Kalaw is 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.
High up in the Shan hills, Kalaw is an old colonial hill station with a laid back atmosphere, refreshing climate and scenic views. It is also Myanmar’s trekking mecca. Whether you are after a brief stroll to to soak up the atmosphere and take in some hill views and the colourful flower-lined streets, or a longer three-day trek to Inle Lake or Pindaya to witness the lives of the local hill tribes, Kalaw offers a wide variety of options for exploration – and a freedom of unfettered movement that is not always possible in other remote parts of Myanmar.
At Kalaw’s heart is its market, where villagers from the surrounding hills come to sell their produce. Most of the town’s restaurants and food stands surround the market, and offer a particularly eclectic range of foods, with descendants of Indian and Nepali rail workers who migrated here during British rule offering their own dishes to complement the local Shan fare. Also in the centre of town is the Aung Chang Tha stupa, which glitters with silver and gold glass mosaics.
A good example of Myanmar’s new drive for eco-tourism is the Green Hill Valley elephant camp. A 40-minute taxi ride from Kalaw, the camp was founded in 2011 to protect the local environment and care for ageing and poorly elephants, whilst allowing visitors to see them in their natural habitat. Short rides on the elephants are permitted, but all activities are conducted primarily with the animals’ welfare in mind. Various trekking options are also available in the area. The Tazaungman Full Moon Festival takes place in late October or early November, and features street parades, music and fireworks.
SHORT WALKS AND LONGER TREKS
Shorter walks in and around Kalaw can easily be done independently. For some excellent views of Kalaw, its market and the surrounding hills, you can head up to the Thein Taung Pagoda, which is north of Union Highway (the main road through Kalaw) and hosts a Buddhist monastery.
A pleasant walk south of the central market takes you to the Hnee Pagoda, in which you will find a 500-year old bamboo Buddha, and the Shwe U Min Pagoda (Shwe Oo Min Paya), a cave filled with golden Buddhas. On these walks, and in the surrounding hills, you will find reminders of British colonial times, such as restored cottages and a different kind of religious monument – Christ the King Church. This is a great example of active Christian worship in Myanmar, with popular daily mass and Sunday services.
For a more immersive experience, and to really get a taste of the life of the local Danu, Pa-O, Palaung and Taung Yo ethnic groups, you can go on a longer two- or three-day hike. Guides can be found around the market and at most hotels; they will take you on trips with beautiful views of the Shan hills surrounding Kalaw, as well as numerous pagodas and hill tribe villages.
If you are feeling adventurous then there is nothing stopping you going it alone. Bear in mind that villagers are unlikely to speak any English, and having a phone with GPS enabled will help (make sure to pre-load the maps with wifi if you do not have Myanmar mobile network access).
Because it offers such an interesting and scenic route to another one of the Myanmar’s tourist highlights, the journey to Inle Lake tends to be the most popular long-distance trek. It typically takes three days, including two overnight stays – one at a local tribe farmstead, the other at a Buddhist temple.
Tours usually include cooked meals and bedding, and your bags can be taken separately by car to your hotel in Inle Lake (where most people stay at the town of Nyaung Shwe). The cost of tours depends on the time of year and the size of your group (going in larger group means a lower price).
Another fascinating, and less well-trodden, trek is the journey from Pindaya. The best approach is to take a two-hour minibus or tuk tuk to Pindaya; see the sights there; and then return by foot, which will take two or three days.
Recommended guides in Kalaw include Ever Smile, who are friendly, well-informed, and have good English. Harry Singh tours should be avoided – they are infamous for ripping travellers off and their poor service. Trekking in the Shan hills can be enjoyed at any time of year, although the cool season is perhaps the most pleasant in terms of weather (but not for the crowds). At other times the occasional rain shower (and accompanying mud) can sometimes make the going a bit tougher.