Located in the Shan State, 50km from the famous Inle Lake, Kalaw was founded as a hill station by the British during colonial rule. At a height of 1,320 metres, the climate was a cool escape from the sweltering heat of the tropics.
Many travellers spend only one night here before setting off on one of Southeast Asia’s best hikes, the three-day trek to Inle Lake. But, some travellers don’t even bother doing that! We heard of backpackers getting straight off the night bus from Bagan or Yangon at 4 am and setting off on a 6 am morning trek! Big mistake.
Kalaw was one of the loveliest towns that we visited in the whole of Myanmar and there are plenty of reasons to hang around for a few days. One reason being – the climate! After we’d sweated buckets exploring the temples of Bagan, it was simply a delight to enjoy the cool, fresh air of Kalaw! During the day we did short breezy treks in the hills around the town and at night we got to snuggle up in a duvet (and that’s without AC) – a clear novelty in Southeast Asia!
Things to do in Kalaw
Day walks: Walks around the local area are lovely and quite unlike walking around any other Burmese town that we visited. The streets are very clean (there are pavements!) and there are flowers and vegetables growing in abundance in people’s gardens. Walk beside the train line to the historic train station building, pass the old British ‘Club’ and see what’s left of the cricket scoreboard.
In the centre of the town, there’s a rather neglected park (with an overgrown crazy golf course presumably set up by the British) and the tree-lined streets in the hills and pine forests around Kalaw are dotted with crumbling colonial mansions, once holiday villas for the rich civil servants of the British Empire. You can walk up to Thein Taung Monastery for a view of the whole town. (Watch out for the pesky dogs at the top who seem to have a predatory gang set up at the monastery).
Further along up the road through several villages, you’ll come to Kalaw’s ‘peace pagoda’ (Manorhla) for even better views of the surrounding countryside.
Visit the local market: Head to the market for delicious Shan noodles at 1,000 Kyat a bowl, sample local fruits and honey or buy some locally-produced wine, yet another novelty in Southeast Asia! We recommend Red Mountain wine, grown near Inle Lake by Myanmar-French wine producers at 15,000 Kyat/bottle. Also try Aythata, a German-Myanmar wine produced in Kalaw at 13,000 Kyat/bottle. Choose alternative wines at your peril. We do not recommend the deceptively smartly labelled ‘Cheera Lager Wine’, with the essence of Coca-Cola and an aroma of cough medicine.
Green Hill Valley Elephant Camp: Just an hour outside of town, you’ll find this family-run elephant camp that has a history of caring for elephants who have worked in the Myanmar timber business. Elephant labour is a long tradition in the country and Green Hill Valley provides a loving home for those elephants who are disabled or are too old to work. You’ll be pleased to hear that there is no elephant riding here, this place is more of a sanctuary where visitors are educated about the elephants and the importance of reforestation in the surrounding area. Every visitor is encouraged to plant a tree and is allowed to participate in the daily care of the elephants, such as bathing them. Visit their website to arrange a visit.
Shwe Oo Min Phaya (Temple Cave): You won’t believe how many Buddha statues are crammed inside these two caves! If you’ve been to some of the larger caves in Myanmar, for example, Hpa An’s Saddan Cave, you won’t be majorly impressed by Shwe Oo Min Phaya, but for cultural reasons, it’s worth a visit. I couldn’t find that stats online for which country in Southeast Asia has the most Buddha statues, but I’d bet it is Myanmar.
A Little Kalaw Day Spa: If you’re in need of a massage why not head to this cute little spa and wellness centre located near the train station in downtown Kalaw. They offer Swedish massage, oil and aromatherapy massage, Burmese massage, body and foot scrubs, facials, manicures and pedicures. The prices are good and the spa is a social project with the staff coming from disadvantaged backgrounds around the local area, so you know that you’re being pampered for a good cause!
Off-road bike tours: Ride Behind Kalaw is the first off-road motorbiking company in Myanmar. Their one-day trip, up muddy paths and down steep slopes, will provide you with a thrilling way to experience the rugged landscape of the Shan hills.
Mountain bike tours: Green Discovery Trekking Office offer one-day or multiple-day mountain biking trips around Kalaw. You can ride all the way to Inle Lake in one day, via the roads in the wet season and along the village paths in the dry season (the best experience!). If you’re staying in Inle Lake next, allow the company’s van to transport your luggage to your next destination while you feel the wind in your hair and the weight off your shoulders as you descend the hills (it’s mostly downhill!) on two wheels! Their mountain bikes are very good quality and properly maintained.
