Published by Asahi, Japan, 2021
With Asia’s borders still closed – and after weeks of lockdown or partial lockdown – many of us will have passed the time reminiscing about former travels. I expect there is one particular place we have all returned to in our thoughts, and for me it is the small hill station of Maymyo, in northern Myanmar, which I visited just over a year ago.
Part of what makes the town so ripe for nostalgia is the fact it is already steeped in it. It was, after all, the summertime capital of British Burma and there is plenty there to remind you of the past.
Situated on a forested plateau 60km east of Mandalay, the town owes its name to its founder, Colonel May (Maymyo literally translated as “May Town”). Starting out as a garrison and sanitarium, it would grow to resemble an English country village of sorts, only one that had been surreally transplanted into the hills of upper Burma.
I spent five days in Maymyo – or Pyin-Oo-Lwin as it’s officially known – in the early summer of 2019, taking in the town’s unhurried, slightly dilapidated atmosphere and experiencing that bittersweet sensation of seeing the old and familiar beneath the foreign and the new.
While the town’s centre has lost ground to concrete and cement, cycling along the Circular Road revealed many pleasant surprises. I recall the long lines of young nuns in their pink robes, carrying alms bowls on their shaven heads; or the jingle and clop as a horse-drawn buggy passed me by—a frequent sight here for over a hundred years.
But most interesting of all are the many mildewed, half-timbered bungalows and mansions, with names such as “Upperfold” and “Lansdowne”. In colonial times, these houses would have belonged to British administrators or wealthy teak merchants. Today, many are abandoned, or are being transformed into government-run hotels, while others have been converted into army offices. I remember straying onto an army compound with my camera and being very swiftly shown the way out. The Tatmawdaw cares little for architecture lovers. My only disappointment was that the famous Candacraig Hotel – former headquarters of the Bombay Burmah Trading Company – was closed for renovation. An excuse to one day go back.
The history of colonialism is one of exploitation. And yet it is an uneasy truth that the town’s appeal lies in the vestiges of its colonial past. It is impossible not to look at these buildings without imagining what life here would have been like a century ago, or what someone from a century ago would think of the town today. Even the crop of nouveau riche-type homes – summerhouses for today’s elite – cannot entirely spoil these evocations.
The colonial legacy is not only apparent in the town’s architecture, but also in its people. You’d have to be more than a passing tourist to distinguish between all the ethnic groups here: Burmese, Shan, Karen, Kachin, Chin, Yunnan-Chinese, along with a dwindling population of Anglo-Burmese. There are also significant numbers of Indian, Bangladeshi and Nepalese. It is common to hear from locals how their grandfather was brought over from Uttar Pradesh or Pokhara to help build the railway or tend the governor’s gardens.
Such diversity is reflected in the different places of worship, with mosques and Chinese, Hindu and Buddhist temples in close proximity to one another. There are also several notable colonial-era churches, all of which have been painted in shades of burgundy-red. What unites the people here is their insistence on calling the town by its original name. As one Burmese-Indian man told me: ‘It’s everyone else who calls it Pyin-Oo Lwin’.
The town has one other, notable attraction: the botanical gardens—again, a legacy of the colonial era.
Founded a century ago by a British botanist, they are the town’s main draw, with 300-odd species of tropical and alpine trees. I spent the better part of a day strolling around the manicured lawns, taking photos (and as often being photographed), accompanied by the gentle snip-snip of the gardeners’ shears. At that time there were many foreign tourists, mostly tour groups from China. Presumably it is much quieter now. Such was the ease of travel and the unappreciated freedom of last summer.
A Japanese friend there tells me that things are beginning to open up and that tourists from the rest of Myanmar are starting to return. I will have to wait a little longer. For now I make do with my photos and my memories of a place not quite frozen in time.