Journey to Kalaw
It was still misty. The unexpected cyclone in the middle of the winter had caused havoc on the road up the mountains to Kalaw. Twenty miles outside of Kalaw the large air-conditioned bus with it’s frozen passengers came to a halt. Christmas morning was fast approaching and my family was gathering in Kalaw this year, I was anxious to arrive. In the last few minutes before the sun rose I was advised to go to the toilet.
“Why?” I asked, expecting to hear some explanation about how if you pee before the sun comes up it is much better for your body than if you pee once the first rays are shining down on the earth.
“Because once the sun comes up everyone is going to see you, there are trucks backed up all the way around the bend,” came the logical answer.
I quickly went and did my business. As the sun rose I went to have a look at what was holding up the traffic. After passing about fifty huge buses and trucks on their way to Kalaw, Inle and Taunggyi, I finally came to the source of the problem.
A truck overloaded with cabbages had tried to pass another large truck on a corner and the edge of the road had crumbled after the unexpected heavy rain. The truck was lucky to still be on the road, the front left tire hung over a drop that quickly disappeared into the mist.
Everyone was standing around and it didn’t look like anything was happening. I started envisioning being stuck on this red muddy road for days and decided to grab my small bag and head to the other side of the traffic jam. Twenty miles wasn’t that far, I convinced myself, plus surely there would be cars on the other side willing to pick me up and take me the rest of the way to Kalaw. A young fellow, Zaw Kennedy, opted to go with me as he needed to get to Taungyii for his grandfather’s funeral. After a bit of a jungle trek we did indeed manage to get a small truck passing by to pick us up and quite a while later found ourselves being dropped off outside the market in Kalaw, vastly relieved that the truck had shown up as it had started raining again.
Parting our ways I found a small stall in the market selling Shan noodles –delicious rice noodles in a curried chicken broth with a soft yellow lentil tofu that is unique to Shan State, served with pickled mustard greens and shallots. I had been hungry for this dish for the last three years, ever since I had last been in Kalaw. It was ten in the morning by the time I left the central market and stumbled onto the vegetable market which is on a five day rotation system and moves in a circuit to villages in the area around Kalaw. Delighted at my unexpected stroke of luck I thrust myself amongst the crowds of shoppers, and stumbled over and through the muddy puddles in the pathways between the small stalls filled with vegetables, fruits, dried and fresh meats and other interesting snacks and gadgets.
Before too long I was struck by the bright colors of a Pa-O woman (one of the many hill tribe groups that live in the area) sitting straight and confident behind three equally bright pyramids of spices. The golden vibrant color of the middle pyramid was shaped and smoothed, seeming to replicate the shape of the golden stupas of the millions of pagodas scattered all over Myanmar. I found the radiant deep orange-saffron glow shining in the gray misty day just as awe inspiring and spiritually uplifting as the gleaming golden Shwedagon which protects and inspires Yangon. “Sa Nyin la?” I asked her desperately trying to recall my limited knowledge of the Myanmar language “Is it turmeric?” Her ageless face lit up into a glowing smile.