Monday 30 January 2017

Myanmar Journey Part Three - To Pyin Oo Lwin By Motorcycle

I had a free day in Mandalay and after receiving a message from friend who had been in Myanmar several years ago, I decided to visit Pyin Oo Lwin, a small town 80 kilometres away and a former Hill Station during the British colonial period. 

There are several ways of getting to Pyin Oo Lwin from Mandalay but feeling adventurous I decided to invest the equivalent of $50 in taking a motorcycle taxi there and back.  This involved perching on the back of a motor cycle for a four hours round trip, sharing the road with huge goods carrying lorries, smaller trucks packed with people going to work or to markets, cars, cars, cars and even the occasional bicycle or tuk-tuk. Despite this and the terrible stiffness I felt when dismounting, it was a great way to travel and allowed me to see much more than other forms of transport would, as we proceeded to our destination.

You monks collecting the rice, Mandalay.
I knew it would be a good day when whilst waiting for the bike and driver to arrive, a long line of young monks passed my hotel on their early morning round to collect the rice. My hotel was just a few metres away from the River Ayeyarwady and there was still a little morning mist as they passed by, barefoot and in their deep red garments, some smiling, others more serious. There are more than 500,000 Buddhist monks in Myanmar and all Buddhist men will spend at least some part of their lives in a monastery.

My driver arrived punctually at 7.15 and we began our journey north. In recent years, many of Mandalay's citizens have replaced their bicycles with motor scooters due to the availability of cheap imports from China.  We began our journey by threading through the thousands of motorcyclists on their way to school or to work. I am used to sitting (or more likely standing) in a packed underground train but this was something new for me. Many of the motorcyclists appear to be in their mid teens, few wear crash helmets and my driver complained that many do not know the rules of the road. Let's just say that there was plenty of evidence to support his assertions!

Flower market near Mandalay
An unusual flower stall!
There is a morning flower market just outside the city and we made a brief stop to admire the yellow, white and purple dahlias, chrysanthemums, tulips and other brightly coloured flowers. Almost all of the traders are women who come from the surrounding towns and villages, very early in the morning, staying until well after sundown. The stalls are arranged on the central reservation and at the sides of a frantically busy road system. This does not seem to worry the hundreds of enthusiastic customers but having once been hit by a car in Bangkok, I am ultra cautious in crossing roads. This must have shown because the driver took my arm and for the second time in Myanmar, someone helped me across the road. Physically.

On we went and the last stretch of the journey is an uphill climb with great views and alternatively sparklingly fresh air and choking dust thrown up from the heavy traffic or quarrying works going on at the side of the road. About half an hour away from Pyin Oo Lwin we stopped at a petrol station for a coffee, a comfort break and "to give the bike a rest". I was given a mug of hot water and a sachet of "2 in 1" coffee (instant coffee already containing sugar) which was passable but that could have been due to my throat being extra dry from the dust on the road.  Cigarettes were being sold singly whilst  rum and whisky were also available, all being sold by young women who bring cellophane wrapped snacks and  sandwiches to the table to tempt hungry travelers. Most contain pork so not for me.

Fruit sellers near Pyin Oo Lwin
Nearer to Pyin Oo Lwin we stopped again. I made a quick visit to a local temple to admire the view from its hilltop location and then had a quick look in the local market and shops where I had my first site of the fruit, vegetables, jams and preserves for which this part of Myanmar is well known. I bought bananas from a group of local women selling fruit and vegetables and wearing conical hats designed to keep off the sun. They asked me where I am from and my reply of "London" received a friendly response. They let me take their picture but not before one of the women removed her hat, re-arranged her hair and assumed a serious expression for the camera.

Pyin Oo Lwin itself is a positive delight. Previously called Maymyo, the British established a hill station here at the end of the nineteenth century, coming here to escape the summer heat of Yangon (then Rangoon) and Mandalay. Pyin Oo Lwin does not suffer from the extreme temperatures of the larger cities further south. The climate is so comfortable that strawberries, plums, damsons and avocados and their respective jams and pickles are produced here and then sold in the market or at the roadside. Local honey is easy to find too.

At this point in my trip, I had become addicted to Myanmar's markets - the colours, the atmosphere and the aromas. Pyin Oo Lwin has a huge market selling just about everything - fruit, vegetables, spices, bamboo goods, electrical appliances, medicines and sweaters. Lots of sweaters. The town is famous for its warm and colourful sweaters that are just right for its relatively cold winters.

