National Kandawgyi Gardens, Pyin Oo Lwin, Burma

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As we progress around Burma, attended to like two little kings (which always makes me feel rather uncomfortable) I am continuing to persist with the “free wifi” that’s so proudly proclaimed in every restaurant, hotel and airport. It may well be free, but there’s very little point in it if it doesn’t work….which is rarely does. Getting a signal is rather little trying to catch a mosquito – time consuming, frustrating and ultimately pointless. So you’ll probably be reading this post a few days after the event, despite my best efforts.

I’d read good and less flattering reports of the botantical gardens at Pyin Oo Lwin, properly named the National Kandawgyi Gardens. Neverthless, we made sure there was time to visit, not least for a day’s respite from the heat and humidity of Mandalay. So we were pleasantly surprised to find an enormous, very well maintained park (382.46 acres to be exact), bursting with colour and interest. And in contrast to many Burmese tourist attractions it was packed with Burmese people, enjoying a good day out. We only saw about 4 other foreign tourists, which is how we like it.

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The gardens were laid out in 1915 by Sir Alex Roger and Lady Cuffe, a botanist from Kew Gardens. Kew was very much the model for the layout, which is still plain to see today. In 1924 they were declared a national botantical garden and forest reserve. By 1928 the orchid collection, which I’ll save for a separate post, comprised 178 species – a number which has now more than doubled. During the 70’s and 80’s the gardens, by now in the hands of the military government, started to decline. Happily, now in the custody of a private company (albeit with government links), they are being restored to their former glory. The investment is clear to see in the immaculate flower beds and smart new buildings on the site.

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The climate in Pyin Oo Lwin (formerly Maymyo) is cool and pleasant, which is why the British chose it as their principal summer hill station. The leafy streets are still lined with mock Tudor and Edwardian style mansions that would not look of of place on the pages of Country Life (see below Candacraig, the former home of a Scottish teak magnate and later a club for British Officers). Daytime temperatures can reach 36 degrees centigrade during the summer and drop as low as 2 degrees in winter, which starts about now, so technically the climate is sub-tropical. December sees the gardens host a huge flower festival, for which preparations were already well underway.

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The highlights of Kandawgyi are a mix of the new and the old. The series of lakes and causeways, natural forest, arboretum, orchard, rock garden and rose garden are features which date back to colonial times, whilst the impressive Nan Myint viewing tower and butterfly museum have been added over the last 10 years. Normally museums of this type bore me silly, especially when the real things are fluttering about in their hundreds outside, but this was a pretty good display, put together with the help of Japanese experts. The diversity of butterflies in Myanmar and neighbouring Thailand is quite incredible and there are hopes to introduce a live butterfly exhibit in future. I took to the petrified wood museum less well, as petrified tree trunks look very much like unpetrified tree trunks to me. Some were polished to an un-natural high shine, which did not help.

Below, the 12 storey Nan Myint tower. The lift was closed, and we didn’t fancy climbing to the top, so no panoramic views to share I’m afraid!

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As well as flora, there is now fauna, both natural and in captivity. Two enclosures, one housing the rare Takin (the largest member of the sheep family from the far north of Burma, it looks nothing like a sheep!) and the second, a walk in aviary, were both interesting. The latter contained peacocks, lots of colourful pheasants and two very tame but slightly dangerous looking Great Hornbills who seemed to have no inhibitions at all. These huge birds are the state bird of the Chin state in Burma, but are very rare in the wild. It’s a wonder they can fly, but they do.

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Outside on the lake there were elegant black swans, golden ducks, enormous carp (some koi), and large, copper-coloured butterflies taking a drink at the water’s edge. I very nearly got my feet wet in order to take the photo below. Swinging through the trees, to everyone’s delight, came a black Hoolock Gibbon with its bushy white eyebrows. They live in the nearby forests and must drop by looking for food. This one was all too happy to show off to tourists. Better disguised was a fearsome looking lizard, of which there seem to be many in Burma.

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The real stand out feature of the garden was the colourful bedding, maintained to a standard rarely seen or afforded in the UK these days. Most beds were newly planted with classics such as Zinnia, Anthirrhinum Cleome, Coreopsis, Salvia Dahlia and Coleus. When first planted the beds are sheltered from the intense sun by sheets of fine mesh supported by canes. The schemes are changed regularly, given the growing period is 365 days a year, and in the coolest months include pansies and even tulips.

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Our guide whilst in Mandalay, the charming and chatty Aye Aye Theint, was not an expert, but clearly knew and loved her flowers. At lunchtime a very kindly gentleman also told us a lot about the garden and gave us some useful websites to look at. We had a relaxed morning walk around the gardens (you need at least 2 hours), ending with a tasty lunch of chicken noddles and Myanmar beer in the nicely situated restaurant. By the time we left the place was buzzing with picnickers. A couple, both resplendent in white, were having their wedding photographs taken on the neat green lawns.

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Had we known how much Pyin Oo Lwin had to offer we’d have stayed a night or two. The hotels here are amongst the best in the country thanks to the local elite, and the temperature in bliss compared to Mandalay. Maybe next time for us, but if you are visiting Burma and like your gardens, make sure you squeeze a visit in.

Below, a beautiful violet-blue Ipomea scrambles into a tree.

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