When I boarded there were still a few empty places left but by the time we arrived three hours later I struggled to disentangle myself from the hitchhikers I was squeezed up against; there were others clinging on and swinging liberally from the back of the truck and still more crouched on the roof.
Other travellers may prefer to take the train from Mandalay, billed to depart at 4:30am but in reality wheezes into action much later than this. This was the route that the American writer Paul Theroux took boarding the “Lashio Mail” in the 1970s. Ardently scribbling in his pad, Paul noted how Myanmar washed with a “spirited, soapy violence” in the morning and momentarily considered jumping out of his carriage to declare his love for one of the women bathing not far from the railway tracks.
City of Flowers
In the 1970s, and when he returned in 2008, Theroux stayed at the Candacraig Hotel. One of many colonial buildings, the Candacraig had been used as a hospital in the Second World War and before that a ‘raj chummery” for British bachelors based in Mandalay. Locals of Pyin Oo Lwin believe it to be haunted. In and out of operation as a hotel, it was popular with more of my former colleagues who was a regular, eager to capture paranormal activity on his phone.
Pyin Oo Lwin was christened “May Town” by the British, under Colonel May who founded it. The jungle was cut back, an orderly ring-road created and the Purcell Clock Tower was constructed to chime like Big Ben. Turkish prisoners of war made the Botanical Gardens (based on Kew Gardens in Great Britain) and today they are the most popular attraction of the town. A small stupa has been erected in the centre.
New hiking trails are being mapped and it is possible to go kayaking and jump into waterfall plunge pools. Families are encouraged to the town with activities such as milking cows, stroking guinea-pigs and picking strawberries. The rain can drizzle in August. It is not for nothing that the town is sometimes called “Little England.”
Five years ago Hsipaw was firmly in Lonely Planet’s top things to do in Myanmar for travellers. Jungle hikes and the friendly Mr. Charles Guesthouse made it a favourite with backpackers.
When I first visited I had taken the train from Pyin Oo Lwin over the Gokteik Viaduct. One bold, dreadlocked traveler disembarked at Kyaukme to trek the rest of the way to Hsipaw. This is not recommended today: skirmishes break-out frequently in the forest surrounding the town of Kyaukme and occasionally spill over in the town itself.
However, with a local guide, travellers may wish to make their way to the derelict summer palace of the prince of Hsipaw in Kyaukme. The regular palace – the “East Haw” – is in Hsipaw itself, and in regular times the elderly ancestors of Sao Kya Seng would greet visitors at 3:00pm and relate the story of the last prince and his Austrian wife.
Not far from the East Haw is “Little Bagan” where trees sprout from crumbling zedis and at Mrs. Popcorn’s Garden, Mrs. Popcorn rustles up Shan noodles as well as dishes from Mexico and Israel.
Lashio and beyond
It is possible to continue along the railway to Lashio, the final stop on the line. Fires have razed the town over the last few decades. It has been rebuilt again and again. Modern glass buildings pepper the downtown area. Most travelers see no charm in Lashio, and take to the surrounding hills for mountain biking and waterfall jumping.
Others will fly directly back to Yangon.
And then there are those, the most intrepid of all, who will attempt to continue along the Burma Road, following the cargo trucks to Muse and into Yunnan Province and towards the ancient city of Dali …
Bertie Alexander Lawson is the Managing Director of Sampan Travel, curating tailor-made tours through Myanmar. You can see more from Sampan here: https://www.sampantravel.com/journeys/discovery/northern-shan-state/