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Pyin Oo Lwin was founded as the British Hill Station “Maymyo”. The name Maymyo, translating as ‘May Town’, came from Colonel May of the 5th Bengal Regiment who in 1866 established the town as a holiday location for British Army officers based in Mandalay.
Today it has become an increasingly popular weekend getaway destination for the country’s expanding middle-class.
The town is situated on the Shan Plateau about 42 miles northeast of Mandalay. Pyin Oo Lwin is cool all year round and many of the old colonial houses and offices still have a central fireplace for warmth throughout the colder months. The land around Pyin Oo Lwin is extremely fertile and therefore plums, pineapples, damsons and strawberries are all grown here on an industrial scale.
There is also a prolific variety of exotic trees and flowers, and the smell of the eucalyptus plant is rife. For this reason, the town is often referred to as ‘Pan-myo-daw’, meaning ‘City of Flowers’.
Adventurous visitors travelling from Mandalay to Pyin Oo Lwin can wait on the side of 34th Street and listen to the cries of ‘Maymyo! Maymyo!’ to hail a pick-up truck to ascend the infamous Burma Road, which was of such strategic importance to China, Japan and the West during the Second World War.
Alternatively one can reach the town by bus, train, taxi, or private car. At the 21-mile station half-way up one can stop to enjoy the view of Mandalay below and take refreshments at the various food stalls.
Besides taxis or renting a bicycle, visitors to Pyin Oo Lwin can get around the town by horse-and-cart, referred to locally as ‘wagons’. Though one may at first believe these to be purely a touristic mode of transportation, these wagons have actually been clip-clopping around Pyin Oo Lwin since colonial times and today, within the brightly-painted cart led by a horse with its head garlanded in petals, one is more likely to see Burmese cadets from the town’s elite military academy than indulgent tourists.
From Pyin Oo Lwin, many visitors embark upon one of the infamous Burma railway tours, taking the Mandalay-Lashio train into Shan State over the Gokteik Viaduct to go trekking in Hsipaw.
A British presence remains at Pyin Oo Lwin in the form of a variety of well-preserved colonial buildings and the Botanical Garden with flowerbeds identical to those found in a traditional English country garden.
The gardens were laid out by the former Governor of Burma Sir Harcourt Butler and designed by Mr Alex Rodger of the Forest Office in 1915, modelled on Kew Gardens just outside London.
They are now called the “Kandawgyi National Botanical Garden”. Little tribute is paid to its origins but there is a large plaque informing visitors which government minister to thank for the recent renovations which have spruced up the grounds and added a handful of attractions.
The Garden is huge (342 acres) but it is possible to hire a cart to explore it in comfort, visiting features such as the takin enclosure, petrified wood museum, orchid garden, walk-in aviary and viewing tower.
Beyond Pyin Oo Lwin there is the Pwegauk waterfall which is well worth a visit, as are the Peikchin-myaung caves only 15 miles away, and Anisakin falls on the way back down to Mandalay.
Visiting Maymyo in the 1950s, the travel writer Norman Lewis compared the English and French methods of colonial adaption to Southeast Asia. Whereas Lewis found the French were able to achieve ‘an acceptable pastiche’ in the Vietnamese town of Dalat, he found the ‘well-ordered surroundings’ of Maymyo almost too British, describing it as, ‘very clean, hardworking, hard-playing, exaggeratedly national and slightly dull.’
The journalist Andrew Marshall was similarly underwhelmed when he arrived in the 1990s, writing that much of the town ‘had the oddly deserted feel of a museum.’ He goes onto remark:
‘Odder still, all the houses seemed to have been fashioned after my aunt’s place in Reigate. Instead of building airy colonial bungalows, the British put up street after street of red-brick mansions with mock Tudor facades and strategic privet hedges – middle-class dream homes rising from the jungles of South-East Asia. … The houses looked unlived in or unloved, and cycling past their weed-choked driveways felt eerie and dislocating, like visiting Guildford after a mass evacuation.’
Today, exacerbated by the heavy military presence, Pyin Oo Lwin suffers from a pronounced colonial hangover; the genteel residents and lack of chaos has led to its nickname ‘Little England’.
Nowhere is this more evident than at the Botanical Garden on a public holiday. Sparkling clean Chelsea Tractors roll through the front gates out of which file prim families in their Sunday finest, with barely a longyi or streak of thanaka in sight. There are signs around the park prohibiting the chewing of betel-nut, however one imagines that no-one in Pyin Oo Lwin would be tempted to partake in such a filthy habit anyway.
There is no Victorian carousel or bandstand, but one can visit a little pagoda in the middle of the pond, the presence of which is not enough to stop the odd monk in ochre, so ubiquitous throughout Myanmar, appearing slightly incongruous here in the Royal Garden.
In the town, visitors can pop into boulangeries and fine liquor stores and visit the Purcell Clock Tower that chimes like Big Ben on the hour. Outside the centre is the Candacraig Hotel, the finest piece of colonial architecture in Pyin Oo Lwin.
Candacraig served as a hospital during World War Two and before that was a residence for British bachelors employed by the Burmah Trading Company, dubbed the Raj ‘chummery’ by Paul Theroux when he visited for his book The Great Railway Bazaar in the 1970s.
The hotel is now closed and locals believe it to be haunted. This is understandable. There is a decidedly spooky air to its deep red side turrets and cracked wooden veranda.
It was open when Theroux retraced his steps 30 years after his first visit for the sequel Ghost Train to the Eastern Star. He found that barely anything had changed at all; time had stopped still at Candacraig. Throughout Theroux’s journeys from, London to Kyoto, he was shocked by the change that time had wrought on the world.
Not so in Burma, where the lack of change was “shameful to behold.” The emotional climax of the book depicts Theroux in the perfumed rooms of Candacraig, caught somewhere between depression and joy, finding “the past recaptured, like a refuge.“
As it becomes increasingly popular, Pyin Oo Lwin will change, and Candacraig too. The town’s irrefutable character, so idiosyncratic from the rest of Myanmar, pushes us to err from Lewis’ underwhelmed assessment and heartily recommend a visit to Myanmar’s City of Flowers while it still retains its halcyon airs.