I could have been sitting in Business class on an airplane: large seat, lots of legroom, blanket, beverage service, pretty hostess. But I was actually on a JJ Express bus bound for Kalaw, in the mountains of Shan State. JJ, in case you’re wondering, stands for “Joyous Journey”. 🙂

The bus journey

After an hour by taxi through the fumes of Yangon’s rush hour to reach the bus terminal, and a third-world looking waiting room, I didn’t have high expectations. The pretty hostess serving coffee was a good sign though… I was a bit wary of spending 10 hours on a bus at night, but my fears were mostly unfounded.

I had just settled into my large seat that I won an inflatable pillow in a bus draw! The monk sitting across the aisle from me won a rain jacket. He said his name was “Gina” (at least that’s what I heard) and spent the first hour of the trip asking me questions about my trip, where I came from, etc. His English was good, and I don’t have conversations with monks very often, so this was not an imposition.

Once we got on the highway, most people went to sleep even though it was only 7 PM. They were playing a B-movie on the TV screen, but the volume was barely audible over the air conditioning, which suited me fine. The A/C kept the bus at a rather chilly 19C and everybody was wrapped in jackets and blankets.

Since the highway itself proved to be unexpectedly bumpy, I took a Gravol (motion-sickness remedy). Just as I was starting to fall asleep came a half-an-hour dinner and bathroom stop. I slept most of the way after that, which surprised me. The seats reclined quite a way back which helped. Around 3:00 AM the effect of the Gravol started waning. By then we were climbing up a twisty mountain road which was also bumpy and I got a little worried that I might get sick. I was about to fall asleep again when the ceiling lights came on and the hostess advised me that we had arrived at my hotel.

The hotel

I scrambled out with my bags and found myself on the main road, in the dark, in front of a four-story building: the Seint Hotel. It was very cold at 3:45 am, since Kalaw is at 1320 metres altitude. How cold? I would guess 10C or so. A bit of a shock when you’re coming from balmy 30C Yangon.

Inside the hotel I found two guys sleeping on the floor and nobody at reception. It took the guys about 15 minutes to wake up, look at my voucher with the face of people who have no idea what they’re looking at, and call a third person. I was getting a little annoyed because it was now 4:00 am and I wanted my “already paid for” room.

The room itself was just as cold as the outdoors, and the water coming out of the tap was finger-numbing freezing. This is Burma. Of course there is no central heating. I ended up going to bed with my socks on, shivering. “Kalaw very cold” they had told me in Yangon. But hey, how bad could it be I had thought. I am Canadian after all!

The town

I woke up at 8:00 am on Tuesday morning. As soon as I opened the curtains, the hot sun came shining through and the whole town lay below me. That kind of made up for the bad coffee they served me with breakfast. I don’t think I will find cappuccinos here.

Walking through Kalaw, you think you’re in Nepal at times. And the many restaurants serving Indian and Nepali food reinforce that illusion. The air is cool but the sun is fiercely hot. In the morning you go out with long sleeves and a fleece, and by mid-day you’re wearing a T-shirt. By the time the sun sets, you’re back into your warm clothes again.

I didn’t do much on Tuesday except explore the town, try a couple of restaurants, and book a day hike for Wednesday. This is what you do in Kalaw: hike in the mountains. I met Samira, from Chicago, who had just signed up for the hike as I was asking for information. I decided to join her.

I spent part of the afternoon reading on my balcony and trying to download my email. The internet connection here is painfully slow. Don’t take it personally if I don’t reply to your messages right away.

I had a tofu and cashew curry for lunch, and a potato and vegetable curry at a Nepali restaurant for dinner. They sat a Swiss couple with me because they were running out of tables. We had a nice chat.

The hike

Finally today, New Year’s Day, I did a 19 kilometre hike through an amazing variety of landscapes for such a small area: town road, mountain path with amazing views, forest, rice fields, orange groves, tea fields, plantations of cauliflowers, coriander and other edibles. The area around Kalaw is agricultural, and home to a few different ethnic groups. Our guides, Nuele and Momo were two adorable Burmese girls wearing straw hats.

We visited a Palaung village and were invited for tea in a large wooden house. Our guides explained how the family cultivated and sold tea. There were many little children in the house and nobody seemed phased by my big camera. I let the other people in our group ask the questions while I focused on taking photos. My first thought upon walking in was that it reminded me of one of those reconstructed dwellings you sometime see in museums. They cooked on an open fire in the middle of the house, which was made up of a single room. Interesting. And nobody tried to sell us anything.

We then walked a bit more and had lunch at a rustic restaurant called the Viewpoint which proved true to its name with sweeping views over the mountains and fields. Then we started the three hour walk back to Kalaw.

There were a few narrow and slippery spots on the trail, but not too many long or steep inclines. It was just long. I can’t remember last time I walked more than a couple of hours. We left at 8:30 am and were back around 5 pm. My legs were about to buckle. All I could think about was a hot shower and a meal.

I ended up coming back to the Nepali restaurant for dinner. It’s much warmer than my room and the food is good. Today it’s full of tour groups and rather noisy. But it’s better than being cold. I’ve asked for an extra blanket tonight. I have two more nights here and then I’m moving on to Inle Lake, one of the most popular destinations in Burma.

Tags: