….On two rented Yamaha Lanza’s we set out for a trip through Myanmar along the historical Burma- and Stilwell Road. This is the first blog about this trip. To see the introduction, click here.
Pyin Oo Lwin
Leaving Mandalay and the great Irrawaddy plains behind us, the road started winding up the limestone plateau that extends all the way far into central China. The dust slowly starts to make way for some fresher mountain air. The road to Pyin Oo Lwin is excellent and large parts have separated driving lanes. All together a fine stretch to get use to the distinct sitting postion on these dirt-bikes, the roads and how Myanmarese people use them. Our first stop is hill town Pyin Oo Lwin, about 45 kilometer from Mandalay and the former summer capital of the British administration during colonial rule in Burma (former Myanmar).
That time Burma was colonized by Great Britain and the colonizers made Rangoon (now Yangon) their capital. During summer the British establishment escaped the heat of Rangoon to settle themselves in relatively cool Pyin Oo Lwin. The British named the town Maymyo, which is literally May-town, after British Colonel James May of the 5th Bengal Infantry. After independence the town was renamed Pyin Oo Lwin, but is today still home to a large heritage of colonial buildings.
The Candagraig, a hotel now, has a majestic feel to it. During colonial times it was a ‘bachelor’s quarter’ for the (male) staff of the Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation, an important Scottish logging firm in its day.
Early in the last century the Botenical Gardens were build just outside Pyin Oo Lwin and now seemed to be a big draw for holiday crowd. Over the last decade Pyin Oo Lwin is increasingly popular under well off Myanmarese.
During breakfast the next morning the hotel owner comes rushing into the breakfast hall. ’Did you hear about the shooting last night in Kyaukme?’, he asks. ‘Uhm, NO, what?’, we reply. The town of Kyaukme is on our route today, thats all we know. The owner swiftly explains that the road to Kyaukme could be closed because there have been a shooting involving some insurgent groups. Seconds later he is on the phone with some friend form the Kyaukme area. After finishing the call he speaks with great relief, ‘it’s okay, you can go! Everything is back to normal’. The next day we would learn more about the situation in this part of Myanmar, but for now we take another bite of the papaya and 30 minutes later we’re on our motorcycles heading towards Kyaukme.
Through the heart of Shan State
The sun is up, 25 degrees and a Tuscan-looking scenery. On the way out of Pyin Oo Lwin we stop for a few attractions mainly popular by locals. After a few hours we reach the Gokteik Gorge, a canyon that slices right through the countryside. The road begins to descend slowly, but ends up in steep hairpins until we reach the river from where we start snaking back up again. Passing this physical landmark we now made our entrance into the Shan hills. The earth turned orange and red.
The hills east of the Irrawaddy plains belong to Shan State, the largest state in Myanmar and about the size of England. The Shan are the majority, but there are many other minorities living in the state. ‘Shan is the Burmese name of the state’, say two Tai guys we meet in our stopover, a town called Hsipaw. ‘We call it Tai State and we are Tai people,’ they tell us with a strong sense of pride. It is clear that this matter means serious business to them and that being Shan (or Tai) to them is something very different from being Burmese or Burman (Myanmars main population). As we learn, the Shan have their own language, clothes, food and traditions.
Shan State, now part of the Union of Myanmar, has had a long history of self rule. Traditionally Shan was divided into several kingdoms. Each kingdom had its own Sawbwa or Sky Prince. For centuries the Shan hills were controlled by this system of local chiefs, until it was brutally abolished by the Myanmarese military junta under General Ne Win that seized power in 1962. The outcome of that loss of autonomy was decades of armed conflicts between the Myanmarese army and insurgency groups (rebels) that had born out of the different ethnicities living in Shan State. In general, all the rebel outfits fight against the Myanmarese army, but there also a lot of animosities between the different insurgency groups (which makes the situation even more complex). The shooting we had heard about this morning was a clash between two rivaling rebel groups.
I ask the two boys if they would prefer an independent Shan State? The two university educated boys tell us, ’We had teak, gold and ruby’s. They [Burmans, red.] took it all without giving anything in return, without paying taxes. There is a lack of education and no good health system in our state’. Deprived of its resources under the dictatorial military regime they feel that it is now too late to have their own independent Shan Land.
The boys have a burning desire for more autonomy though. Their hope is directed to Aung San Suu Kyi (The Lady) and her National League for Democracy (NLD). The NLD won the 2015 national elections by more then 80%. ‘She is our last hope for respect, for freedom, for EQUALITY!’. I hear and feel the suppressed anger when they speak out the words. These Shan guys feel humiliated in every part of their body by the majority Burmans and hope that ‘The Lady’ will restore their pride by an equal treatment.
The next morning we plan to visit the Shan Palace, the home of the last Sky Prince of Hsipaw. During the military take-over in 1962 all the Shan princes were arrested. The young Sky Prince of Hsipaw, was never to be seen again. Since his disappearance a nephew of the Prince takes care of the palace and the rumor goes that he shows visitors around the house, but only when he is in a good mood. The mist that is hanging around visiting the place make it definitely worth a try to test our luck, but upon arrival we find nothing but a big gate with a lock on it.
For the rest of the day we leave the Burma Road and take a detour through some remote Shan hills. Just out of Hsipaw the road starts to rise and thank goodness the fog makes way for sunshine and warmth. The road is good and there is hardly any traffic. The course is a good testing ground to see how these dirt bikes round the curves. On the way we pass small primitive villages of days gone bye. There are many non Shan tribal groups inhabiting the higher elevation of the Shan hills and they look different again from the people in Hsipaw. In one of the villages we stop for a break and a bowl of Shan Noodles. This local traditional dish we have seen throughout Myanmar and is our personal favorite. Shan noodles come with spring unions, more green things, a choice of meat and a spaghetti like red sauce. This careless driving day somewhere on the planet ends again on the Burma Road, in Lashio.
Read more about this motorbike trip along the Burma- and Stilwell Road in Myanmar in the following blogs.