Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Pyin U Lwin, or Maymyo

"Please use your liberty to promote ours"
Aung San Suu Kyi, now in detention for 11 years and 280 days


Station Fun
So today we are taking the train to Pyin U Lwin, a British hill-station (1050m) in the Shan Hills, about 2 hours drive or 4 hours by train, that is to say 69km (!) from Mandalay. The train is supposed to set off at the rather uncivilised hour of 4:45am, but luckily our hotel checks by telephone for us, and finds out it has been moved to 6:40am, which means only waking up at 6am presumably. No, we’re told that unless we’re there at 5am, we won’t get a ticket. Unbelievable, but as we realise when we get there in the morning, most likely true!

Sunrise soon

I’m feeling hot already as we walk to station as our (booked) taxi hasn’t appeared. No problem, it’s only about 10 minutes walk through the quiet streets and humid still air. Inside the station, it’s mayhem. There are scores of ticket windows, split into two areas, nothing to indicate if there’s any difference. Now, remember that in Myanmar no electronic ticketing, but there is fixed seating, all recorded for the government to analyse. What does this mean? It means one bloke has a sheet with all the seats as boxes, so for any one train only one person can sell tickets. You can imagine how much fun this is.

So we’re in the right queue, which doesn’t seem to be moving, although we do have someone selling tickets – all the other booths have queues but the window slid shut. People still wait though. Eventually we creep to the front of the queue. The chap groans when he sees he has to do a foreigner ticket, as its extra paperwork. And so it should be, as the local price is 300 kyat, but for me, 4US$, i.e. 5 or 6000 kyat. Twenty times the price! Pretty outrageous.

Bottom is local ticket, top is foreigner ticket, priced 20x more.

Thuzar doesn’t have her ID card, it’s back at the hotel. She needs this to book the ticket, so we go back to the hotel to collect it. As we don’t have lots of time, we take a saigar, the bicycle with side-car affair that carries people small distances around Mandalay.

Monks pottering as we are cycled back to the hotel

Then we have enough time for breakfast, which still hasn’t started at the hotel, so to the tea house next door, an open-plan place, with a chap out front frying up Chinese donuts, whilst Thuzar goes for some dry noodles.


I take tea, and receive a very Indian-style brew, tasting roughly like tea where the bag has been left in overnight, the tea reheated, then evaporated milk used instead of semi-skinned! It’s good!

Very strong, very sweet tea

We saigar back to the station, head across to platform 4 via the escalator which isn’t running (I suspect it never did). The carriages of our train are old but solid. The engines themselves are Hitachi. We head along and find our carriage by Thuzar asking people, there don’t appear to be any markings anywhere.

On board, and we’re off
We have first class tickets for this train. The difference appears to be a thin plastic cushion on the base of our seats, which given the heat is not something necessarily to be pleased about. The carriages enjoy natural air-conditioning, i.e. the windows have no panes at all. What happens when it pours with rain, as it is wont to do in low season now?


Leaning out of the window, we see the train given a green light, whereupon it immediately pulled out in the opposite direction. It chugs slowly through the suburbs, passing children who wave.

Pretty greens in the countryside

Some chaps sitting across from us tell us about Pyin U Lwin, what to expect, how it’s cold. They’re all wearing jackets in anticipation. The train isn’t too full, so we’ve got a window (frame!) to ourselves.

Natural AC. Thank goodness it’s not raining much

The trains stops fairly frequently. Stations tend to be a small building set back from the rails, with a big open area in front where people wait with fruit, snacks, and pots of water for trains to come in. I watch someone pay a couple of kyat to take a scoop of water from the pot a girl carried on her head. The woman used the water to wash her face. Others drink from the cup.

Local fruit on offer at stations

Thirsty? Just scoop some water out of the tub!

After passing through fertile green plains, we arrive at the hills, which the train creeps up by employing switchbacks, i.e. the train heads along, then stops, and points we have just crossed are flipped so that when we reverse over them we head up the next stretch of track. Also at some points we stop for no obvious reason. Some stops several chaps dressed in uniform peer under the train engine. Don’t break down now!

Spot the switchbacks running up the hill

Back we go..

Hassle from locals every time we stopped

It gets appreciably cooler as we rise up. I think I’m going to like Pyin U Lwin!

Arriving in Pyin U Lwin

Finally we are here. The train is carrying on further, so we hop off promptly, along with plenty of others. I say hello to some other Westerners – they are getting on the train, heading to Hsipaw. We battle past the taxis, which are horses and carriages, then walk into town along the main street. One has the impression from the stares we get that not too many foreigners make it up here. Given the climate though, if I were stationed in Mandalay I’d be up here every weekend.

