We included Pyin Oo Lwin in our itinerary, because we were told that it is a nice town up in the hills, with a big botanical garden. Tired of traveling from city to city, we needed some nature therapy. Going to a big botanical garden was the first step towards it.
From Mandalay we took a shared taxi, that was arranged by our hotel (7000 kyats per person). We first were driving around Mandalay, picking up other passengers and packages to be delivered. It was around noon when we left Mandalay and that made me rather frustrated.
The trip to Pyin Oo Lwin should take around 2 (or 3 hours), depending on traffic. I started to calculate in my mind, if we even had enough time to actually see the botanical garden. We first had to drop off our bags in the guest house and then find a taxi to get to the garden, located on the opposite side of town. Worries, worries, worries. They were absolutely pointless.
We shared a taxi with a guy from Singapore, who was actually born in Myanmar. He said that we should definitely go to the Botanical garden, as there was an annual flower festival taking place. He had tried to go there a day earlier, but the traffic was so bad, that halfway he had decided to go back to Mandalay. It was his second try. That did not make me very confident, but I tried to relax a bit and think in such terms as “going with the flow”.
We were going up and down on serpentines of the hill roads that were taking us closer to our destination. Network coverage was very bad, most of the times even not existing. But once we got a bit higher, we could check, that we were moving quite fast. By that time our companion had convinced the driver of taxi to let us drop our stuff in the guest house and then take us all to the botanical garden. Thanks you, thank you so much for that! (It seemed that the universe had provide us with “a help from the audience”, as our companion helped us with arrangements few other times during our stay in Pyin Oo Lwin).
So we dropped our bags in our colonial mansion and were off to The National Kandawgyi Botanical Gardens. As our companion decided to stay in our guest house too, we learned an interesting fact about Myanmar. It turns out there are two types of accommodation – one for foreigners and one for locals. The ones for foreigners are mostly motels, hotels or guest houses. They have to government approved (foreigners are supposed to say only in government registered places). Comparing to India, logging in Myanmar is expensive. You have to do a very good research and be ready to compromise a lot, if you are willing to stay somewhere under 20 USD per night for double room with a shower. The good thing is that breakfast is usually included in the price – one meal less to pay for. Places for locals are much cheaper, but foreigners are not allowed to stay there, and these places do not appear on such websites as booking.com, agoda.com, etc.
After delivering packages in the centre of the town, taxi driver took us to the botanical garden. We had more than 3 hours to explore the grounds, before the sun set and the closing of the garden. There were indeed a lot of people, but we could at least get in.
For the next hours we wondered around the garden, enjoying the autumn atmosphere. The air in the hill town was much cooler than in Yangon or Bagan. The afternoon sun and park made us feel like we would have traveled back in time. It felt like having a lazy September Sunday walk back in Belgium. Another thing made us feel like back at home. We spotted several kids with cardboard plates filled with fries. My Belgian boyfriend could not resist the temptation – we had to have the fries! It was not hard to find the place. We just had to go against the flow of people having fries in their hands.
It seemed that locals visiting Pyin Oo Lwin were less interested in the garden of flowers than them selves. We saw dozens of selfies taken every single second, every single second(!). And having them selves on the photos was not enough, they wanted us to pose with them too. We were selfie-attacked even by a whole class of 11 year old girls, who were one a school trip. From there on we were trying to avoid any eye contact, as that might be translated as an invitation for a group selfie. It was not very successful though. While we were sitting in the grass and having our fries, some random family just used our weak position, sat around us and posed for another bunch of photos.
Stijn: Because photographing flowers is not something that keeps me entertained for a long time, I did opt to focus on the people taking selfies and photos of each other with their mobile phones. Pwin Oo Lwin did seem to be the selfie capital of the world during our stay. Because I did take so many photos of this very funny social event, a separate post will be dedicated to this curiosity.
We wondered around the park, paying a visit to the orchid garden, having a walk on a wooden path, that was taking us over a small river in between jungle of bushes and bamboos. We wanted to climb the watch tower, but unfortunately it was closed. It was quite nice and nostalgic to realise that most of the flower in the decorative flowerbeds of the garden were exactly the same as in my mum’s.
Stijn: An interesting fact about the orchid garden is that it is only accessible by foreigners. Our Singapore / Myanmar guide also wanted to go in but he couldn’t because for once he made the mistake of asking it in Burmese (and probably also because of the looks). It didn’t occur to us, but later on we do were surprised we were the only ones (except for an older couple of tourists) to be interested in this small part of the park.
When the sun was gone, we headed to the centre of the town to find an ATM and some food. It was the first time on our trip, that we had troubles getting money out of ATM. We tried several – some were broken, some did not accept our cards. After 30 minute search we finally found an ATM, that worked – Yippee! Next quest – the food. That was almost as hard, as finding an ATM, but eventually we decided to have a half an hour walk back towards the botanical garden, as on the way there was supposed to be an OK place. The Club Terrace turned out to be OK indeed. Better than we hoped for. Extra nice was the fact that we did not have to pay for the rice, served with the sauces we picked.
