The Queen’s officers ran here, once, up the winding mountains paths and through the thickening trees, to escape the oven Mandalay bakes in every summer. They mounted the mountain in droves and settled in shaded groves above, and looked down on the populace they put a thousand meters below their soles.
They planted gardens here, and built themselves houses with high ceilings and wide windows and innate grace they said was native to their homeland so many seas away.
Some even brought their families, and they chatted over cups of homegrown tea a few thousand feet up, where the air spread thin and chilled and left their khakis and corsets less sweated. Thousand miles from home, at least they found a cooler clime.
So they settled down and put down roots—quite literally: in the great British tradition of leaving behind a botanical garden wherever they went, Pyin Oo Lwin inherited one of the finest that you’ve never heard of.
We certainly never had.
“It’s cool,” Seinn insisted, trying to coax us to a site we’d never heard of for our last day in Myanmar. “I mean, you’ll probably be cold, actually.”
Man, she wasn’t kidding. Halfway up the twisting switchbacks, intermittent blasts of frigid mountain air poured through the window—our driver was still chewing his infernal betel and had to spit, regardless of hypothermia or arctic gales. I was ready to club him with a tire iron each time he downed the window. I tried, actually, but my hands were too numb to grip the frosty metal.
I settled for muttering between my chattering teeth and planning his strangulation as soon as I thawed out.
Myanmar in dry season, after all, only requires flip flops and t-shirts. I left behind the rest—long sleeves, jackets, hoodies, even rain coats. No biggie, I thought, it’s not going to get cold. It won’t even rain. I regretted that decision a day ago as I was shivering through the sunrise at Bagan, and now, to my dismay, we were plunging up the steep mountain passes and imposing ridges overlooking Mandalay.
“I used to come to school here,” Seinn was trying to change the subject. “It’s a little hipper that Mandalay.”
That much was certainly true. Pyin Oo Lwin swims in swank cafes and ginormous shade trees; it’s a town of calm streets and resort villas and British teas poured steaming into China cups—two dozen decades all the same and the same and the same again, in the mountains, above Mandalay baking away below. Signs appear in English; ice cream comes in cones; locals wear ear buds and sport T-shirts featuring bands known worldwide.
I wondered whether we were still in Myanmar.
We arrived at night; a sweep of villas welcomed us in the darkened town—rose gardens at each doorstep, and footpaths paved in brick. You couldn’t get more British if you’d taken a wrong turn and wound your way to Oxford. Droves of doormen bowed us welcome, all wearing sock caps and gloves. Reception shivered in heavy coats and mittens normally illegal in these latitudes. Andy and I trembled across the tile floors, breathed clouds of desperate breath, and signed in with numb fingers. In the room, we promptly emptied the water heater of every last drip of hot water available and dove beneath the too-thin blankets. It was too cold to be Myanmar; this had to be a dream.
The morning boasted all-you-can-eat mohinga: a huge plus. It was served on an outdoor patio: an unspeakable minus. I wore all my clean T-shirts, shrouded my bare legs in the rest, drenched my stomach in the scalding tea. An outdoor café in sub-50 temps? I muttered to myself and vowed to hunt down the deranged architect who designed that monstrosity.
Pyin Oo Lwin, I noticed, was making my violent. Or else the cold was seeping into my heart.
But I was supposed to say all about the Botanical Garden. Pyin Oo Lwin’a got a grand one, lads and lassies.
The place glows—almost literally—in enormous bursts of flowers, both foreign and native, and stretches its acres under the shade of spruce and bamboo and Eucalyptus, rings in the cries of howling primates and cooing doves, rolls its gentle grass under flip-flops of visitors, and slowly unfolds the morning sun to finally warm your reptile bones.
Mirror lake? Got it. Forest trails? Check. Mazes of exotic beauties photosynthesizing and pollinating away in the tropic chill? Why even ask? Rowboats and islands and rainbow flowers spelling welcome? It doesn’t miss a beat. It’s even got the fancy-pants orchid house that any botanical garden worth its salt will boast.
What’s added to the mix are a thorough collection of sinister insects pinned to expansive display boards, and a winding trail through a miniature bird sanctuary.
