Pyin Oo Lwin (Maymyo)
An early night in Mandalay and I was up at the crack of dawn to pack and get ready to take my mean 125cc rental ‘Newanbo’ moped further afield to Pyin Oo Lwin (Maymyo), Hsipaw and the Shan Highlands beyond; the foothills of the Himalayas.
Zach (Mandalay Motorcycles) was a great help giving me a map and explaining the areas I could and couldn’t ride to. However, the restricted areas were small and sparse (mainly conflict zones, military zones or precious stone mining areas), allowing plenty of free exploring to be had.
Amazingly my amazing Newanbo managed to fit both me and my luggage on the back, although I had left a bag of non-essentials with Zach. Filling her up from plastic bottles of fuel via a nice old lady by the side of the road, I set out on my quest for rubies in the alluvial bedding plains of Mogoke.
Interesting fact of the day: 90% of the world’s rubies come from Myanmar, and the red stones are prized for their purity and hue. A large ruby mine is in Mogoke, 200km NE of Mandalay, and foreigners need a special permit to visit the town.
But unfortunately I didn’t have a permit for Mogoke, and so the rubies would have to wait. Instead I set off for former colonial British Burma’s mountain summer retreat of Pyin Oo Lwin (also called Maymyo, or May Town) set high in the cool Sham Highlands two hours east of Mandalay. Mind you, I almost didn’t make it as a car swerved violently out of its lane as I was overtaking it, missing me by inches. Drivers obviously aren’t used to being overtaken by 125cc Chinese copy mopeds, so I’d have to be much more careful from now on.
The road to Pyin Oo Lwin is a wonderfully twisty mountain road and dual carriageway in many places, although that still doesn’t stop some traffic coming towards you on your side of the road (in typical SE Asian style)! The road quickly gains a height of over 1,000m (3,500ft) from the plains and stuffy heat of Mandalay, bringing the cooler weather so valued in the heat of the summer. By the time I arrived in the early afternoon it was getting quite cold, and so I looked for the hotel I had seen recommended on the web to warm up with a nice cup of hot tea. Foolishly I had only brought T-shirts and shorts with me, which may not prove wholly suitable for the higher altitudes. It’s amazing to feel the difference in temperature only 1,000 m in altitude makes.
I eventually found The Royal Flower Guesthouse tucked away down a side street, and am I glad I did. The private owners here have got to be among the nicest, friendliest people I have ever met. They couldn’t do enough for me, and the owner, a young father called Koko, sat me down with a cuppa for a good 30 minutes to explain all about the village and things I should see. Koko and his family had only received their permit from the Government to operate as a ‘foreigner’ guesthouse last month, and they were all over the moon.
After our chat I sped off to explore the famous Botanical Gardens down the road and had a great lunch by the lake. Even better that it stayed within me this time. I am enjoying the Burmese food – cheap and spicy, they make good curries as well as the usual fried rice and noodles, and have lots of great puffy, doughy bread, like deep fried naan bread (tasty, if not completely healthy).
Then I found Crandacraig Hotel, the oldest hotel in Myanmar built in 1904 by the British Bombay Burma Timber Company for their expatriates. Pyin Oo Lwin has many examples of old red brick British colonial buildings, and it was a surprise to find this fine example completely empty. Perhaps a good investment for some enterprising soul?
Next I rode up ‘Governor’s Hill’ where the summer British Government House stood until it was destroyed in WWII by Japanese bombs. The existing ‘Governor’s House’ is a faithful replica and set in lovely Botanical Gardens and a vineyard. I tried to find some of the wine, but no-one seemed to be around.
At the bottom of the hill stood an old Christian Church called ‘All Saints Church’. Founded in 1912 it was, in colonial times, the Church of the then British Government.
Another good day was ended with a good ‘Myanmar’ beer and free peanuts. Again, I was surprised by the friendliness of the bar owners, particularly when they wondered out with a free bowl of soup for me. It was delicious, although I wasn’t quite sure what animal the sponge-like lump of intestine lying at the bottom was from.
Train journey from Pyin Oo Lwin to Hsipaw
In the morning I woke up early to catch the 8:20 am train from Pyin Oo Lwin to Hsipaw. I had popped into the train station the previous day to check the times, and whether my moped could come along for the ride. It could, and so I decided on a little train journey across the famous Goteik viaduct.
Riding to the station I was freezing in the cold early morning mountain air and reminded myself to buy some warm clothes as soon as I could. I’d been told to arrive by 7:30 am, which I did, because all the tickets were hand written, which took a while as you can imagine. Even with this manual method, there still appeared to be less paper used than in the so-called paperless age of western world technology.
