Pyin Oo Lwin sits outside the sprawling northern city of Mandalay, and would be our first stop in our journey to northern Myanmar. As an old colonial hill station, the rich would come and enjoy the more temperate conditions in lavish houses. We would be staying in a hotel dating back to 1914 which had been maintained from when it was used as a rest house called Craddock Court.
Compared to the tall colourful buildings which sit in the cramped towns nearby, the painted white wooden structures couldn’t feel more out of place in Myanmar. The decor clearly hadn’t changed over the years, and the well preserved lawns lay outside with badminton sets and other outdoor games ready to be played. There wasn’t much to do in Pyin Oo Lwin, except to lazily relax as colonials would do back in the day.
One of the main attractions of Pyin Oo Lwin is the train ride north towards our next stop, Hsipaw. The tracks cut through the fields across sloping landscape, whilst passing by only small villages and towns. Sitting at the window we all gazed out, with the beauty of the journey only matched by the slowness of the train – the 100 mile journey would take almost 7 hours to cover. Due to the unpredictable nature of Myanmar train schedules, the train would stop at the main stations for around 20 minutes so that it may have a sufficient gap to recover any potential lost time. Additionally, some of the smaller stops were simply large white colonial houses at the end of a dirt track. The train would not actually stop for these stations, merely slow down to a walking pace so that all who wanted could depart or clamber aboard.
Despite the crawling speeds, the train drunkenly rocked from side to side, and occasionally jumped us off our seats. The carriage in front of ours was even more unstable, and the toilet door was in fact ripped from one of its hinges towards the end of the journey on a particularly bumpy section of track.
By 3pm, to the relief of our sore bodies from the jarring ride, we arrived at our destination. Hsipaw, famous for its relaxed nature and amazing surroundings, did not disappoint. The town had the large river and hills to the east, and growing mountains to the west. Being the most recent addition to the Myanmar backpacker trail, Hsipaw is still expanding and relatively undiscovered. Its quiet nature added to its charm, which would undoubtedly change in the years to come.
There are plenty of trails leading from Hsipaw to explore the surrounding area, including a path towards a tall waterfall around two hours away. We were now sufficiently far north for the rain not to touch us, and the sun shone fiercely through. Temperatures soared at the height of the day, and we marched on with the thought of the cooling waterfall powering us forward. Fortunately, it was exactly what we were hoping for. A sharp piece of rock bolted up 50m above the fields, with a tower of white water attached. The stream clung to the smooth rock and fell into the pool below, followed by a light mist. We perched on the rocks in the pool and read in the shade for a couple of hours until we were sufficiently rested and returned to the town.
In Hsipaw, it is immediately noticeable that all the local businesses were named curiously, yet aptly after their respective functions. There was Mr Food, Mrs Popcorn and Mr Shakes that provided snacks and fruit smoothies throughout the day. Mr Bike provided the transport and Mr Book offered reading material. One would assume that this naming convention was followed across Myanmar, although based on our travels it appeared to be only a Hsipaw speciality.
Upon a walk towards a sunset viewpoint one evening, Pat and I noticed a tyre shop with a range of car, truck and tractor inner tubes. It sparked a conversation about a potential tubing adventure which we could complete down the river. Although tubing is well known in South East Asia based on the infamous antics which occur in Vang Vieng, Laos, it is certainly not a common activity in Myanmar.
We returned on our final day on Hsipaw with adventure in mind, not completely sure of what would happen. We downloaded a picture beforehand of a tourist sitting in a rubber ring to use as a prompt for our conversations with the tyre shop owner. Luckily, after a few minutes of stunted conversation, we had our tubes in hand and ready to go (all for just a couple of dollars each).
Being a meter wide, a tractor inner tube is not the easiest item to transport around. With our tubes balanced precariously on our bodies, we cycled carefully towards the other side of Hsipaw to start our expedition, accompanied by strange looks from almost everyone we passed. After dropping the bikes off and trekking a further kilometre with our tubes, we looked for a suitable spot to start. On a few occasions, our path to the river were blocked by water buffalo who weren’t in the most helpful mood. Finally, we found a launch point and cautiously started drifting down the river. Despite our doubts and initial scepticism from the rest of the group, we floated carefree with only a few fishermen to wave us by. Guided by the current, we effortlessly moved towards the end point, where we hopped out still wearing big smiles from our pioneering achievement.
Pat and I even spoke speculatively about buying a small boat and floating all the way down the Myitnge river to the southern coast. But that would be for another day. We returned our tubes to the tyre shop, and hoped we might trigger a business idea for the owners in the future. Maybe they could be called Mr Tube…