When Myanmar was Burma and part of the British Empire, so to avoid the heat that plagued them, the British set up “hill stations”: these were retreats at higher altitudes. These new towns had more temperate climates and allowed the British and other Europeans a release from the heat and humidity of the plains.
Today, these former Myanmar hill stations, continue to offer cooler altitudes, scenic landscapes and the intrigue of colonial-era buildings. Some of these former hill stations quickly became honey spots for international tourists and have since become frequented by domestic travellers, ready to take the perfect Instagram snap. Others, have fallen into decrepitude and decay and are off the beaten track.
Here, Sampan Travel looks at five of the most interesting and outlines if and how they can be visited today.
Although officially known as Pyin Oo Lwin today, many still refer to this town as “Maymyo”, named after the British Colonel May of the 5th Bengal Regiment who in 1886 established the hilltop as a holiday location.
Pyin Oo Lwin is one of the most tidy and polished towns in Myanmar. The chaos that buzzes throughout Myanmar has here been tamed. In his book The Trouser People, the journalist Andrew Marshall writes how the British hacked golf courses and rugby pitches out of the wilderness “while all around the jungle frothed and seethed.”
Known as City of Flowers, the riot of botanical colour and fragrance that greets those on the journey up the hill from the city of Mandalay has been pruned and ordered by the time it reaches Pyin Oo Lwin, so to be found either in neat rows in the grand Botanical Gardens (built by Turkish prisoners of war) or arranged in ringlets upon the brows of the horses that lead carriages around the town.
Pyin Oo Lwin is only a couple of hours drive from Mandalay. There is a selection of hotels to stay at and one can then travel on into Shan State. The train that used to run from Mandalay via Pyin Oo Lwin to the Gokteik Viaduct now has an intermittent and unreliable schedule. Best to check with a tour operator before relying on this service.
Kalaw, Shan State
Less than 40 kilometres west of Inle Lake, is Kalaw. It was s favourite hill station of the British and remains today one of the most popular places to visit in Myanmar for both international and domestic travellers.
The red brick railway station is the most evident sign of its colonial past, looking like it has been plucked directly out of a novel by E. Nesbit. Travellers can also visit the Christ the King Church up the Takkahto Road, “Mr. Whiting’s House” and the old British Club, if on the hunt for British relics. (Don’t be deceived by the old-style clocktower, which was built in recent years.)
Due to it colonial past, there are a variety of good restaurants serving diverse cuisine. We recommend Everest for Nepalese (momos must be ordered in advance), Yadanar Talkie House for Indian and the central market for Shan Noodles.
Loimwe, Shan State
Loimwe, known as the ‘Hill of Mists’, is a forlorn place. High in the hills roughly a two-hour drive from Kyaing Tong, Loimwe once had over 100 ornate colonial buildings. Today only a handful of these buildings remain as brick-by-brick poverty-stricken locals have dismantled them.
Loimwe was the most eastern hill station of the British Empire, “the outpost of outposts”. Visiting in the 1930s the author Maurice Collis is overcome by the melancholy that hangs over the town and gnaws at the half-a-dozen British living there. Despite the football fields and tennis courts, these people suffered acute loneliness, so far from homeand – in the winter – blotted out from the hills by a heavy mist until midday. A similar suicidal disposition took over the residents of equally remote and rain-drenched hill stations such as Cherrapunji in Meghalaya.
Passing by the grave of a young suicide Collis reflects: “In LoiMwé there were no imaginable consolations. The sole alternative to despair was death.”
Travellers who have made it this far can sweeten their trip to the Hill of Mists with the splendid local fruit juice that locals insist is not alcoholic but will, we are told, ‘send children to sleep.’ For the fit and adventurous, it is also possible to arrange to visit Loimwe by bicycle from Kyaing Tong.
Maing Thauk, Shan State
The village of Maing Thauk sits half on the banks of Lake Inle and half upon stilts in the water. It was originally intended by the British to be the principal hill station in the Inle area. However, a severe bout of malaria struck down almost all the residents and the colonialists upsticked to Taunggyi.
MaingThauk had been the location of Fort Stedman, the one-time HQ of the swashbuckling Sir George Scott, the man lauded for coercing the proud Shan princes into the imperial British bosom. Alas, when reaching Maing Thauk in search of Scott’s former residence, the journalist Marshall writes that “Fort Stedman was long gone. Its barn-like barracks, the stranded bones of its officers, Hildebrand’s strawberry patch – all of it had been rightfully reclaimed by the jungle.”
Visitors can still walk along the British bridge which extends from the banks of the lake to the stilted far reaches of the village upon the water. At sunset, travellers can jump in a canoe with a local and be taken about the reed-filled canals of the village. The colour of the waterturns an inky black at this time and the rippling light and reflections make for an eery experience when sitting low in the water. It is as if paddling over Acheron, or through an inky verse from Struwwelpeter.
Taunggyi, Shan State
One of the highest towns in Myanmar, Taunggyi was founded by the British to get away from the sickness and humidity of Inle Lake.
Taunggyi means ‘big mountain’ in Burmese. Two roads wind their way around the mountain, one serving upwards traffic, the other downwards. Peppered with cherry blossom trees and the yellow and purple Sain Ban bloomlets that brighten the streets when in season, as the capital of Shan State and with a population of approximately 200,000, Taunggyi city is the bustling hub of the region and today the largest of the old British Hill Stations.
Today, there are few give-away signs of the former British rule except for a handful of grand wooden houses and St Joseph’s Cathedral. The Ham Su Pagoda just across a humble football pitch can be visited after visiting the stalls of the Five Day Rotating Market opposite.
On the east of Taunggyi travellers can walk up to the Ruby Cave and the Shwe Phone Pwint Pagoda that looks over the town. To the south is Taunggyi’s biggest pagoda, Sulamani, based on Ananda in Bagan.
This article was written by Sampan Travel. Sampan can arrange travel to each of these five hill stations.