It is easy to notice the reliance on manual labour in Burma rather than computerised or mechanised methods. Out of necessity, many people still work by hand in the fields, on the construction sites and in the offices. Pack-horses and water buffalo are used to help transport goods and plough the fields, and I almost expected the train to be an old steam train. It was like going back in time 100 years, before the Industrial Revolution. And they all looked happy. It was refreshing to see people going about their daily business not in a blind rush to be somewhere 5 minutes ago. No-one seemed to be suffering from the disease of the (so called) ‘developed world’, where many people are overworked, stressed and have no time to really enjoy life.
After a sociable while in the ticket queue talking to fellow passengers, 6 US dollars bought me a ticket in the ‘Upper First Class’ carriage (yes, I thought I’d splash out and treat myself) and another 6 US dollars bought my moped a not so glamorous ride in the cargo carriage at the rear of the train. Funnily enough, while we were all waiting in the queue a western tourist did push to the front to ask what the hold-up was. It was funny to see the looks of amused tolerance & well-natured patience from the ticket writers. ‘Don’t worry, there is only one train today, and you will all get on it!’
I watched the storesmen load up the cargo carriage, each carrying huge sacks of fruit and vegetables on their backs up a tiny, skinny wooden ramp into the train. Finally, 4 of them wheeled my moped up the ramp and she disappeared inside until Hsipaw, a 7 hour train ride away.
Before the train set off I took the chance to explore the train to see what the ‘Ordinary Class’ carriages were like. In fact, they were pretty much the same, except with wooden seats (as opposed to cushioned seats in upper class). They were clean and tidy and there were not many passengers. I don’t know why, but I was expecting something like I’d witnessed in Sri Lanka, with hundreds of people hanging out of the doors and windows. The passengers were the usual Burmese happy and friendly, and more than pleased to have their photos taken.
The train actually set off pretty much on time around 8.20 am and soon we were bouncing along the tracks like a slow roller coaster. I must admit I was pleased I’d treated myself to the cushioned seats! Along the way we passed through the green hills of the Shan Lowlands, farmland and small villages, frequently stopping at small stations for passengers and refreshments.
Each stop was around 15 minutes, which was great as it allowed a little time to look around the often beautifully flowered stations, meet local people and buy some of the delicious food on offer, including fresh grown strawberries and traditional Burmese hot snacks.
After around 2.5 hours the train slowed down to cross the famous Goteik viaduct at a crawl so all the tourists could hang out of the window and take photos (well, I was hanging out of the door). Quite an amazing experience!
The viaduct is the highest bridge in Myanmar at almost 100 m, and when it was completed over 100 years ago it was the largest railway trestle bridge in the world. It was designed and fabricated by the Pennsylvania and Maryland Bridge Construction company and finished in 1900 as a way for the British Empire to expand their influence in the region; it really is still an impressive sight.
True to Burma’s manual workforce, even the railway crossing signals were operated by hand. Some of them looked a little young, but I’m sure they were very experienced!
Going to the toilet was an interesting experience, as they were basically just a hole directly over the tracks. I actually remember trains being like this in the UK when I was a kid (not quite 100 years ago), but at least most people there had the good sense not to use them when the train was stopped at stations; something some Burmese haven’t quite caught on to, unfortunately (a great reason not to play on the tracks!). It was also disappointing to see some people throwing litter out of the windows into the beautiful countryside – do some people really need educating about this, or shouldn’t it be an innate intelligence?
The whole 7 hour train journey went very quickly, and it made a nice change to travelling by motorcycle. I’m not sure why, but for some reason everybody waves to other people on trains as they pass, and it never grows old. It is a very social experience with many other interesting passengers to meet, affords beautiful views of the countryside and I highly recommend the journey if you’re ever in the area.
The train rolled into Hsipaw station about 3.30 pm, a small town in Shan State on a bend in the Duthawadi River. My moped was manhandled out of the carriage, I thanked them, and sped off to look for Lily House, a small guesthouse Koko in Pyin Oo Lwin had recommended.
Although Hsipaw is a small town frequently visited by tourists via the railway, its maze of small streets and unnamed roads made it quite difficult for me to find my accommodation (added to my lack of navigation system and no clue as to what road it was on anyway). Eventually I was pointed in the right direction by a kind local, and dropped my bags off ready to explore.
I decided to ride up to see some old ruined pagodas to the north coined as ‘Little Bagan’, explained the helpful lady at guesthouse. It turned out they were little indeed, and old, and stood next to a wooden monastery surrounded by fields, like a mini Burmese Giza.
Don’t worry about getting confused wondering who to see for what in Hsipaw. In the guidebooks I had found Mr Food, Mr Book and Mr Bike. I was looking for Mr Beer, but the only one I know is in Manchester (hi Dave!). Instead I settled for Mrs Popcorn who had a place just around the corner from Little Bagan. However, on arrival I discovered I was slightly late, as Mrs Popcorn had stopped serving it 10 yrs ago. Fortunately she had started a new sideline in exotic fruit juices, but decided to keep her old name as many Burmese couldn’t pronounce Mrs Rambutan Apple Mangosteen; in fact even I found it quite a mouthful – but a very tasty one.
