Despite it being July, Kalaw felt like a warm autumn evening in San Francisco. Situated over 4,000 feet above sea level, Kalaw is a chilly mountain village, a refreshing escape from the sweltering hot Yangon. After we stepped off the bus into the middle of the night, we faced three or four local men, waiting for easy targets like us. One asked us where we were staying, and we told him Eastern Paradise Hotel. (We didn’t have a reservation; we planned on just showing up and hoping for the best.) He actually led the way to the nearby hotel and rang the doorbell for us. Had this been Vietnam, I would have been hostile toward this stranger and asked him to fuck off, but I reminded myself this was Myanmar. A light turned on from inside, and a woman came out and graciously took us in. We were relieved that there was vacancy; walking around looking for a place to sleep at 3am in an unfamiliar mountain village wasn’t something I wanted to blog about. Instead of demanding money, the man who led us to the hotel smiled, handed us his business card, walked off, and disappeared into the darkness. From the bus experience, to the local man who showed us our hotel, to the woman who kindly took us in at 3am, I truly felt the warmth of Myanmar’s hospitality.
The madame at our guesthouse told us we were lucky—the market day was taking place the day after our arrival! Apparently locals and mountain tribes come to Kalaw every 5 days to trade and sell goods (mostly meat and produce), providing a colorful experience. This market was the most authentic market I have seen during our trip; no other foreigners were present, and there weren’t any locals trying to sell us cheap crap made in China. I smiled at everyone I made eye contact with, and they happily smiled in return.
During my brief exploration of this tiny village, I discovered a set of stairs that shot up into the hills, so I decided to check it out. A modest Buddhist temple sat on top, with perhaps the best view of Kalaw below.
With the blanket of clouds shielding the blistering sun, a desired chill in the air, and a pleasant breeze, I spent some time sitting at the top of the steps, taking it all in. As I browsed through the photos I took earlier that day, I heard an excited, “Mingulaba!” in the distance. I turned around and saw a happy, eager looking boy in maroon robes trotting my way.
“Mingulaba!” I responded with a smile. I thought he was simply passing by, but instead he knelt down beside me with a keen interest in my photos. After looking through some photos together, I decided to take a selfie. He immediately smiled for the camera. I took our photo, showed him the picture, and he giggled, bowed his head once, and ran off.
In a town so quaint and cool, Kalaw is a great place to read a book, feel the breeze, and listen to the comforting rain. However the real reason why people come to Kalaw awaited me the next morning—the popular trek to Inle Lake.