Rediscovering Hill Stations around the Mekong

Proudly contributed by Luc Citrinot

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Pyinh Oo Lwin Governor Summer Residence (Myanmar)

Pyinh Oo Lwin Governor Summer Residence (Myanmar)

Escaping the terrible humidity and sticky weather of cities during the summer was an obsession for Europeans settling hundred years ago in Asia during colonial times. From India to Indonesia, from Burma to the Philippines, Westerners looked at mountainous areas in the vicinity of large cities. They then created hill resorts which often became miniature versions of their own cities in Europe. British were the first to start Hill Stations in Indian Himalayas. In the Greater Mekong Sub-region, they are plenty of hill stations in Vietnam and Myanmar while Cambodia, Laos and even Thailand have a few…

Hill Stations are just a trip along memory lane with their grand imperial structures in British run colonies or their distinctive French elegance in Indochina. They were all built first for health reasons with sanatoriums or for agriculture purposes such as tea or fruits plantations. They then turned increasingly into elegant holiday retreats for colonial elites to imbue the “civilized’ grandeur of Western powers at that time. Fortunately, these times are gone and these stations can be considered as attractive tourism destinations.

Around the Greater Mekong Sub-region, Burmese Pyin Oo Lwin-Maymyo during the British time, near to Mandalay- Kalaw, or even Kengtung in Shan State are typical incarnation of British India hill stations with their half-timbered mansions, neo-gothic churches and grand structures such as schools, museums and public administrations. Pyin Oo Lwin is probably the most interesting with visitors with many villas being turned into hotels and special circuits in horse carts.

In Vietnam, Dalat incarnated the utmost colonial hill station during French times. The small city was built by French due to its cool climate. Up to today, Dalat has been able to retain its French atmosphere. Vietnam emperor’s  colonial villas are still there and have been converted into hotels. Along its gardens, visitors will admire Normandy style villas, grand churches, a pictorial rail station and an art deco palace built for the emperor.

Villa Blanche, French Governor Summer Residence, in Vung Tau, Vietnam

Villa Blanche, French Governor Summer Residence, in Vung Tau, Vietnam

In Northern Vietnam, Sapa used to be considered as an almost Alpine station as temperatures in winter can fall down to 0/2°. Average temperature hovers around 15° to 22°. Few of the colonial atmosphere of the city remains today as it was largely destroyed by air raids by French troops during the Indochina War in the early fifties. Tam Dao – also in Northern Vietnam- and Ba Na Hills have also been heavily damaged by war and if not by fights- by real estate speculation. In South Vietnam, Big Mountain over the city of Vung Tau used to be a cooling residential area with many colonial villas dominating the former Cape Saint Jacques. To be visited is the old Villa Blanche (White House). On a promontory, the house offers a beautiful view over the bay and the city and used to be the summer residence of the French General Governor.

In Cambodia, the only true hill station is Bokor, located in the national park carrying the same name. Little remains from the grand colonial style station today except a church and the former Bokor Palace Hotel which is now being restored. The beautiful colonial hotel became also a casino in the early sixties. The restored property still waits for a future use…But views per the Gulf of Siam and Kampot are just amazing!

In Laos, Luang Prabang could be in a way be very close to a hill station. Being reaffirmed as a royal residence for Laotian kings by the French during the time of the protectorate, the small city surrounded by hills benefits from a cooler climate than Vientiane. And with its mix of colonial villas and vernacular temples, the city offers all the character of a laid-back tranquil town.

Phra Kakon Khiri Palace, Petchaburi

Phra Nakhon Khiri Palace, Petchaburi

And finally what about Thailand. Of course, Siam was not colonized but there is one location in the country which used to serve as a cooling retreat to Siam kings: Phra Nakhon Khiri National Park used to serve as a summer residence for King Rama IV and is an interesting mix of European-style, Chinese-style and Thai structures with stupas, palaces, an amphitheatre and an observatory tower.

Phetchaburi’s most well-known landmark is located on a 95-meter three peaks with the summer palace finished in 1860. Accessible by cable car, the location provides an eerie feeling, a bit comparable to the strange structures of Bavarian castles in Neuschwanstein and Hohenschwangau.

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