The old British hill station village of Kalaw is easily one of my favorite places in Myanmar. While seen as most as just the place to start the very popular Kalaw-to-Inle trek, it's much more than that.
The cool mountain air, mixed with the beautiful pine forests and a relatively mellow vibe make for a great stop on your Myanmar adventure. The biggest mistake people make in coming here is that most only stay for a single night.
See my other Myanmar Travel Tips
A few notes before we get started. Myanmar / Burma is a place that is rapidly changing, so some things (like prices) might be slightly different from what you see here when you go. Use them as a guideline, and not a rule. If you have been recently, let me know your experiences in the comments below.
I've spent many months in and around Kalaw between 2012 and 2017, and here is what you need to know to make the most of your time there. Prices are often listed in Myanmar kyat, which is roughly 1350 kyat / $1 USD (give or take).
Quick Links to the Kalaw Super Travel Guide:
How Long Should I Spend in Kalaw?
Most just come in during the morning or afternoon, run around town to arrange a trek to Inle and take off walking there the next morning at 8am. I'd encourage you to give yourself an extra night or two here. A little more time will really help you open up your experience, and the crisp mountain air will be a pleasant break from the relentless heat you find in much of the rest of the country.
Those that might tell you that the only thing here to do is trek to Inle would be leading you astray. The market in the heart of "downtown" is photogenic and home to some delicious eats. There are a couple of 1/2 day walks you can easily do without a guide, and a few local and nearby attractions that can easily keep you entertained.
How to get around Kalaw
Kalaw is a fairly small town (though spread out among the hills), and you can get almost anywhere within a 20-30min walk, though most won't venture more than a block or so from the main part of town.
Since the town is in the hills, it can be tricky to navigate by map. That place that might seem oh-so-close on a map might be on the other side of the hill and require a decent detour to get around. Regardless, you can never get all that lost in Kalaw. If you lose your way, almost anyone will be able to point you back toward where you need to go. The streets (especially the tree-covered ones on the east side of the railway in and around sprawling Kalaw make an excellent way to get lost for an hour or two anyways.
The free maps can be a bit tough to figure out, but your guesthouse can help point out some of the spots you might want to visit.
There are a couple of places in town that will rent you a bicycle. Keep in mind that Kalaw is not a flat place, so if you're not used to riding on hills, it might not be the best option. Mountain bikes are available for rent near the intersection with the traffic light.
If you're looking to zip to a guesthouse that is out of the center, or save the steps to get to a local attraction like the caves or the bamboo Buddha, a motorbike taxi can be just what the doctor ordered.
If you're looking to get to a nearby town (like Aungban) a motorbike taxi can also help you out. Negotiate your rate before you hop on, and make a decision on whether or not you would like them to wait for you there and bring you back when you're finished.
~8000k / day and up
You might be able to find someone willing to rent you a motorbike, but just keep in mind that the main roads are becoming quite a bit busier than they used to be around here. I wouldn't recommend riding a motorbike here unless you feel very comfortable riding already and with plenty of experience.
If you're planning on driving to villages, the roads and paths (even outside the rainy season) can be very poor. Steep sections, blind corners, muddy spots and washouts are all very common.
I saw a man who was in a motorbike accident near here, and it took 2 days to get him to Yangon to be flown out to Bangkok. And he was experienced and had the right gear. Be careful.
20000k-80000k / day
There are many spots around Kalaw to check out and a car and driver can easily be hired. You'll typically be charged based on how far you want to go, rather than a half / full day.
What to do in Kalaw
Besides the obvious trekking (see below) there are several other activities and spots you can take in around Kalaw.
Aung Chan Tha Zedi
This pagoda is at the heart of Kalaw, and you can't miss it's shiny exterior made up of thousands of pieces of mirrored glass.
Hnee Paya (bamboo Buddha image)
This buddha is said to be made of bamboo and ~500 years old, though to most it will look like any other buddha. It's about a 30min walk south-east from the center. There are a host of new hotels going up in this area. Kalaw Cafe makes for a nice stop on the way there or the way back. Make this a stop on your1/2 day trek to Viewpoint.
