Shan State, Pyin Oo Lwin

Today I’m riding into Shan State and the former British colonial hill station Pyin Oo Lwin at 3,500 feet, the town was established in 1896 as a place to escape the Mandalay heat. Escaping Mandalay is the first challenge as a traffic cop pulls me over for riding over the wrong bridge and proceeds to have a moral battle with himself over whether to extract kyat from the clueless foreigner or let him go on his merry way. Thankfully I’m on the road again shortly with a full wallet, a winsome grin, and the throttle open.

If I ever complained about Thai drivers I take it all back – the Burmese are utter lunatics behind the wheel. It is like a game of moto-bowling with the bus or lorry being the ball and the motorbikes and people the skittles. The bus drivers appear to actually aim for you and accelerate if you’re crossing the road or in their path, if it is some kind of depraved game or entertainment it won’t do much for their karma should they make contact.

Doris makes it up into the Shan hills unscathed though the twisties on these roads are taken with extreme care, like slow dance around a lake of thin ice. After a few photo stops to capture the magnificent vistas that materialize around every corner I press on as the weather is closing in and the temperature has dropped at least ten degrees. On the outskirts of Pyin Oo Lwin I stop at a little coffee shack whereupon I meet a French monk who has taken leave of the world after travelling to 64 countries.

The town is a quaint little place as is the guesthouse I am staying in, Buddha must be on my side today as fat drops of rain slowly start to fall as I pull in. An hour or so later and I can almost see that enlightened face smiling down as blue skies peek through the low clouds and I head over to the botanical gardens area. One tends to get a little ‘temple fatigue’ when travelling in Burma, there are literally millions of them and they top every list of attractions in most destinations here, so a walk around some serene garden and park land was just what I needed.

A National Landmarks Garden offered an almost kitsch display of the highlights of each state; naturally most of them were pagodas or temples re-created and scaled down. The immaculately kept flowerbeds and gardens were the highlight for me and a good hour was spent ambling through this park, until the adjacent amusement park shattered the serenity with full bore Burmese punk rock.

The botanical gardens, conceived in 1915 by a British forest researcher and Kew Gardens botanist,was my next stop though with the sun dropping in the late afternoon I knew I wouldn’t have time to see it all. Being a weekend it was busy, young Burmese couples enjoying their nascent smartphone industry and going selfie crazy, families out for a stroll, and not another foreigner in sight. I headed away from the happy snappers and over to an elevated timber walkway and aviary where the beating of wings would herald the arrival of a Giant Hornbill landing on a nearby branch. Black swans gracefully drifted across Kandawgyi Lake (there seem to be one of these in every town) and the island pagoda twinkled in the fading light of the Burmese sun.

After an early breakfast, and swerving a few horse carts through town, I’m riding west heading for Anisakan Falls. The guide book tells me it is a 45 minute hike to the waterfall, it wasn’t wrong, a good 3 kilometer trek down steep muddy, rutted paths into the valley rewards me with a 600 foot high raging torrent showering the entire area with refreshing ocean-like spray. Fortunately there are a couple of locals willing to ride me back up the ravine for 5000 kyat – it was the best 5 bucks I’ve spent all week although it probably did more than that in damage to the ageing motorcycle that screamed back up that valley in first gear!

I take it slow through the twisties on the return to Mandalay and stop for a few shots of the astounding views down into the Ayeyarwady valley and beyond. Sunset is spent at the Dagon Beer Station supping frosted glasses of local brew for less than a dollar on the river bank itself – life is good.