Trekking in the Shan hills
Kalaw was my last stop in Shan State. A former colonial British hill station, this small-town offers cool temperatures (Kalaw sits at 1,300 meters elevation) and plenty of trekking opportunities. Traveling by car, it's about two hours west of Nyaungshwe on the western edge of the Shan hills.
I did two one-day hikes of about 18 and 15 kilometers respectively, though overnight treks are available. I really can't offer a good reason as to why I didn't go on one - preference for hot food and a hotel bed I suppose. The treks include the usual assortment of villages, agricultural life, and plenty of mountain scenery. And in my case the first day brought some very heavy rain.
I had the added bonus of being in Kalaw for the arrival of the rotating market. This lively event runs on a five-day cycle moving each day from town to town around the Kalaw/Inle region. It's your typical outdoor market with nothing for the tourists and everything for the locals - meat, produce, herbs, and spices. Many of the participants hiked great distances from the surrounding Palaung villages - the area I was to hike to later that same day crossing paths with many of the villagers as they returned home.
Market day in Kalaw
Trekking around Kalaw
I traveled with the same guide both days. A Muslim of south Asian descent, he was educated in a missionary school and like most of Kalaw's residents with a similar background he carries a western name and speaks near fluent English.
Unlike my Inle trek, which was up a mountain, across a mountain, and down a mountain, hiking the Kalaw area is a never ending series of ups and downs - with none particularly steep. I noticed quite early that the vegetation is not even. While some loss is the result of swidden farming, in many cases however, the loss of pine trees is the work of the government - sold to the Japanese my guide told me.
About two hours into the trek
we arrived at an open area that provided expansive views of the surrounding
hills. To our left a colorful line of figures clung to the side of a steep
hill. Singing happily it seemed, their songs were interspersed with laughter
and shrieks. It was a group of young teenagers harvesting tea leaves.
But like so many things in Myanmar, the surface view is hardly representative
of the true situation beneath. As happy as these young teenagers may appear
in their work, according to my guide they are not independent workers
but wage-earners working for a pittance. A single wealthy landowner is
in possession of many tracts of surrounding land where tea, cheroots,
oranges, and bananas are just some of the many crops harvested.
We walked along a mountain ridge to a monastery where we would relax for lunch. In the yard some novice monks were kicking a ball around. Shortly thereafter, heavy rain began to fall so we stayed in the monastery for about two hours, finally heading out again to visit three villages.
In these villages many of the families live in longhouses. We stopped inside one, inhabitedby seven families with a total population of 64 people. To maintain harmony in the communal living atmosphere, alcohol is prohibited in the village. But as I observed, this prohibition doesn't extend to drinking outside and arriving home drunk later as some villagers I met returning from the market were clearly doing. For privacy, in each living 'area' (there are no walls dividing family areas) the parents have a small walled enclosure where they sleep. Women are not permitted to marry outside the village and if they do marry outside they will have to move away from the village.
-Day two saw us head in a different direction, though I was now joined by a British couple. It was much the same as the previous day's hike - visiting villages and individual homes. We had lunch in a private home, but unlike previous stops, the residents promptly and optimistically produced a stack of crafts, weavings, and assorted clothing - scarves, hats, etc. - hopefully for our purchasing pleasure.
In this village there was a loudspeaker blaring the voices of young nuns reading Buddhist scriptures from inside the village nunnery. This was a 24-hour-a-day event that would go on for a week. The purpose was that by reading these scriptures loud and far, non-stop for a week, the village would gain much merit and everybody would see an improvement in their lives.
My guide offered that most villagers would probably see their lives improve dramatically if somebody would just turn the blasted speaker off and let everybody get a good night's sleep.
Returning to Kalaw, we stopped at a nearby cheroot factory on the edge of town. Like most cheroot 'factories', it was nothing more than a group of women sitting on the floor chatting, joking, rolling, and smoking.
A good night's sleep and I would head by private car to Bagan the following morning.
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All text and photographs © 1998 - 2006 Gordon Sharpless. Commercial or editorial usage without written permission of the copyright holder is prohibited.