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Trekking in Kalaw with kids isn’t the first thing many people would think of doing when traveling to Myanmar. However, it offers some time in nature, the ability to run free, and a glimpse into the lives of many people living in Myanmar’s villages. It’s such a unique cultural experience. I strongly encourage adding a Kalaw trekking adventure to your Myanmar itinerary!
Despite opening up to mass tourism in 2012, there are still a lot of restrictions around the movement and accommodation of tourists in Myanmar. Some parts of the country are off-limits to tourists in general. And, many parts of the country either don’t permit tourists to stay in homestays, or require special permission. I asked the question “why” both in Kalaw and Kyaingtung. It seems the reason is mainly to protect tourists. Many of the villages are quite isolated, and there’s still a fair amount of dissent between a number of the minority tribes and the government. It’s also to protect the locals, and the local way of life, allowing for minimal interaction between the tribes and the tourists.
We had a few options for transportation from Bagan to Kalaw. As we debated over taking a mini-bus ($60CAD/family) versus the VIP bus ($100 CAD/family), we were presented with a third option. For 160,000 kyat ($80 CAD/family) we could take a private van, door to door, from our hotel in Bagan to our hotel in Kalaw. After the briefest second considering the options, both Collette and I decided the private van was, without a doubt, the best option. The difference in price between the private van and minibus was easily compensated for by not having to make our way TO the bus station in Nyaung U, or FROM the bus station in Kalaw. It also meant that when Calais decided to get car-sick and throw up all over herself, we could quickly pull the van over and take our time cleaning her (and the seat cover) up before continuing!
It seems to be a family travel tradition that I get puked on…at least this time she decided to puke all over herself instead of on me!
I found our guide, Ko Kyaw Kalaw, on Trip Advisor. My Lonely Planet book is a few years old, and a lot of the information is out-dated. Trip Advisor was the best source of up to date information I could find. Ko Kyaw was phenomenal from the start! He met us at our hotel the afternoon we arrived to discuss our 2-day plan. Because of the kids, we weren’t going to do the typical 6 hr trek, opting instead to go only about 3 hours each day.
When we awoke the next morning, it was pouring rain. It’s winter-time, so it’s not supposed to be raining this time of year! Everyone had rain jackets and pack covers, but the thought of 3-4 hrs trekking in the mud and rain really didn’t make anyone excited. I was determined to go. The homestay was one of the things I was most looking forward to. But at that point, we weren’t sure exactly what we should do.
We waited out the rain for a couple hours. Then, we decided to see if we could get a truck to take us to the village. We’d miss out on the trekking, but still get the experience of the homestay. Ko Kyaw was SO flexible! Within 20min he’d arranged a truck, changed our plans to spend the night at his parent-in-laws house which was more easily accessible by truck, and we were on our way.
The truck jostled and bumped it’s way down the road. We couldn’t see anything because of the plastic tarps pulled down tight on either side of the truck. After turning off the main road, the rain let up, and we pulled over for lunch. Although we couldn’t see anything, we could hear loud music blaring throughout the village of Ywar Thit Gon. It was a wedding reception! Ko Kyaw quickly investigated, and before we knew it we were walking into the wedding hall.
People sat on the floor around tables scattered throughout the house. Immediately after sitting, a large platter was brought over containing chips, nuts, cigars, cigarettes and betel nut!! An interesting array of treats for the guests! We also got a large carafe of tea. The kids enjoyed the chips, and the adults enjoyed watching the other guests watch us.
Calais & Kacela both desperately wanted to see the bride. After gobbling up 2 plates of chips, and being given another bag for the road, we went up to see the bride and groom. We got pictures taken with them, gave them a small gift of money and Canada pins, and wished them a long and happy life. The kids compared the Ba’O wedding to a Canadian wedding. Pretty much the only difference they came up with was the lack of dancing, and the different wedding dress!
As we began to load ourselves back up into the truck, a local came over and beckoned for us to follow. We followed him down the road to another house with tarps and tables set up outside. It was the wedding feast! We sat down and the table was filled with platters of rice, pork, chicken and soup.
It was such an honour to be a part of the wedding, and more than made up for our inability to trek that morning due to the rain!
By this point, the rain had stopped, and I was itching to get outside and stretch my legs. We drove a short way up the road, and then decided to walk the rest of the way to Kyauk Su village. This was a good decision because the condition of the road deteriorated rapidly once we started walking!
Ko Kyaw figured it was about a 30-40min walk, but it took us almost 2 hours!! The kids were happy to be running around, and found a plethora of things to distract them along the side of the trails. The favourite was the “don’t touch me” flowers (that’s what we named them anyways!). They’re a pretty purple bulb flower, with leaves that fold up and droop when touched. We’d be wandering down the path and hear “don’t touch me alert” and the rest of the kids would go running over to investigate. The other favourite was a beetle that curled into a ball when touched! We watched the beetle for at least 20min, waiting for it to uncurl, and then poking it gently with a stick to watch it curl up again! No wonder it took us so long to get to the village!!
Kyauk Su village is a decent size, with a mixture of both traditional bamboo houses, and concrete houses. We were happy to arrive at our home for the night, and were quickly taken in by Ko Kyaw’s family.
