cakes) and the dried berries in syrup ( I have no idea what they are but I've taken a shine to them) are starting to take their toll and I am expecting an upset stomach shortly!!

We gain altitude and pass through what must once have been jungle. It is still beautiful countryside, but only here and there a hint of the huge trees that used to be.

The climb up to Kalaw starts with a stop to cool off the clutch and brakes on the bus with a hosepipe, and then up and up on hairpin bends, past orchards and small farms.

Kalaw. We almost didn't get off the bus here. We were on our way to Inle lake and after Bagan we were hoping for a break from the madding tourist crowds; but Kalaw is the starting point for trekking in the area around the lake, which is a big tourist hit as you get to stay with "real" people in "real" villages (I never quite get that - always thought everyone was real...).

The town is fully set up to

Aung Chan Tha Zedi, Kalaw
cater for this and we even had the name of a guide recommended by a French couple we had met on a temple top in Bagan in our pocket. " Go to the third restuarant from the corner and speak to the lady with the red lipstick. Ask for a man named Pancake". Sadly we don't have the time to do the two to three day walk, but because we hadn't managed to get accommodation at Inle for the night we had sort of decided to stay here instead and then continue on to Inle tomorrow. Besides, the 7 hour bus ride to get here was starting to feel long and we had just driven up the most amazing mountain pass, and were not really relishing the thought of this particular bus driver taking us down the other side.

After some very quick deliberation we jumped the bus and as usual we're glad we did. We got to fill up on barfi and sweet milky tea, and even managed to find a real coffee instead of a 3in1! The evening light on the town centre Aung Chan Tha Zedi with its gold and silver mirror tiles and rat and
Aung Chan Tha ZediAung Chan Tha ZediAung Chan Tha Zedi

Kalaw, Burma
elephant sculptures is spectacular, the cool air is a welcome relief from our hot travels, and the thick blankets and throws on our beds at the Dream Villa offer a lovely end to a long day in transit.

I only wish the stomach cramps would be gone now!

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Monastery with hills

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