Tee off: The British sport is very much alive in this town with a golf course and a driving range! You can hire cubs and balls for a novelty afternoon in Kalaw.
Trek to Inle Lake: We’ve left the most popular activity in Kalaw until last because it involves you leaving this lovely town! This three-day, two-night trek has been hailed as one of the most beautiful treks in the world by the likes of Lonely Planet and National Geographic and it’s currently a backpacker ‘must-do’. There are about five different routes that you can take from Kalaw to reach Inle Lake, varying in distance and difficulty. On average, you will trek about 7 hours per day with breakfast, lunch, dinner and tea breaks along the way.
You will pass through many ethnic minority villages, notably Pa-oh, Palaung and Taungyoe and spend the night in a stilted house in a local village. The landscape varies from forests and agricultural land, with farmers once growing the cash crop opium, now cabbages, canola, eggplant and other vegetables. The price for the trek varies from 40,000 – 70,000 Kyat. Shop around at one of the many trekking agencies in town for the best price and most knowledgeable guides.
Where to stay in Kalaw
Backpacker option: For decent cheap digs in town, check out the Railroad Hotel near the station, a colourful building with clean, comfortable rooms and a lovely veranda and relaxing seating area where you’ll have breakfast overlooking the nearby hills. Dorm rooms from 15,000 Kyat and private rooms from 20,000 Kyat.
Flashpacker option: If you’re looking to treat yourself, look no further than the superb Kalaw Heritage Hotel. The hotel was opened in 1903 by a British family and is a throwback to the colonial decadence of the time. Complete with tennis courts (you can borrow racquets for free), beautiful gardens, a cocktail bar, restaurant and exceedingly comfortable rooms, the hotel is extremely well-priced ($50 USD / night) considering the facilities on offer and the quality of the hotel.
Traditional Myanmar breakfast or a full English is available and the local or Western food at the restaurant in the evening is excellent. Read more about the Kalaw Heritage Hotel on our list of ‘Best Flashpacker Hotels’ here!
Food and drink in Kalaw
Eat Indian and Nepalese Food: Kalaw is home to people of Nepali and Indian descent whose ancestors were brought there by the British to build railroads, hence the abundance of Indian food in this town!
Seven Sisters (Thirigayha) Restaurant: Serving traditional Shan, Myanmar and Chinese food, this restaurant is famous in the area and the food lives up to its reputation.
New Simple Life Café: If you’re craving some home-cooked pasta or pizza, fresh sandwiches or a good café latte, head over to Sandar’s Restaurant. Sandar trained at a French culinary school and takes pride in offering tourists to Kalaw a taste of European cuisine in Myanmar.
Nightlife: While the nightlife in Kalaw is pretty non-existence, we did come across a quirky bar called ‘Hi Snack & Drink’ near Aung Chan Tha Pagoda. We were drawn in by the guitar music and singing coming from inside the bar and when we peered into the candle-lit smoky doorway we were invited in for the only drink they served, rum and soda! An atmospheric little place to say the least.
Getting to Kalaw:
From Bagan: Take a minibus during the day (6 hours) or the more comfortable VIP night bus from Bagan to Kalaw. The bus continues to Inle Lake for those not wanting to stop in Kalaw.
From Yangon: Take a 9-hour overnight bus, or catch a flight to nearby He Ho Airport (26km away), the transport hub for Inle Lake and the mountainous Shan region.
Where to go next?
Pindaya – A three-day, two-night trek to the nearby town of Pindaya is a less worn route than Kalaw-Inle and equally as beautiful with path-work farmland and ethnic minority villages. If you plan to spend the night at this hill station you can take a bus or a taxi (an hour and a half journey). Be sure to explore the famous Pindaya Caves while you’re there.
Inle Lake – Take a trek, mountain bike, bus or catch a taxi (30,000 Kyat) to the star tourist attraction in the area, the unmissable Inle Lake! If you’re in no rush, you can also take the train which takes about 3-4 hours (for a 50km journey!) to reach the town of Shwenyaung, north of Inle Lake. Get your tickets at the station in town.