Our hiking guides, Rhythm and Eddie, have journeyed over nine hours by bus from Yangon to Kalaw, in the Shan State of Myanmar, to lead us on a 10km walk into the hills behind the town. They are sprightly and cheerful as we set off from our hotel.
A Day Walk from Kalaw
Three bare-footed novice monks pass by, shaven heads gleaming in the early morning sun. Voluminous saffron coloured robes envelop their young frames, each one clutching an alms bowl close to their body.
A group of women gather around the back of a ute. Two men, leather satchels slung diagonally over one shoulder, espouse the virtues of some bottled ‘muti’.
Leaving the Town
Two rows of large weathered yellow plastic containers stand against a fence. A woman shaded by her traditional triangular bamboo hat fills the containers one by one from an outdoor water tap.
A rustling tapping noise coming from the door of a roadside home causes us to stop. Rhythm calls out. A woman opens the door and a young boy of about two looks out. He’s been fiddling with the latch trying to get out.
Leaving the road, we walk along dirt paths through forested areas where the cool breeze provides welcome relief from the sun. In the valley, I negotiate muddy sections by balancing poorly on rough beams. When I slip unladylike down a short sandy section, Rhythm offers his hand as support.
Into Farmland outside of Kalaw
Farmers wearing the traditional longyi (a long wrap around skirt-like garment) water their crops or squat on their haunches planting seedlings. Although the water buffalo are safely tied to a wooden railing, Eddie warns me to stay clear as “they’re unpredictable”.
As the path rises into the hills, an extensive view of mountains in the distance opens up. The air is clear and fresh. Our hike ends at a little roadside restaurant where lunch and a Myanmar beer awaits.
The flavours and freshness of Myanmar salads are a surprising part of the cultural experience when visiting this surprising country. Today the salads include a tasty lettuce salad and one of broccoli and avocado.
A car awaits. Unregistered for town driving, this car is only able to drive on these rough rocky back roads. With no air conditioning, the interior quickly heats up. Bouncing around in the front seat, I hang onto the handle above the door, wondering how long it will be before the car breaks down driving on these roads.
A sign on the road side advertising Café Kalaw grabs my attention. I call out “Stop. Stop”. This place roasts their own organic coffee and I’m told the coffee is good.
Bidding Eddie and Rhythm farewell, I walk through a bougainvillea covered archway and little garden to the coffee shop. I’m directed upstairs where other tourists sit and chat. The coffee, my first in Myanmar, is as good as any I’ve had in Sydney.
Enjoying the walk down the hill to my hotel, I stroll slowly along observing the homes, a little roadside shop and a way of life quite different from my own. A wide-open metal gate leads onto a paved forecourt besides an old double storey house. Grain dries on large sheets of plastic matting on the paving. A white tuk-tuk stands nearby.
Meeting a Local Family
Four generations of women and children and one man sit around on plastic chairs, enjoying the afternoon sun. A little boy plays with a broom nearby. The elderly grandmother runs around excitedly shrieking and grabs the little boy when he runs towards the gate. She has some sort of disability.
Soon, I too am seated on a plastic chair attempting to communicate with smiles, some newly learnt Burmese words and various gestures. A young girl emerges from a back room with a glass of warm sweetened milk which she thrusts into my hand.
Meeting the Cows
The family keep cows and deliver milk around the neighbourhood in the tuk-tuk. I realise now that the old lady is deaf and non- verbal. She wants to show me the cows and leads me behind the house to a shed. I duck down so as not to bump my head then look up. In front of me, ten black and white cows stare disconsolately back at me.
We return to the forecourt. Before saying our goodbyes, the man tells me that they’re Nepalese and his father (possibly the old woman’s husband) was a Ghurka with the British. If only we could communicate better. There is so much he could tell me.
“Home Again” for Dinner
After a brief rest I set off for dinner at “Home Again”, a little family restaurant a short walk from the hotel. The restaurant seems to be much further than expected and I start to worry. There’s no one around and I question the wisdom of being out alone in a strange country, with the light rapidly fading.
My relief when I see the welcoming sign “Home Again” is palpable. The wooden covered veranda seems deserted, but I haven’t come this far to be deterred. Descending the uneven steps through the garden to the house, I call out. Eventually a smiling woman emerges from the semi darkness.
She welcomes me apologetically. There’s another power failure and all she can offer is the “rice soup” she’s prepared for her family. By this stage, I’m happy with anything. Besides it’s rather fun sitting alone in the dark with a small flickering candle.
My hostess brings me a glass of her trademark sweet wine and a lime juice. A coriander garnish, a squeeze of lime and a touch of spicy soy bean accompanies the rice soup which is most enjoyable.
Instead of calling a tuk-tuk, the hostess’s two sisters walk me back by torchlight. We chat in stilted English. One has just graduated and has plans to be a teacher. The other is studying Myanmar history. This time the walk takes no time at all.
Thinking back on my one day in Kalaw, I’m amazed at how much of Myanmar life I experienced in only twelve hours.