Shwe Oo Min Paya
This pagoda is built inside a limestone cave and is worth the 30min walk south to visit.
Joe (Aung Thant Soe Myint) offers the best mountain biking options, from single day to multi-day supported trips. He imports his Trek brand bikes from abroad, and keeps them in tip-top shape.
Options include one-day trips to Inle Lake along the roads (all year round) or village paths (dry season only) as well as multi-day options that can include a mix of trekking and mountain biking. In addition, he offers multi-day trips to Mandalay, Bagan. Choose to have support, and a guide if you like. Padded gloves, helmets, padded shorts always included (if you need). Can handle groups of 6 (or more).
He operates out of the Green Discovery Trekking office opposite the bakery on the main street in downtown Kalaw. Contact: email@example.com / 09-421031662 / 09-9634464893
Activities Outside of Kalaw
Green Hill Valley Elephant Camp
This Green Hill Valley Elephant Camp provides a home for animals that can no longer work, or are disabled. The camp itself is about 45min from Kalaw by car, and it ends up being a full-day activity.
Learn about the elephants and their care, the surrounding forest area, and even have an opportunity to bathe them. There is no riding of elephants here.
Daily visitor numbers are limited so it's best to book in advance. (+959-785145838) or (+959-798367562) firstname.lastname@example.org
Care to see some more of the beautiful Shan Hills but don't want to trek? Ride Behind the Kalaw offers a 4x4 Tour experience starting around 100000k for afull day. These tours are seasonal, and typically not available in the rainy season (for obvious reasons). Message on Aung on their Facebook page to learn more.
Roughly 90min away by car is the town of Pindaya. While it can be a nice place to spend a day or two on its own, most come to visit the limestone cave that has over 8000 Buddha images inside. The road itself is quite nice as well, especially in Oct / Nov, as it passes through a lot of photogenic farmland.
Plan Bee Beekeeping Center
This new beekeeping center in Pindaya offers pre-booked workshops on beekeeping and honey tasting from their cafe at the edge of Pone Ta Loke Lake in Pindaya. This is a project of TAG International Development supported by UKaid, USaid, and a host of others under LIFT (Livelihoods and Food Security Trust Fund) to help develop Shan honey. Contact: email@example.com / 081-66010
What Do You Need for a Day of Walking in Kalaw? ?
- Flashlight / headlamp for dark temples and caves, or late / early explorations.
- Light jacket for the early mornings or late evenings
- Footwear suitable for walking on uneven terrain
- Clothes that cover your knees and shoulders. (see "Respect in Kalaw" below)
Trekking in Kalaw
More than anything, this is what Kalaw is known for, especially the multi-day "Kalaw to Inle Lake" trek. But there is a lot more than that too. The temperatures and beautiful scenery make Kalaw ideal for little treks, especially given its proximity to other popular sites on the tourist track.
Weather wise, trekking is best in the dry winter season of Nov - Feb.
HALF TO ONE-DAY TREKS IN KALAW
Trekking paths aren't well marked AT ALL in and around Kalaw, so it's definitely best to inquire before you head out. Most guesthouses will be happy to draw a little map for you with a few markers along the way.
TREE-LINED TOWN WALK FROM TRAIN STATION
Head over to the train station and continue south over the tracks. The road will wind upward past several larger estates and homes with lovely trees providing shade from the sun. Head south as far as you like (it heads back down into the valley) before heading back the same way you came towards Kalaw. 1-2hr Return / Easy
WORLD PEACE PAGODA (Manorhla)
Take the road up towards Thein Daung monastery, but keep going straight instead of curving right to the monastery. You'll pass through several villages towards the pagoda on top of a hill. You may want to ask more than a few people along the way to make sure you're still heading in the right direction.