Happily satisfied with my healthy shake, I sauntered back down the bumpy road (as much as a Chinese moped can saunter) and stopped to offer a seater to Ronaye, who was a fellow traveller I’d met at Little Bagan, and who had kindly pointed me in the direction of Mrs Popcorn. She accepted, and we sauntered & bumped together back down to the guesthouse (where she also happened to be staying) in Chinese moped style.
As sunset was approaching, we decided to alter course at the last minute and continued onto Sunset Hill, which housed a pagoda and gong on the south side of town. Unable to ride all the way up, we climbed the last few meters and arrived just in time to see the sun set (well, we would have done had Sunset Hill rotated round 10 degrees to the west). Then we were joined by another Lily House guest at the top who’d arrived on her cycle – I’d obviously chosen a popular guesthouse!
On the way down it only seemed right to try and find a substitute for Mr Beer down by the river, which we did in the form of an Australian bar, although the Australian part had moved home 6 years previously. That didn’t matter though, because they still sold cold beer with a beautifully relaxing view across the river, and homemade rice wine (in a whiskey bottle, as all the best ones should be, apparently).
Evening soon turned into dinner next door (which happened to be a great local restaurant) with excellent company and interesting conversation, as serendipity often orders for you on days such as these. On completion it seemed only right to offer both ladies a lift home on my ‘Newanbo 125’, and recognising class when they saw it, they accepted in a heartbeat. Actually, they accepted with great reservation, but it was better than walking (although only marginally quicker). I don’t think the local’s we passed had ever seen a ‘Newanbo 125’ carry 3 grown adults before and still move, but we were moving, largely because it was downhill all the way. Had we been in Sri Lanka we could have easily also squeezed on 2 children and a goat.
Hsipaw to Mogoke
In the morning I tried to get up as early as I could to start my ride up into the Sham Highlands to the north towards Mogoke, but I’d be lying if I said the previous evening’s entertainment hadn’t taken a tiny toll.
After a good breakfast with Winford, a friendly American who’d travelled up on the train with me, I said my farewells and kick started the Newanbo into action. I planned to ride a few km down the road to Kyaukme and then take the road northwest towards Mogoke. Just before Mogoke (as I didn’t have a permit to go there) there was a small village called Mong Long where I’d take a new road (recently opened) back south to Pyin Oo Lwin. Not having looked at the distances very closely, I thought that looked doable in one day.
A few miles down the road I came across this beautiful pagoda sitting on top of a hill in the middle of nowhere, with a huge planet Earth on display outside. It was pretty surreal, especially as there wasn’t another soul around anywhere. I wondered around for a while, took a few snaps, and wondered if anyone actually used it anymore.
Further down the road the countryside started opening up with green fields and local women doing their washing in the river.
After an hour I arrived in Kyaukme, a busy local town with not many English speakers, as I soon found out. I was trying to change some more dollars into local money as I needed fuel and the small petrol stations didn’t accept dollars. Being a Sunday, the banks were shut, and I wasn’t having much luck until I asked a group of young students if they knew anywhere that might change them. The students turned out to be medical students on a weekend break from Yangon, and extremely friendly as all Burmese have been so far. They made a few phone calls for me, but not being able to find anywhere, they changed 60 dollars themselves for me. Wow! That really got me out of some trouble and once again proved how helpful many Burmese people have been to me. Would they get the same helpful welcome in the UK?
With a full tank of fuel once more, I started the ascent into the mountains, through yet more small villages and paddy fields. However, I had wasted a lot of time trying to change money and it was approaching 11 am. Pressing on, it wasn’t long before the road turned from solid tarmac to broken, pot-holed tarmac. Shortly after that, even the broken tarmac disappeared and all that remained were pot-holes.
As I rose higher the scenery became more and more beautiful as green paddy fields stretched before me under a backdrop of rolling hills.
Occasionally I’d pass waving local villagers on mopeds or even weird antique trucks with barely enough parts left to function.
Around lunchtime I conveniently came across a ‘truck-stop’ and stopped for a delicious bowl of Shan Noodle Soup. Everyone inside was engrossed watching a TV programme showing Myanmar soldiers demonstrating how to fire mortars. I hoped I wouldn’t need to remember that lesson in a hurry.
With an almost full fuel tank and a full belly, I was still confident I could still make the long ride ahead and sped off in the dust.
Unfortunately soon after that, the road almost disappeared altogether and I was left riding over a bumpy track strewn with sharp rocks. I slowed to a snail’s pace, worried the Newanbo’s tyres would explode upon first contact. I wished I had my Tiger, as it would fly over such a surface.
