Once the summer capital of the Raj in Burma, Pyin U Lwin retains some of the 'hill station' look that cities like Darjeeling and Simla in India used to have in the 1960s and 1970s. Cooler, relatively speaking, than the plains the temperature rarely goes over 85F in summer. Because of its history as a summer capital and a military center of the Indian Army during British times, it has a large Indian population. As a town near the border of China, many Chinese people are also settling down in this pleasant hill town. It is also an important market center for goods from the Shan State and Kachin territories. It is also the home of the Defence Academy of the Burmese military, and an important military base. Add an abundance of flowers, strawberries, and coffee beans, and you'll find a curiously diverse place on your visit.
The train station is North of the city and there are services to and from Mandalay, Hsipaw, and Lashio. Trains from Mandalay (US$2-4)leave at 4:30 am and 2:45pm arriving at 8:09am and 7:30pm. Numerous switchbacks and a steep ascent make this an interesting, if rather long, ride. You can get out and walk at various points while the train switches direction or makes its slow way up a steep ascent. There is two trains daily to Hsipaw and Lashio (5:30am, 8:34am) the journey is about 6 hours and 10 hours respectively and goes over the famous Gokteik Viaduct. Trains from Hsipaw and Lashio arrive at 3:40pm and 6:40pm. The Pyin U Lwin train station is a bit far from the town center and most accommodation but horse-carriages and taxis are there to meet the trains.
There are no scheduled bus services to/from Pyin U Lwin. Buses to and from Hsipaw will drop you off but you have to pay the fare for the entire trip. The buses tend to be full so it is unlikely that you'll get a seat on them when leaving Pyin U Lwin.
There are two pick-up stations in Pyin U Lwin. Frequent pick-ups to/from Mandalay (1000 kyat) arrive/depart from opposite the clock tower. Hsipaw and Lashio bound pick-ups leave early in the morning from the Shan Market west of the town.
Shared taxis to/from Mandalay (5000 kyat) and to/from Hsipaw (10000 kyat) will drop or collect you at your hotel. The Mandalay bound shared taxi stand is across the clock tower while the Hsipaw/Lashio shared taxi stand is across from the Shan Market if you want to arrange the trip yourself. It is best to arrange a shared taxi the previous evening.
Private taxis between Pyin U Lwin and Mandalay should be about 25,000 kyat (downtown Mandalay) or 30,000 kyat (Mandalay airport). Negotiate.
An airstrip is under construction nearby. Soon, you'll be able to fly there.
Local Transport in Pyin U Lwin!
It is easy to get around on foot or on bicycles (1200-2000 kyat/day from your hotel) or even on foot in the city center. Or hire a gharry, old garishly painted horse-drawn Victorian carriages that seem to live on in Pyin U Lwin. For far-flung places, frequent pick-ups ply the Mandalay road, motorcycle taxis (you ride on the pillion) are available in the market, as also are taxis.
The British 'discovered' Pyin U Lwin after the capture of Mandalay at the end of the Third Burmese War. An early Englishman described it thus: "Pyin-u-lwin, a charmingly situated village of some five and twenty houses, with a market-place and a gambling ring, won our hearts. ... I inspected a curious magnetic rock in the neighbouring jungle. Some years afterwards it was described as a new discovery by a geologist of note. It has been lost again, but will doubtless be found some day." (Herbert White, "A Civil Servant in Burma"). The British soon established a military post there and the village was renamed Maymyo (May Town) after the commander of the post, Colonel May, a veteran of the Indian Mutiny. Within a few years, after it was connected to Mandalay by rail, it became the summer residence of the British Government in Burma (the civil service would move, almost to the man, from Rangoon to Maymyo). A little later, it was made the headquarters of the Burma Division, a largely Gurkha and Indian division, and the remanents of that division forms the core of the 'Nepali' population of Pyin U Lwin. White goes on to describe it as "Without pretension to the picturesque, it is a place of great charm and quiet beauty, with no palm trees and few pagodas, conspicuously un-Oriental, more like a corner of Surrey than of Burma." While the Surrey analogy will seem a stretch to anyone who has visited Surrey, Pyin U Lwin still seems less like Burma than almost anywhere else in the country.
