Kalaw is high in the mountains, we’d passed through it on the way to Inle Lake. In the dry season it is where you come for trekking but this being the wet season for us it was basically a hop down the road to somewhere different that takes a bit of time off the long bus trip back to Yangon.
After breakfast in Nyaungshwe we went to the internet cafe and actually managed to get some photos on the blog. The internet works here ‘best’ i.e. it works – between 7:30am and 10am after that you might, after much patience, be able to get onto a website or into your inbox but it’s near impossible to open anything from there.
After we collected our bags, checked out and headed to where pick up trucks collect passengers for the trip back to Shwenyaung Junction (the main road). We got there at 10am and there was only 1 passenger already on the truck, they go when there are 10. We knew we were in for a long wait and we had all day so settled in. 90 minutes later and we had only acquired a guy and his kid. ‘No passengers today’ people kept saying. Apparently lots of people want to go up to the junction at 7am but we hadn’t wanted to leave that early. After we had been waiting about half and hour the guy said to us that if we didn’t want to wait we could pay the difference and we could go. We figured that the kid didn’t count and it should cost K1,000 per person. There was no way we were paying the K8,000, a motorbike trishaw for just us only costs K6,000. After 90 minutes they gave up and said if we paid K2000 each we could leave now. The guy with the kid turned out to be the driver, the other woman paid a bit more too and off we went.
A bumpy ride and 20 minutes later we were dropped at the junction. They pointed out which way we needed to go to catch a pick up truck to Kalaw, as we approached the area a guy soon scooped us up and showed us where to wait, plonking us next to two local women. Being on the main road there was plenty of traffic so we figured we wouldn’t have to wait too long. We left our big rucksacks under the watchful eye of the women and went to find a toilet just in case we were wrong. We’d just got back when a pick up arrived behind us, we watched in disbelief and amusement as more ‘luggage’ and people piled on. Then the guy signaled for us to come over – it was ours. Inside the seating wasn’t the usual arrangement of 2 wooden bench seats running the length of the back facing inwards. It had 2 front facing bench seats across the width and 2 short length bench seats at the back. We were gestured to the front forward facing row, it was accessed by a little ‘door’ flap that allowed you to clamber in from the side using a small welded footplate. We took up our places on the bench next to 2 monks.
Our knees were pressed up against the cab window, the back of the seat to the window was literally a thigh length, our feet were on some metal things, maybe spare parts, and there wasn’t even space to move our feet. We were facing metal plating and couldn’t see out at all without putting our heads down to look out of the sides and Marie being on the outside had the curved part of the roof which meant she couldn’t sit up straight because the roof was too low. She sat hunched up and said she’d never been so cramped anywhere in her life. We were glad it wasn’t a long journey.
The monks slept and we jiggled occasionally to try and get more comfy. After just over an hour we stopped for lunch at Aung Ban which unfortunately for us was only 15 minutes from Kalaw. We were glad of the opportunity to get out and unravel anyhow and while we decided to wait until Kalaw to eat we got to observe the bussle of the town while the others did. We all piled back in went 10 metres then stopped and loaded on a heap more heavy cargo that required much moving of our already heavy cargo. At one point they resorted to hanging off the top of the truck and jumping into it with their feet to move it into position. Drop off stops were very quick and efficient. The guy hanging off the back would shout to the driver when someone wanted to get off and then dive onto the roof to retrieve their luggage/cargo.
We stopped one final time on the way to Kalaw for fuel. We had just driven past 2 proper fuel stations 10 minutes before but we stopped in front of a shack. Fuel was poured from a big container into a measuring jug which was then tipped into a big metal bucket with a hose that came out of the bottom and had a mesh filter on the top. When the required amount had been added it was brought to the truck, the hose placed into the tank and the metal bucket held up high to drain it out.
They dropped us on the main highway in Kalaw town centre. It’s not a big town so this was perfect. It was drizzling so up went the brollies. We wandered through the town and found somewhere for a late lunch. We worked out where we were on the map and which hotels to try and after lunch Marie was abandoned in the restaurant with a coffee and the bags and Emma went to find somewhere to stay. It didn’t take her long to pick and we had soon checked in for the night. We debated how long to stay as we needed to get our bus ticket to Yangon and decided on 2 days. The town was quite nice and laid back and our room was the cheapest we had had in the country so far. A short walk down to a place that sold bus tickets and we were sorted, so we had a wander around the town whilst it was still light to find our bearings.
The next morning it was raining. Light but persistent and the low clouds on the mountains suggested it was sticking around and indeed it did rain all day, sometimes easing to a light drizzle but not actually stopping until dinner time. In between frequent tea stops and a long lunch we explored the market and the town centre, walked up to Thein Taung Paya (a Buddhist Monastery on a hill next to the main road) took a 30 minute walk out of town to Oo Min Shwe Paya, a cave full of Buddha statues and headed up the hill behind our accommodation following the biggest branches of the road at each junction we came to until we were in the hills on the outskirts of town. We headed back before it went dark as we’d noticed that many people stick their motorbikes into neutral and roll down the hills so you can barely hear them coming up behind you and chances are they have no lights on.
