Monday, December 29, 2014

Maymyo—Myanmar’s Historic Hill Station

                                                           by Jim Goodman

       Pyin U Lwin is just an hour’s drive from Mandalay, but it is a very different kind of city.  The immediately evident contrast is its altitude, about 1050 meters, on an elevated plain northeast of Mandalay.  This is the gateway to the Shan Plateau and a road and railway line continue from here to Lashio.  Temperatures are cooler and in winter months can be quite chilly at night.  Both the architecture and the ethnic composition of the population differ from Mandalay or any other town in the plains.
Pyin U Lwin, behind Kandawgyi Lake
       During colonial days the town’s name was Maymyo, a hill station to where the government in Yangon shifted its headquarters in the hot dry season.  This followed a tradition already set in Britain’s India colony, where Darjeeling was the hill station when the colonial capital was in Calcutta and Simla for when the capital moved to Delhi.  Consequently, British-style homes, gardens and buildings dominate.  And, due to the legacy of imperialism, besides Burmese and indigenous ethnic minorities, the population includes Indians, Chinese and Nepalese.  In addition to Therevada Buddhist temples in the Myanmar style, houses of worship in Pyin U Lwin include Chinese Mahayana Buddhist temples, Hindu temples, mosques and churches.
       Until the British conquest of Upper Burma, only a small Shan village existed here.  The surrounding land is not very suitable for rice cultivation, so it didn’t attract settlers.  Its transformation took place because the British needed a base to establish their authority in the Shan Plateau.  With their capture of Mandalay, the last capital of the independent Kingdom of Burma, the British had completed their three-stage conquest of the country.  But the arrested king, a weak and inexperienced monarch, didn’t exercise much authority over the autonomous Shan princes northeast of Mandalay and the British had to send expeditions there to make the Shan acquiesce to the new order of things in the new colony.
British-style home
       Leading this first foray into the Shan areas was Colonel James May, commander of the Bengal Regiment temporarily stationed here in 1887.  When the British decided in 1896 to make the base permanent and build a town around it they called it Maymyo—May’s town in Burmese.  Because of its cooler climate and easy access to the plains, Maymyo became a favorite retreat for British civil servants and other colonial residents, who built homes and public buildings in a neo-Tudor English style.  Trains from Mandalay brought up elegant furniture, silver tea services, pianos, fragile chinaware, saris for wives of the Indian and Nepalese soldiers, bandages for the hospitals, books for the schools and Bibles for the churches.  Pony carts waited at the station to take people and their goods off to their homes.
       Street names like Charing Cross Road, Downing Street, Church Road, The Mall and Club Road reflected the British attempt to recreate a homeland environment.  While Maymyo was more crowded during the summer when government offices shifted their operations here, it had a permanent population of civil servants, retired servicemen and local businessmen, like the employees of the Bombay Burmah Trading Company that ran the teakwood business.  For them, Maymyo was a bit of England, set apart from the tropical plain and its very Oriental environment.  Here they could send their children to English schools, attend services in Anglican churches, take walks along avenues lined with pine, eucalyptus or bougainvillea, play golf or polo and dance and sip cold drinks at the Club. 
       Life in Maymyo was a lot more comfortable than in the sweltering cities of the Irrawaddy Valley.  Over time other businesses developed here, particularly fruit and vegetable cultivation, sericulture and silk production, coffee, cattle ranching and sweater knitting.  Visiting entrepreneurs would lodge at the Candacraig, drink coffee by the fireplace and dine on roast beef and vegetables at precisely seven p.m. every evening.
       The town was also an education center in colonial times.  St. Joseph’s Convent, with its rose brick, cottage-like buildings, had the best reputation.  But the British could also enroll their children in St. Mary’s, Saint Michael’s or Saint Albert’s Schools, all fine establishments.  Parents believed, not without reason, that the cooler temperatures and absence of the enervating heat of the plains were more conducive to good studying. 
