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Maymyo/Pyin Oo Lwin, Former British Hill Station

Maymyo/Pyin Oo Lwin, Former British Hill Station

Certainly the most ‘unburmese’ yet one of the best known cities and favourite tourist sites in Burma is a formerly very small Shan-Danu village that the locals call ‘Pyin Oo Lwin’. It is located in the Shan hills, some 42 miles/68 kilometres north-east of and some 3.220 ft/976 metres higher than Mandalay from where to get here takes about 2.5 hours by car. Starting in Mandalay one has first to pass the plain north of Mandalay and then drive through the steadily climbing foothills of the Shan mountains.

What Pyin Oo Lwin (1.070 metres/3.510 feet above sea level) has in common with Nurwaelya in Sri Lanka and Dajiling in India are three things: they are all hill stations, have all a pleasant temperate weather and are all very British. This because all of them were created by the British as a reminder of the ‘Old Country’.

What Pyin Oo Lwin was and still is it owes to the facts that it lies at a strategically important point in Upper Burma, that it has an even during and at the height of the hot season very pleasant ‘European’ micro-climate and to a British officer of the Royal Bengal Infantry: Colonel May.

After the last member of the Konbaung dynasty and last and very cruel Burmese King Thibaw (under whose short, seven-years merciless reign (1878 to 1885) every year many thousands of Burmese were murdered) had spend little time to severely alienating the British by, among others, sending his forces into the territory of then British India. Upper Burma was within two weeks effortlessly occupied by the British colonial forces in 1885 and Colonel May stationed at the hill station of Pyin Oo Lwin in 1887. He ‘founded’ the town, then named in combination of his name ‘May’ and the Burmese term for town ‘Myo’, ‘Maymyo’, which is the name the town is mainly known by especially outside Burma.

Maymyo, the small town with its many Tudor-style brick and timber houses that has once been Burma’s best known and most popular hill station has plenty to offer to both foreign visitors and locals. This also goes for its surroundings – well known for their natural beauty made of and comprising green, tree-covered hillsides and picturesque waterfalls.

Something that immediately upon arrival in Maymyo catches the eye is the somewhat out-of-place and out-of-time appearing mode of transportation; very romantic, horse/pony-drawn, brightly painted and picturesque enclosed miniature coaches from bygone times. These carriages offer sufficient space to sit in for two passengers but get a bit overcrowded with four adult passengers squeezed into it.

Depending on the view one takes or equation one prefers they are looking like coming just out of either London’s pre-automobile streets or the American Wild West’s Wells Fargo days. However, the stage coach is Maymyo’s chief means of transport. Around town the ride in them is a little bumpy on the hard seats, though. But that quickly pales into insignificance against the backdrop of this small but in many aspects still so very ‘British’ town.

The main attraction and centrepiece of the town – though not located in the centre of the town – is the on the day of its opening in 1917 some 170 acres and in present days some 472 acres/175 hectare large Botanical Gardens, now called ‘Kandawgyi National Gardens’, that include a some 70 acres big lake.

This extremely beautiful botanical garden and magnet for locals as well as foreigners would – although it is been significantly enlarged since it was first opened – not exist if not the botanist and British forest official Mr. Charles Alex Rogers had created it from 1915 to 1916 with the help of Turkish World War One POW gardeners the British army had made.

There is a little island in the lake located on which is a small stupa. The garden, on the one hand, a natural landscape, on the other hand, a professionally arranged, superficial park, yet not quite either can be given a bird-eye view from the top floor of the 10-storey high ‘Nan Myint Tower’ that is located in it. The tower is built in a style resembling a Burmese watch-tower. From up there one becomes more aware even than while strolling through it on the ground that the garden is a centre of botanical study; a colourful, aesthetically arranged medley of trees, plants and flowers. That is to say, a patchwork of areas of different shades of green comprising meadows and e.g. pines, chestnut trees, oak trees, poplars, interspersed with brightly and differently coloured patches of colourful blossoms of e.g. rhododendron, chrysanthemum and orchids, and so on.