This quiet monastery on top of the hill offers great views in every direction. Be mindful of those living or visiting there by keeping your voice low and tread softly up here. 4hr return / Moderate (along dirt roads and paths)
A spot with beautiful views of several villages in the hills, and a couple of little restaurants to boot. In my experience, the first restaurant was much quieter, so stop there for a snack or a drink, before heading a bit further to the first one on the hill to catch the view of Ywar Thit village there too. Half-day return / Moderate (along gravel / dirt roads)
OTHER DAY HIKES
There are also many other walks that can be easily arranged with a guide (typically ~$10/day/person), especially if you arrange transport to start outside of Kalaw. Among the options are:
- Viewpoint -> Tar Yaw -> Ywar Thit (16km)
- Viewpoint -> Tar Yaw -> Ywar Thit -> Reservoir (25km)
- Viewpoint -> Tar Yaw -> Ywar Thit -> Hin Kar Gone (28km)
Trekking From Kalaw to Inle Lake
This is such a huge topic that I'll break out the nitty-gritty details in a standalone post, but here's what you really need to know.
The Kalaw to Inle Lake trek is by far the most popular and famous trek in all of Myanmar. In the high season (Nov-Feb), the number of trekkers starting each day numbers in the hundreds, and its growth has been very rapid in the past 5 years, with the number of guides in Kalaw numbering 200-300 compared to 50-80 or so a few years ago.
Expect to walk 15km-20km each day, with the last day being mostly downhill. The trek itself isn't terribly difficult, though if the trail is muddy it will certainly be more challenging. You'll spend most of your time walking on gravel / dirt roads, and dirt trails from village to village. This will be far less fun in the rainy season (leeches!) or the hot and dry summer months (March / April).
There are typically two main options:
- 2 day / 1 night (which involves taking a car to the starting point on the first morning)
- 3 day / 2 night
All of the treks will end on the west side of Inle Lake, typically Indein where you will catch the boat across to Nyaungshwe. It can be arranged to transport your luggage from Kalaw to your hotel in Nyaungshwe for you.
Prices vary, depending largely on group size (typical is 4 - 8 max), and typically include your accommodation (villager house), and all meals. But also keep in mind that the cheaper rates also typically mean poorer food, and less qualified guides.
Booking Your Kalaw to Inle Trek
It's best to book your trekking (one day or multi-day Kalaw to Inle Lake) directly with the trekking guide companies rather than your hotel. Most hotels take 10-20% commission, and that means more money in the pockets of the hotel owners, and less in the hands of the trekking guides themselves.
Here are a list of a few of the trekking guides and companies that I have personally dealt with:
Excellent Trekking Services
Johnny (Kyaw Nyein), his brother Kyaw Myint and Kyaw Kyaw have been leading treks for many years. You can find their office on the main road in downtown up the hill towards Golden Kalaw.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org / 09-453685195 09263269426
Green Discovery Trekking
Jack (Soe Paing) is another guide who has more than a decade of experience and has assisted me a few projects. His team speaks english well. Joe (mountain biking) runs out of the Green Discovery office as well. Across from the bakery on the main road in the town.
Contact: email@example.com / 09-428318216 09-791688676
Alex and his team are a upbeat group leading day and multiday treks. Alex is also heavily involved in organizing the guides in the region to help create a sustainable future for tourism in Kalaw. Ask him about the ironman "One-Day Trek" to Inle Lake.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org / 09 428312678
If you want the absolute cheapest prices around, Ever Smile, Sam's Trekking, and Golden Lily are the ones rushing to the bottom. Groups can be as large as 16-20! Insanity.
The Best Kalaw Sunrise and Sunset Spots
There are a couple of decent spots to watch the sun come up or go down in Kalaw, though admittedly any place on a ridge or up on one of the higher hotels will give you a decent view. I wouldn't say that there is one magical place
The Thein Daung monastery on the top of the hill on the opposite side of the highway (North side) is an easily accessible spot that gives a nice view over the town and area. Just follow the covered stairs up and take your time. If you head back down behind and around the monastery complex, you can get an even better view of the sun actually setting.
If you're quite the walker, you can head out of town to the World Peace Pagoda (see below). There are some nice 360 views from up here, but keep in mind it is more than an hour walk back to Kalaw, so make sure you have a headlamp / torch so you can find your way back after dark.
