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Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Kalaw, Nay Pyi Taw and All That

This was our third visit to Myanmar to see our son, Matt, and his wife Weina and our grandson William.  Each year, we have all embarked on some exotic road trip north in Myanmar to Parts Unknown (apologies to Anthony Bourdain).

This year, we took a road trip to the resort town of Kalaw and Myanmar's new capital city, Nay Pyi Taw!  It was a four-day excursion, full of adventure and impossibly long car rides.

On Thursday, December 26, 2019, we headed north to Kalaw.  Matt had to drive the entire trip because we did not have local drivers' licenses or insurance, and he is much more familiar with the "subtleties" of Myanmar driving.  The first day was 8 hours of fun:  seven hours across a flat, agrarian landscape and one hour climbing narrow, tight switchbacks and dancing with big rigs around the hairpin turns.

We finally reached Kalaw about 4pm.  Kalaw is a mountain town in Shan State.  The town was popular with the British during colonial rule. Kalaw is the main setting of the novel "The Art of Hearing Heartbeats" by Jan-Philipp Sendker. The former British hill station is located at an elevation of 4000 feet, about 30 miles from the Inle lake. Kalaw is famous for hiking and trekking and is popular with Europeans.  One of the more popular treks is a 3-day walk to Inle Lake. The town still feels like a high-altitude holiday resort – the air is cool, the atmosphere is calm and the tree-lined streets still contain a smattering of colonial-era architecture.  Many of the buildings are reminiscent of Swiss mountain chalets, which is quite unique for Southeast Asia.

One of the more notable landmarks in Kalaw is Kalaw Tower --

 -- which we passed as we drove up to our little hilltop inn called Dream Mountain Resort:

It didn't take us long to get settled in our beautifully appointed wood-decor rooms, and we all repaired down to the restaurant balcony for some Happy Hour hors d'ouevres:

We walked down to the center of town for a scrumptious pizza-and-Myanmar-cuisine dinner at Red House Bar & Restaurant before retiring early to get ready for our big hiking adventure the next morning.

Friday morning came quickly, and, after a tasty, eclectic buffet breakfast at the inn, we met our guide, Ta Ta, who piled us into a typical Myanmar taxi truck to drive us up to the trailhead for our hike:

Ta Ta was kind enough to snap our photo at the trailhead:

It wasn't long before we had climbed to a view back into the valley --

-- and we were soon absorbed in the joys of our adventure!

The single-track trail took us back through the steep hills where farmers nevertheless have carved out plots of farmland for tea, oranges, cauliflower and other unusual goodies:

About a quarter of the way into our hike, we paused at a rest station and bridge to rest and hydrate.  The sign on the hut reads, "Paradise":

The steep hills go on and on in this country, with small farmer huts and outbuildings nestled into the most unexpected of nooks and crannies:

Eventually, after about 2 hours of trekking, we reached the first village, perched on a hillside in the mountains east of Kalaw:

Most villages in Myanmar boast their own Buddhist monasteries, and this one was no exception.  Ta Ta arranged for us to take tea at a small house next to this monastery, which was perched near the top of the world:

After refreshing cups of tea, we marched on, through the second village --

-- and its monastery (the pillar on the left, topped by an image of a chicken, is to remind Buddhists that all of us will die; the chicken is actually an incarnation of Buddha; travelers passing the monastery are reminded that they do not take their money or possessions with them, and have only their goods deeds in this life to commend them for their reincarnation in the next life):

Beyond the second village, we gazed back at it as we climbed to a magnificent viewpoint, which would be the destination for this day's trek:

Here we were at our destination, "Top Mountain," where we enjoyed a sumptuous feast of Myanmar dishes prepared by our guide:

Afternoon was speeding along, so Ta Ta provided a taxi truck to speed us headlong back down some very slippery red-clay roads (it had started raining), back into Kalaw.  We donned our rain gear and headed out to explore the town, where we stopped for some refreshing tea.  William and David clearly enjoyed it:

One of our goals this afternoon was to browse the Kalaw Christmas Market.  This was its first year.  While it only occupied one square block, it made up for its small, fledgling size with the enthusiasm of its vendors and visitors:

We arose early Saturday to drive south to the capital of Nay Pyi Taw, where we lodged for a night at the Hilton, one of several 5-star hotels that were built by the Myanmar government and licensed out to appropriate hotel chains.

Nay Pyi Taw is unusual among Myanmar's cities, being an entirely planned city outside of any state or region, similar to Canberra in Australia, Brasília in Brazil, Washington, D.C. in the United States, Islamabad in Pakistan or Abuja in Nigeria. The city officially replaced Yangon as the administrative capital of Myanmar in 2006. 

Nay Pyi Taw is organized into a number of zones:  residential, ministry, military, diplomatic, hotel, shopping, recreation and landmark.  Eventually, the embassies of foreign governments will move here from their present locations 4 hours south in Yangon.  But, for now, it is a city of not so many people.

Our hotel was almost empty, it being a holiday weekend when those from Yangon or elsewhere who might otherwise visit Nay Pyi Taw on business were occupying themselves with vacations or family activities elsewhere.  So we had the pool and the boardwalk around the hotel's three lakes to ourselves.  While Matt and Weina availed themselves of a massage at the spa, William, Kathy and David enjoyed the huge swimming pool, graced by as many as a dozen chickens spouting water, fountain-like, into the center of the pool!

When we all reconvened, we took a walk around the lakes.  No sooner did we start onto the boardwalk, than we encountered this husky Tom Turkey, protecting his harem of chickens (?) and challenging us to move quickly away rather than taking photographs:

It occurred to us that perhaps Tom had escaped his Thanksgiving fate earlier in the year by virtue of the lack of hotel guests demanding turkey dinners.  In any event, we guessed that Tom will survive until sometime in November 2020.

As we strolled further around the lakes, the sun began to set, lending a rosy color to the hotel grounds:

After a sound sleep and a hearty breakfast, we set out to explore Nay Pyi Taw.  This consisted of a drive along Yaza Htami Road, passing by Parliament -- a 20-lane divided highway with absolutely no traffic on it.  To get an idea how surrealistic the experience was, take a look at this video of what it felt like to drive down a 20-lane street that was TOTALLY EMPTY.

Yet, the road was not without its users.  In addition to the lone bicyclist we saw as we drove it, we also spotted this crowd of Brahma bulls enjoying a Sunday outing along the road:

We made a final stop at the Myanmar Gem Museum before driving home to Yangon.   It is a large building with a huge gem market on the first floor, where Kathy bought a small lapis lazuli stone and William picked up his birthstone, a beautiful aquamarine.  The large area upstairs in the museum is decorated with large wall glasses and beautiful and wonderful decorations in modern designs. Precious jewels such as ruby and sapphire, quality jade lots and the largest pearl in Myanmar are put on display there.

With our completion of our visit to the Gem Museum, our tour was coming to an end.  We began a quiet, four-hour drive back to Yangon, where we collapsed thankfully into the peaceful, beautiful home that Matt, Weina and William have in this very interesting Southeast Asian country.

More on our less peripatetic adventures in Myanmar in our next blog entry.

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