I know it’s not really masculine to rave about gardens and flowers and orchids and swans, but there’s something about the beauty of a botanical garden that gets to me. It’s not just the plants—plants can grow in foreboding jungles and smelly bogs just as abundantly—it’s the plan, the design, the foresight of the structure—and decades of maintenance to pull it off—that makes a garden like this amazing.
Think about it: the paths, the species, the arrangements, the entire concept must be set in stone generations beforehand. Trees don’t sprout overnight, and the combinations and arrangements in the garden aren’t necessarily naturally occurring. What it takes is a mind that knows a million plants and can conceive a visual symphony in horticultural harmony well over a century in advance, lay out of the paths and grass and trim-work patterns, and then go about painstakingly, meticulously, carefully molding a few hundred acres of jungle into a clear plot of land, then collecting saplings and seeds, and growing up an ordered little realm of carefully cultivated varieties to blossom throughout.
A tree like that needs planting pretty far in advance.
I can barely conceive and craft an essay, let alone a little kingdom of ripe flowers and towering trunks.
“Then, the other side,” I was babbling to Andy now, “”is that it needs constant maintenance. I mean, let this place go a week untended and you’ll notice. A month, and the garden feel is almost gone; a year and—”
“Did you mention the flowers.” she asked, cradling a yellow lily in her palm. “because they’re—”
“In need of constant, careful maintenance, I know! The garden—it’s not merely a pretty spot for pretty pictures. It’s the culmination of years of thought and work—it’s planning on the level Moriarty and care on the level of an obsessive antique car owner. It’s—”
“Time to go!” Seinn was calling us to follow.
That’s right: before we knew it, we had wiled away the morning, skipped lunch, and were in danger of missing the flight back home. Scurry through the last orchid pictures, scamper through the winding trails, frolic one last childish frolic in the sunshine and flowers, and wave goodbye to Pyin Oo Lwin’s impossible botanical garden.
On the way out of town, Seinn swung us by a chic eatery replete with spicy noodles, open-air dining (fine for midday, not for early mornings, which reminded me of my vendetta at the villa), Elvis and Marilyn décor, and a retro icebox re-fitted as an aquarium.
I’d go back just for that.
Down the mountain, we passed a parade of the brightest colors and most festive outfits and dozens and dozens of water buffaloes and carts and flowers and monks and elephants, all trudging slowly, slowly through the dust on the shoulder of the road. Trumpets blared in cacophonous whines, and drums splattered rhythms exotic into the crackling sun, and still the painted buffaloes marched on.
“It’s a ceremony for the young people,” Seinn interpreted for us. “They’re being confirmed, I guess you say, in the Buddhist traditions. Maybe something like a baptism for you.”
We nodded and dutifully took pictures. I tried a video—you know the kind, where something is happening far away, and you get the sense that it was a big deal at the time, but in reality, there’s nothing much of interest for the viewer. Yeah, I indulged in one of those.
“Here they are,” Seinn said. “Here are the guys that are being confirmed.”
A cart passed with the drowsiest, teariest, melancholiest faces ever splashed with bright makeup and robed in a sparkling gold.
I know you’re stuck in a golden cage, but at least smile for the camera.
I sighed and tried to change the subject. “Mark Twain would have loved this,” I said. “He was always a sucker for a good parade.”
And that was pretty much it.
Six hours of night driving later and were back in Yangon, picking up the rest of our bags. An hour later, and we were waving goodbye to Seinn through the airport security checkpoint. Another, and I was passed out on the flight back home.
I’ve got to go back to Burma. There’s just no way around it. It’s a country somehow still hidden and still mysterious. It’s a land caught in transition, and at the center of a silent whirlwind of imperialism’s bones and globalism’s growth spurt and self-imposed exile. It’s a land whose rugged beauty still lies mostly untouched from outsider eyes, whose traditions still flit mystery before the mind, but is somehow still reluctantly pawing its way to the center stage of a global trend in far-off tourism.
How long can its Orient coyness last? How long will the secrets of the golden temples stay hidden? How long can the tourism be trapped to the simple triangle of sites?
And how much longer until the secret of mohinga is unleashed on the unsuspecting world?