Pyin Oo Lwin is a little slice of heaven in the dusty expanse of Myanmar. It is called a hill station even though it sits on a plateau as opposed to a hill, but the function is the same: greener land and cooler air. It has been an escape from the heat and chaos of Myanmar since British colonial times and was inherited by the military regime since then. It can be a problematic place to visit for tourists who don’t want any of their money going to the government since the main attraction is the government-owned National Gardens and a good chunk of tourism related businesses like hotels and restaurants are government-affiliated. We decided to visit because it sounded nice in the guidebook and our train ride took us right outside the front gate.
We arrived on the train from Hsipaw the day before and stayed in an anonymous hotel that was not featured in our guidebook, the Queen Inn. It turned out to be comfortable and was remarkable in that it is the first hotel that has charged us in local currency (kyat) instead of dollars. They didn’t seem to get a lot of visitors- at least not Westerners- so they bent over backwards to make us comfortable. We decided to walk the 2km or so to the gardens from our hotel, which could have been hellish in sweaty Mandalay, but was kind of nice here, especially with a bit of cloud coverage. Along the way we stopped for breakfast and again for a little umbrella shopping. This is the kind of thing that R and I are both pretty judgmental about: tourists ‘going native’ and wearing local dress or adopting local customs for the week they are in town. I know it is kind of bitchy of us, but after you’ve seen a thousand pasty British girls in Bintang tank tops and rice paddy hats, its hard to be charitable about their choices. But the umbrella is different. Look at any East Asian country and you’ll notice ladies of all ages sporting an umbrella even (especially?) when there is no rain. It protects delicate skin from sun damage but it is also a completely logical way to provide portable shade in this unbearable heat. I got a small one to see if I could carry it off, then upgraded to a bigger model. Even R jumped on the bandwagon and chose a manly red-polka-dotted number. Thus equipped with our jaunty shade-makers, we strolled along the flower-speckled streets to the gardens.
Let me just say that we are no strangers to Botanical Gardens. We have visited such gardens in cities all across the US (notably, the Shangri-La gardens in Orange, Texas, which we blogged about almost a year ago) and even the world (the Buenos Aires Japanese Tea Garden, Penang’s Botanical Gardens, and don’t even get me started on hill stations and tea plantations), but this one was different. Maybe it was just the contrast of well-maintained, beautifully manicured lawns and flower beds with the barren dust-bowl that surrounds it, but the sense of awe that we experienced walking in was worth the $5 entrance fee. The garden is huge and you could spend a lot more than the 3 hours that we did walking around. We had to streamline our visit since we had already pushed back our checkout time at the hotel by a few hours and we didn’t want to push our luck, so we gave a miss to the bamboo stands, the tower lookout, and a handful of separate gardens, including the orchid garden (is it a bit jaded when one says ‘Eh. I’ve seen orchids before.’?). But we did see a good amount just by walking the main footpaths and stopping at highlights like the petrified rock garden, walk-in aviary, and the Takin compound:
Our afternoon at the gardens was truly one of the most pleasant, civilized experiences on our whole trip. Many tourists give it a miss because it is comparatively expensive ($5 goes a looong way in Myanmar and it is easy to start thinking in terms of local currency) and, more importantly, because it is government-run and the average liberal-minded traveler does their best to keep their money out of the hands of the oppressive military regime. We decided that we’d do it anyway and we were really glad that we did. When we talked to other tourists who made it to Pyin Oo Lwin and didn’t make it to the gardens, they seemed a bit disappointed with the stop, but we loved the compact, vibrant and heavily Indian (great food, English spoken!) town a lot.