British Flashbacks Illuminate the Old Burma
November 1, 2013
Maymyo is a beautifully preserved colonial curiosity in northern Burma. SYLVIA GAVIN steps into the sepia-tinged town. Photographed by CEDRIC ARNOLD
Published on Nov 1, 2013
“Don’t worry,” the concierge reassured us, neatly noting down the time of our wakeup call before we turned in early. “The train to Maymyo is never, ever on time.”
Made legendary by Paul Theroux’s The Great Railway Bazaar, the rickety train trip from Mandalay to Maymyo takes three-and-a-half hours, climbing through a lush tropical landscape of rice paddies and mango plantations, with pagodas appearing from time to time through the dawn mist. For some people, the trip is the train and historic Maymyo more of an afterthought.
Still, given that the daily departure from Mandalay is scheduled for 4 a.m., the concierge’s assurances came as welcome news. However, on arriving at the decidedly unromantic Mandalay train station at 4:02, we were greeted by a beaming ticket officer who proudly informed us that the train had left “at the strike of the clock.”
“Oh yes,” he said, gleefully gesturing toward the row of minivans parked outside, with whom we would now have to negotiate a fare, “this is the price of progress.”
Theroux described the charming curiosity that is Maymyo as being “like a sepia photograph.” The summer capital of British Burma, named after one Colonel May, the hill station was established in 1896 as a home away from home for the British colonialists. In architectural homage to the land they left behind, the English built imitation Tudor houses proudly perched at the tops of long driveways. After the drive from Mandalay, we are suddenly in an Old England of afternoon tea on ivy-clad terraces, horse-drawn stagecoaches and trim Cotswold gardens. It is disorienting to see saffron-clad monks in this setting, as if we have wandered onto a film set.
Setting out in the morning in our local taxi—a traditional Victorian horse and carriage—we trot along Circular Road and Forest Road where remnants of Burma’s colonial history abound. I quickly realize that the coach may be charming, but it is certainly not the most comfortable way to travel. I feel like an oversized child squeezed into a carousel ride.
The ringing of early morning church bells alerts us of the presence of All Saints Anglican Church—or the “English Pagoda,” as it is locally called. Built in 1912, the church walls are covered in an array of commemorative plaques of the regiments that served in British times. (The final resting place for many of these men is the wildly overgrown and neglected old English cemetery on the outskirts of town, which is worth a visit if you’re looking for their last chapter.)
As in British times, the cool climate of Maymyo is a major draw. And it is indeed a huge relief to escape the relentless heat and dust of the plains. Perhaps the most famous of the colonial creations in Maymyo—the Botanical Gardens, now the National Kandawgyi Park—refreshes both our lungs and spirits. Modeled on Kew Gardens in London, it is a beautiful place with winding pathways, placid lakes, a butterfly museum and an astonishing array of flora including no less than 589 species of trees.
In its heyday, Maymyo was considered the loveliest hill station in the Far East, with rolling hills and fields of fresh strawberries, plus cream for your tea. In The Forgotten Land, Gordon Hunt referred to it as “a paradise for the privileged.” That’s increasingly the case again, as Burma’s nouveau riche have adopted the town as a weekend getaway, which they visit in their shiny new sports cars. To cater to these boom-time Burmese, the dining scene in Maymyo has upped the ante of late. At Feel Café, a stylish food gallery, a wide variety of Burmese dishes are on offer and the Nan Pyar salad is quite simply perfect. Near the central market, Golden Triangle Café and Bakery boasts delicious cinnamon rolls and organic products such as jams and ground coffee from local plantations.
The most surprising meal we have in Maymyo is at our hotel, the legendary Candacraig (also known as Thiri Myaing). Built in 1904 as the bachelor’s “chummery” of the Bombay Burmah Trading Company—“to keep the lads out of trouble in the hot season after months in remote timber estates” according to Theroux—it’s the oldest hotel in Burma, an impressive mock Tudor house with meticulously maintained grounds. We preorder dinner, which the hotel has stopped serving regularly, and are seated that evening at the sole set table in the dining room, our crisp white tablecloth soon brimming with a feast of succulent roast beef and potatoes. The chef—the son of a Gurkha soldier—has worked at the Candacraig for 24 years, helping the hotel remain noble in its decline.
Yes, Candacraig has seen better days. Like The Strand in Rangoon 20 years ago, this is a place crying out to be taken over by a boutique brand and restored to its former glory. Having been forewarned of its shortcomings, we packed a bottle of wine to sip amid the colonial splendor of the front terrace. The ever-accommodating manager presents us with the hotel’s last two remaining wine glasses. We clink them nervously.
