Myanmar Days: Part 2

Posted in 2013, Myanmar by on Feb 20, 2013

Antoine and I took a shared taxi for the two hours up from Mandalay into the former British hill station of Maymyo, now renamed Pyin Oo Lwin. There are two parts of the town. The downtown core is along the main Mandalay to Lashio road that continues into Yunnan in southern China at the border town of Mu-se.  The central core was congested with truck traffic and resembled a somewhat cooler mini-Mandalay.

It was in the leafy older suburbs that the very British appeal of Maymyo came back. The highlight for us  was the Kaundaugyi botanical gardens, and spending the afternoon among the quiet, and now faded, elegance of the quieter suburbs. We had stayed at the Cherry May Inn, charming in its own way, but somewhat inconveniently located about seven kilometers south of downtown Pyin Oo Lwin.

Shortly south of the hotel, however, is the access point to the gorgeous Anisakan Falls. The staff at the hotel took us by free motor taxi to the beginning of the hiking trail.  The hike involved a descent of a little under one hour. The falls come down in three separate cascades. We decided to take the steep alternate route back that allowed us to go to the  top of the falls where another set of waterfalls came  into view. The path was very steep and Antoine and I were accompanied by  three young and slight Burmese girls. As I was going up the steepest sections, I could feel the young girl behind me pushing at my day backpack to help me make my way further up.

The following morning, just at dawn, we were dropped off at Anisakan railway station to take the train to Pwin Oo Lwin. The first 45 minutes to the main town seemed to have been for free. At the station we bought our upper class tickets to Hsipaw, a further six hours away for US$6.

The train is narrow gauge, and the easily the  tippiest and bounciest “rock’n’roll” train I have ever been on.  Yet ultimately it was uncrowded and fun. A little less than half way along the trip, we crossed the Goktiek Viaduct, spanning a dramatic canyon, which had been built by the British in 1904.

Hsipaw is a charmer. Although Lonely Planet ‘s observation about “only a trickle of travelers” making it there is no longer accurate, it felt much more lightly visited than other destinations.

One gently haunting highlight of Hsipaw was visiting the Shan Palace, and talking with the  soft spoken and articulate Fern. There were a handful of other travelers who quietly walked in during the late afternoon and then Fern started to speak.  She initially provides a sense of the history of Shan royalty from a human family perspective, complete with sepia toned family photographs in the living room, and then shifts into the painful history in recent decades starting with the military coup in March 1962, and the killing of the last Shan prince, Sao Kya Hseng  (her husband’s uncle). His death has never been acknowledged officially.  Her husband (Donald is his Anglicized name) was arrested in 2005 and was sentenced to 13 years in prison for operating as an unlicenced tour guide among other charges. She was only allowed one fifteen minute visit every two weeks and had to drive hours to get to the prison.  Donald was released in a general amnesty in 2009.  Even now, this is a place that remains a “word of mouth” destination for those travelers who want to learn more about the country than merely getting the travel guidebook perspective.

The trek from Hsipaw up to the Padaung village of Pankan, was one of the highlights of Myanmar. We were a group of eight and walked with our guide for a little over five hours, stopping briefly in a Shan village, then doing the substantial and often steep hike from roughly 400 meters to 1200 meters. The Padaung  are ethnic Khmers who grow tea up in the higher altitudes of Shan state. Our Shan guide, Maung, noted that of the 20,000 kyat we paid for the tour (about $23) 10,000 goes directly to the community so that the children can go to school for free. The food served in our Padaung home, made only of local ingredients, was perhaps the tastiest I had in all Myanmar. Nine of us slept upstairs on lightly padded thin mattresses.

The following day Antoine and I left before dawn for the one hour motor taxi ride back to Hsipaw. The sun rose just as we went over the high pass of our previous day. From Hsipaw we went up to Lashio, a rather non-descript and dusty city, despite its hilly location. From there we flew to Heho airport and on to the main travelers town for Inle Lake, Nyaungshwe. The city is not on the lake proper, but the lake can be accessed by a several kilometer long canal.

More than any other place in Myanmar, this crowded city packed with visitors, gave an early indication of what much of the rest of touristMyanmar might look in another five years. The ten hour boat trip along Inle Lake was great, but there were hundreds of other boats, from the time we departed to the time we got back, transporting other visitors to different places along the lake. The timing for the entrance from the canal to the lake proper was perfect for photography.  The early morning mists were still rising as the Inle Lake fishermen paddled the boats with one leg while standing, slapping the water with another paddle to scare fish  into the trawl nets that they had set up.  The same phenomenon could be observed ( without the paddle slapping), just before sunset as we returned.

Antoine decided to go to Angkor Wat as I headed, once again by the charming “rock’n’roll” train, to Kalaw. Along with Hsipaw, it is my favourite town in Myanmar. Situated at 4200 feet (Myanmar, along with the USA, is one of the last countries in the world still not converted to metric), Kalaw has a wonderful hill station climate.

Almost all other travelers were trekking to Inle Lake. I decided to head in the opposite direction deeper into the mountains to the Palu  village of Nyaungone. Completely bereft of other travelers or even a single store, and with vistas to additional hills and mountain ranges,  it was a joy to spend a few hours there.

The magic of Myanmar and the charming interpersonal dynamic that is such a feature of travel here, despite occasional discomfort and inconvenience, still exists. I would echo, however, the advice I was given last summer. The time to visit is now.