Published: August 2nd 2012July 31st 2012
Having returned to Mandalay, I headed to Hsipaw, where I intended to meet a Shan friend. His home village is just outside Hsipaw and he is currently there, so it seemed an opportune time to talk about libraries in Burma with him. Not fancying a horribly early start to a very long train ride, I decided to go by shared taxi up to Pyin U Lwin (known in colonial times as MayMyo). It has plenty of old colonial houses, since it was the summer hill station, but also now lots of BIG military training establishments on the outskirts. Since I'd done the touristic things back in 1978 when I visited, this time I contented myself with a stroll around the town, and a couple of cups of tea. The horse drawn carriages are still there to carry you around, if you want, though motorcycle taxis are even more plentiful.
I found a bee-hive attached to the stained-glass window of the Anglican church, and in its wall a little plaque dedicated to those ( presumably British, or at least Anglican ) who had given their lives in the service of the province. In the grey drizzle and evening it had a
melancholic English atmosphere.
The next morning I was able to catch the train onwards to Hsipaw at the more reasonable time of 9.30, and had the pleasure of sharing the stunning views with and English history teacher who was on her summer break. These views of the Shan Plateau at times reminded me of the north coast, particularly the red soil and paddocks of corn. But the highlight was the traversing of the Goteik rail bridge - quite spectacular when you consider it was built in 1901. The views of the cliffs and jungle were timeless.
Hsipaw itself makes a good spot for treks into the hills to visit various ethnic villages, but it was wet, and muddy, and I had other things to do. So the next morning I headed towards the village Byaw Gyo, where my friend said I should just ask for his family because everyone knew them.
My first error was in not taking a guide, who might have been able to explain in Shan what the hell I was on about. My second was in thinking I could have a pleasant stroll on the road and I'd soon get a lift.
The road concerned is the main road that continues through Hsipaw, Lasshio, and on to China. So plenty of traffic and heavy trucks. Plus this is the same route the controversial oil/gas pipeline to China takes, and so the road is regularly broken with muddy, narrow, road works where the line crosses under the road! The scenery around me was exquisitely Asian-rural, but I only got to enjoy it half the time. After about 4 kms of hiking, I managed to get a motorbike ride to the village. I checked out the pagoda housing famous wooden Buddha figures which are completely misshapen from having so much gold leaf applied - especially over the heart.
No one could understand my quest for my friend - I had to return to Hsipaw!! I spent the afternoon enjoying strolling the back lanes, looking over the fence at the Shan palace,[ for some background on that, see here
] and watching the swollen river flowing swiftly past. I found a monastery with a bell ( or chime might decribe it better ) made from a single log. It was surprisingly loud in the twilight when I struck it.
Next morning I hired
a "guide-in-training" with his motorbike. We returned to the village and found my friend within 5 minutes. We shared tea at his house and he took me to see the monastery library, which has
books ( though disorganised ) , and the government one which is closed and apparently has almost no
The monastery library obviously has Buddhist materials, but as well, it has a sunstantial number of novels, and popular materials in the Shan language. This is because schools don't teach languages other than Burmese and English [ I don't need to go into the cultural and educational implications of this here, since I assume my readers can draw parallels with other minority languages ] So classes in Shan are conducted at the monastery and students can borrow these library books.
The village library , supplied by the government I was told, is closed because nobody used it - not surprising since it had hardly any books except those few dry texts supplied by the government. My Shan friend may be able to use it to conduct English lessons and perhaps reinvigorate it with an environmental focus.
That evening we all had a meal and
Village monastery library
Largely books in the Shan language
beers in town at Mr Food restaurant. After 10 minutes one of the heaviest duty guys I have seen, anywhere in the world, came in and sat with two more ordinary companions at the table next to us. With many magical inscription tatoos on display since he only had a singlet on top, lots of gold chain and rings, and an automatic pistol tucked in the back of his lungi, there was a certain air of menace ... I didn't bother glancing sideways or discussing anything controversial during the meal, since I assumed ordinary citizens don't get to carry weapons here.
I made the choice to catch a minibus directly back to Mandalay, since it was much quicker than train or standard bus , plus would give a different view. I was doubly lucky because the daughter of the guesthouse owner was also on it and was very knowledgeable and fluent in English, AND the bus didn't fill up until 2 hours down the road.
This time we went down into the Goteik Gorge and back out, via many hairpin bends. If the road surface is improved, and if motorcycle hiring becomes easier here, this will become one
of the must-do rides in SE Asia. I also suggested to the guesthouse daughter that zip-lining would be a great activity in this gorge - she knew all about it, having been to Chiang Mai.
There are more photos below