If you happen to be staying at Golden Kalaw, you get a really nice view from atop the hill looking into town. This is especially nice in the early mornings watching the sun burn off the fog in the valley. (Fun Fact: back in the day, the old Golden Kalaw was my old favorite before the smashed it down and put this bland hotel in its place.)
While not your traditional "sunrise" spot, I find that wandering the main street in the morning makes for some very photogenic photos. You can get some great high-key shots into the sun like this when facing east.
What to Eat in Kalaw
The best breakfast in town is found at the Kalaw market! Open every day (except Mondays and full moon days), you can find delicious mohingha and shan noodles here for about 1000k.
If you're looking for something a bit different, go and see my friend Daw May See just down the steps from the busy noodle shop above. She makes nga-tamin-nay which is a unique little mashed rice dish with garlic, herbs and other yum. She speaks no english, but just sit down and she'll sort you out. After taking my Mom to visit her stand in 2013, she always asks how she's doing, and my Mom counts it as one of her favorite meals. 500k-1000k
Ditch the breakfast at your guesthouse and head to the market instead.
LUNCH & DINNER
New Simple Life Easily the best restaurant in town, this lovely little place is run by Sandar who trained at a French culinary school and is a 15-20min walk from "downtown" Kalaw. The veggies come from her garden, she makes her own feta cheese, she sundries her own tomatoes, and bakes her own bread. Other than the pasta, she essentially makes everything.
My picks are the bruschetta (betcha can't eat just one), the pasta with sundried tomatoes (pesto is great too), and the lemon ginger drink. Pizzas are pretty good too. While A Simple Life does not traditional Burmese cuisine, this is definitely worth a stop, especially when you need a break from rice.
At the corner of Circular Rd and Thidar Street 09-5403449 / 09-785710566
Thazin Restaurant is a little place located up the hill overlooking Kalaw. To get here, take the covered staircase heading to the Thein Daung monastery and turn left at the Ever Smile trekking sign. It's just a few minutes up this "road" and to the right.
I enjoy the chicken curry here, and this can make for a nice place to watch the sunset as well.
Sprouting Seeds is a new cafe and bakery that has recently graduated to making some mains as well. This social enterprise opposite the Kayin Baptist church is a ~5 min walk from the center, and offers a host of vegetarian options, baked goods, and even home made ice cream. They hope to add cooking classes in the future as well. 85 Thida Lan, Quarter 7 097-67472669
Home Again is a family home that also makes for a little restaurant. The food is traditional and tasty, and the quiet garden and atmosphere here makes for a nice break from town. Expect a bit of a wait for food as things are made from scratch here, but they do have a few unique dishes that you won't easily find elsewhere than make it worth it. About 15-20min walk from town on Thidar St
Everest is an old favorite that has really gone down in the past couple of years. This Nepalese restaurant is the sister location to the one in Nyaungshwe, and serves a host of veg and non veg curries. Once the tour groups started to flood the place for dinner the service here seems to have plummeted. If you do go, I recommend the chicken masala curry. Downtown Kalaw
Dream Restaurant is just off the main road in downtown, and just down the street from Dream Villa Hotel. Here you'll find a mix of Burmese and Chinese dishes, larger ones that are best shared when in a group. Food is decent though nothing to write home about.
Thirigayha 7 Sisters is another one that has been around for ages. It's very popular thanks to continual features in the Lonely Planet and constant tour group traffic, so if you're planning on heading there for dinner, be sure to make a reservation. The food is alright, if bland. I think it's probably been dialed back over the years to appease the french tour group pallet that often fills the place up. You'll find it on the north side of the highway about a 5min walk from the center of town heading west.
Pyae Pyae noodle shop is located right beside 7 Sisters on the main highway. If you're looking for decent but inexpensive eats, it might be the best place in town for you.
Red House Restaurant is a relatively new open here in Kalaw, hoping to serve Italian cuisine to the international tourists staying in town for a single night with its close proximity to the center. My high hopes were dashed by poor service, bland food, and high prices. Skip it and head to New Simple Life instead.
