I arrived at Pyin Oo Lwin’s main bus terminal at 5am, the coldest I had felt in a very long time. Why hadn’t I taken note when Paul Theroux had written in The Great Railway Bazaar, about how cold he had been when he had visited this region? I felt now a deep, bone-chilling cold that I had not experienced since living overseas. The tropical climes of Yangon had thrown my senses out: the previous day, I had been wearing a summer dress and wondering whether I had packed enough warm clothes for the frigid nights. I had not.
Pyin Oo Lwin used to be called Maymyo, meaning “May’s Town”after Colonel May who was temporarily stationed there in 1887. Considered the summer capital of the British Raj who were stationed elsewhere in Myanmar, there are grand, if slightly dilapidated, colonial-style mansions all around the main areas of Pyin Oo Lwin. Tourists can even enjoy a ride by horse and carriage as they go on a sight-seeing tour of the estates around Circular Road. The city is still lined with large, grand trees reminiscent of European elms that promise lush shade in the hotter months.
The temperature is notably quite a few degrees cooler, especially in winter, and while I was cold at night, it was delightful to be able to walk around without breaking into a sweat or having to use the air-conditioning during the day. In the early afternoons when I returned to my guesthouse, I took simple pleasure in finding a quiet spot in the garden under a gentle sun to read – something I don’t get a chance to do in bustling, hot Yangon where gardens are rare to find in the downtown suburbs.
Pyin Oo Lwin was often described to me as an old hill station, but really, it is very flat and positioned on a plateau roughly 1000m above sea level. You can easily ride a bicycle around to explore around the town. Riding to the beautiful Kandawgyi botanical gardens was a leisurely activity.
The gardens lend to Pyin Oo Lwin’s reputation as the Flower City. First established in 1915, the 175-hectare botanical garden is now a “protected forest” area, although the forests have long gone. The original site was said to be about 30 acres and modeled after the Kew Gardens in England, but now they stretch out so far, it’s difficult to know whether visitors always make it around the entire expanse of manicured lawn and neatly lined vegetation.
Crops do seem to grow very well in this climate. Pyin Oo Lwin, has become synonymous with being one of the finest producers of 100% Arabica coffee in Myanmar. During the month I was there (in February), strawberries were at their best.
I ate remarkably well in Pyin Oo Lwin: the Shan noodles at San Franciso café near my guesthouse were excellent. You can even find French-style baguettes and great pizza at the Golden Triangle Café, housed on the main road inside a colonial-era movie theatre. The Feel Café, located across the golf course in town, provides excellent choice of food from all around Myanmar. Owned by the town’s mayor, U Soe Myint (among other hotels and restaurants in Pyin Oo Lwin), the quirky eatery features recycled materials that have been converted into furniture; a bathtub has been converted into a dining table, complete with fish tank inside.
The mayor also runs the Viewpoint Hotel – positioned on top of a plunging cliff with amazing views of the Dat Taw Gyi waterfall. There’s a track down a swimming hole where the waterfall crashes down into stupendously, but it is winter and I know the water is cold. I pass on an opportunity to hike down (and back up) for a swim.
The waterfalls and woodlands that surround Pyin Oo Lwin are what I find most charming about the area. It is better to hire a motorbike or a car to explore the outer areas where there are number numerous waterfalls, strawberry fields or coffee plantations that you can visit. There are also many trekking opportunities further up toward Kalaw and Hsipaw, but it is wise to organise a guide, as there can be skirmishes between armed rebel groups and the army along the more northern roads.
Pyin Oo Lwin is a fantastic city that has huge potential. The town committee is planning to rebuild bicycle lanes that were once part of the city’s infrastructure during colonial times. The city was also awarded the ASEAN 2011 Environmentally Sustainable Cities prize for clean air.
There are more plans to fashion the city into a gateway destination – indeed it’s only a two-hour drive to Mandalay and is the main stopover on the Mandalay-Lashio road. The train to Hsipaw also leaves from here and takes you to the deep valleys of the Goteik Viaduct, part of a railway journey that is still inspiring generations many years after it was written about by Paul Theroux.
To get to Pyin Oo Lwin from Yangon:
– A bus journey takes about 10 hours overnight. (Costs about K17,000).
– Or fly from Yangon to Mandalay and take a shared taxi to Pyin Oo Lwin (they leave hourly and will pick you up from your hotel and drop you off at your destination – Costs K6,000 for foreigners).
Story by: Manny Maung