05 Feb Meet Kalaw’s Best-Known Trekking Guides
Located in Myanmar’s Shan mountains, Kalaw was founded as a hill station by the British during colonial rule. At a height of 1,320 metres, the climate provides a cool escape from the sweltering heat of the tropics. As of today, Kalaw is a popular destination for trekking, cycling and nature holidays. The three-day trek from Kalaw to the famous Inle Lake is a must-do for adventurous Myanmar travellers. We met up with the town’s two best-known trekking guides — Alex from Eagle trekking and local legend Sayar Doh, the unsung hero of the Shan Mountains — in ‘Backpacker Street’ to find out more about their remarkable journey to becoming a travel guide.
Alex the Eagle
Located next to the Kalaw Market, Aung Chan Tha Street, better known as ‘Backpacker Street’, is your one-stop-shop that features all of Kalaw’s trekking agencies. Any hike you can think of is on offer there: from day treks, jungle treks to three-day hikes with a homestay in the Pa O or Palaung villages that surround Kalaw. Here we meet Alex, owner of Eagle Trekking.
Aung Chan Tha Street, better known as ‘Backpacker Street’
Alex considers himself to be one of the first people in Kalaw to use the internet. When studying at Taunggyi University in the capital of Shan State, Alex always kept a copy of the English Dictionary with him, as well as a notebook in which he jotted down words he wanted to look up. After hearing about computers and this mythical universe called “the internet” Alex couldn’t wait to try surfing the web himself. It was 2003, and SIM cards cost up to USD 1000. In order to surf the internet for an hour, Alex had to hand over his ID card and pay 2000 kyat, which is approximately 1,30 USD. Alex recalls how Gmail was one of the first things he wanted to look up because a client gave his email address to him. After setting up his own email account, he then discovered Wikipedia which left him feeling in awe. “I couldn’t believe it!”, Alex remembers. “I could type in anything and history from around the world would just show on up on my screen.”
Alex, showing us his notebook, English dictionary and other books
Alex was raised in Kalaw by his mother, who had blue eyes and only spoke to him in English. He only knows his father, an Englishman, from pictures. Although Alex grew up in a compound of houses that was home to the Shan princess Son Mya Thit, his childhood wasn’t marked by opulence; it was a time of unrest and struggle.
One of Alex’ earliest memories is eating corn and pumpkin for every meal during the pro-democracy protests in 1988. There were violent crackdowns on protesters, happenings that Alex watched from afar. “I was only 9-years-old. I would climb into a banyan tree and watch events unfold. Soldiers would beat the protesters, it was horrible,” he recalls. Growing up in this period of unrest, Alex’ main concern was to find a job. In 1999, he became a waiter. He loved talking to people and realised that he could use his English language skills and love for Kalaw’s history to become a tour guide. He chose the symbol of his trekking agency — an eagle — because, as he puts it, “eagles can see everything!”.
Sayar Doh, a local legend
If you get stuck, need a last-minute guide to lead a tour, or want to find out more about the history of a certain building in Kalaw, U Doh, better known as “Sayar Doh” is your man, according to locals. He is one of the most experienced guides in Kalaw, and he has trained some of the youngsters around town.
U Doh’s grandparents were from Mawlawymine, in Mon State, the fourth largest city of Myanmar, 300 km south-east of Yangon. His grandfather was a respected principle at the local school. Ever since he was little, U Doh’s mother used to ask him to write letters to his grandparents every month to practice his English writing skills. “That explains my neat handwriting,” says U Doh with a twinkle in his eye.
His childhood was mostly spent between Taunggyi and Kalaw. He learnt to be resilient from an early age. “I was two years old when my father lost a leg. My mother was pregnant at the time and when she gave birth she had trouble breastfeeding the baby as was so stressed by what had happened to my father. It was a tough time for my family.” His happiest memory as a young boy was when a truck with movies in the back would pull up on his street. “We didn’t celebrate many events growing up, so this was so exciting for us kids. We used to climb inside the truck, sit there and watch movies. We called it the moving movie theatre.”
Sayar Doh’s favourite thing about Kalaw is the sounds around town. “I love listening to the sound of the train horn as it’s passing through Kalaw station. As a child, I liked the sound of the buca horn that the Regiment military used to blow every day at 6:30 am sharp. When I’m travelling to other towns, I don’t feel right because I miss the sound of the train,” he says. There have been many changes in Kalaw that Sayar Doh has witnessed over the years, such as the felling of pine trees. “There used to be a lot more trees and not so many cars.”
Kalaw Railway Station
The story of how Sayar Doh ended up as a tour guide is quite unusual. “I used to work in a chicken shop. My brother was breeding chickens and I’d sell them. I worked there until 1995. At that time, tourism in Burma had just started to take hold, and hotels would come to us to buy chickens for their guests. I got to know all the hotel owners around town very well. Then they started to look for people who could speak English very well to take hotel guests for guided walks. Because I attended missionary school, my English was good, so I became a tour guide at a hotel.”
Sayar Doh recalls how at first, there were only a handful of tourists who would be interested in joining his trekking tours. But when in 1999 a new law allowed trekking groups to stay overnight in villages, he became a busy man. Sayar Doh’s favourite thing about trekking with tourists is the conversations he has with them. “I enjoy meeting as many different people as possible and hearing all about their home countries. I like facilitating conversations between locals and my clients, and helping them connect.”
Thanks to Myanmar’s growing tourism, Sayar Doh has witnessed many positive changes in the poorer villages surrounding Kalaw. “More and more have electricity and toilets now, and new houses are built with bricks. Young children also have the opportunity to practice their English speaking skills by talking to tourists.”
Fancy trekking in Myanmar’s Shan Mountains?
Not into walking?
If you are not interested in hiking, there’s plenty of other outdoor stuff to do around town. For cycling day trips, check out Naing Naing in front of the Mosque, or if you’re feeling more adventurous, book a motorbike trip with ’Ride behind Kalaw’. Kalaw is fast becoming an eco-adventure destination with something for everyone, from birdwatchers to adrenaline junkies.
Kalaw Trail Run
Are you into running? Make sure to come back in December! That’s when the annual Kalaw Trail Run in the mountains of Kalaw takes place. This 12km-long run is open to runners of all levels and nationalities.
Ready to for some trekking fun in Kalaw? Take us with you!
Explore Kalaw’s hidden gems through the lens of locals with the iDiscover App&Map, created and designed by locals. Download our 100% free app for iOs or Android (no in-app purchases!) here. Click here to download a free, beautifully illustrated map of Kalaw to complement our app.
Our guides are created by locals, designed by locals and powered by locals… with a little help from iDiscover. Hear their stories, share their passion and learn what they love! Our Kalaw Neighbourhood App&Map are 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 photos 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 stag leaping 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.