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 not much in this village that makes it tourist famous and we are glad for that. There is a nocturnal howling dog concert that goes on for hours but no other night life we know of. 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 and the tracks rumble. The barrier gates are pulled across the road by one man. And we observe our first fully English sign, an event not seen in a long time.
We are enjoying biking through the small city until we come to a detour for the local construction of a Chinese funded road bridging Chiang Rei, Thailand to Mandalay, Kalaw, Yangon in Myanmar and into India. 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.
It is a distressing reality that is visible here in Myanmar. This section of road is made by Myanmar laborers pounding rock into gravel with sledge hammers. They are melting tar in oil barrels with open fires underneath to spread over the stones. Electric power will be off most of every day for the next two weeks during this phase of construction. We already know that jobs are scarce in Myanmar. High inflation and unemployment often means young people must migrate and families are separated. People with education seek work in Korea, Japan, Australia or Singapore. The more menial work attracts Burmese workers to Thailand and Malaysia.. Soe says that the Buddhist New Year and water festival time reunites families and contributes greatly to the joy of the celebration.
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, an American, who created this place to train locals in cooking and tourism. He has many years experience working with Burmese orphans and wanted to teach them employable skills for when they are on their own. This current NGO hires them at the cafe and at the farm that sources the ingredients while earning a livable wage.The food is excellent, the space charming, funky and organic. The signs 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 in 1887 as an administrative office until 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 has endured turns as a missionary school, girl’s convent for the Shan chief’s family, an army hospital and a hotel. In 1960, foreign hotel guests were restricted to Indian and Chinese nationals. Other foreigners were banned. Over time the hotel was forgotten and neglected and locals called it the “ghost place” until the 1990’s when the Burmese military occupied it. In 1996 the country opened to tourism and the Kalaw Heritage Hotel came back into being through private ownership. It is a lovely, simple place, no frills except for the tennis court, small pretty gardens and killer ginger margaritas.