12 Aug Finding Myanmar memories in the picturesque heritage town of Kalaw
Kalaw may be a little town, but it has a big history. Tucked away in the Burmese Shan mountains, it was a popular hill station in British times. It’s pine-clad mountains and cool climate have enticed people from lower Myanmar to escape the tropical heat for many years. Stone cottages, monumental schools, and historic churches dot the landscape amongst vibrant wildflowers. When wandering through this picturesque heritage town one begins to wonder what stories lie behind these big buildings in this small town. Over cups of tea, we unravel the town’s history with the famous four Kalaw spinster sisters and Mr. Thazin, who even at 96 years old, may still be the tallest man in town. We hear their stories, dig into the captivating past and learn what they love about their town.
Tea with the famous spinster sisters
The four spinster sisters are famous in Kalaw. As we pour tea, I almost feel like I’m in the presence of royalty. With her back straight as an arrow, her shoulders pursed back and hands gently folded, 78-year-old Elizabeth Myat, the youngest of three, begins to tell her story in flawless English. “We are the daughters of the Danu chief, “sahboi” in Ywarnge village about 46 miles away.” The Danu tribe is one of the indigenous groups of Shan State around Kalaw. You’ll instantly recognise them by their striped top, longyi and black turban.
Elizabeth’s mother and father died when she was young, so the sisters were sent to St. Agnes Convent, next to the Roman Catholic church. It proved to be a blessing in disguise. They were taught by friendly and strict Italian nuns and remembers fondly that “Miss Bear was my favourite, she was very kind and taught me English social sciences, history and I was particularly fond of learning about world history with her.” Elizabeth’s fiercely independent spirit didn’t go unnoticed. “Mother Srophere would always take me with her if she needed to get some jobs done.”
The sisters in their younger years when the nuns encouraged them to find husbands ‘To sail through life with someone who shares the same boat’
The nuns also encouraged Elizabeth to find a husband: “So you are not plagued to a life of loneliness but can enjoy sailing through life with someone who shares the same boat,” but it was not for her. When asked if she ever had a young love, she shakes her head: “To be honest, I was never really interested in any boys. When I lost my mother, I looked after my sisters and my sisters also made the sacrifice to look after me. I’m content with their company.”
Elizabeth studied to become a much loved and popular teacher. She eventually became the deputy headmistress of the state school number 2 in Kalaw. She only retired in 2010 at the age of 70-years-old. But many students still come to visit her or take classes.
“Elizabeth only retired in 2010 at the age of 70-years-old. But many students still come to visit her or take classes”
Elizabeth, fondly remembers her years at Sr. Agnes Convent where she was thought by Italian nuns
During her years of teaching, she was also a keen football coach. “I used to take a walk around in the morning and whoever I couldn’t see exercising I knew weren’t trying their best.” She led several teams to face the rival town Taunggyi State High School 1 and 2. Other than football, she was also a keen swimmer and diver. “I used to love diving and going off the high diving board. It was thrilling. I also enjoyed all the strokes, you name it — even backstroke. In my village growing up, I was one of the only ones that could float on my back naturally.”
Elizabeth is most proud of giving back to the community. “I always tried to encourage students of those around me to become teachers, even if they were poor.” When I retired from teaching, we decided to donate our house to the school. We have never had a lot of money, but I like to give what I can.” To finish, Elizabeth shows some of her certificates of thanks she had received over the years. When we leave, she touches my hand and smiles: “You know, I was very popular because I never had a sweetheart.”
Meet the famous Kalaw spinster sisters
Meet the tallest man in town
When asked where he gets his height from, Mr Thazin shrugs: “My father was Hindu and my mother was from Pindaya.” His parents migrated from Yangon just after WW1 when his dad won a contract to supply railway sleepers from his sawmill. Under British rule, he attended the local convent school, Kingswood, before WW2 broke out. His schooling was disrupted. He doesn’t dwell on the years of Japanese occupation but says: “Many in the town did not like the Japanese as they didn’t make any friendships and had very stern faces.” During one bombing raid, he remembers running into the trench that was built in the backyard of his home. Others didn’t run as fast and seven of his neighbours died.
After four years, the Japanese retreated by foot. Mr. Thazin remembers the Welch Regiment, the Royal Berkshire Regiment and a Scottish bagpipe player marching into town for the victory parade. He was the municipal administrator in 1970 to 1978: “When I was in administration taxation was about 10 kyat per month, not like now where it is 2000 kyat!”
After retiring from public office, he opened Thazin Restaurant in his home
His golden years were yet to come. After retiring from office Thazin decided to open a restaurant in his home. He leaps to his feet and retrieves four books busted at the spine. These are treasured items. As he licks his thumb and gingerly turns through the pages, he reads out all the countries that guests have travelled from. All comments mention the delicious chicken salad and soup, but above all, there are messages singing the praise of the hospitality and sharing insightful conversations with Mr. Thazin.
“It’s the fresh air and peaceful setting that are my favourite things about my hometown” – Mr Thazin
Mr. Thazin flips through the old customer reviews: “People liked the chicken salad and soup”
Mr. Thazin is very proud of his health and fondly retells of his latest visit to the doctor where he was told, “I am checking all of your body, but I do not find anything wrong with you, you must be made in Germany?” There’s no walk frame or walking stick or glasses. Mr. Thazin bounds up to his stairs in his home to open his balcony and show the view of the mountains from his home. “I can see all of my favourite views of Kalaw from my home, there’re three mountains over there on our right that look elephants and the peak that looks like Mount Fuji.” It’s the fresh air and peaceful setting that are the favourite things about my hometown.
At the tender age of 96, his physique is so impressive that I can’t resist asking his advice on how to live a long life. He moves forward in his seat and says gently, “Never try to make temper, if you make temper you will spoil your whole body, for your heart, your brain. Just smile, that makes me happy.”
The 96-year-old man’s advice for a long life: “Try not to make temper”
Want to meet the Kalaw locals?
Explore Kalaw through the lens of locals. Many buildings of the past have been untouched, including the famous Kingswood College and the St. Agnes Convent. Find these historic landmarks and other local favourites with the iDiscover Kalaw map that includes a handcrafted walking or cycling itinerary through the picturesque heritage town of Kalaw. Plus, our guide comes with a free storytelling app so that you have all the insider insights at your fingertips.
iDiscover’s Kalaw Neighbourhood Map is curated by Kalaw Tourism Organisation, illustrated by local artist Ko Wai Yan and proudly powered by The Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit GmbH (GIZ).
Words and photography by Libby Hogan
Libby is a freelance journalist who has documented the changes across Myanmar’s many ethnic states in the past three years, specifically after Aung San Suu Kyi won the elections. Her passion is looking at youth culture and stagleaping to isolated regions to hear untold stories from those who never had access to media or the opportunity to speak freely.
Check out her website.
Interviews by Nang Phoo Pyi Mon
Phoo is a Shan girl. A lover of nature. She would not want to live anywhere else but in the Shan mountains. Phoo loves talking to people and people love talking to her. As a language graduate, she has a deep interest in psychology, culture and religions, in her country and far beyond.