Thursday, December 31, 2009

Up into the hills to Pyin U Lwin

Pyin U Lwin started out as a military outpost. It took off when a rail link from Mandalay was established and the British colonial government of Rangoon moved to the town during the annual hot season. It was originally called Maymyo after Colonel May, the commander there in the late 1800's. Today it is home to a mix of local Shan people with Indian and Nepalese left over from colonial times.

Walking around the town has a peculiar British feel to it. Though many of the buildings are of a more practical Asian style (i.e. not particularly interesting), there are still remnants of right-proper English architecture. Off the main street you see numerous mock Tudor houses with metal roofs and surrounded by determined shrubbery. I kept expecting to see a lady with a parasol and a gentleman with a cane walking along the dusty road. Of course the presence of all the tropical foliage throws off the effect.

The main street possesses one of my favorite buildings in the country. Whether the pastel color scheme, the Indian influenced architecture, or just my love for value and cheapness, I'm always drawn to this magnificent general store.

Looking down the street, you can just make out the tower clock. Purcel Tower was built in 1936, not long before the Japanese took over the country. After all the stupas of Yangon, it felt odd not to see any in this part of the country. It did not seem odd, however, to see mosques. This one, just down the road from the general store, shows it's Mogul heritage.

The first thing you notice about the town is the unusual form of transportation. There are cars and trucks, of course, and the number of motorbikes are quickly gaining on the number of bicycles, but there is something unusual about the colorful horse-drawn carriages of the town.

When I first laid eyes on them, I was convinced they were weird replicas of old wild-west stage coaches. I imagined a British soldier giving a drawing or photograph of a western coach to a local craftsman who then started a trend in the town. I kept looking for evidence to support this theory, but I must admit that the real story is probably much less dramatic. The coach design is undoubtedly based on a standard English coach, which the British would have brought to Burma. The bright colors are likely the influence of the Indian aesthetics.

The coachmen take great pride in their carriages. When not carrying a fare, I often saw the men carefully polishing the brass fittings or cleaning the dust from the brightly painted wood.

The amount of workmanship that go into these things is astonishing. As they're the best way to get around town, I had a chance to see many of them up close. They are decorated with tiny designs, decals and pinstripes everywhere. Some of the fittings are downright ancient. My only complaint is that the carriages are simply too small. While I could sit myself inside comfortably, my head was pressed against the thin wooden roof. Although the roofs had been raised slightly, the frame was such that I could not see outside the carriage unless I hunched over.

The town is the home of a traditional botanic garden with an impressive collection of orchids. Although it is well maintained, I can imagine how beautiful it must have been back in the 1930's. A few years ago, a tower was built on the hill on the western side of the park. From it, you can watch the sun set. Today is it sadly run down. It seems that the government enters into ambitious projects with great promise simply does not follow through with maintenance.

Pyin U Lwin, in keeping with the original military purpose, is home to one of the government's largest military schools. Young soldiers, dressed in chemical-green uniforms, congregate around the school entrance in the south west. They tended to be a bit leery of foreigners.

It was the people of the town who interested me most. Pyin U Lwin has a very diverse population given it's size; but that is to be expected given the influence of the British and their Indian troops. The mix of Indian, Shan and a few Chinese are seen everywhere. It also makes for more variety when it comes to eating. I found an Indian restaurant on a side street that served a most delicious meal for
paltry sum. Everything was cooked while I waited - and watched Indian TV programing beamed in by satellite.

The big appeal for some travelers is the railroad. The line from Mandalay is very unusual in that it uses switchbacks to zig-zag up the hill. Rail aficionados can't miss this attraction, but it means leaving Mandalay at 4:30 in the morning!

The train from Mandalay arrives not long after sun rise. Local vendors arrive just after dawn to offer food and drink to the passengers continuing on to the towns of Hsipaw or Lashio. Flowers, particularly chrysanthemums are also offered to the travelers. Train enthusiasts, fresh from their switchback experience on the way up, remain on board to visit the impressive Gokteik Viaduct spanning a gorge further up the line.

