It was dark when the rickety old train pulled to a stop. Pyin Oo Lwin’s railway station received its last train for the day. Very few foreign tourists disembarked here. Most were going to Mandalay. On the crowded platform, the residents and regular visitors dispersed rapidly. I tried not to look lost; fortunately, getting a taxi was no problem.
At slightly over 1,000m elevation, Pyin Oo Lwin (formerly Maymyo) was considerably cooler than Hsipaw. With most of its attractions under the cover of darkness when I arrived, the town looked rather nondescript until the taxi came to the Mandalay-Lashio highway at Ruby Mart, a modern shopping mall. It was like walking into an ambush. Traffic slowed to a crawl.
Loud music and flashing lights erupted before the building. There was a riotous concert happening in front of Ruby Mart. Like a boat sailing through a storm, the taxi slowly inched its way to the hotel. I got down and was ready to throw down my bags and hit the showers when the manager gave me a puzzled look.
I had a booking with Hotel Thuzar, but their rooms were already full. How did that happen? Well, it seemed that the booking app did not register a request from the hotel to close their bookings. Thanks to the miscommunication, I managed to get a booking when they were already full.
My arrival at Pyin Oo Lwin clashed with the Tazaungdaing festival. It’s a bit like Thailand’s Loy Krathong and involved the release of hot air balloons, lots of dancing, feasting, drinking, loud music – you get the picture. The manager assured me that I would have no chance of finding a room anywhere in Pyin Oo Lwin.
I was practically in shock, feeling like an evicted tenant. At least the evicted tenant might still be able to find some alternative accommodation. I was stuck in fully booked Pyin Oo Lwin on Tazaungdaing! Gosh, I thought my sleeping bag was going to come in handy after all.
The manager asked me if I would mind sleeping in the spa for a night (no charges). For a moment, that seemed like the only alternative to sleeping on the streets – until the hotel owner found out what happened and cleared out of her room at the hotel to stay with her relative. I was overwhelmed by this kind gesture and almost felt like hugging them.
While the owner of the hotel cleared out of her room, I had a very mediocre fried rice at the restaurant upstairs. Most of the staff here were not as impressive as those at the Merchant Art at Yangon (English standard was poor compared even to Hsipaw), but the manager’s quick thinking and accommodating attitude of the owner really blew me away. Actually, the manager had advised me to have dinner at the food court at Ruby Mart. I could have taken that advice, but after going through this ordeal, I wasn’t in the mood to be entertained by the quaking dance music.
Back from dinner, I was soon shown to my room. Mercifully, the music across the road at Ruby Mart died down at about 22:00. It had been an exhausting 6 hour train ride from Hsipaw and I wasted no time to tuck in and recharge.
I woke up to a cool, rainy morning. It’s not exactly pouring, but the grey skies strained out a chilling, depressing drizzle. It was 17 deg C. For a moment, I was puzzled as to why the British built a hill station in a place that reminded them of dim and gloomy London. I whipped out my trusty brolly and navigated my way to the Highway King Indian Restaurant for something familiar. Chapati with chicken curry.
By my exacting standards, this was very mediocre Indian food. The curry tasted like it was refrigerated. I was beginning to regret coming here when the skies cleared up and the sun peered through. The charm and beauty of Pyin Oo Lwin could finally be unveiled and appreciated.
It’s a town of smooth and relatively clean roads, not as British and tight-knit as Shimla in India, but just as pleasant. With a harmonious blend of indigenous and imported faiths, there were churches and temples at every corner. Reluctant to part with the romantic past, there were still horses and horse-drawn wagons plying the streets. In tune with dreams, romance and honeymoons, some of them resembled what Cinderella’s fairy godmother might have arrived in. I wonder if it’s safe to ride one of these close to midnight.
When the Burma Road 滇缅公路 was an important lifeline conveying military supplies from the US and the UK to China during the Sino-Japanese War, this road was built and maintained by labourers brought from India, many whose descendants still live in Pyin Oo Lwin and practise Indian Hinduism. Hence you’ll find familiar-looking Hindu temples at this former British hill station. Sadly, as my breakfast experience demonstrated, many of the secrets of Indian cuisine have apparently been lost. Besides labourers, the British also brought several battalions of Gurkha soldiers, many of whose descendants still live here.
Pyin Oo Lwin’s cool climate is also conducive to the cultivation of fruits like strawberries and oranges. The fruit stalls here display a dazzling variety of fresh fruits and it appeared to be avocado season when I was there. If fruits can rot nobly, why let them rot ignobly? So where there are fruits, there will be wines. That’s one thing that Pyin Oo Lwin is also famous for. The wine shops here display a colourful array of fruit wines apart from the usual grape-based wines. With limited capacity, I’ve only tried the strawberry wine. It was drinkable and would make a decent dessert wine, but nothing to shout about.
Quaint and charming, Pyin Oo Lwin can be place to sit back, relax and watch the world go by in the comfort of a cafe. It could also be a place for writers to read, write or watch a movie. Of course, not far out of town, you can even get adventurous. A 30min motorbike taxi ride would take you to the doorstep of the legendary Tat Daw Gyaint Falls. It’s worth the trip.
