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The magic of Myanmar- Part 4 Trekking into 2010

By: Tanja Wessels Posted: March-18-2010 in
Market day in Kalaw
Tanja Wessels

(Continued from last week- Part 3 Boats, Bicycles and Balloons in Bagan)

It’s difficult to top hot air ballooning as a mode of transport, after our experience in Bagan I envisioned car and bus trips as a thing of that past. Why deal with insane drivers and potholes when you can jump into a basket and be whisked away in a balloon? Birds never seem to suffer road rage or queues of bumper-to-bumper beaks.

Meanwhile, back in reality, we needed to get to the hilltops of Kalaw in order to proceed to the next leg of our trip- the trek to Inle Lake. The plan was to spend the last day of 2009 trekking through the hills and sleeping in a Buddhist monastery on New Year’s Eve. And as there were no balloons heading in that direction we had to make due with Myanmar’s Air Bagan. The name of the airport, Heho, did go some way to tempering the nerves involved in flying in small airplane with an unfamiliar name. That, and calming tablets.

The tiny airport in Bagan was misleading in size, for as we entered its capacity for chaos became clear. And it was big. It was very difficult to tell where to check in and what went where. ‘Do you want me or my suitcase to go through there?’ I found myself asking more than once.

A yellow sticker with a flying elephant was our boarding pass and once in the departure lounge groups of people huddled together, united by sticky round pieces of paper on their shirts. This was no place to sit in a corner listening to your ipod. FOCUS was the word.

On the tarmac the pilot waved and mouthed ‘good morning!’ from the cockpit as we walked past the nose of the aircraft. Cosy. Off to Heho!

Kalaw was once a hilltop station created by British civil servants fleeing the heat of the plains. And heat was something thin on the ground during our stay.

Our hotel, Hill Top Villa, had a definitive alpine mood and once the cold really kicked in nothing could have been more apt. It was so cold the birds were shivering. My suitcase contained nothing appropriate for this chill so it was into town for a spot of serious knitwear shopping.

Although small in size, Kalaw is certainly picturesque and the leafy streets made for a lovely stroll. The afternoon was spent trying on anything that looked like it would fit and anything that looked warm. We must have put a serious dent in local supplies of hats, gloves and socks.

Back at the hotel two men were waiting to meet us, our trekking guide, Saw Phaw and the cook, Thura. They were on the receiving end of the new Carrie-Bradshaw-meets-Dr-Seuss look, dozens of layers of clothing and stripy socks, hats and scarves hung off every part of us. And still we were cold.

That evening dinner was lovely -but fast. Dressed in more layers than a bag of onions- it was to the warmth of our beds that fled we fled to as soon as possible. And, in turn, begrudgingly left the following morning to say goodbye to our suitcases as they were driven off to Inle lake, where we were headed on foot.

We were lucky as it was market day in town and people from all over the region came to the centre to sell their wares. We witnessed some incredible stacks of produce in an amazing array of colours and got a good look into local life.

A short car trip deposited the trekkers, the cook and the guide on a dusty road in the middle of nowhere surrounded by mountains. Armed with an overnight bag containing a bottle of wine and some dark chocolate as New Year’s Eve treats (and layers of warm clothing!) we set off into the mountains to greet 2010 on the other side, the following day.

Our walk took us through various small villages with different tribes all set in a stunning landscape of forest-capped hills. Our guide, Saw, explained the different cultures and customs and I was amazed by the proximity of all the very different villages.
We walked through chilli farms, and as they lay drying out in the sun over such large spaces they formed what looked like red oceans. Then, about 10 minutes later we would be in a completely different environment with modern looking houses and satellite TVs!

We stopped by a traditional house for lunch. As we put our bags down and stretched out the cook set to work creating a spread of chapatis, chilli sauce and the most delicious avocados I have tasted in a long time.

Once rested and fed we packed up and set off to the monastery. It was around 5pm when we arrived at our final resting place for the day. The serene building was home to many young apprentice monks, so young looking in fact that I referred to them as baby monks.

We were shown our ‘room’ for the night, a small area curtained off from the other small areas. Meeting the new year in a monastery in Myanmar seemed a popular choice judging by the number of blankets the baby monks were taking out of the cupboard. And it was- slowly but surely fellow travellers of all nationalities came pouring in.

Saw told me that there was a small shop just around the corner from the monastery and I was keen to have a look around. So while kayti set up our room I went to explore the surrounding area.

The shop was a 2-minute walk and consisted of a very small room with a table and benches made of wood standing outside. In the corner of the shop floor was a bucket with ice and beers and immediately the word ‘Pub!’ came to mind and I called Kayti over and we had some beers as the sun set on the hills, the day, and the year.

A campfire was blazing when we got back to the monastery and the cold was also creeping back in. Dinner was had on the balcony and our cook didn’t disappoint. It was a lovely dinner sipping wine from tin mugs and with dark chocolate for pudding.

To fight the cold we rolled ourselves tightly in our blankets and with all the layers, hats and gloves it left little room for manoeuvre and felt like we were sleeping in giant papooses.

It wasn’t the deepest sleep ever experienced but the sunny morning found us bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, raring to go.
The head monk summoned us before departing. It felt very serious. We were led to a large man dressed in many robes seated on the ground with a globe positioned in front of him. We were instructed to point out our country of origin. He smiled broadly and tied a white string on our wrists and wished us blessed lives.

As we set off into the hills, towards Inle Lake, a new year and another new adventure on our Myanmar trip, it certainly felt that way.

The flight on Air Bagan to Kalaw was arranged through Diethelm Travel as was our trek to Inle Lake and our stay at the Hill Top Villa. For more information please visit their website:

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user avatar Anonymous

Kalaw hike

It is outstanding that you had hiked all the way from Kalaw to Inlay. Our seniors refused to do it saying it is crazy. They were dying when I took him from one village to another and to be back in hotel that afternoon. I'm sure that charm the monk gave to you will keep you safe where ever you go.
U Win


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