PYIN OO LWIN — For such a small place, Pyin Oo Lwin packs a lot in. The former British hill station, located 3,510 feet (1,070 meters) above sea level and 42 miles (67 km) east of Mandalay in the Shan Hills, is home to some well-preserved colonial architecture, two elite military academies, more than half a dozen Hindu temples, and Myanmar’s only botanical garden.
Beyond the town itself, you can see the country’s first and finest coffee plantations, fields full of produce thriving in its temperate climate, including strawberries and a colorful array of flowers, and natural attractions such as two magnificent waterfalls within easy reach.
Established by the British in 1896, the town was originally named Maymyo, or “May’s Town,” after Colonel May, who commanded a regiment of the British Indian Army that was temporarily stationed here in 1887.
Today, you can still see evidence of its military roots. Uniformed cadets from the elite Defense Services Academy and the Defense Services Technological Academy are a common sight around the central market, near the Purcell clock tower, on weekends.
The ties to Myanmar’s neighbors to the west are also much in evidence. Although the pre-British population of the site where Pyin Oo Lwin now stands was mostly ethnic Danu, these days, a sizeable portion of the town’s population is descended from settlers from India and Nepal.
This connection to the subcontinent was on full display in late May, when the completion ofv a four-year-long renovation of a local temple dedicated to the Hindu god Ganesh was marked by a festival attended by thousands of local devotees and others from around the country and abroad.
Trouble in Paradise
In a country that has a history of ethnic and political conflict, Pyin Oo Lwin has an enviable reputation as an oasis of relative harmony. Although it is still seen by many as an excellent place to get away from the troubles of the world, some locals feel that it is in danger of losing a precious part of its legacy.
While some of the town’s older red-brick buildings have been turned into cozy guesthouses and hotels for visitors, others stand empty, surrounded by pine and cherry trees and long-uncut grass. Owned by the government, which keeps them as lodgings for officials, they often get sold off to outside investors who have little respect for their historical significance.
“When rich people—especially the Chinese—come in and buy houses with big compounds, the
first thing they do is tear them down,” said U Mya Khaing, a local nursery owner and longtime resident. “They build gigantic houses or divide the land up for sale at a high profit.”
“A lot of colonial buildings have disappeared in this way,” he added. “It’s a shame not to value this heritage.”
Local people say that the rush to capitalize on Pyin Oo Lwin’s appeal to visitors is also harming some nearby natural beauty spots.
“The manmade bridges and food stalls all around the Pway Kyaut waterfall are so ugly,” said Ko Aung Phyu, who runs a shop in Pyin Oo Lwin’s central market. The construction of a resort near the Dat Taw Gyaing waterfall has also had a negative impact, he said.
“Before, the environment around the waterfall was so tranquil, and really gave you the feeling that you were deep in the forest. But now, with the view of that resort, that feeling is completely gone.”
All Is Not Lost
While many Pyin Oo Lwin residents lament some of the changes they’ve witnessed in recent years, most visitors still seem to feel that the town and its environs have a lot to offer. Some things have even improved, according to those who have kept coming back over the years.
The most notable example of development done right is the National Kandawgyi Botanical Garden, founded in 1915. Expanded in area from 150 acres to 240 acres in 1924, it underwent a major renovation in 2000 and now includes an orchid garden and butterfly and fossil museums.
Managed by the Ministry of Environmental Conservation and Forestry, the botanical garden is used not only for research, but also attracts tens of thousands of visitors annually.
“When we were young, the park was very lively only in the summer and winter, but now there are so many things to see year round,” said Daw Yin YinNwae, who was visiting from Mandalay with her family.
“The fossil museum and butterfly museum are incredible for our children,” she added. “We come every month now to have a family picnic and enjoy our time here.”
As times change, Pyin Oo Lwin is likely to change along with them, for better or for worse. But whatever name it is known by—Pyin Oo Lwin, Maymyo, the Town of Mountainous Stairs or the Misty Town—this is a place that will always remain close to the hearts of locals and visitors alike.
Getting There: There are direct bus services from Yangon to PyinOoLwin, but the easiest way to reach the town is by car, taxi or minivan from Mandalay.
Shopping: PyiOoLwin is famous for its knitwear, strawberries, coffee and other products associated with its relatively cool temperatures.
This article first appeared in the July 2014 print edition of The Irrawaddy Magazine.