Into town. Motorbikes about.

HMV was closed today

Taxi rank (not joking)

Freezing cold temperatures of 20C, so cardies must be purchased

Thuzar is cold so buys a cardigan. She does the usual girl trick of asking me which one I prefer, then buying the other one. Thanks! Whilst she shops, I check the last shared taxis back to Mandalay, apparently they usually run about 3pm, which agrees with LP. Good, we’ll be back before then – I’d rather taxi back now I’ve done the train. I try to use the internet in the café next door but there’s only one pc and it’s being used!

Golden Triangle Café
It’s starts to rain, so we hurry past the mosque and famous clock tower, and arrive at a wonderful American-run coffee shop, the Golden Triangle. It’s all beige walls, wicker chairs and ceiling fans. I think there should be proper coffee here.

A decent café!

Unusual comfort

Decent pastries

I’m feeling greedy, so in addition to coffee, go for an egg and cheese baguette and a Danish! Deeelicious! Afterwards we hail a horse and carriage and taxi to the gardens – the National Kandawgyi Gardens, 176 hectares filled with hundreds of varieties of trees and flowers, which was largely put together by the British in 1915.

Thuzar yearns to drive

Some big houses on the way to the gardens

On the way, we pass lots of large houses – I wonder who owns places like this? The generals who run the country? Expats? The scenery is very pretty all round, with gently rolling hills, and English countryside greens.

The National Kandawgyi Gardens
We wander in after paying the dual-priced entry fees. The site is 139 hectares, and was originally modelled after Kew Gardens, and named Maymyo Botanical Gardens. In 2000, Than Shwe, the hardline general heading up Burma’s military regime, renamed it to its current name (Kandawgyi means “great royal”).

Foreigner and local tickets and information leaflets

Beautiful flowers

The gates to the Kandawgyi Gardens

The place is very quiet – indeed for some time we wonder whether we are the only people here. Passing a hill-station building which has been converted into a small hotel, we reach the lake.

I spot a tower in the distance (the Nan Myint) to be climbed!

Ugly ducklings

It’s a peaceful place to wander. The weather is a bit variable, but that just adds to the Englishness of the place. Raining one minute, sun the next.

Singing in the rain, just singing in the…

Potting shed. Roof is in next year’s budget

We reach the tower we had spotted from the other side of the lake.

The tower. There is a lift. There are stairs.

I pay the entry fee for the two of us, foreigner price for me of course. Turns out this fee is for taking the lift up, which I had no intention of doing. Never mind, the gardens are beautiful so I don’t mind paying. From the top we had a nice but windy view of the surrounding area, including (inevitably) a few pagodas, and various agricultural scenes.

Farmers work the fields, usually with oxen

There also appeared to be, what I can only describe as four plastic “Swiss-alpine” mountains. Could not for the life of me work out what it was supposed to be!

What on earth? Looks like an Evian advert!

A happy Thuzar despite the climb

Time was up, we had to head back to catch our share taxi, plus we had a chap with a horse and cart waiting for us!

Posing with the flower

Back to town, and how to get to Mandalay?

In town, we arrive at the share taxi area only to be told that no more taxis, that 2pm is the last. I point out to the chap that not three hours ago he told me that 3pm was the time the last taxis usually go, but he seemed to be denying having ever spoken to me! Bizarre. As with all countries like this, it’s worth having a second, third and often fourth opinion, but all to no avail, so we potter up and down town, trying to work out what to do.

Stubborn unhelpful shop assistant

Grape wine! Whatever next?!

Pyin U Lwin’s mosque

The centre of Pyin U Lwin is a junction, over which sits the Purcell Tower, which (according to one explanation) was a gift from Queen Victoria. Apparently she offered one to Cape Town too. The clock’s chime copies Big Ben in London, playing 16 notes before the hour.

The Purcell Tower, a gift from Queen Victoria

Eventually we end up in what Thuzar called a “maunley”? This was effectively a small pickup truck, with driver plus the two of us in the front, and about 20 people in the back somehow. The vehicle had seen better days, and was very uncomfortable even in the front, with nowhere to put my legs, but it got us back to Mandalay, and much fast that the train too.

The door of our ride back

Dinner, Icecream and the Moustache Brothers
Back in town we’re hungry, so go for a late lunch of Burmese BBQ, where one picks from a large pile of things on sticks what one would like, then they take it off to their fires, bbq it for you and bring it back nicely presented on plates.