The rider of the motorbike taxi stopped his bike at a car park opposite a temple. He would wait for me and for 2 hours. There path to the waterfall was steep, slippery and winding. A few motorcycle taxis waited to ferry visitors up and/or down the path. Clearly, this was their territory and the driver from Pyin Oo Lwin did not dare bring me all the way to the bottom of the valley even though it was technically doable. He waited at an eatery next to the car park.
It took me a good 30 mins of slow walking to get to the bottom of the lush valley. Along the way, random guides and more ferry services appeared. There were also some makeshift cafes offering snacks and refreshments. The final approach was breathtaking (check out video). The sheer volume of the water and the dramatic plunge didn’t disappoint me at all. There appeared to be two sources, a narrower one right on top and a wider one below. The upper stream plunged straight down and the other spread out from the sides. A masterpiece indeed. The fine spray of water can be refreshing or annoying, depending on your state of mind, but this is obviously not a good place to meditate. That notwithstanding, Tat Daw Gyaint is definitely the most impressive waterfall I saw on this trip.
After the long way down, there was the long way up. It’s not too tiring if you can afford to do it slowly. There are actually many more places to explore in the area, but with limited time and since this is just an exploratory trip, I had to be selective.
To me, the biggest attraction back in town ought to be the very beautiful Kandawgyi Gardens where many kinds of flowers bloom all year round. If Singapore’s Botanic Gardens were vying for some award, we better pray that the judges don’t see it, especially during the flower festival held here every December.
My only complaint? There could have been a little more serenity here. But then, it was the Tazaungdaing festival after all. The gardens charge an entrance fee that is well worth it. Like me, the plants here thrive on the cool weather, blooming beautifully, inspiring poets and musicians, leading them into a dreamy trance that is sadly not sustainable with the distracting noise and the crowds. There was also a road show going on near the entrance. They were promoting locally made wine coolers. Thirsty customers swarmed around the makeshift stalls like bees dancing to the techno music being played from huge speakers. Yes, this is a classy place which attracts affluent Burmese people.
Some distance from the water’s edge, just beyond the furry grass and the manicured part of the park, is the natural forest into which some courting couple needing a bit of privacy can disappear into. The swans were perfectly at home here, trustingly nibbling off the hands of children with food. Some took to the air, enjoying the freedom for a moment, then settling down at the other end of the lake to greet a different pair of feeding hands.
Near the western corner of the park, is the Nan Myint Tower. 12 storeys high, there are great aerial views to be had even as one ascends the tower, spiraling 360 degrees upwards. Unfortunately for the unfit, the lift has not been working for a while, but unless the workout is going to kill you, it’s well worth the effort to climb up.
Tucked in a relatively secluded corner, is an orchid garden exhibiting a rich variety of stunningly “remodelled” orchids as well as some wild, virginal, inconspicuous varieties. By then, I had spent almost an entire day at the gardens. Deciding that I’d had enough, I crossed the road to check out another one of Pyin Oo Lwin’s attractions.
Just opposite the entrance to Kandawgyi Gardens, is the National Landmarks Garden. It’s something like a miniature Myanmar with significant landmarks shrunk into sizes that allow them to fit into the park. Some of the models were quite impressive. I thought the replica of Mandalay Fort looked better than the real thing. Yangon City Hall was also quite impressive. The lame ones would include the Myanmar Himalayas, Goteik Viaduct, Kyaikhtiyo (golden rock) and the grossly simplified Shwedagon Pagoda.
I returned to Ruby Mart to do some shopping. The range of goods stocked here are comparable to many supermarkets in Thailand. They even have Japanese products.
Yes, this is a part of Myanmar perched high up on the Shan Palteau almost 700km from Yangon, and just 141km from bucolic Hsipaw, it’s a world apart. Since the British left, Pyin Oo Lwin opened for business for the locals and over the years, it has become a favourite destination for well-heeled Burmese. Few Western backpackers visit or stay for very long in this town. This explains why budget accommodation is not easy to come by and service providers seldom need to deal with English-speaking tourists. At a restaurant where I had dinner on my second night, their English was as rudimentary as my Burmese. The menu had some Chinese but their Chinese was virtually zero. An irony for such an upmarket town, but then, their target customers are mostly local tourists.
A nice Chinese dinner (with beer) was followed by some chocolates for dessert and a bottle of strawberry wine. What more can a man ask for? Ah yes, I know. The weather was fine the next morning. I had breakfast at the hotel, checked out and asked the hotel to call a shared taxi for me. Unfortunately, I was told that all the shared taxis had already been booked. Picking up my backpack, I walked down the Mandalay-Lashio highway until I reached the makeshift transport hub with a ticket booth that looked more like a mobile toilet. A “taxi” in the form of a pickup truck was ready to leave for Mandalay.
A seat at the back cost 1500 kyat. The seat in front cost 2000 kyat (about S$2). It was not a difficult choice, but as it turned out, I was not the only one who wanted the front seat. Fortunately or unfortunately, I ended up sharing the front seat with a young lady. She’s a trainee teacher in Mandalay and she was visiting her family in Pyin Oo Lwin during the festival. After a two hour ride which could have been boring but made infinitely more pleasant by the animated conversation with my new friend, I arrived at Mandalay. It has been 15 years since my last visit to this city.