Kalaw is located in Shan State which in turn constitutes nearly a quarter of the area of Myanmar. Half of the people in Shan State are ethnic Shan, the remainder Burmese and other ethnic minorities. Because of its elevation most of the state is unsuitable for rice growing, but very suitable for poppy and therefore opium cultivation. It is in these areas that the Shan Rebel Army and Chinese opium warlords operate. Having said that Kalaw itself is safe (at least I thought so). At 1300m it is pleasantly cool and an excellent place to go hiking amid pine forests, bamboo groves and generally rugged mountain scenery. And that is why I went. Interestingly, Kalaw itself has a mixture of ethnicities including Nepalis - Gurkhas retired from British Military Service and a few of them have opened excellent curry houses.
Along with another traveller, I got in touch with a local guide and we went for a very pleasant 3-day hike into the mountains. We stayed in ethnic villages (Palaung and Pa-O tribes) and were lucky enough to happen upon a traditional wedding. One house we stayed at, we shared with a wandering witch doctor who dispensed his wisdom to a number of villagers who had come to consult him about various ailments. Another night we stayed at a monastery. It was interesting to note that these people used to cultivate opium but had now successfully converted to other crops - in one case to mandarin oranges which were absolutely delicious.
Palaung girl and young female monk
Aung Chang Tha Zedi in the centre of Kalaw
entering a packed train at Kalaw station