Then the road turned to sand, and then back to rocks. It was certainly an interestingly bumpy ride on the bike’s state of the art suspension.
After an hour or so I released the Newanbo was made from sterner stuff than I imagined, and started to speed up. Soon I was having a lot of fun working through the gears, navigating my way through the rocks and picking out smoother tracks that had already been made by previous convoys of mopeds. The 4 gears on the bike were enough in these conditions, and I was pleased it was a manual gear shift; an automatic would have struggled and not been nearly as much fun.
It’s hard to believe, but as I climbed higher into the hills the scenery just kept getting better, and I seemed to be spending more time stopping to take pictures than riding. It was a beautifully sunny day, and the green rolling Shan Highlands stretched out to the north as far as the eye could see.
All along the way villages lined the hill summits and clung to the valley walls. Most of them were suspiciously empty though, I assumed because the occupants were busy working in the fields or taking shelter from the midday sun.
The occasional signal I received on my local data SIM card told me I was making much slower progress than I thought, and at this rate I would be sleeping on the mountain. So, I piled on the gas and started having much more fun as I got more used to the bike’s handling. In the beginning I’d wished I had gone for one of Zach’s new Honda CRF 250s, but now I was having so much fun bouncing along on the Newanbo, I really didn’t mind it.
Eventually I fell off with too much front brake on a sandy bend, and then re-evaluated my limits – Ooops! (sorry Zack!). However, it was a soft landing and no damage was done to the bike or me.
Back on the move I passed a stricken fellow moped rider and stopped to see if I could help. The local lad had run out of fuel (happens to us all at some point), so I offered him some of mine and soon he was disconnecting my fuel hose and filling up a small plastic bottle he had. Once he was back on the road, I followed him at a respectable distance (to stop dust flying into my eyes) to make sure he got home OK.
Turned out it was a good job I did follow him, as he lived miles away, and ran out of fuel again before he got there. No worries – up we filled her again. As luck would have it, he actually lived in Mong Long, and we rolled into the small village together with just enough fuel each. We went to his friend’s shop, had a drink and then I filled my tank back up ready for the long ride back to Pyin Oo Lwin.
It was now 4pm and I hoped the new road was nearby so I could get back before sunset. I eventually found it 15 minutes out of town further on towards Mogoke. And it really was a brand new road, cut right through the mountains, with hardly any traffic on it. After the poor roads I had been on for the past 6 hours, it was like riding in heaven.
The Newanbo seemed to be running better and better, and we flew through the gorgeous new mountain passes with little effort (except for a few crawls up a couple of really steep bits!). The lack of traffic meant I could take racing line (if there is one on a 125cc moped) and not worry about meeting a bus head on around the corner.
The road seemed to keep ascended forever, and the temperature dropped rapidly. Soon I was freezing as the sun dropped lower, so I stopped and put on all 3 layers of T-shirts I had with me. However, I was in awe of the road and the view of the Shan Highlands it presented. It was clear to see why they called them the foothills of the Himalayas.
Two hours later I rode into Pyin Oo Lwin just after sunset, and went directly to the local market to buy some gloves and a jacket. I was pretty cold, and didn’t fancy freezing again on tomorrow morning’s ride. I was also starving.
The sight of a local restaurant displaying piles of local food in huge metal trays on a self-service counter was too much for me, and I entered to take a closer look and dribble. As I entered, a very friendly, and very drunk, customer invited me to join him at his table. Not wanting to offend anyone, particularly as everyone had been so nice to me, I took a seat next to him and he proceeded to tell me what I assumed to be his life story in Burmese. However, I didn’t care, as soon I had a huge plate of 5 delicious different dishes (that he had kindly recommended for me), and neither did he, because he had the company he wanted and a bottle of local whiskey. In fact, it was quite the perfect relationship for the occasion, as I just stuffed my face, laughing at what seemed to be appropriate moments, and he drank, slurred on and looked very amused with his new dinner date.
Back at Royal Flower Guesthouse, Koko and his lovely family were very pleased to see me, treating me like a long lost family member, even though I’d only been gone 2 days. They all wanted to hear about my travels and sat round eagerly to listen. How nice Pyin Oo Lwin is!
The Road to Mandalay
All too quickly my week in Burma was over and I found myself back at Zack’s shop dropping the Newanbo off. It was funny, but I was kind of sad to see her go.
I had had a fabulous time and I hope it will not be long before I get the chance to return again to this tremendous country.
Flying back to Bangkok from Mandalay (before flying on to meet my Tiger in Japan), Mandalay International airport was spookily empty. The departures hall was empty and ours was the only plane on the runway. I’m sure in a few years this place will be flooded with tourists, so now’s certainly the time to go!