We spend a great two days in Kalaw before we embark to Ngapali Beach in southern Rakhine state. Kalaw is a town in central Myanmar where not much is happening. It has a pagoda, a cave filled with Buddha images that haven’t achieved relic status according to Soe, a mosque, a market, a meditation center, an Anglican church, an old cinema converted to an event hall and an active railroad. It is another British hill station of the last century and there is nothing in this village that makes it tourist famous and we are glad for that. We ask Soe for a non-tour day and decide to bike around the village in the cooler temperatures, slow things down and enjoy that sense of freedom and happenstance when we are on our own. We get a cup of coffee and a sweet and cycle to the market for people watching.
We ride past the landmark British clock tower and admire the purple jacaranda trees lining the street. We ignore the pagoda and cave and are not even slightly tempted to sight see. The railroad station however is way cool.
In the warehouse attached to the station house there are people counting and weighing potatoes, onions and beans in readyness for transport throughout the country and beyond. People are waiting on benches for the twice a day train. We can hear the whistle blow. The gates are pulled across by a man. And we observe our first fully English sign, an event not seen in a long time.
Me and Soe
We are enjoying biking through the small city until we come to a detour for the local construction of the Chinese Belt and Road to Italy. The presence of Chinese financed infrastructure is powerful. We have seen many Chinese initiatives on our trip from road and casino building in the take over of Sihanoukville in Cambodia, the war zone in Ha Giang, Vietnam and dam building in Laos. We have been told of border areas of northern Myanmar, Thailand and China that harbor prostitution, gambling and narcotics. Border areas of southeastern Myanmar and Thailand are similarly bankrolled by China and our conversations with locals sadly report that area is likened to a cancer that is feared and cannot be treated. It is obvious that the Chinese are meaning to be the dominant world culture and they have a strong anchor hold in Southeast Asia.
We are distressed by this and find out that power will be off every day for the next two weeks during this phase of construction. We continue cycling and notice another sign in English, “Seed Sprouts Cafe and Yoga”. I actually have to stop and look again and experience a brain hiccup as I realize I’m reading English. I am drawn in like a moth to a flame and am compelled to check out this Vermont sounding enterprise. We meet the proprietor who created this place to train locals in cooking and tourism. He is originally from the U.S. and has a long history of working with Burmese orphans. This current venture provides an opportunity for these kids to earn a livable wage being employed by the cafe and working the farm that sources the ingredients. The food is excellent, the space charming, funky and organic. The sign readable and atmosphere relatable. What a find. We hang out with a young New Zealand woman for a long while feeling the call of home.
We are staying at the Kalaw Heritage Hotel that has been around for over a hundred years. Initially built by the British but was occupied by the Japanese army for 3 years during WWII. People remember that time with anger and sadness. After the war the town and building were retaken by the British and had turns as a missionary school, an army hospital and back to a hotel. It is a lovely simple place, no frills except for the tennis court, small pretty gardens and killer ginger margaritas.