Myanmar: Shan of the North

I am glad we are leaving Mandalay division for a couple of days and heading north to the hill station of Pyin Oo Lwin in Northern Shan state. It is at a higher elevation, 3500 feet, and will be cooler which was why the Brits established a military post there and made it the summer capital of British Burma. They called it Maymyo after Colonel May during the British time and up through the 1970’s. Burmese know it as Pan Myo Taw or City of Flowers. It is the current military regime that renamed it Pyìn Oo Lwin. I mention it as the naming and renaming of villages by royalty, the military, the Brits doesn’t erase the indigenous name. No one forgets which is which.

It is generally accepted that the Brits exploited the country’s resources, interfered with their governance and crippled the native economy while making themselves rich. The British occupied from 1824 to 1948. Steve and I both just finished reading “Burmese Days”, George Orwell’s 1934 novel inspired by his experience being in the Indian Imperial Police for 5 years. It profiled the attitude of British superiority that accompanied colonial rule and allowed terrible things to happen setting in motion a systemic break down of the culture that still reverberates today. Myanmar is not peacefully unified. It is made up of various “states” that reflect majority ethnicities. Bamar (Burmese) the largest, includes Mandalay and Yangon. Shan states, where we are now is more central in the east. The Palaung are in northeast Shan and embattled. Some of these states are stable but many others are fighting. Not all parts of Myanmar are open to tourism.

We’ve been fortunate to have real conversation and interaction with our guides, their friends and locals. It gives me some perspective and makes my experience that much richer. I feel like I am a receiver of a long oral history. It is clear they love their individual cultures and country as a whole. Our guide, Sithu is Bamar married to a Shan woman and shares with us some cultural differences with the cautious laugh of a married man.

In this hill town we see Moslem, Indian, Buddhist, Christian. It feels strange to see city streets, sidewalks, a central clock tower, a mosque, and horse and carriage. Ironically, I’ve gotten used to the Burmese village life, food, climate, dirt, toilets and from the outside Pyin Oo Lwin looks like any medium sized town in the States; civilized, comfortable, nondescript except for that mosque across from the clock tower.

An Indian gent

Horse and carriage tradition from colonial time remains unchanged

Novice nuns collecting alms
We visit a nunnery. The girl novices help in the orphanages and take classes. They have 2 specific days of the week where they go into town, collect alms and buy neccessaries. This is one of those days. We enjoy meeting them and feel sad too. They are mostly of the Palaung ethnic group further north where there is ongoing conflict. Many are orphans themselves and some still have relatives but are sent here to keep them safe.
Sithu talks to her and she is homesick . We all feel the tears well up

Pyin Oo Lwin with its milder climate is also known for its gardens. The Kandawgyi Botanical Garden was established in 1917 by the British and architected by a botanist trained at Kew Gardens. Interestingly, the laborers were Turkish prisoners of war.

The cooler temperatures and being among flowers is a pleasant relief. The floral area is nice but not exceptional. I am drawn to the pine forest and its smell reminiscent of home. A twinge comes and goes. It is wonderful to walk through a giant bamboo grove and observe a nesting swan with her mate primping the nest.

Kandawgyi Botanical Garden

See us?

We head to Hsipaw, an old town in northern Shan state where the last Shan crown prince resided. Other than that I know nothing except I like to say the name: “See-paw”. I cannot decipher our itinerary. That, coupled with not having any prior knowledge has me open to all that unfolds. What a nice surprise to have a private bungalow on the Duthawaddy, a cousin of the Ayeyarwaddy. A peaceful spot with our porch facing the river perfect for enjoying the wine our travel agent gave us. Being on the water makes me happy. So does wine.

across the river- early morning view of Hsipaw

Morning mist
There is nothing on our side so we commute back and forth by long boat like everyone else. We meet our trekking guide, Aung Soe across the river. He says, “Call me, Also”. We are used to guides anglicizing their names to spare the mispronunciation. In Vietnam I thought I was saying thank you but the wrong inflection made it “shut up”. Oops.

We ramble through the village of Hsipaw, just walking among villagers doing their lives and as the houses peter out, we walk farm land, acres of cultivated, irrigated fields to the horizon and hills beyond.

On the way to Festival

Beginning of the irrigation line

We walk through another village…

I can’t get enough of the childrenBanana blossom
Going to Festival having come a long way already

Most everyone we meet is going to the Full Moon Festival at Bawgyo Pagoda several miles away outside of Hsipaw. I think the Buddhists have worked out their religious practice to celebrate as many events as possible. This is the biggest festival in Northern Shan state, an extravaganza that lasts 3 days and happens only once a year. Bawgyo is one of the most well known in the entire country and we are itching to go.

As we walk, Aung Soe keeps filling in history and current events of this Shan province including the rapid change in farm rights vs. land rights and the illegal means that trick local farmers to sell their land for development. We feel fortunate to see this countryside now before the inevitable. It is a great, long walk and it is really hot. We are heading to the river to catch a boat for a trip up the Namtu where it meets the Duthawaddy.

Water buffalo waiting for us at the boat launch

Laundry, bathing, boating, fishing, playing in the Namtu

We finally cool off in deliciously cold, clear water at the confluence

A surprising and initially startling thing here is how often we get pulled into a photo op with the locals. As soon as I climb out of the boat and go up the hill an older woman latches onto me, puts her hand in mine and pulls me aside for a picture. Aung Soe says it is a pride for them to be photographed with a westerner and that often the picture is posted in their home like family. It is a new experience and very sweet.

Our new best friend

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