All Saints Anglican Church
Purcell Tower
       Throughout the colonial era one of the main constituents of Maymyo’s population was the Anglo-Burman community.  These were the offspring of European men and local women.  Most were the children of British men and Burmese women, but the term also included those whose mothers were Shan, Karen, Mon or others of the country’s ethnic minorities, as well as those whose fathers were from other European countries, especially Holland, thanks to the activities of the Dutch East India Company in the 18th century, and even the Middle East. 
       While somewhat looked down on by both the British and the Burmese, the Anglo-Burman community was officially recognized by the government as a distinct ethnic group and in fact became a privileged group within the ethnic hierarchy.  Local attitudes were very different towards the Anglo-Indian community in India, despite the similar origins, whom both the British and the Indians despised.  The Burmese felt the same prejudice, especially after many Anglo-Indians began arriving in Burma to work for the railroad and customs departments. 
colonial-era store still in use
       Close association with the British colonial regime put the Anglo-Burman community in great peril when Japan invaded the country in 1942.  Those who could manage their escape fled to India, as did the Anglo-Indians and the Chinese.  But many were unable to exercise that option and were forced to stay.  In Maymyo, a change of generals failed to stem the Japanese advance and the British fled.  When the victors took over Maymyo they discovered its large Anglo-Burman community.  Assuming these people were automatically British sympathizers the occupiers incarcerated most of them in concentration camps, after conscripting some of the women to be servants and mistresses.
       Those whose features more strongly resembled those of local Burmese escaped this fate.  In addition, some escaped thanks to the aid of Burmese friends who sheltered and concealed them.  Grateful for this assistance, and disgusted by the hasty and unprepared British evacuation in 1942, after the war many Anglo-Burmans renounced their European names and manners and began deliberately assimilating into the Burmese way of life.
the mosque in Pyin U Lwin
       For the other Anglo-Burmans, who had fled and returned, or who stayed but clung to their identity, the future proved pretty grim.  British rule was coming to an end and with it their preponderance in the bureaucracy.  After 1948 it was clear that independent Burma wanted more pure Burmese in its administration and to expunge the colonial way of running affairs.  U Nu’s government began orienting recruitment towards indigenous Burmese, with a view to ultimately replacing the Anglo-Burmans.  After Ne Win’s military took over in 1962 Anglo-Burmans began losing their jobs.  Emigration, already initiated with the withdrawal of the British, accelerated.  Today, the community barely survives.
Maymyo pony cart
       Besides Eurasians, the colonial demographic legacy also included Indians and Nepalese, descendants of the military units deployed here, and Chinese, some from Yunnan and some from the Guangdong and Fujian communities that set up commercial enterprises throughout Southeast Asia.  They are still here.  A Hindu temple serves the Hindus among the 10,000+ Indians and 5000 or so Nepalese and a nearby mosque serves the Muslim members of the Indian and Chinese communities.  The Nepalese are descendants of the Gurkhas, mercenaries from the hill tracts of central and eastern Nepal contracted by the British armed forces to maintain the peace on the Shan Plateau.
       The town still has a bit of a military feel to it.  Myanmar’s Defense Services Academy, its West Point equivalent, lies just a couple kilometers outside the town on the main road from Mandalay.  Statues of three of the country’s greatest kings stand in front of the compound gate, above a sign that reads, in English, “The Triumphant Elite of the Future.”  That might sound a bit ominous to anyone familiar with just how the triumphant elite has accomplished its triumph until now.  But the military presence in Maymyo itself is slight, only noticeable on holidays, though a lot of residents fancy wearing camouflage jackets and other military clothing so abundantly available in the markets.