(Stoking the fire and making dinner (top) and our sleeping arrangements (bottom).)
The afternoon was spent drinking tea and talking with our host about the challenges faced by Myanmar today. It was an interesting conversation. At one point I was ready to leave the country immediately. I’d struggled with the very thought of visiting Myanmar. In the end I decided that some well spent dollars in the hands of the locals outweighed the harm done by the small amount of my money that would end up in the government or Junta’s pockets.
The conversation with Ko Kyaw showed me just how much the government has twisted the thinking of the people. He talked about how the Rohingya people are different from the rest of Myanmar. About how their facial features are more similar to that of Bangladesh, and their religion is similar to that of Bangladesh. In a country of 135 recognized minorities, of which the Rohingya are not one, the commonalities of facial features and religion have kept outright civil war from bubbling over. The fact that the Rohingya, along with a number of other Christian, Muslim and Hindu minorities, don’t fit the mold. Many of these minority groups have been at odds with the government and Junta for decades, but the plight of the Rohingya is by far the worst.
Our discussions turned to human rights. In the end, we came to the same agreement that it shouldn’t matter what a person looks like or believes in, everyone deserves basic human rights. And that it’s the responsibility of the government to take care of it’s people, irregardless of their religion, appearance, or assumed origin. Our guide agreed.
The location of the village was stunning. It’s perched at the top of the mountain, overlooking the patchwork terraces and fields below.
(Left to Right from Top: water cistern, wood pile, bamboo house where we stayed, clothes drying on the line, storage underneath the living quarters, outside & inside of the toilet.)
We settled in for a delicious candle-lit meal, separate from our host family. I’d read that we could be expected to eat without them, but it was still bit strange. When I asked our guide, he said it was because they like spicy food. So, we ate a not-spicy meal, which the kids appreciated. And they ate a spicy meal, that the husbands would’ve loved!
The dim lighting made for a peaceful, relaxed mood in the house. Complimented, of course, by a beautiful sunset sky.
We awoke to blue skies and sunshine, thankfully! Our trek started right after breakfast, and we were able to watch the village, and surrounding countryside, spring to life. Ladies prepared food for the day, set chillies out to dry, or made their way to their plot of land to tend the garden. The village participates in a rotating 5-day market, and unfortunately the market was in a different village that day. It was fun to watch a group of ladies load into a big blue truck to go shopping.
The local school is in the next village over, about a 20-30min walk away. School had already begun by the time we walked past, and we were invited to come in and observe. The girls watched the kindergarten class from the doorway, not wanting to interrupt them. But, Calais couldn’t resist sitting down in the grade 3 classroom! Of course, the two other girls had to join her. We definitely interrupted that class, as well as the surrounding classes. I hope it didn’t take too long for everyone to settle down after we left!
We wandered through the patchwork countryside, sometimes quickly and sometimes quite slowly! Rice harvest was in full swing, as in many other places along our trip. It’s warm enough in Myanmar for them to benefit from two growing seasons. We were able to observe all different stages of the rice harvest, including seeing a few freshly planted fields. It was mainly women working the fields, some even with a baby on their back! I have no idea what the men were doing, likely tending to the cattle. Work seemed to be split pretty equally between both sexes, including parenting and cooking. So, I’m sure the men were busy somewhere!
We had planned to walk until lunch, however as it got warmer the kids started losing energy. Kacela had a bit of a fit and I decided I didn’t need to push her any further. We walked at her pace, and fell behind the group VERY quickly. It’s hard to find that balance when trekking with kids. Sometimes they need a little push, but sometimes they just want to go at their own pace. At this point, there was no reason to push Kacela. It just would’ve made her, and me, miserable. So, I slowed down and let her take her time. It was a good decision, but if we continued at that pace we wouldn’t make it to our lunch destination until dinner! Ko Kyaw called a motorbike to pick up the girls, and the adults (with Ashton on his dad’s shoulders) walked at a reasonable pace, to lunch.
One of the things I loved about our Kalaw trekking guide, Ko Kyaw, was that he did his best to share the money around and support multiple families and communities. He hired a cook and assistant from a different village. At first I was a little leery of him bringing a cook, but he did it for two reasons. One, it supported a second family, and two, it meant his in-laws weren’t put out by our visit. He also had his cook do the shopping at a few different markets along the way. This spread our money around, helping as many families as possible, rather than it all going into one pocket. I really appreciated this!
There are no restaurants in the small hill villages. So, the cook was our lunch host. He prepared our lunch, at his house, with the help of his daughter-in-law. We ate a delicious meal, then enjoyed watching the neighbours play Chinlone, the national sport in Myanmar.
(Clockwise from top: the exterior of our cook’s house, the living room, Kacela watching the neighbours play Chinlone, the Buddhist shrine inside the house)
Stuffed from lunch, tired from the hot hike, but feeling fulfilled with our experience, we climbed into the back of the truck for our ride back to Kalaw.
This time it wasn’t raining, so we were able to enjoy countryside views out the side of the truck. Well, I could anyways! It was one of the advantages of being short!!
Have I convinced you to go on a Kalaw Trekking adventure with your kids?
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