Travelblog#11: Pyin Oo Lwin, and the train to Hsipaw – Burma

12th-14th Setember, 2014

Torrential rain kept us trapped inside our hotel on our first morning in Pyin Oo Lwin. I am not sure if I have mentioned this yet but we have been travelling through Burma during the monsoon season and actually been fairly lucky with the lack of rain until this point. But that morning it seemed it had finally caught up with us.

The timing for this inevitable downpour was fortunate though; we had already decided that we wanted to relax for a couple of days because we had been travelling very fast of late, and sleepy Pyin Oo Lwin – another British hillstation, 3500 feet up in the Shan mountains – was a good place to wind down for a while.

By the afternoon the streets were flooded but the rains had cleared. I fancied taking a leisurely walk around the Kandawgyi Botanical Gardens but Roy, however, was much more keen on visiting Anisakan Waterfall – we eventually decided we would both please ourselves that day, and left the hotel in different directions.

To be honest, it was quite nice to have a day to myself. Roy and I are very compatible travelling companions but, no matter how well you get on with someone, I believe it is always healthy to occasionally have some time to yourself. To walk in silence and let your thoughts wander.


The Botanical Gardens were very impressive and had a wide variety of attractions. I spent at least three hours walking around, visiting all the different gardens and forests and enjoying the scenery. The boarded walkway through a swampy jungle was definitely a highlight. I saw lots of lizards there.


There was also a bamboo forest, two museums, an orchid garden, an area of natural woodlands, an aviary which was filled with exotic birds, a tower which was nice for views, and the central gardens surrounding the lake had colourful flowerbeds and uncountable species of trees. When I had finished exploring I went to the restaurant and ordered a ginger salad. It came with a free pot of Chinese tea, so I sat there for  the remainder of the afternoon, contentedly.


When I left the gardens I was offered a ride on this chariot:


But it came at a cost which was far too high – for both my wallet and, more importantly, my dignity – so I politely declined.

I spent most of the following day relaxing, reading, catching up on my blogs, drinking local damson wine, and eating lots of nice Burmese food and Indian cakes.

There was nothing spectacular about Pyin Oo Lwin, or even much to see, but still, I liked it very much… we did have to leave eventually though because we were limited for time and there was much of Burma to explore.

We decided to catch the train to Hsipaw. It is a journey which is almost as famous for its stunning scenery as it is for being a laboriously slow and bumpy. Derailments are a common occurrence but fortunately mortalities from these accidents are quite rare because the train never quite reaches speeds fast enough to cause too much destruction.

It was scheduled to call in at Pyin Oo Lwin at 7:45 am, but we were told it was almost certainly going to be late. We decided to turn up on time anyway, just to be sure.

When we walked into the station lots of people were sat around and someone was playing a guitar. This was a not a good sign. When someone has pulled out a guitar out and started playing, you just know that you’re in for a long wait.

We were told it would be there within in an hour, so we went out for breakfast. When we got back, an hour had turned into two, and then shortly after that, three. Then it was four.

I began reading Burmese Folk-Tales – a book I bought recently when I was in Bagan. It was very interesting. The first section was “Animal Tales”, and filled with short fables with names like “Why the Rabbit’s Nose Twitches” and “Why the Quail Stands on One Leg”. In all of them animals were speaking, contentious creatures, and the tales felt very much like they could have been lifted straight out of The Jungle Book universe.

Seventy pages in, the theme shifted to general folklore. One of my favourites was called “The Five Companions”, which is a story apparently told to Burmese children:


Once there were four brothers and an attendant. The attendant was not really a servant. More experienced and stronger than the others, he was rather a guide and leader of the group.

The attendant’s name was Stumpy, for he was thick-set and strong. The first brother’s name was Quarrelsome, for he was always challenging people to fight him. The second brother’s name was More-than-others, for he was the tallest among them all. The third brother’s name was Treasurer, for he was thrifty and careful. The fourth brother’s name was Little Brother, for he was the youngest and the smallest.