What makes all this natural splendour of both the park and the entire region possible is apart from the expert landscaping and gardening of the park the rich soil combined with the very favourable micro-climate of this mountainous region that is much cooler (by up to 18 Celsius-degrees) than the hot plains but never so cold that it freezes although it can get quite chilly here For this reason visitors coming from the hot plain to Maymyo/Pyin Oo Lwin should be reminded that bringing along socks and pullover is definitely advisable.

It is this perfect climate that effected two things. Firstly, that all varieties of trees, plants, flowers, fruits and vegetables, both native and European are sprouting here in abundance and year-round and that, secondly, here is a very pleasant living environment for humans.

The perfect, temperate weather results in the fact, that Maymyo/Pyin Oo Lwin and the area surrounding it is a main supplier of high-quality vegetables, fruits, coffee and flowers not only for the town itself and the lowland markets in closer vicinity (what includes Mandalay) but also farther and far-away towns and cities including even Yangon.

Speaking of fruits. The Europeans’ – and especially British – favourite fruit that makes up the genus ‘Fragaria’ of the family ‘Rosachilaensis’, commonly known as ‘strawberry’, is growing here galore throughout the cooler months of the year. Surely, what therefore immediately springs to the mind of Western early post WW II generations visiting this town is the 1967 Beatles-world hit ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’.

The very pleasant living environment results in the fact that Maymyo/Pyin Oo Lwin was soon after being occupied by the British transformed into a retreat for European, predominantly British- business people, civil servants and military personnel, in consequence of which many companies and private persons started to build smaller and larger ‘English country mansion-style’ houses. Not only are many of them still standing but they are also strikingly good preserved in their original architecture. Other houses, however, are architectural marked by a strange, yet interesting and more often than not even beautiful English-Indian style-mix.

The town is dotted with a total number that may well exceeds 100 of these Edwardian and Tudor style teak wood and brick buildings that stand solemn witness to Maymyo’s colonial era. One of them is the ‘Canda Craig’, the former chummery of the ‘Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation’ (BBTC), in present-day Maymyo/Pyin Oo Lwin the ‘Thiri Myaing Hotel’.

By the by, it was a dispute over the exploits of the Bombay Burmah Trading Company between the Burmese king Thibaw and the British that made the British draw the line what, in turn, led to the third Anglo-Burmese war and,finally, to the founding of Maymyo.

That the BBTC was engaged in wood industry-based business (teak logging) becomes evident through the plenty of teak-wood that was used when constructing this wonderful building in English country mansion style. A notable masterpiece of carpentry is the sweeping staircase that leads from the lobby up to the first floor.

The Canda Craig has lost much of its appeal without the deceased Mr. Bernhard, the chummery cook from the colonial era who was the soul of it all. Nevertheless it still bears a lot of very British features not only as regards the building as such with its big fireplace, the ‘Hedera helix’ (ivy) covered ground-floor walls and the beautiful garden in which it is embedded in and surrounded by, but also in its offerings: Morning Tea, ‘Fife-o’clock-Tea’, Roast beef, log-fire in the fire place (when it is too cold), the lot.

But there is yet one more British element. As rumour has it, the Canda Craig is haunted by ghosts. But this is nothing to worry about. It may well be Mr. Bernhard’s ghost, roaming the premises in his last ditch attempt to uphold British tradition. After all, what could be more British than a haunted house? By the by, in the early 1970s the in 1941 in America born novelist and travel writer, Paul Theroux lodged as described in his in 1975 published book ‘The Great Railway Bazaar’ in the Canda Craig. Theroux won in 1982 the ‘James Tait Black Memorial Prize’ for his book ‘The Mosquito Coast’ that was 1986 made into a film, starring Harrison Ford),

One of Maymyo’s/Pyin Oo Lwin’s other signs of its colonial era is, apart from the previously mentioned Edwardian, Victorian and Tudor style buildings located among other on the Mandalay-Lashio Road – the ‘Purcell Tower’, Maymyo’s clock tower, a copy of the clock tower in Cape Town/South Africa. The Purcell Tower that is located on the Mandalay-Lashio Road in the town’s centre (opposite the market) is just like her kin in Cape Town a present of Queen Victoria who lived from 1819 to 1901.