Where to Stay in Kalaw
While there were only a handful of places to stay just a few years ago, there has been a building boom catering to local and foreign tourists in the past couple of years.
Golden Wing Motel located just a short walk from the train station is a decent pick, especially during festival time. This small hotel has ~10 rooms and a rooftop breakfast balcony and covered area. The rooms are clean, but nothing to write home about. Festivals often take place at the grounds just south of here, so if you're staying here, you can get a nice view of the action. $25-$35/night
Dream Villa Hotel is centrally located right in the core of downtown, but just off the main street. The rooms are nicely decorated, and many have views of the town. This is a favorite in the mid-tier price range, and often requires booking in advance. $40-$70/night
Unique Bed & Breakfast is another good option. This small family owned spot has just expanded a bit as of early 2017 to add a few more rooms to the 7 they previously had. Nicely decorated rooms of different colors, and free homemade breakfast. Best for a stay of 2 days or more since it's about 25-30min walk from downtown. $30-$40/night
My top pick is Essence Motel. This new motel just opened in late 2016, and is a bit of a walk from downtown Kalaw (~10-15min). There are several levels of rooms (about ~14 total) including some great ones with balconies. Rooftop breakfast area with large balcony outside to look up and down the valley is a really nice touch. Recommended. $35-$55/night
When to Go to Kalaw
High season in Kalaw is also the dry, winter season that runs Nov-Feb. The temperatures are colder (coldest in late Dec/early Jan), and there will likely be little or no rain. You'll find the highest concentration of tourists around this time, and you should book your accommodation ahead if possible. Expect pleasant temperatures during the day, and cool mornings and evenings that will require a light jacket (at least). It can get quite chilly at night and guesthouses will be sure to provide you with extra blankets.
Things really begin to heat up around March and April as the hot season ramps into gear. Expect it to be hot and dry, with the benefit of being here (verses the rest of the country) being that it'll at least cool off a bit at night. Trails and roads will be extra dusty as it likely hasn't rained for months by this time.
May - September is the wet season. Some of the roads might be in rough shape at this time of year, and the hiking trails will be a mess. On the other hand, you'll also be missing the crowds of the high season, and might be able to negotiate a better rate for a guesthouse. The landscape will be at its most green though!
Festivals In Kalaw
Most festivals and celebrations happen in Myanmar during the full moon.
How To Get To Kalaw
There are a few options when it comes to getting to actually getting to Kalaw.
Planes, Trains and Automobiles...
Day and night buses roll through Kalaw every day from nearly every location in Myanmar you're likely to hit (Mandalay, Bagan, Yangon, Pyay etc). The regular bus is about 12000-14000 kyat, but I'd recommend that you splurge for one of the VIP buses. These will run you in the 15000k-22000k range, and are usually 3 seats across vs the 4 on a regular bus, or have greater leg room. The bus will be cooled to meat-locker temperature so be sure to wear your layers. Seriously, it's freezing. Ear plugs are also a good bet as there will often be a movie or loud Myanmar music playing (particularly on the regular bus), which is fun for about 5 minutes.
One small water is usually provided, and they stop every 4-6 hours for a 30min rest stop / toilet break / food and you will have to get off the bus for this time. Buses are typically 7-12 hours in length, and it's worth noting that the night buses arrive early in the morning (2am-3am). Just standard operating procedure here.
Easiest to book the bus via your guesthouse or a travel agent. VIP buses include JJ Express, E-lite, Mandalar Minn, and Shwe Nan Taw Express.
The bus station is right along the main highway, and the touts are looking for about 1000k-2000k/person to drive you to your hotel. They are never that aggressive though, and if you'd just like to walk, they'll point you in the right direction.
Train service available once or twice a day, but as with all traing rides in this country, it's a particularly slow and uncomfortable experience. Prepare to have your body shaken, beaten, and broken.
If you'd like to take the train to or from here, consider a shorter journey to / from Shwenyaung (4hrs) or Thazi.
