Back in Mandalay and a 4am train took us to Pyin Oo Lwin, a former British hill station during the colonial era, then named Maymyo after Colonel May. For anyone who has read George Orwell’s Burmese Days, it’s probably the closest you’ll get to Kyauktada, the fictional town in the book based on real-life Katha (where tourists aren’t allowed to visit).
Straight off the train and instead of the rickety old horse carts we saw in Bagan, beautiful horses and carriages line the streets. These aren’t just for the tourists either, all the locals use them too.
We were recommended a Southern Indian restaurant called Aung Padamyar, a strange little place which felt like someone’s living room, no menu, just chicken curry or mutton curry. We ordered one of each and once again a feast of side dishes were delivered. First a spicy lentil soup, fried noodles with vegetables and turmeric, fresh popadums and an endless supply of rice. It was all really tasty, but yet again seriously greasy and we left feeling as though we had a layer of oil in our stomachs.
Pyin Oo Lwin is known for its remaining colonial architecture and Botanical Gardens. The air up here is cooler due to the altitude so it was no wonder the British chose it as a retreat from the searing heat of Mandalay. Riding around on bikes it almost felt as though we were in England, with fresh air, daily downpours and an abundance of flowers and greenery. The botanical gardens were beautiful and we visited some of the famous old buildings such as the Governer’s house and the Candacraig hotel. You really got a taste for how it was in the colonial era. A great way to spend a couple of days.
Our next destination was Hsipaw, a small town further north in the Shan State. The bus only takes 3 hours but we wanted to ride the old colonial railway, a seven hour journey through the mountains and over the famous Gokteik Viaduct. The carriages are a different gauge to the tracks so the train shakes violently from side to side and jumps up and down – hence the nickname the “dancing train!”
It had been raining heavily all morning and two hours into the journey we stopped at a station and were told that the line up ahead had flooded and it would take one hour to repair the tracks. One hour is ok we thought. Two hours later and no more news so we, along with some other travellers, decided to make the most of it and relieve the local shop of their supply of Chang.
A Nepalese family in the seats opposite befriended us and, 6 hours after we had first stopped, we were on our way again. It worked out for the best as we reached the bridge just before sunset. The Gokteik Viaduct is a masterpiece of engineering and the sole reason some people take this train journey. When it was completed in 1901 it was the largest railway trestle in the world. The doors of the train can be opened at any time so while crossing you can look straight down the 300 metre drop into the valley below. It really was spectacular. We arrived into Hsipaw after a 14 hour journey – tired, slightly drunk and ready for whatever Myanmar had to throw at us next.