Finding the Burmese Days of old

The small town of Pyin Oo Lwin is a reminder of the British colonial times in Myanmar. It was the summer holiday resort during those years and much remains.

Written by Michael Turtle

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle. A journalist for more than 20 years, he's been travelling the world since 2011.

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle and has been travelling full time for a decade.


On the way to Pyin Oo Lwin

I’m on my way to a small town in the northeast of Mandalay called Pyin Oo Lwin. Cooler temperatures from the altitude made it a popular holiday resort for the British in the summers of their colonial days and I’m curious to see how that heritage has lasted in contrast to the rest of the country.

Pyin Oo Lwin, British Resort, Myanmar

Squeezed into one of the front seats of a pickup truck (not the back, at least, because I’m a foreigner and am expected to pay the extra 50 cents), I watch the growing hills of the Myanmar countryside go by.

The driver seems more interested in the road.

“This road, it built by the British,” he leans above and tells me, blowing his betel nut breath in my direction.

“It a very good road. The British, they are smart. They have bigger brains than us. They do good here and help us.”

It’s strange to hear him say that. It’s certainly not what you would expect from a race that spent so long under a colonial rule that basically treated the local people like savages. But it’s not the first time that sentiment has come up.

Pyin Oo Lwin, British Resort, Myanmar

George Orwell’s Burmese Days

I’ve been reading the George Orwell book ‘Burmese Days’ as I travel around Myanmar.

It seems to be the done thing here – I guess because it’s one of the few books about the country. (And all the backpackers have already read ‘The Beach’ and ‘The Alchemist’ so there aren’t many options at the book exchange.)

And a recurring view through Orwell’s cynical but penetrating window into colonial Burma is the way the local people do actually believe the British to be better people.

“While your businessmen develop the resources of our country,” one character says to a British timber salesman, “your officials are civilising us, elevating us to their level, from pure public spirit. It is a magnificent record of self-sacrifice.”

I’m sure Orwell had his tongue planted firmly in his cheek as he wrote this, but it’s an interesting sentiment to bring up.

Pyin Oo Lwin, British Resort, Myanmar

Travelling Myanmar today you don’t get the sense that the people consider themselves to be inferior but, like in many developing countries, there is a respect for foreigners that goes beyond just simple courtesy.

The driver of the truck seems to think there is an intellectual difference between the races. Obviously they don’t get ‘Eastenders’ on the telly here.

Pyin Oo Lwin

Pyin Oo Lwin is about as close as I’ll get to the town of Katha, where George Orwell lived during his days in Burma… but called Kyauktada in his book to try to avoid any defamation problems.

Katha these days, several hundred kilometres north, is in a region closed to foreigners because of ethnic fighting.

Pyin Oo Lwin, British Resort, Myanmar
Pyin Oo Lwin, British Resort, Myanmar

You can get a feel for the British influence here, though.

The busy market in the centre of Pyin Oo Lwin is the typical Myanmar experience I have come to recognise. Bending your head to walk underneath wooden beams; trying to turn the stares of the locals into smiles; dodging children on the floor and mothers too busy pointing at garlic and dried fish.

But as I walk away from it, it only takes a couple of blocks before the Tudor-style mansions appear.

Pyin Oo Lwin, British Resort, Myanmar

The huge colonial houses along the roads leading away from the city’s centre have been turned into schools, government buildings or hotels.

The best-known, made famous in Paul Theroux’s ‘The Great Railway Bazaar’, is a hotel called Candacraig.

From the gate, along the driveway, up to the balcony made for drinking gin, it looks like it is still in the turn of the twentieth century. Except for the large Myanmar flag flying from a post in the middle of the well-manicured garden.

Pyin Oo Lwin, British Resort, Myanmar
Pyin Oo Lwin, British Resort, Myanmar

It’s a reminder of the present, placed conspicuously front and centre of the past.

It’s like the clock tower in the middle of Pyin Oo Lwin which still plays the same chimes as Big Ben, but it’s just a faint cry from a bygone era that is lost on those rushing by on their motorbikes.

Pyin Oo Lwin, British Resort, Myanmar

Flory, the central character from Orwell’s ‘Burmese Days’, at one point takes a new British arrival to a local dance and tries to explain the beauty he sees in the Burmese woman performing on stage.

“Every movement that girl makes has been studied and handed down through innumerable generations. Whenever you look closely at the art of these Eastern peoples you can see that – a civilisation stretching back and back, practically the same, into times when we were dressed in woad.”

Orwell’s time in Burma, like that all the British colonialists, will just be a blip on the historical narrative of this country.

But it’s still nice to be able to come somewhere and see the evidence of that era. For me, it takes it off the page for a moment or two.