Several flights arrive daily to the closet airport to Kalaw (Heho) from Yangon, Mandalay, Nyaung U and others. Book in advance with a local travel agent as most of the airlines don't offer reliable online booking. Expect one way tickets in the $100-120 range (Mandalay cheaper) and flights to be about an hour. The most predictable thing about flights here is that they'll be delayed. It will save a bunch of time in your travel schedule and can be a handy way to travel particularly if you have a short amount of time in the country.
The airport is about a 45min drive from Kalaw, and it's easy to arrange a taxi there for about 20000k.
Staying Safe and Healthy in Kalaw
Like most places in Myanmar, your biggest enemy in Kalaw will be the sun. That cool air on your skin can make you think you're not getting burnt, until you feel awful the and look in the mirror the next morning.
For those out on a walk, carry at least a liter of water with you. If you're on an overnight trek with a guide, it'll be no problem to get more water, but if you're on a day trek, you might be out of luck.
Beware the sun, and always drink more water
Mosquitoes aren't much of a problem here given the altitude, but you should have insect repellent on in the mornings / evenings at least, particularly around your legs / feet. Malaria isn't much of a problem, but Dengue / Zika might be depending on the season.
Like most places, be aware of what you're eating. Know your street food before partaking because the food borne illnesses in this country are likely of a very different breed than what you're used to. I find the places in the market fine, but haven't taken in the new night market area myself.
Budgeting Your Trip To Kalaw
While I can't speak for anyone else, I can give you a small look into how much I typically paid for a day in Kalaw.
Breakfast: (market) 1000k
Dinner: 8000k (including lime juice)
Snacks (fruit etc): 1500k
Water: 4 @ 300k
Hot ginger-lime-honey drink at the end of the day: 2000k
$35-$40 / night at Essence Motel. Western toilet, A/C, multiple power plugs, mini fridge.
My feet (free)
Total: ~60000k / ~$55 USD per day.
OTHER THINGS YOU MIGHT SPEND MONEY ON:
* Trekking Guide for the day: ~$10
* Beer: 500k-3500k (Hi Snacks and Drinks is popular)
* Wine: 4000k / glass
* Postage stamp: 500k
If you're looking for some unique gifts which are made in Myanmar, and will benefit the local people, check out the social enterprise Clover Gift Shop. Their little shop is just down from the main road next to Jungle King Trekking on Aung Chan Thar Road across from the Parami Hotel. You can also check out the RDS Fair Trade Shop near the north-west side of the market square and the main highway.
Internet & mobile Phone Access in Kalaw
In a great change from a few years ago, almost every guesthouse will now have wifi. Don't expect the same speeds you're used to at home (not even close), but at least you can check your e-mail, facebook, and maybe even upload a picture of your dinner to Instagram. Internet access is typically fastest overnight and in the early morning, getting progressively slower as the day goes on.
Internet access? Don't bother. Go explore!
Mobile phone coverage in Kalaw for the tourist is available with Ooredoo, Telenor, or MPT. Ooredoo has the fastest data speeds in my tests, and better service than old favorite Telenor. Generally, it can dip in and out a bit, especially in the valleys. You can read more about mobile phones in Myanmar / Burma with my post on Too Many Adapters though prices are lower now (less than 1000k/GB) and relaibility and coverage are greater..
Respect in Kalaw
Myanmar is a Buddhist county with perhaps more conservative values than you are used to. Be sure to show respect by having your shoulders and knees covered when you enter temples. That means you should be careful with the length of your shorts, and women in particular with your tops. If you insist on wearing shorts above the knee or a shirt without sleeves, bring a scarf or longyi to cover yourself while you're in the temple. You're not at the beach...
No shoulders, no knees
You will also need to take off your shoes & socks when you enter a temple.
While you may see other foreigners wearing short-shorts and tank tops around Myanmar, know that behavior is not respectful of the culture. This goes double for staying in villages vs cities.
Care to know more about planning your upcoming trip to Myanmar, or want help on tailoring your special your trip just right? I can help you make a plan to make your time in Kalaw and Myanmar unforgettable.