You could be in Leamington Spa

April 18, 2010

This year's Myanmar in Bloom entry?

I first came to Myanmar in 1995 – with Vivien and Simon – which was dubbed (not by us) Firewood Substitution Year. This was one year ahead of the overwhelmingly unsuccessful Visit Myanmar Year. I think of it as the year I saw Aung San Suu Kyi speaking over her garden gate. That was quite something.

We made a foray out of Mandalay and up into the Shan mountains. The terminus of our trip was the only-recently opened-to-foreigners and almost-border-town of Lashio from where the Chinese city of Kunming felt within easy reach but for the closed-to-foreigners-and-locals border at Muse. We met an American who had made it through from China – at the third attempt – concealed in a truck-load of fruit. I got to Kunming myself, by the easier route from Beijing, with Sarah in 1998. Even then Kunming was a city of 10 million people and not-quite-sky-scrapers; I can only imagine what China’s economic ‘miracle’ has made of it. In 2006 in Kyaukme I spoke with a driver who had for years driven trucks to the border and swapped them there with a Chinese driver who would take the load on to Kunming. I asked him what he imagined Kunming to be like. He said, “Like Taunggyi”. Which is like equating Bangkok with Milton Keynes.

On the way up to Lashio we made two stops; at Hsipaw and before that at Pyi U Lynn (or Maymo in repressive-colonial English). It’s a great trip, including a great railway journey that involves crossing the Gokteik viaduct, perhaps the highest railway viaduct in the world. You’re not supposed to take pictures of it (as with all bridges in Myanmar) – top secret of course, although given that it was built by the British (the locals have painted it a few times since) it’s pretty certain the (imagined?) enemies know where it is and what it looks like. (I can’t find it on Google maps just now but I’m sure it will be there.) The train slows right down presumably so as not to shake the viaduct to bits rather than for easier camera focussing and out in the middle stand two lonely boy soldiers, probably bullet-less like most of the boy soldiers here, guarding literally thin air.

But that’s all an aside, other than to recall that back then it took us about five and a half hours by small pick up, winding up-hill on a switchback road, to reach Pyi U Lynn (where we went swimming beneath a waterfall and spent a night in a guesthouse which cost each of us 50 Kyats – less than 50 cents at the time). Just the other day I rode up there myself on my borrowed Honda dream – old Japanese ‘mechanology’ beats new, cheap Chinese ‘mechanocopy’ every time – in a little over two hours. The road is much improved for the simple reason that it was becoming in 1995, and it has become to enormous effect, the single artery connecting Mandalay with the economy of China. Down this road have traveled fruit and vegetables, consumer consumables, domestic appliances and above all else the millions of cheap Chinese motorcycles and hundreds of tousands of Chinese people that together have transformed Mandalay from a tiny city centre of just a few streets surrounded by perhaps the biggest village on the planet (Pop. 5 million) into a booming motorcycle-metropolis and outpost of the Chinese economy, making it at one time – and maybe still – (given that low base) the fastest growing city in Asia.

And that’s another aside because the purpose of this post is not to talk about my route but about my destination; the National Kandawgyi Gardens viz. the Botanical Garden of Pyi U Lynn on which work started in 1923 under the direction of Colonel May (after whom Maymo) and and which was largely completed after WWII with the assistance of 11,000 Japanese prisoners of war. Who knows what hardships they endured but I bet the lads building the death railways would have swapped jobs pretty quickly.

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However it came about, these gardens are a national treasure and must-stop-spot for those locals lucky enough to make a tour of Myanmar. I’ve been three or four times before but only ever in winter (pretty much like and English spring-turning-to-summer at this altitude). It’s a pleasure at any time to enjoy the collections of trees and bamboos, the orchid garden and butterfly museum, to wander around the lake, to watch the peacocks strut or the deer rut. This was my first opportunity to see the gardens with the flowers of summer in bloom.

It was well worth the trip but I’m out of internet time now (so many asides) so more will have to follow and, in the meantime, I’ll let these few pictures speak for themselves.

I’m off into the delta today to see how the effects of Cyclone Nargis are playing out two years on.

It was well worth the trip but I’m out of internet time now (so many asides) so more will have to follow and, in the meantime, I’ll let these few pictures speak for themselves.

I’m off into the delta today to see how the effects of Cyclone Nargis are playing out two years on.

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