       From the Academy, the road into Maymyo is actually quite pretty, with poinsettias flanking the road and a parkway filled with flowerbeds dividing the lanes.  After a final roundabout it suddenly enters the downtown commercial part of Maymyo on its southwestern side.  British-style buildings begin lining the main street, while just a block into the urban area stands the distinctive Purcell Tower.  Some say the clock tower was a gift of Queen Victoria, coinciding with a similar tower bestowed on Cape Town, South Africa.  Others say the tower came later and was named after the man who made the clock.
commercial district
nuns on their morning round
       The town’s imposing mosque is just up the street from the tower.  The main market area is off to the right.  Besides the usual array of produce stalls and shops the area is also the site of an important Buddhist temple.  Monks and nuns pass this way on their morning begging bowl rounds.  Itinerant fruit-sellers augment the market scene at certain seasons, such as February-April, when strawberries flood the town, along with strawberry jam, juice and wine.
Buddhist temple in the central market
       In 1989 the government dropped Maymyo as the town’s name in favor of the current Pyin U Lwin.  Except for Station Road, the government also replaced the English street names with Burmese names.  Local residents continue to refer to it as Maymyo, perhaps recognizing that, although the British and the Anglo-Burmans are gone, the town really hasn’t changed its look and character much.  It’s still filled with colonial-era architecture.  The biggest of the formerly British-owned mansions are now hotels catering to an ever-increasing flow of tourists.  You can still have coffee or tea and English pastries at the Golden Triangle Café near Purcell Tower and hear the chimes as the clock strikes the hour.  Restaurants offer the same choices available in colonial times—Burmese, Indian, Chinese and English meals.  And the pony carts, like little stagecoaches from the American Old West, remain the main mode of transportation from one part of town to another, the only place in Myanmar to retain their use.
Nan Myint Tower, Kandawgyi Gardens
       The peak of tourist season is the three-month hot, dry season, March to April, the same time of year colonial officials habitually left Yangon and Mandalay to come to Maymyo.  Besides enjoying the ambience of the hill station they also pay the all-but-obligatory visit to the National Kandawgyi Gardens.  When the British built Maymyo as a place reminiscent of home, they didn’t forget their love of gardens.  In 1915 British botanists began construction of the Gardens on a plot of 176 hectares on the southern outskirts of Maymyo.  Altogether they planted 482 species of trees, foreign and domestic.  The Gardens opened soon afterwards and became a popular venue for the English to have a picnic.
visitors at Kandawgyi Gardens
       It remained well maintained and popular with local residents long after the British left.  Even today Burmese tourists come to Pyin U Lwin to see the famous gardens, rather than to appreciate the colonial architecture and heritage of the town.  The garden grounds include a big lake, with a paya perched on a small island, broad lawns filled with patches of different flowers, pathways to separate groves, glades, teahouses and pavilions.  On the lake’s northwest side, the Nan Myint Tower offers a view of the entire garden area, Pyin U Lwin to the north and nearby hills in all directions.  The park’s other main features are the wooden walkway over a swamp and a nursery in the western part, with 250 species of orchid.
Kandawgyi Gardens in autumn
       Sundays and holidays the gardens are full of local Burmese, but at other times it can be hardly crowded at all.  But if one seeks a more solitary excursion into Nature, in a bit wilder setting, one can take a taxi to Anisakan village, on the Mandalay-Lashio Highway 8 km back towards Mandalay, and hike through the forest down a steep hill forty minutes to the last cataract, fifty meters high, of the Anisakan Falls.  A yellow paya stands on the ground beside the pool and it must have been some task to bring all the building materials down the slope.
       If that’s too strenuous an excursion (it’s about two hours back up the slope), just touring Pyin U Lwin on foot will provide pleasant and interesting exercise.  It’s a walk through a chapter of Myanmar’s history.  The faces in the markets and the various religious buildings are reminders of the town’s ethnic mix.  Its shops, houses, former colonial estates, churches and schools, the very English clock tower and the pony carts all evoke the colonial era more effectively than, for example, crumbling British-era buildings in Yangon.  Other cities in the country the British occupied.   Maymyo they built for themselves.
the waterfall below Anisakan village
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