With the train is in the station, I had amble time to wander around and get photos of the passengers and attendants. it's an excellent time to meet people and take photos. There are plenty of families on board, of course, but I was pleased to see that the few soldiers going home after studies were much more friendly (although English is certainly no longer on the curriculum).

Just before the train pulls out, passengers scramble aboard any way they can!

See more photos here!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Mandalay Pole Climbers

The way to get around Mandalay is by pedal cab, the three-wheel sidecar rickshaws are everywhere. If you have to get any great distance, it's worth hiring a cab for a few hours. A cab, I should point out, is actually a small truck with a covered bed. It can hold six people squeezed in tight. I hired a guy from my hotel and we agreed on a price of seven dollars. He wanted more, naturally, but I made sure to check the prices with a few other travelers and with the hotel. We agreed on the spots where we would stop and and where I would end my journey. I've learned to spell things out with such vendors to avoid confusion and, far too frequently, from being ripped off.

Near the end of our journey, the driver asked if I would mind if he made a short detour. I didn't mind. He stopped near a sort of village near the river. A group of locals were up to something near the road. I suggested I would have a look and he could collect me when he was ready.

What I saw was a large group of people gathered around a polished wooden pole (bamboo?) sticking a good five meters into the air. From the top, connected by a pulley to the ground so it could be raised and lowered, was a ring. From the ring fluttered pieces of paper.

As I approached, a group of boys were trying to climb it. They were unable to do so individually, but they soon figured out to form a crude pyramid ladder. This allowed a couple of boys to get closer, but still not close enough. On the ground, someone lowered the ring to encourage a few more to try to climb harder.

The boys wore shorts, but the one who wore a longyi wrapped up close soon found himself in a awkward position. As he clung to the pole, the longyi came loose. He couldn't let go to fix it. Meanwhile, other boys were scrambling over him. By the time he got clear of them and started down, he was completely compromised. What would have mortified me as a boy didn't bother him one bit. He laughed as he got redressed and laughed along with everyone else.

Eventually, one intrepid climber made it to the ring and grabbed an envelope.

Now it was the young men's turn. They were better climbers, but they quickly organized a pyramid. The ring had also moved higher up the bamboo pole. Standing on shoulders and heads, they climbed over each other to reach the ring.

One very clever fellow used a spare longyi and twisted it around the pole. A tight twist enable him to use it as a sort of climbing base. Loosening it, he could slide it up and tighten it again to climb a bit higher. In this way he made it to the top and swiped an envelope.

When he arrived on the ground, he opened the envelope to reveal his prize. It contained a coupon. Some one took the coupon and returned with a new longyi! He was genuinely pleased with the reward and everyone cheered when he held it aloft.

My driver showed up at this point and we went back to the cab. He took me a few hundred meters down the road to a restaurant by the river, telling me it was a good place to see the sunset. I reminded him that we agreed on a different destination, about two kilometers up the road. He insisted this was a good spot, but I held firm. He begrudgingly drove me to my destination.

I got out, counted seven dollars out of my wallet and handed it to him as I put on my camera gear and organized my tripod. He held the money in his hand and looked at me with confusion. I returned the confused look. “Seven dollars” he said. I nodded. He fanned out four bills. I short changed him? Huh! I pulled out three dollars and gave it to him. He got into the cab and drove off as I put away my wallet.

How could I have have miscounted four as seven? I could not recall ever miscounting with so few bills. Miscount one bill? Maybe. Miscount two? Unlikely. Miscount three? I opened my wallet and started counting back my purchases of the day. I could account for every expenditure but three dollars. The sneak palmed three bucks and managed to con me into giving him three more. I vowed not to get distracted when making any sort of payment. I knew there were rip-off artists in Yangon, but I had become too trusting of the regular folks in my travels that I let down my guard. Lesson learned.

See more photos here.