Queen Victoria was seemingly a stickler for punctuality for she has presented a lot of other clock towers to a lot of other towns during her reign. The Purcell Tower’s bell chimes the same 16-note-tune in hour-intervals that is to hear from its 13.5 tons weighing brother ‘Big Ben’ in the House of Parliament’s (London) 320 feet/98 metres high clock tower.

The town’s main street, the High Street, being part of the famous ‘Burma Road’, linking India’s Assam with China’s Yunnan – is lined with a large number of partly Tudor-style houses and partly buildings of indefinable architecture. The people living in these houses are, as the rest of the town’s inhabitants, a melting-pot of different ethnic groups and nationalities such as Burmans, Shans and sub-tribes, Chinese and to a large degree Indians and Nepalese, descendants of the Indians and Nepalese Ghurkhas of the British-Indian army who put down roots here after the war.

These people still keep up some of the old traditions in both their private lives and their work as hoteliers, waiters, gardener, coach-driver, etc.

The multi-nationality of the population is reflected in its multi-religiousness. Christians, Buddhists and Moslems, all have their own places to worship their respective deity/deities. The on the town’s north-eastern outskirts situated beautiful Chinese Temple (a 10-minutes stroll from the Canda Craig) with the bright yellow roofs covering its several buildings, the huge green mosque on High street (close to the Purcell Tower), three churches, the Gothic-style brig-structure of the ‘Shwe Hnalone Taw Catholic Church’ (which is the translation of the original English name ‘Sacred Heart Church’ into Burmese), the ‘Immaculate Conception Church’ and the ‘St. Michaels Church’ as well as the picturesque ‘Maha Anhtoo Kantha Paya’, are all remarkable examples of this.

The ‘Maha Anhtoo Kantha Pagoda’ (Pagoda of the reluctant Buddha), from the wall surrounding it and its terrace to its orb-crowned vane dressed in a combination of dazzling white and shiny gold, is by definition a ‘Uddisaka Zedi’ as it is enshrining an image of the Gautama Buddha.

The pagoda is at the time of this writing scarcely 40 years old and the incident that has led to its coming to be is as strange as it is note-worthy. Here is the story.

A China-bound truck coming from Mandalay laden with three very heavy Buddha images made of marble, passed through Maymyo/Pyin Oo Lwin when for whatever reason one of the images obviously decided not to continue its journey anymore and to put down roots in Maymyo. It simply dropped off the truck on a hill-top just outside the town and landed on the ground without suffering any damage. It successfully resisted all following attempts of being loaded back on the truck and (logically?) the easiest solution to the problem seemed to be to build the Maha Anhtoo Kantha around the Buddha image to give it a new and permanent home.

Another pagoda, the ‘Naung Kan Gyi Pagoda’, is situated on a hill-top north of the town. From here one has an impressive view over Maymyo/Pyin Oo Lwin and the surrounding hill sides.

Other points of interest outside Maymyo/Pyin Oo Lwin are the ‘Dat Taw Gyike waterfall’, the ‘Pwe Kyauk waterfall’, located some 8 kilometres/5 miles out of town in Lashio direction, the Wetwun Waterfall’, some 24 kilometres/15 miles outside town, and the more spectacular ‘Anisakan Waterfall’ in Anisakan village, which is located some 8 kilometres/5 miles away in direction Mandalay.

The Anisakan is a five-part waterfall, the part in the centre being the most spectacular one.

Also well-worth being visited is the ‘Peik Chin Myaung Buddha Cave’ complex with a waterfall cascading out of the cave’s mouth. The cave’s main shrine with its stalactites growing down from the ceiling is about one mile away from the cave’s entrance. It houses – surrounded by other statues – a Gautama Buddha image in a seated mudra posture. This ‘Bhumisparsha mudra’ position is showing Gautama Buddha calling on mother earth to stand witness to his moment of Enlightenment.