Highland tribes, Buddhas a-plenty and a full-moon fireworks festival in a British hill station (complete with giant lobster)
Kalaw 16-18 Nov '13
Heading on a local train up into the mountains gave us a different view of Myanmar today - the locals walking up the train track because its a shortcut, the railway staff jumping off the train at a precarious looking bridge, as if the weight of a few extra people is what would cause it to fall, passing through plantations and fields of flowers, before we disembarked to head to Minmathi, where you pass through damp caves (including some wading) filled with Buddhas.
Arriving in Kalaw, you could immediately see why the British liked it so much - it nestles into the lush, green hills and it is significantly cooler - so much so that our guide, used to almost stifling Yangon, is soon sporting a jumper.
Continuing our exploration of Buddhas and pagodas, we see a bamboo Buddha, swathed, as always, in gold leaf, but still recognisable in shape, unlike the four in the big temple on Inle Lake - now just snowman-shaped blobs. It is considered a good deed to venerate a Buddha or a stupa by placing gold leaf on them, and it seems very popular, although women are not even allowed in the immediate vicinity, let alone to add gold themselves, and must ask male friends/relatives to place gold for them. It seems strange to western eyes not to allow women to venerate something themselves, but it is repeated in lots of shrines, where women are not allowed in certain areas and the dress code seems more strict for them than men.
Diving into Kalaw market is a real assault to the senses - alternating dark and light, walking through tiny passages between stalls stacked high with flip-flops or toiletries or with amazingly appealing fresh fruit and vegetables, and smelling the meat and fish quarter before you round a corner and see multiple chickens being cut-up with a machete. A real difference to Yangon, which seemed far too civilised in comparison.
The market is close to what has quickly become my favourite pagoda - while all are pretty blinged up - covered in gold, carvings and mirrors - this takes the biscuit, covered from top-to-toe in gold and silver glass mosaics, meaning it doesn't just shine, it glitters from every angle.
Attempting to view sunset, which resolutely hides behind clouds (something to be oft repeated), a few of us instead have a conversation with a monk, who we discover used to work in a shop at the railway, and has a friend who studied physics in Aberdeen and who's abiding memory is of being fed potatoes in a multitude of forms. I think we could say the same about rice. We discover the next day is something of a celebration, where new robes are donated to the monks, and on heading down, we discover the locals preparing their own celebrations: a giant lobster full of fireworks is being put-together on the roadside.
A lovely dinner follows where we discover zyat byat byat - minced meat with tomato and shan basil - much recommended if you can ever find it.
Kalaw is now known as the trekking capital in Myanmar, and we oblige with a relaxing hike up to a Palaung tribal village, where the ladies insist on dressing up the girls in traditional outfits - Sian's hat complete with pompoms and tassle, and me swathed in a wedding headdress (pictures to follow). The scenery is breath-taking and makes the trek down more of an amble than a hike.
After an afternoon relaxing on the veranda (a very British colonial moment), we spend the evening caught up in the full-moon festival, where the locals are really letting their hair down. The November full-moon festival, marking the beginning of the cold season, is celebrated in this area with masses of fireworks. Each area prepares a frame of fireworks which is paraded through the streets - first come the children and ladies in beautiful brightly coloured clothes, clutching matching paper lanterns, then come the men with the firework tube, some sort of lit-up sculpture - normally religious, and a group of musicians. While the women and children are rather refined, the men are drunkenly dancing and singing, including one gentleman who had appeared to have lost his trousers. Once at a big field the firework competition begins - each area parading and then setting up its frame in turn, with the monks providing a little much needed order. Each frame is formed of different layers that set off each other in turn - but most of what we see is immense clouds of smoke and fireworks shooting in all directions - exciting, but definitely better to be far enough away. We stay until the lobster has made an appearance, and it even gets a round of applause.