25 thoughts on “Finding the Burmese Days of old”

  1. I adore this post! Love your writing, love all the Orwell references, love the bizarre reality of those English houses in Myanmar. Can not wait to get there hopefully, this year!

    • The houses were certainly a bit bizarre after seeing so much of the country previously.
      I’m not sure if Pyin Oo Lwin is really worth going out of the way for, but it made for an interesting stop.

  2. Interesting mix of styles, great photos too…I especially like the market photos. Personally whenever I’m in markets like that I always feel almost guilty, like such a stereotypical tourist, that I tend to avoid taking pictures. LOL call me crazy, you won’t be the first 😉

    • Crazy!!
      Ha, seriously, I get what you mean. I do feel a bit stupid doing it but I can’t help myself. Markets are one of my favourite things to photograph because they’re always so colourful, active and local.

    • The Orwell book is great! It’s the first one he wrote and, in some ways, is a prologue for the more famous ones. It’s also much more descriptive than you expect and I could really relate to his passages about the landscapes and people.

  3. How interesting that the Burmese people feel the British did so much good in their country. If only the rest of the world could forgive and forget to instead appreciate the good that came of a situation…

  4. Did you know about some of the waterfalls and Cave near Pyin Oo Lwin?

    The Dattawgyaik Waterfall is located in Ani Sakhan which is the half way point between Mandalay and Pyin Oo Lwin. It is also known as Anisakan Fall. The height of the waterfall is nearly 122m and the depth is about 91m. The trail to the fall is steep. It takes 45 minutes from the trail-head to the bottom of the falls and climbing back to the top is about 90 minutes up. If you like adventure, it is good place to go. I have never been there before.

    Pwe Kout waterfall also known as BE fall park is also a few minutes drive from town.
    Near BE fall park, there is one pagoda on the hill which is called “Ant too kan thar” or “Pyi Chit Paya” meaning “The Buddha who love the country”. It was long story to explain the history of that buddha but I find it scenic there.
    Pate Chin Myung cave also have lots of Buddha statue inside and the natural stream flowing from the cave.

    What I love about Pyin Oo Lwin are that weather is cooling, scenic and shan food are nice.

    I think the view of the driver might have been a little bit sound like sarcasm to military government. Sometime I even said that “If British would still be governor here, it would be better than current gov and our country must have been like Hong Kong”. Of course, 100 years ago British are more meaner than current British decedents (I think).

    Military Government suppress and took natural resources to themselves. So might as well thinking will British gov be better? haha…
    I am long winded here.

    • Not long-winded at all! That’s an interesting point about the comparison between the British and the military government. It was a bit strange when the driver said that and it left me a bit confused, but he didn’t seem to be trying to be sarcastic or silly. But, with what you’ve said, it now makes a bit more sense.

      • The difference, Michael, is that while people can afford to be nostalgic about British rule because the current lot is so bad, at least the British could and did go back to their little island whereas the generals will try everything including “democratisation” to stay in power or fight it out as they have nowhere to go. Great post and thanks.

  5. You know, I read this post last week then went upstairs to continue reading Paul Theroux’s Ghost Train to the Eastern Star and the bit I was up to was all about him visiting Pyin Oo Lwin! Great to see your photos 🙂

  6. I am doing some research about Croxton House as my family lived in it before the War. I would appreciate any information or stories about it.

  7. I love the photos of Maymyo, this is where I was born in 1940. We lived on avenue road, and as I am returning there next week I would like to know if this road is still in existence and has it been re-named?

      • Hi everyone, For those of you who have mentioned you were born/ relatives born in Burma pre WW2, I have started a facebook group called Burmese Days to connect descendants. Feel free to join and share memories and information!

  8. My grandfather, was Civil Surgeon there in the early 1920s in fact he died at home in the Civil Surgeon’s house in 1927. He was only 49. His widow my grannie had him buried in the Garrison Churchyars with a Cornish Celtic Cross.
    I’d love to find someone going match the photo of the hosue I have with the house standing there still. I have the grave photos.

    • Hi Ann, I am staying in pyin oo Lwin at present but leave tomorrow. Have you got a picture as I am staying in the south near quite a few colonial homes. I walked past candacraig today and a few more and I could ask the staff at my hotel. Hope to hear from you. Karen (uk)

  9. “The driver of the truck seems to think there is an intellectual difference between the races.”

    Lol that’s because there is. Average IQ of 87 in Myanmar. UK is 100.

  10. Lovely to read…. Thankyou.
    My father was born in Maymyo to a Scotsman in 1935. I really want to go and see where he grew up on How Gone Rd.


Leave a comment