Central Market, Pyin Oo Lwin
Shopping for bananas, Central Market, Pyin Oo Lwin
On the subject of food, by the time we arrived in Pyin Oo Lwin I was ready for something to eat. Choosing a small cafe I sat down and ordered a cold drink, tea and a simple omelette with chillies and tomatoes. After a few minutes I was approached by an elderly man who greeted me with "Good morning" and asked me "Where are you from" in perfect English and with an impressive old fashioned BBC accent. My reply of "London" produced an enthusiastic response - "London. A wonderful city. You are British then?". "Yes". I replied. "Well you will be wanting chips with your omelette then won't you?" he continued. "Er, yes, why not". He ordered some chips for me, smiled and wished me a good day before leaving. So I had chips too.

Hindu Temple, Pyin Oo Lwin
Interior detail, Hindu Temple, Pyin Oo Lwin
Enough with the food. The town's main street is lined with a variety of shops and cafes as well as a large Buddhist temple, an equally large mosque and various government institutions and offices. Turning off the main drag I found myself in a series of little streets where there are sill some wooden houses, a surprising number of guest houses and small hotels, small shops and businesses and a beautiful Hindu Temple. Located in a quiet back lane, the temple is covered inside and out in the brightest of reds, blues, greens, yellows and pinks whilst inside there are shrines to and sculptures of the various Hindu deities. There were few worshippers present at the time of my visit and I was able to sit quietly for a while before returning to the street.

Mosque, Pyin Oo Lwin
Colorful houses near the Central Market, Pyin Oo Lwin
As I said earlier, the British established a presence here during the colonial period. There are enduring signs of this across the town with various administrative buildings in the centre and several large houses on the outskirts. Perhaps the most famous of these is Candicraig, built in 1906 and originally owned by the Bombay Burmah Trading Company who used it as a chummery or bachelor quarters for their workers. Candicraig was constructed in brick and teak and is set in extensive gardens. Standing outside the house, it is not difficult to believe that you are in Surrey or one of the other home counties. Today it is an hotel. At the time of my visit it was closed for renovation. 

All Saints Church, consecrated in 1914 is another reminder of the colonial past but still has an active Anglican congregation. The church had strong connections to the British army and following the Second World War a garden of remembrance was established in the grounds.

All Saints Church
Lake and pagoda, National  Kandawagyi Gardens 
The built heritage of the city is partly a legacy of the British period, but perhaps the most significant symbol of those times are the stunning National Kandawagyi Gardens. Originally the idea of Alex Roger a forest research officer who worked with Lady Cuffe, a botanist connected with Kew Gardens, the site was established as botanical gardens in 1915. It covers 240 acres and is today owned by the state.

Joining the many locals strolling through the gardens, I could recognize the Kew connection with the beautiful manicured lawns, many different trees and plants and even a little tea shop. However, Kandawagyi has something Kew is unlikely to ever have. Whilst walking through a forested part of the gardens, I could hear movement above. At first I thought it was the sound of bark being shed. And indeed bark was falling intermittently from some of the trees but to my surprise when I looked more carefully, I could clearly see an adult monkey moving from tree to tree closely followed by a second smaller, but still adult looking monkey. I soon realised they were a couple when I spotted the baby that the female was gripping whilst expertly moving from branch to branch and on into the park. There are larger forests nearby and it is likely that they had strayed from there in search of food. How unexpected to see a family of monkeys walking on the roof of the aviary in search of dinner!

Kandawagyi also has an extensive orchid garden, a large collection of butterflies, a jungle walkway, a bamboo forest and a pagoda from which to view the surrounding area. On leaving the Gardens, my driver wanted to stock up on betel to keep him going on the way back to Mandalay. He bought them outside the park from a neat little stall operating under the name Betel Gentleman. There is also a very good cafe close to the Gardens on the way back into the town centre. It has a range of good coffees and teas and to my delight a rather fabulous selection of cakes and desserts. Woo hoo. I chose the creme caramel to go with my strong black coffee. I was not disappointed.

Orchid garden, Kandawagyi
Betel Gentleman - buy your betel here!
And then it was time to spend another two hours on the motor cycle to return to Mandalay. The journey was to include a final treat of seeing another Myanmar sunset with its glorious deep orange sky. I arrived back at the hotel tired, saddle sore but happy. Going straight to my room I found that the electronic key wasn't working, so I returned to reception for it to be re-activated. The young woman on the desk asked me what I'd done that day and wished me a good evening. I went back to my room to get washed and changed for dinner. Looking in the mirror I saw that my face was covered in thick dust, arranged very nicely around the outside of my glasses, giving me a kind of panda effect. The receptionist had not batted an eyelid.

You might also like Myanmar Journey Part One - Yangon or Myanmar Journey Part Two - The Road To Mandalay

You can see more pictures of Myanmar here.

Burmese Design And Architecture by John Falconer and others and published by Periplus is an excellent introduction to the art and architecture of Myanmar. You can buy it here.

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