Pyin U Lwin is relatively free of the ubiquitous pagodas. Some colonial tudor style houses still stand (mostly around the National Kandawgyi Gardens), albeit in poor condition, and walking around is an interesting way to see how the Raj lived. There are many churches as well, the oldest dating back to about 1910.
National Kandawgyi Gardens - established in 1915 by Alex Rodger as the Maymyo Botanical Gardens, the garden has a rich and diverse collection of flora, including many English plant varieties. A rose garden, a stupa in the middle of a pond, and an orchid garden are amongst the highlights. Seeds are available if you want to carry them back to your home country! A popular spot for the locals, the gardens are about 1.5 km south of the city and you'll need your own transport (walk, bike, carriage, taxi) to get there and back.
Purcell Tower - the clock in this tower is reported to copy the chimes of Big Ben (or so says Lonely Planet). The tower is on the main intersection in Pyin U Lwin, across from the Mandalay pickup and share taxi stand. You can't miss it.
English Cemetery - way across town, beyond the tracks and the train station lies the old English cemetery. The cemetery is in very poor condition having been 'nationalized' by the junta and most of the headstones are in disrepair with unreadable inscriptions. Still, a few survive and will be worth the time spent if you are a history buff. St. James church, once anglican but now catholic, lies across the road. Drop in and see the plaques to the various British lives lost in various wars. The friendly chaplain will show you around. Take a bike or a horse carriage since the cemetery is quite far.
Shiva Temple - Hindu temple to the god Shiva, on the road behind the clock tower.
Chinese Temple - South of the town (close to Candacraig) is a large and colorful Chinese temple built by the many Yunanese immigrants to the town.
The Candacraig (now the Thiri Myaing Hotel) - colonial mansion built as a guest house of The Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation in 1904. Made famous by Paul Theroux in The Great Railway Bazaar, it is a good place to stop and see how the colonials lived. But, be aware that the house and hotel are now owned by the government. Other colonial houses remade into government run hotels include The Croxton and Craddock Court.
Anisakan Falls near Pyin U Lwin
Anisakan Falls - nestled in a rugged gorge and framed at the base by a Buddhist temple, Anisaken Falls make a good half day hike from Pyin U Lwin. Mandalay bound pick-ups (300kyat) drop you at the village of Anisakan (tell the driver you're going to the falls and he'll drop you at the road to the falls rather than in the village itself). From there, follow a long road (about 2 km) through the village, across a railway line, by a monastery, and through fields to the start of the trail. Alternatively, take a taxi from Pyin U Lwin to the trail-head and back (about US$15). Stalls at the trailhead sell water, soft drinks, and snacks. The trail is steep but short, 35-45 minutes from the trail-head to the bottom of the falls. You can then return the way you came or hike up to the top of the falls on a steep trail that runs along the falls itself. If you hike up the falls, you'll notice (with heart pounding from the steep climb) that the falls are actually three falls and the view of the lowest level becomes increasingly delightful as you head up. Once on the top, it is a short walk back to the trailhead. If you came by pickup, walk back to the main road and flag a Pyin U Lwin bound pickup, there are plenty.
Burmese Families at Pwe Kauk Falls
Pwe Kauk Falls - known as Hampshire Falls in British times. Not much to look at by the standards of falls elsewhere but they are a popular picnic spot and seeing Burmese families picnicing and enjoying themselves is the main reason to go. A precarious bridge crosses the stream and disappears into a fig tree. The falls are on the way to Lashio so you'll need to hire a taxi but, if you want to save money, hang around long enough at the Lashio taxi stand and you'll find a share (share taxis to the falls wait for you and bring you back). A one hour hike from the falls (take a guide, it is easy to get lost) gets you to the natural caves of U Naung Gu where you'll find several Buddhas.
Pyeik Chin Miang - further along the road to Lashio are these deep caves full of Buddhas. Almost everything is new so don't get carried away! A huge pool a little way down is a popular swimming hole. Share taxis to Pwe Kauk Falls often make the trip here as well.
Shan villages - if you're not planning to go on to Hsipaw or Kyaukme, you can stop by at the Shan villages of Mogyopit, Yechando and Ye Negye on your way to Pwe Kauk Falls.