Despite the nostalgic ambience of Maymyo, what is perhaps most striking about the city today is its vibrant diversity. Caught at the crossroads of history and geography, the town is an ethnic mosaic. At the Shan market, we spot Kerala Roman Catholic nuns mixing with Buddhist monks, veiled Rohinga women buying blankets from Hui Chinese in traditional Central Asia dress, and hill tribespeople selling fresh vegetables to the descendants of the Nepali Gurkha soldiers who settled in Maymyo during colonial times with the British Indian Army. There are also the waves of young military cadets in perfectly pressed Lincoln green uniforms strutting about town, for Maymyo is home to the Defense Services Academy, Burma’s equivalent of Sandhurst or West Point.
One treasure trove we stumble upon is La Vie Gallery, the charming and cluttered studio of famed local artist Muu Muu Jim. Paint-splattered bookshelves bend under the weight of tattered art magazines, an assortment of antique opium weights and his personal collection of Burmese puppets. Muu Muu works on traditional Shan paper, which is remarkably durable, like fine blotting paper. He’s well known for his streetscapes and more abstract watercolors. What he is less recognized for, however, are his simple ink-line portraits. He insists I sit for him and, without any hesitation, I happily oblige. The end result—beautifully executed in less than 30 minutes—is an elongated version of me, somewhat reminiscent of Modigliani, with an ever-so-slight Burmese edge to my features.
Purcell Tower, a gift from Queen Victoria, presides over the city center with chimes said to match those of London’s Big Ben. Spreading out from here is the Zay Gyi, the central market, with stalls selling everything from warm wooly sweaters to camouflage toothbrushes. A colonial-era cinema lies up the street past a couple of old-school liquor stores with jaunty swinging doors. As the historian Thant Myint-U said of Maymyo, “the main street is like a Wild West film except for all the people in sarongs.”
And like in the Wild West, rules are, at best, murky. Determined not to repeat our train fiasco, we arrive early and eager at the Maymyo station for our return trip to Mandalay. It is a sleepy station, a little too much so for our liking. By 4 p.m.—the declared departure time—there is one monk dozing on a platform bench and one bespectacled elderly gent playing a competitive game of Scrabble with himself. Spotting our puzzlement, an amicable ticket officer comes over to inform us that the train will leave sometime between 7 and 9 p.m., “as usual, almost on time.”
It is best never to be in a hurry in Burma. And best never to travel
without a Plan B. We amble off again in search of a private minivan to
hire for the winding drive out of Old England and back to Mandalay.
Air Asia (airasia.com) flies daily from Bangkok to Mandalay. There are also daily flights to Mandalay from Rangoon on Air Bagan (airbagan.com), Yangon Air (yangonair.com) and Air KBZ (airkbz.com). Pyin Oo Lwin airport is military only. From Mandalay International Airport you can hire a taxi to Maymyo, or get a seat in a shared taxi. The famed train runs from Mandalay to Maymyo and on to Hsipaw and Lashio.
Candacraig Anawrahta St., Quarter 6; +95 852 2047 pyinoolwin.info/candacraig.htm; advance booking required.
Aureum Palace in the Botanical Gardens, and adjacent Governor’s House—a Victorian mansion with an indoor pool, private vineyard and your own staff. Ward 5, Governor’s Hill, Mandalay-Lashio Highway Rd.;
+95 852 1901 ext. 2; aureumpalacehotel.com/pyinoolwin.html.
Pyin Oo Lwin Hotel Charming, lakeside. No. 9 Nanda Rd., Quarter 6; +95 852 1226; hotelpyinoolwin.com.
Kandawgyi Hill Resort Ten lakeside bungalows at the one-time home of British Intelligence in Burma. Nandar Rd., Quarter 6; +95 852 1839; myanmartreasure resorts.com.
Dat Taw Gyant Waterfall Resort Outdoor wooden hot tub and views of Anisakan falls. Anisakhan, Nr. Chan Myae Meditation Centre, Mandalay-Lashio Highway Rd.; +95 139 9341; pyinoolwinresort.com.
Feel Café Not to be confused with tour-centric Feel Lakefront. Sandar St., in front of the golf club, Quarter 5; +95 852 3170.
Golden Triangle Café and Bakery Beside Myoma Cinema, Mandalay–Lashio Rd.; +95 852 4288.
La Vie, Art Gallery 7-8 AM Block, Central Market, Duwan Rd.; +95 94026 28735.