12 Aug Temple fatigue in Myanmar? Find religious gems in the Heritage Town in the Shan Mountains of Kalaw
Every Burma traveller gets it at some point: temple fatigue. Time to head to the Heritage Town in the Shan Mountains in the Northern part of the country where suddenly, in the remote town of Kalaw, you stumble upon a lime-green mosque in the middle of town, and a stone’s throw away from a stone-built church. In the middle of this temple, predominantly a Buddhist country, in the unique little town of Kalaw comes an unexpected surprise. It packs a punch with its long history of settlers who’ve travelled across country borders from far and wide. British colonial officers came to the hill station of Kalaw to escape the sweltering summer heat, Indians and Nepali’s to work on the railways and in their wake came traders, entertainers, and priests. The result is a surprisingly diverse community. We meet Father Harri of the Catholic Christ of the King Church and Muslim elder, U Maung, to find out what makes this town so special.
Hidden treasures in a century-old church on top of the hill
Most of the records have been lost when the Japanese bombed in 1941. Father Harri points to a hole behind the door marked by exploding shrapnel. Some photos remain of Father Petroti and the following priests Angelo Di Meo. When palming gingerly through the ageing books and records of the church, a hand-drawn map of all the churches across Myanmar was found rolled in a corner, marked by a few holes from worms and ants. Two Italian written bibles over 50 years old have bright illustrations of trumpeting angels, the last supper and beautifully bordered pages that have thankfully escaped the appetite of the hungry fauna of Kalaw.
Father Harri shows us a hand-drawn map of all the churches across Myanmar, marked by a few wormholes
“The church is so very bright, whenever visitors come over from Europe that’s the first thing they comment on as they enter – and they are used to cathedrals and grand churches, so then it must be beautiful no?” Father Harri came to Kalaw 8 years ago, after being stationed in Taunggyi. He is very happy to be based in Kalaw and says, “Every time I visit Yangon, after one-hour, I feel hot and sweaty and I want to return to Kalaw.”
The school across the road also belonged to the church and was a missionary-run school. Today, it is still tidily kept in all its true grandeur with fruit trees lining the fence. “If you saw it 30 years ago you would have seen it even more beautiful. The military has cut down too many trees, but still, it is beautiful.”
“Every time I visit Yangon, after one-hour I feel hot and sweaty and I want to return to Kalaw” – Father Harri
30 years ago, the church was even more beautiful, there were more trees on the hill
The lime-green Kalaw mosque, a stone’s throw away from the church
From small prayer house to big mosque
In a small factory around the corner from Kalaw’s mosque, U Maung opens the door to his flour mill room. He’s not just the guardian of the local mosque but also, in the business of supplying flour for the treasured chapati, the favourite staple of many people who are living in Kalaw. As the gentle clank of a spinning mortar wheel grinds wheat to make flour, U Maung begins to tell his story.
“My father was born in India in 1905, but they decided to move to Myanmar in search of business opportunities.” When they first arrived, there was no mosque, but as more Sunni families moved to Kalaw, some families decided to search together for vacant land to buy. A friend of his father donated a small plot to build a house for their prayers.
“When we first arrived here in the 1940s, there were just a few hundred Muslims. The majority were Sunni Muslims and a few Shitte families. There were Muslim families from India, Nepal, Turkey, and migrants from other parts of Myanmar. In those days, we all prayed together.”
There were Muslim families from India, Nepal, Turkey, and migrants from other parts of Myanmar. In those days, we all prayed together, says U Maung
“Kalaw is a very special community, many diverse groups of people and religion feel welcome here” – U Maung
When U Maung’s family first arrived, his father worked as a tailor. He had a good relationship with the British. After just a few years of establishing his shop, he was specialised in tailoring skirt designs that were in vogue in Britain. “At that time, the British puffy skirt style was very popular still.”
When more Muslim families moved to the Heritage Town in the Shan Mountains of Kalaw, the community of both Shitte and Sunni Muslims, pooled their funds to build a new mosque in 1990. In that year, about 200 Muslim families lived in Kalaw, but during Eid, many other Muslims from surrounding villages would travel to the mosque for celebrations. U Maung says, “Kalaw is a very special community, many diverse groups of people and religion feel welcome here. Here, we would never think about your differences, if the monastery was cleaning their prayer hall and needed help you would get up and just go to help, even if you weren’t Buddhist. Everyone was always very helpful to their neighbour and everyone loved one another.”
U Maung in his flour mill where he supplies to bakeries and restaurants in the whole Shan state
U Maung started his flour factory in the 1950s and says it’s been running ever since. He supplies flour to bakeries, to Indian and Nepali food restaurants, and has orders from as far as Mandalay to Taunggyi. “My favourite food in Kalaw has never changed over the years,” says U Maung, “I am just with hot chapati and rice. It’s very unique. I miss that sound.”
One of the biggest changes he has noticed over the years is the cutting down of pine trees. “They have cut down so many trees in the surrounding region of Kalaw. Before you could walk with friends to the pine forests and at night, you would hear the constant ‘shhhhh’ soft wind being tickled in the pine tree branches.”
A familiar sight in Kalaw with Muslims walking to prayer in the heart of town
Want to meet the Kalaw locals?
Explore the Heritage Town in the Shan Mountains of Kalaw through the lens of locals. Many buildings of the past have been untouched, including the mosque and a bunch of churches. There is even a Sikh temple in town! Find these historic landmarks and other local highlights 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 funded 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 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.