Pyin U Lwin is famous, in Myanmar that is, for strawberries, coffee, flowers, and sweaters and the market is full of shops selling these products. In Spring (late February, early March), flower stalls line the road to Mandalay. The Golden Triangle Cafe and Bakery sells organic ground coffee from local plantations. Strawberry jam is readily available (it'll show up in your breakfast). And, many stores around the clock tower sell sweaters the speciality of all old British hill stations everywhere.
Pyin U Lwin has quite a few Indian sweet shops with the usual complement of Indian sweets (barfi, laddoo, gulab jamun, etc.). If you have a sweet tooth, this is the place to indulge it! There are several shops close to the Mandalay pick-up stand (on Lashio Road by the Clock Tower), and at least one near the Central Market.
Aung Padamya Restaurant A bit of a distance from the clock tower (behind the Shan Market) and in a residential neighborhood (in what looks like a converted garage) this is probably the best Indian restaurant in all of Myanmar. Don't miss it.
Golden Triangle Cafe and Bakery: An American run cafe and bakery on the Mandalay - Lashio road (across from Grace Hotel II), this is the one place in Myanmar where you can get a decent espresso. Pizzas, Burgers (mutton and veggie, beef is rare in Myanmar), sandwiches, and you have a nice place to sit in and miss home. Try their milk shakes and fresh fruit juices.
Krishna Restaurant: An unmarked Indian restaurant in a lane behind Grace Hotel II (parallel to the Lashio Road), Krishna serves Indian curries with lentils, chappatis, and rice. Well priced and good home cooked food.
A local grape wine is available in addition to the various beers. A bit sweet for Western palates but worth a try.
Pyin U Lwin is the center for coffee plantations in Burma. Try the Golden Triangle Cafe and Bakery for the only good espresso in all of Myanmar.
Pyin U Lwin has a few magnificient restored colonial houses for hotels. Unfortunately, almost all of these are run by the government. Candacraig, the place immortalized by Paul Theroux, is worth a visit but don't waste your money on a meal there.
Golden Dream Hotel Lashio Road (a couple of buildings from Grace Hotel II). Fans; shared/private bath; US$4-10. Clean and friendly. You have to deal with the noise though!
Grace Hotel I 114 Nan Myaing Road. Fans; hot water; private bath; US$5/10 single/double. A short walk (little less than a km) south of the clock tower, Grace Hotel I is threadbare but clean and is easily the place to relax in when in Pyin U Lwin on a budget. It has a nice garden, ideally suited for catching up on your journal or enjoying the (meagre!) breakfast provided. A nice nepali shack nearby provides quick and tasty 'daal bhaat,' and there are several restaurants a little further away including an interesting chinese one.
Grace Hotel II 46/48 Lashio Road. Fans; shared/private bath; (US$4-10). Better kept than its sister hotel but it comes with all the noise associated with being on the old Burma road. The noise starts early, so beware!
Kandawgyi Lodge - privately run (to the extent that anything in Burma is privately run) but partly lodged in a colonial bungalow, this is the upscale choice in Maymyo. US$50/60 single/double.
For some reason, international calls are cheaper in Pyin U Lwin and you can get to call overseas to the UK and US for about US$3-4 a minute by shopping around. Try the call office just before the cinema on the road from Grace Hotel I to the clock tower.
Shwe Htay Internet near the market just off the Mandalay-Lashio Road is the only Internet option in Pyin U Lwin. Two computers with reasonable connections in the back for about 2000 kyat/hour.
Gokteik Viaduct This famous bridge, a marvel of British ingenuity and American engineering (the British thought about doing it and an American company built it) is a couple of hours away by train. It is possible to make a trip to and back to the Gokteik Viaduct on the same day. Most travelers stay on the train and head for Hsipaw and Lashio, but, if pressed for time, the train ride to Gokteik and a visit to the bridge are well worth a day!
Ellis, Beth, "An English Girl's First Impression of Burma," Bangkok, Orchid Press, 1997. First published in 1904, Beth Ellis's book is an irreverent look at the British Empire set in the hill town of Maymyo (she calls it Reymyo) - Pyin U Lwin in modern times.
Theroux, Paul, "The Great Railway Bazaar: By Train Through Asia," Penguin Books, 1995. In his rail travel classic, Paul Theroux does the journey from Mandalay to Maymyo, meets the caretaker of Candacraig, and then stays in the lodge itself. His journey, set during a time when Burma was an impossibly closed country, is a lot easier today but is still recognizably the same. A must read!
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