K, N and I took the bus from Nyaungshwe to Mandalay and travelled from there to the hill station of Pyin-Oo-Lwin. They were going because they had heard it was really nice. I was going because it was one of the places that, 50 years earlier, British travel writer Norman Lewis had included in his book Golden Earth, only then it was a Colonial hill station and called Maymyo.
The town was one of many renamed by the junta in 1989, supposedly as a way of consolidating national unity; even the country was renamed, from Burma to Myanmar, as the generals claimed “Burma” was too closely associated with the Bamar majority people. Most young people used “Myanmar”, possibly because that was what they had been brought up with, but older people often used “Burma” to show what they thought of the junta.
We arrived in Mandalay about 4.30am, with around two hours to wait for a bus to Pyin-Oo-Lwin. Despite the time, the streets were pretty packed, with monks collecting donations of food. Burmese males were expected to become monks at least twice in their lives, even if was only for a couple of weeks. The mother of a friend of N’s, having heard about her son’s antics in Thailand, told him he had better go to a pagoda for a few weeks to atone for his sins!
It was a common sight all over Asia: monks wandering the streets soliciting their food for the day. People would feed them in the hope of “earning merit”, and increasing their chances of being reincarnated into a better life (a big incentive in a country with as many problems as Burma).
We whiled away our time drinking Coffeemix, a three-in-one blend of coffee powder, sugar and creamer, and which was particularly popular in Burma. Signs outside roadside cafés, for example, proudly proclaimed: “Coffeemix”. And there was something quite addictive about the stuff.
Although Coffeemix would be your last choice of beverage when you arrived, after a week, you would not patronise any establishment that did not offer Coffeemix. I’m not making this up: I met so many visitors who admitted that they had sworn at first that they would dehydrate to death before they would drink Coffeemix but had gone on to develop an addiction for the stuff.
The ‘bus’ was actually a songthaew, and it was eventually ready to leave. We set off. And promptly stopped outside an office at the side of the road. From there, we went to a petrol station, where the driver put some fuel in the tank, then, after driving for about five minutes, we stopped to fill up at one of those roadside carts of pop bottles of fuel.
I found out later that drivers, even bus and pickup drivers, were rationed to six or eight litres of petrol a week, and after that they had to turn to the black market.
One litre of ‘legal’ fuel cost 800 kyat, but it was 1,800 kyat a litre on the black market. And, of course, people had no choice but to pay, even the bus drivers who provided public transport in a country where so few people had their own vehicle. And, of course, a country with such reserves of oil that there was once a company called Burmah Oil.
We arrived in Pyin-Oo-Lwin and called the guesthouse, which sent our ‘free transport’ to collect us – a Toyota Celica with a purple metallic paint job, thumping sound system (Burmese rap again), with a row of lights across the back bumper that flashed in time to the music, and “Blackburn Rovers” seat covers (even though the driver looked at me blankly when I said: “Blackburn Rovers?”). We didn’t half give the trap-pulling ponies a fright!
The point of the hill stations, not just in Burma but throughout Colonial-era Asia, was to give Europeans a cool escape from the heat of the lowland plains, especially in Summer.
I could understand why Pyin-Oo-Lwin, or, as it was then, of course, Maymyo, had been so popular. The climate was rather English – ie, cool – as was the vegetation – lush and green. It was hardly surprising, really that a botanical garden had been established there in Colonial times.
Another relic from Colonial times was the British-looking churches. Christianity had a presence in Burma, largely, I suppose, because of Colonialism, so there had to be churches elsewhere, it was just that I didn’t notice them as much as I did those in Pyin-Oo-Lwin.
Seriously, they would not have looked out of place anywhere in the UK. More than once I found myself cycling past one then, especially with the climate and the green everywhere, having to pull myself up short and remind myself that I wasn’t actually at home.
From Burmese Daze – the book. Available directly from me (£6, including p&p in the UK); or from Lulu, Amazon, or to order from your local independent bookshop or via Hive. E-book available from Smashwords.