The five companions wandered about the country doing great deeds until they came to a great city, ruled by a powerful king. “What is the good of winning glory and honour in small bits?” said Stumpy. “Let us win a kingdom for ourselves, and make our names live in history forever.” The others agreed, and they went near the gates of the golden city. Quarrelsome challenged the King, and as a result there was a great fight between the king and his men-at-arms on the one side, and the five companions on the other. In the battle, More-than-others distinguished himself by his mighty deeds of valour. Finally the King was killed and the city surrendered.

The question now arose as to which of the five should be King. The four brothers said that Stumpy should rule because he was their captain, but the latter refused, suggesting instead that Quarrelsome should rule as he started the great battle with his bold challenge. Quarrelsome disagreed, and suggested that More-than-others should be King, for he was indeed more than others in the recent battle. However, More-than-others argued that as there was so much wealth in the city, Treasurer, with his economical ways, should rule. Treasurer in his turn said that Little Brother should become king, for he was the smallest and the gentlest and most helpless, and he could not win a kingdom by himself without the help of his brothers. But Little Brother said that he was too tiny to be king. They argued for hours and, finally, they decided to rule as joint-kings over the city.

Now look at your hands, my dearest. You also have five good companions ready to serve you. Your Thumb of course is none other than Stumpy, for he is thick and strong. Your Fore-Finger is of course Quarrelsome, for when you quarrel with any one you point that finger at him. Your Middle Finger is More-than-others, for he is the longest finger. The next Finger is Treasurer, for when you grow up and wear a ring, you will wear it on this finger. Last of all, you have the Little Finger, who is gentle and weak and humble, and he is Little Brother. So you have five faithful companions to serve you, my love, and they will doubtless win you a golden city and a golden throne when you grow up.”


I was pulled out of the book by the sound of people clapping and cheering. I looked up and saw that the train was pulling into the station. It was 12:45 pm, which made it a total of five hours late – but still, it was finally here.


We boarded, but still had to wait another forty-five minutes until the engine started. When it did finally roll it’s way out of the station the carriages began to rattle and swing from side to side. It felt more like being sat on a very giddy horse than being on a train.

In the first twenty minutes several bags fell from the railings above, but people learned from this mistake and spent a while strapping them onto the racks more securely.

An hour or so in some of us were beginning to feel a little bit seasick, but the views outside our windows were fantastic.


It was six hours later when we caught our first glimpse of the journey’s most famous feature; the Goteik Viaduct.


But, for some reason, the train pulled in for a stop just before we were about the cross it. And it stayed there for a long time. Feeling a little impatient, some of us got out of the carriage for a while to get some air.


After twenty minutes, we began speculating what the cause of this prolonged stop could possibly be. The train had lingered for a while before at some of the villages we had passed so that cargo could be loaded or offloaded, but there certainly wasn’t any of that going on. Another person theorised that the driver was checking that the bridge was still stable and safe, but that seemed unlikely. They didn’t seem to be fixing anything either. Nor refuelling. I proposed that they had stopped merely to build up our anticipation for the crossing of the bridge, and thus; this was all some kind of misguided effort to enrich our experience.

Eventually we all agreed that the reason was, simply, “Asia”.

After half an hour the whistle was blown and we all clambered back on. The train started up again, and we all leaned out of our windows, ready to take snaps as the train approached the bridge.


Those few minutes while the train slowly juddered its way across the ravine, made the whole day worth it. The views were great on both sides, and everyone kept darting from one side of the train to the other to capture pictures of it all.


When it was over we put our cameras away and settled back into our seats. I turned to Beau – an American guy we met that day, who just happened to have a smart phone with GPS.

“How far do we have to go now?” I asked.

“You really don’t want to know, dude.”

I eventually managed to coax him into showing me the map. He was right; I would have been better off not knowing. We were only just over halfway, so we had at least another four hours to go. It was beginning to get dark.

“I need a BEER. Anyone else want one?”

Several people nodded, so we began searching for a vendor.

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