Monday morning and there was a brief attempt at sun. We got quite excited and only took one brolly out. We started the day by walking down the main road through the town and peeling off into the the houses on the outskirts. Again we followed the largest branches of the road each time until it became a dirt footpath after we arrived at a small monastery so we called it quits at that point as we didn’t want to risk getting lost in the hills anyway.
On our way back the drizzle started so we decided it was tea shop time when we got into the town centre, The guy running it spoke good English and he said the rain is bad for business (his tables and chairs were on the street although he did have a tarp roof) and the electric was off because a wooden pole somewhere needed replacing. Next we wandered down to one of the bigger market shops to get supplies for the night bus.
The middle aged woman in there spoke very good English and by the way she held herself and talked seemed to be Burmese middle class (not sure there is such a thing but she was well poised, elegant, confident and well spoken). She asked if she’d seen us the day before at the Oo Min Paya (the cave), we remembered seeing a few people leave as we entered, yes we said. ‘Have you been to Myin Ma Hti cave?’ she asked. When we said we hadn’t she said it was better and she much preferred it. We established that we would need to go by motorbike taxi. Emma looked slightly apprehensive given that 2 wheels aren’t her favourite thing. The woman said she could arrange it for us and that the drivers would be safe. We said ‘ok how much?’, she called one of the taxi guys over from outside her shop, explained to him where we wanted to go (don’t think he spoke any English), we agreed the price and he got his mate over and they were given their instructions from the woman. We had helmets (most people wear them and motorbike taxis usually have one for the passenger) and off we went.
They had clearly been given very strict instructions as they drove very safely and steadily. As luck would have it the drizzle had stopped and the main road had dried out quickly. After a while we turned off onto a smaller road that took us over rolling hills that are agriculture heartland. We passed rice paddies being ploughed by water buffalo, cabbage fields being tended to, lettuce fields and tomato crops. There were all kinds of vehicles on the road moving the harvested produce. We passed by rural houses eventually coming to a village, the road turned quite muddy but the guys took it slow and stuck to the least muddy bits best they could.
At the end of the road we reached the cave. It must get quite busy sometimes as there was a whole row of teashops but we were the only ones there and only a couple of the shops were actually open. The guys were really good and led us through the cave. There were several branches of pathways and we were grateful to be guided. Inside there were tiled paths, concrete paths, steps, handrails, lights running off a generator that were on very dodgy wiring that hung low in places but seemingly strategically placed to avoid major drips. The ceiling was in parts very low in others larger so you had to look up a long way to see the top. There were lots of Buddha statues and even some stupas. It was a really long cave and felt quite deep at points. As it is a natural cave there were stalactites and stalagmites and we found a whole bunch of small bats sleeping in one part (we smelt them first). The cave exit was more impressive than the entrance as it opened high and lots of tree roots are growing down and between the rock. We took a closer look at some of the statues outside the cave and we were about to head back when a shower started. The guys gestured if we wanted to go to one of the tea shops until it passed. That sounded good to us! When we did head back we only drove through a couple of patches of drizzle.
The woman from the shop came out to welcome us back as soon as we arrived, very eager to check we enjoyed it since she had recommended it to us. Of course we told her we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves and she said it made her very happy that we had gone and had a good time.
We had a late lunch then headed back to the hotel to pack and shower, making the most of having paid for a late check out. We only had time to do a bit of reading before needing to head off for the bus ticket office on the main road to catch our 5:30pm bus. We’d bought tickets to Yangon but had decided to spend a night just north of the city in Bago. We talked to the ticket seller about whether we could be dropped off somewhere rather than go into Yangon and out again – saving us time and money. We could get dropped off at the junction on the highway he said. The journey to Yangon takes 12 hours so we knew it would be around 4am when we got dropped there. We asked if there would be people around at the junction that early and if it was safe (silly question really as everywhere in Burma is safe) ‘Of course, Myanmar is very safe everywhere’ he replied and said he’d talk to the bus guys and ask them to drop us off if there were plenty of people around and if not he’d tell them to take us to Yangon as we had originally planned. The bus eventually turned up loaded with cargo and we left at 6pm thanking yet another stranger for their endless helpfulness.
- Everywhere we have been we always get people asking us where we are from. Often that is the only question they will ask. The Burmese are very curious.
- All over the country there are little roadside stands that hold either 2 or 3 big clay pots or big plastic water containers, Each has a cup usually tied on to it and placed upside down. Often they have them at Payas and some roadside stalls. It is drinking water for the locals. You never see a local with a water bottle.
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