Pyin Oo Lwin, formerly known as Maymyo, was once a British hill station ideal for escaping the Mandalay heat. When I read about it, I immediately thought of Dalat, Vietnam, a mountain resort town the French used to escape Saigon’s sweltering summers. Like Dalat, there are beautiful gardens, a nice market, local wine, motorbike drivers willing to take tourists to nearby waterfalls and other sights, and accommodation options ranging from cheap ($6/night) to luxurious (over $250). Unlike Dalat, there are still horse-drawn carriages in town; relatively few people speak English; and there are no adrenalin-pumping activities like canyoning nearby. But with its own Burmese charm, Pyin Oo Lwin is worth a visit if you find yourself in Mandalay.
The town is easy to get around and traffic isn’t bad so I explored by bicycle (1500 kyat for an afternoon from Grace Hotel 2), heading first to the town’s jewel, Kandawgyi National Gardens, and then around town. Entrance to the Gardens is $5 or 5,000 kyat and although a camera fee is posted, the staff didn’t charge it nor anyone stop me from taking photos. Not much was in bloom during my visit but it was still a tremendous change from the concrete of Mandalay and nice to breathe freely without listening to motorcycles or honking horns. In addition to an orchid garden and aviary, there are bamboo, pine, and teak groves, a swimming pool, butterfly museum, fossil museum, and the unusual Nan Myint Tower.
I didn’t make it to Anisakan Falls as I wasn’t up for a motorbike ride followed by a 40 minute trek up and down slippery rocks but if I’d wanted to, I would have worked out a deal with the English-speaking motorbike driver who approaches every backpacker-type in town offering his services. In addition to a non-touristy large central market where one can buy just about anything imaginable – including all sorts of local fruit wines and brandies – the town has a night market with excellent street food. Only there for one night, I didn’t get to sample as many options as I’d have liked but what I had was just the right degree of spicy and absolutely delicious. If you’re going, I recommend the rice pancakes filled with chickpeas, veggies, and chilies.
Horse-drawn wagons like those found all over Pyin Oo Lwin are, as far as I could tell, mostly used by tourists and as more motorbike drivers improve their English and invest in decent helmets, I expect Easy Rider-style tours of the area will increase in popularity and the wagons will disappear. With its comfortable climate (no air conditioning needed and long sleeves are nice when the sun goes down), walk and bicycle-friendly size, scenic gardens, nearby waterfalls, good selection of local produce, and proximity to Mandalay, Pyin Oo Lwin is poised to return to its status as a mountain resort town and could become more than just a stopover on the way to Hsipaw. Like so much of Myanmar, I suspect it won’t be the same in a few years and the question is whether it will become a destination in its own right or fall by the wayside. Either way, it’s yet another part of this country worth seeing sooner rather than later.
A shared taxi from Mandalay costs 4500-6500 kyat (about $4.50-$6.50) depending on whether you want to sit in the front or back seat while a ride in the back of a pick-up truck is 2000-2500 kyat (about $2-$2.50). A bus is also an option but with the cost of getting to Mandalay’s bus station and from Pyin Oo Lwin’s, it’s more economical to take a shared taxi. Buses to and from Yangon also make the run (I left Pyin Oo Lwin on one of these for 11,500 kyat – just under $12 – a smooth 10.5 hour ride). Although the winding mountain roads between Mandalay and Pyin Oo Lwin are well paved and the 2-lane highway divided most of the way, I didn’t love the idea of being jammed into the back of a truck with 30 new friends going up hairpin turns. So I took a shared taxi from my hotel in Mandalay straight to the block of Pyin Oo Lwin lined with budget hotels and guesthouses. Picking a place to stay, at least in low season, is easy with multiple options lining one block of town. As with elsewhere in SE Asia, it’s easy to look at a few places, pick one, and negotiate a decent deal, no advance reservation necessary.