Choose what you want barbequed


Next another abortive attempt to use the internet, again too slow to be useable, then I decide it’s ice-cream time! There’s a parlour called Nylon in town which apparently is one of the main places to hang out in the evening. We arrive, and browse the menu. Thuzar goes for strawberry, I chocolate. I order for both of us, then Thuzar confirms in Burmese.

The parlour

“You know what will happen, don’t you?” I say to her. “We’ll get a scoop of each.. each.. “. I’m always right, of course.

I said we’d get two scoops each!

One issue repeatedly coming up in Myanmar was that Thuzar would hardly eat anything then do her best to get me to finish whatever she wouldn’t eat. In this case, I devoured my two scoops, and she just about managed one then complained when I didn’t eat her second scoop. Would definitely get fat here (if I weren’t perspiring gallons on a daily basis).

Moustache Brothers
Now, I have to admit to being rather irresponsible in the next episode. One of the highlights of going to Mandalay is a visit to the Moustache Brothers show. These are are a comedic trio who until their clash with the government did puppet shows demonstrating classic Burmese dance with comedy and some mild criticism of the government thrown in for good measure. For this they were jailed for 7 years, two of the three serving almost 6 years. Amnesty International led a campaign for their release, and negotiations by Aung San Suu Kyi are suspected of having contributed to their release. And here’s the bit I did not know (nb this is on wiki – read on as I have seen another interpretation): As part of the conditions for their release, they are now allowed to perform only for foreigners.

It’s something I wanted to see myself, as part of it is support for freedom of speech, but with Thuzar, I wasn’t sure whether it was sensible to go or not. Everything I had seen in the country thus far implied that things were getting more liberal. I tried to discuss the issue with her, but I don’t think she really realised what I was talking about – after all the state controls all media here, and so most locals don’t know what’s really going on – they certainly don’t know the profile of Burma around the world.

So we went. It’s worth noting that Thuzar doesn’t look typically Burmese, hence most locals we encountered assumed she was foreign. Only when she dressed in local clothes would they be very confused – she’d attract stares, and local women when Thuzar was a few steps away would whisper to me, point, “Myanmar? Myanmar?” with a scandalous glint in their happy eyes. Anyway, I figured this would help in that no one would think she was Burmese and attending the show. We arrived just as it started and took our seats.

Only when the show started, and one of the brothers, Lu Maw, using his painfully distorted microphone (which made understanding what he was saying fairly difficult) explained the surveillance and police raids that they still suffered, did I realise how stupid of me it was to bring Thuzar here. They weren’t raided often – three times since being released, but they had scouts posted at the front of their house, and I noticed throughout the performance that all of the family would throw occasional nervous glances outside, particularly if a loud motorbike or car would approach.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s under house arrest

You see, if the police came this evening, the Westerners would not be in trouble. The worst that would happen to any foreigner in Myanmar is that you’d be on the next plane out. But for locals, it could be very serious, especially now I know that locals are not supposed to be there at all – although having said that, I have seen the ruling interpreted as they are not allowed to perform in the Burmese language, effectively preventing the majority of locals from understanding. If this is the case, perhaps it wasn’t so serious that Thuzar was there.

Impressive displays of traditional dance moves

The crazy thing was how harmless the show was. The majority of the show (they’ve been banned from doing a puppet show so now they do human demonstrations) is cultural, and the government references are far milder than anything one would come across in Private Eye regarding the corruption of the UK’s Labour Government – the Saudi Arms Deal, Cash for Peerages etc. They talked about how traffic police are some of the richest men around in Burma these days, as the slightest infringement (or not) means paying a bribe or being in big trouble. It wasn’t especially funny, more interesting – but how easy is it to be funny when you’re under siege?

Mostly though, it was the family, especially Lu Maw’s wife who was the cover girl of LP Burma many years ago, bouncing around in front of us (the show is performed in their “living room” with a dozen chairs around the edge of the floor) showing us a variety of dances from around Myanmar and neighbouring countries.

The Moustache Brothers

I presume their links with Aung San Suu Kyi have not helped their case. They posed for photos holding signs saying “Moustache Brothers are under survelliance”, something that they laugh off, but as the audience, I certainly felt slightly nervous even being there – they are certainly very brave to continue to perform after all they have been through – risking another gaol term for “spreading false news”.

The marionettes that used to be used

At the end of the show, we were the first out, back to the saigar that carried us home – and as the Muslim chap cycled us back to our hotel, we were careful to only speak English in front of her. The driver asked me where Thuzar was from. England, I replied. Oh, he said, looking convinced, she looks a bit like Myanmar. Yeah, I laughed, she does…

No comments: