The Book

A Slow Ride to Northern Shan Plateau and Lashio


On the twelfth day of this journey, my guide and I will take a long train ride in our "new" coach, leaving Mandalay at 4:45 in the morning. We will pass through the eastern part of Mandalay Division, stop briefly at the former British hill station of Maymyo (now called Pyin Oo Lwin), and then proceed to the northern Shan states. While ascending the Shan Plateau, we will cross the famous Gokteik Viaduct before negotiating a system of switchbacks. Once on the plateau we will halt at two larger Shan towns, Kyaukme and Hsipaw, that used to be principalities. We will follow the Dokhtawady River, a tributary of the Ayeyarwady, before reaching Lashio, our destination at the southern end of the Burma Road. Lashio is only 110 miles (180 kilometers) from the Chinese border. We are due to arrive at around six o'clock in the evening.

Mandalay is slowly waking up when we arrive at the main railroad station. After a quick visit to the stationmaster to remind him of his obligation to have our original coach here when we return from Lashio, we board the replacement, which turns out to be a pleasant surprise. First, it is not much different from the other one, and second, we have a new attendant, U San Win, a very likeable, quiet, and elderly man who reminds me of old Mr. Wang, a retired Chinese cook and gentleman who would prepare superb Western-style dinners for my Chinese business friends and me at my home in Beijing. Little did we know then that U San Win was also a great cook. Having already heard about my angry exchange with the stationmaster over the way they had handled our clothes, U San Win had spread out a blanket in the dining section and was about to iron the wrinkled garments. Water was boiling in the kitchen and before long tea was served in the sitting room.

After unpacking, I settled down with Somerset Maugham's travel report and a cup of hot tea on my comfortable bench. Because our train would take a route to the notorious city of Lashio that was similar to Maugham's trip, I intended to follow his account as we went along the way through northern Shan State.

Soon after we left Mandalay behind, we slowly began to climb. The hot, humid air of the dry central plain gave way to cooler, fresher air, and as we reached the first hills, the roofs and plants were still covered with early morning frost. In the early 1970s, the well-known writer and world traveler Paul Theroux took a train from Mandalay to Maymyo, and this is what he reported in The Great Railway Bazaar:

We had left the rancid heat and dusty palms of Mandalay and were climbing sideways through pine forests, where the gold-tipped pagodas, repeating the shape of pine tops, rose above the deep green trees. A dirigible of white cloud had settled against one station; we emerged from it to a view of hardier, muddier people carrying buckets on yokes. A light rain began to fall, and the train was moving so slowly I could hear the patter of raindrops on the leaves that grew beside the track. At the early sloping stations, women with trays were selling breakfast to the passengers: oranges, sliced pawpaws, fried cakes, peanuts, and bananas. One had a dark shining assortment of beady objects on her tray. I beckoned her over and had a look. They were fat insects skewered on sticks-fried locusts.

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