HCMC Dining Guide

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The Shan Hills

Our bus left Mandalay's squalid station in the early evening, and as darkness fell the flat countryside rolled by in an imperceptible blur, almost entirely black except for the occasional village or rest stop. Electricity supply is a major problem even in Myanmar's big cities, and blackouts are a regular part of life. The bus's a/c wasn't working very well, and it took a while to reach the cooler hills. By the time we arrived in Kalaw, a town of about 50,000 located 4,300 feet above sea level in the hills of Shan State, I felt like I had been rolling around in a grease pit for five hours. The cool mountain air of the middle of the night instantly made me feel better though, and we could already tell this was going to be better than Mandalay. Our hotel room had no a/c and no fan, but all you had to do to stay comfortable was open the windows.

The ensuing day we wandered around the scruffy town and had some great food. Back when the British built the railways through the hills in this area they imported Indian and Nepali workers, and their influence can still be seen today. There is a Hindu temple and a mosque, and at least one Nepali restaurant.

Kalaw's main draw are the trekking routes that begin right in town, some of which lead all the way to Inle Lake. We booked a day trek for the following morning and met our guide, a 22 year-old woman named July, at 8am that day. (When asked why she was called July, she replied: "Because I was born in July." Right then.) We had a 16 kilometer (10 mile) hike ahead of us.

July was a great guide, imparting all sorts of knowledge and laughing at (most) of our jokes, which is rare for an Asian woman. She had a very dry sense of humor, and seemed happy to have people close to her age around, as she lamented that most visitors to the area were older French or Spaniards. In fact, we were the first Americans she had guided all year. She is a member of the Pa-O ethnic minority, one of dozens of groups that live in Shan state. There are 500-600,000 of them spread throughout the state, and July explained that they were part of the civil war against the military government until deciding to lay down their arms ten years ago.
 The lush hills were covered in agricultural products, and we came across several huge field of orange trees. Shan state is the center of the legendary Golden Triangle, an area spanning the borders of Laos, Thailand and Myanmar where much of the world's opium was once grown. The more remote, off-limit areas still grow it, but around Kalaw the opium has been replaced by orange and tea plantations.
 We hiked up to a village inhabited by members of the Palaung, another ethnic group. The Palaung still follow the practice of arranged marriages, and when a couple is married they are sent off with a week's worth of food to a 'honeymoon hut', dozens of which are scattered across the hills. July demurely claimed to have no knowledge of what happens in these huts, but we didn't believe her. We stepped inside a spotlessly clean house to try on some indigenous clothing.

It is Palaung tradition for a male to close his eyes in a picture.
 The town's homes were much nicer than I expected them to be, built from cinderblocks and sturdy teak lumber. There were also signs of foreign development aid: many of the structures had solar panels on the roof, and the main water well had been donated by the German government. A monk walked by listening to music from an mp3 player. We also ran into several groups of hilarious children, and these encounters turned into one of the best parts of the trip. I'll save them for another post though, since there are a lot of pictures.
The hard life of a cat.

 We carried on with the hike, with July pointing out all of the different crops grown in the area: rice, tomatoes, cabbage, pears, chili, ginger, and vegetables I've never heard of, all neatly arranged on the slopes of hills or in glistening paddies. The weather was perfect.

Picking tea leaves.
 We stopped for lunch in a Danu village, where nearly everyone smiled at us and asked July where we were from. She whipped up a delicious meal of spicy Shan noodles.
A little later we hit a wooden monastery built on stilts. Myanmar is heavily Buddhist, and most boys are sent to monasteries as novices by their parents. Some only stay for a few weeks, others decide to go on and become monks. Boys are housed and educated at monasteries for free, and meals are usually provided by locals from the nearest village. As July showed us around and gave some background on Buddhism a young novice attempted to impress us by fanning the flame that boiled the rice pot. He was doing fine until he stood up and bonked his head on the grate hanging above the oven.

We were soon on the home stretch, hiking along the dirt path through quiet pine forests where the only sounds were the tramping of our feet and the wind rustling through the spindly trees. A brief shower hit right as we reached Kalaw, capping what had been an eye-opening, fascinating day of true travel. We were so bowled over by the experience that we decided to book another trek with July the next day. For now, it was time to rest our legs.


  1. Wow awesome! The country-side looks gorgeous. I'm currently in Ho Chi Minh City and can't wait to go do some awesome hiking. Myanmar just recently came on my radar as a place I'd like to visit and you pretty much solidified that idea with this post haha.

    1. Good! You should definitely check it out, it's a fascinating country.