We got back to our mansion. To be honest, we regretted a little bit that we were staying there only for a night. The rooms were located in several big two storey buildings, with big wooden stairs and big corridors. The mansion was build in early 20th century, and was everything like one would imagine an English style countryside complex. It was like traveling back in time. Original wood floors and window frames. We even had a tiny writing chamber with a wooden desk. The only thing missing were horse charts. We could have easily stayed there for a week and do nothing, but readings books, having walks, playing badminton and having afternoon cocktails.
Though there was no heating in our room, the night was a bit chilly. Once again we were thankful, that we had our sleeping bags with us.
Another reason we stopped by Pyin Oo Lwin was because, it was one of the train stops on the way to Gokhteik viaduct. The train departs from Mandalay, but if you get on the train in Pyin Oo Lwin, you can save your self 4 hours of shaky and bumpy train ride. To get to Hsipaw (our next destination), you can sill enjoy 8 hours of Myanmar train experience. That is exactly what we did.
We arrived in the train station on time, the train was supposed to leave a bit after 8 am. It was a little bit late. When it arrived, we still had to wait for about half an hour, as there were more upper class wagons were on the way. Our Myanmar companion helped us to get Upper class tickets, the difference in price is something like 1 USD (we paid less than 4 euros for both of us). Unless you like to have bruises on your butt, upper class seats are very much recommended. The Holy Lonely Planet suggests to get seats on the left side, but in reality it does not really make difference. Those who want, can always get up and peek from the other side. For me the view from both sides looked equally good.
The Goktheik viaduct was constructed at the very end of 19th century, by then it was the largest railway trestle in the world. It is still the highest bridge in Myanmar. It is very impressive. Before the train passes the bridge, it is possible to see it from several spots, as the rails are forming a serpentine gong down a hill. It takes about 3 to 4 hours to get from Pyin Oo Lwin to Goktheik, in the mean while you can enjoy the rural sceneray and food offered by local woman.
Once we got on the bridge the train slowed down (thank God! I would not want the train swing from one side to the other on the high construction). While we were crossing it, I had a feeling, as we would be sitting in one of those trains in children stories. In cartoons and book ilustrations they make the train fly through hills covered with clouds. That is what I pictured, when we were on the bridge.
The train ride is exactly what you read about it – bumpy and very, very shaky. But it was an adventure. The only time I got very scared, was when we were riding between 2 rock walls, the train started to swing from one side to another so hard, that the backpacks, placed above the seats, started to fall down. Lesson learned – buckle your backpack, when taking a train in Myanmar. We passed small villages, were kids were still exited about seeing the train with white people in it passing by. Some of them screamed Hello! Helllooooo! Heeeeelllloooooo! from the bottom of their lungs and waved as hard as they could with their little hands. Beautiful scenery with fields, hills and bamboo houses seen through bushes of radiant flowers. It must have been the most beautiful train ride I have experienced.
A few extra notes from my experience. It is indeed a very beautiful train ride. As if it is my most beautiful train I am not sure yet. It sure is an experience, but the views are not always that breathtaking as some train rides you can find in Europe and USA. But what you won’t have their are the people on the train.
On the long Indian train rides, I never did make a visit to the lower class compartments. Mostly because those trains were so long and at many times it was simply impossible to go from one wagon to the other because of closed doors. This train was relatively short so while Elize kept sitting in the comfy chair, I did have a walk through the train. That wasn’t so easy because of the constant shaking and wild bumps. Try walking and standing on a ship in the middle of a storm. It did feel a bit like that.
The lower class doesn’t exist on this train. It is called ordinary class. Except for some adventurous tourists (or people who did have the wrong tickets booked), you will only find locals here. Monks go back home, farmers’ wives or maids returning from the market in Pyin Oo Lwin where they sold their goods, people taking food to smaller villages along the track and some local youth who just take the train to go to the Goktheik viaduct and return back to the city. In the ordinary class, people are sitting on wooden benches for the whole trip. Walking here with a camera, I of course received many curious and friendly smiles. As ever, communication is very difficult because only a few speak english. Though I tried to talk a bit with most of them. A little boy insisted that I sit next to him, constantly making thumbs up signs and laughing with every bump. Of course he wanted to have a photo taken. He posed like he owned the whole train.
A group of friends was on the way to the Goktheik viaduct. Two couples and some boys who were slowly getting drunk drinking their own home brew rum. I kindly refused their offer to have a sip. Taking sharp photos on this train is already enough of a challenge. Not getting sick too. Getting drunk would only make it worse. One of the guys was really interested on how white I was looking and was keen on comparing the colours of our skin. Of course, I did already catch some color, but as always, wearing t-shirt all the time, the upper part of the arm is still as white as when we left cold Belgium. Hilarious!
Highlight of the day is of course the crossing of the viaduct. At that time, almost all eyes go through the window. People start hanging out of the window to get a glimpse of the river and the valley deep down. Tourist take out their cameras, locals use the smartphones. Those without smartphone yet just enjoy the view as much as they can. All windows in upper class occupied by blindly clicking-addicted tourists I went to have a look in the first ordinary class wagon. Almost all eyes. When 250 meters down the river was flowing, three guys were playing a card game in the dark, not paying attention to the beauty outside. Only after making a few photos 3 furious faces looked in my direction urging not to take any photos. My apologies! But no problem, I did have what I wanted. Playing cards for money, as always a delicate topic!