Myanmar is rightfully on the bucket-list of many travelers, a land of temples and golden stupas, ballooning and boat rides, majestic vistas and rivers. While many itineraries include Bagan, Inle Lake and Mandalay, we’d recommend adding a couple more days to explore the Highlands and Hill Stations.
Only 90 minutes uphill drive from Mandalay, lies the scenic town of Pyin Oo Lwin, nicknamed POL, at an elevation of 1,070 meters. Famous for its horse-drawn taxi carriages, colonial architecture, Botanic Gardens and cooler temperatures, it has a strong Anglo-Burmese legacy. After the construction of the railway from Mandalay to POL, it became the summer capital until 1948, and the railway remains one of its largest claims to fame, as this is the gateway to the famous Gokteik Viaduct.
Once the highest viaduct in the world on its completion in 1901, the Viaduct is the highest bridge in Myanmar at 318ft high and 2,257ft across. It spans the Gokteik Gorge, a ravine that cuts an unexpectedly deep gash through the mildly rolling landscape. It was designed and fabricated by the Pennsylvania Steel Company in the US and shipped to be assembled onsite, considered an engineering marvel.
Still a vital transportation link for trade and transportation, the somewhat shaky train ride takes about 3,5 hours from POL’s station on vintage trains through verdant scenery and several stations, slowing to a crawl as it thrillingly passes the viaduct. As in many countries, the train stations are wonderfully colourful places with vendors and fruit sellers. The train leaves in the early morning, so the best is to arrive in POL in the afternoon from Mandalay, overnight in one of the wonderful boutique hotels, catch the morning train on a one-way ticket and then return to Mandalay in the afternoon.
Adding one night in Kalaw before going to Inle Lake is a great way to enhance your trip to Myanmar. High up in western Shan State, Kalaw is an old hill station with a laid-back atmosphere, beautiful pine forests and colourful flower-lined streets. It is also known as Myanmar’s trekking mecca. Conveniently Kalaw and Inle Lake are both accessed from Heho airport and the best time is the dry, winter season from Nov-Feb, with cooler clear air and wonderful views.
Kalaw town is famous for its market where hill tribes like the Danu, Pa-O, Palaung and Taung Yo ethnic groups come to trade, selling fresh produce, baskets and cheroots.
The beautiful surrounding Shan Hills is the other star attraction of Kalaw. Trekking enthusiasts walk the many trails, often all the way to Inle Lake, visiting villages along the way. A half day trip in 4x4 jeeps is another way to enjoy the hills and scenery, finishing the day with an overnight stay in one of the small hotels that offer wonderful panoramas across the valleys.
A visit to Green Hill Valley Elephant sanctuary, a 40-minute drive from Kalaw, is also recommended. It was founded in 2011 to protect the local environment by re-forestation and to care for elephants from the Myanmar timber business. Elephant labour is a long tradition in Myanmar and they provide a loving and ethical home for elephants who are disabled or too old to work.
Another exciting option, is to include a mostly down-hill Biking adventure, riding the full day from Kalaw down the hills to Inle lake, on a mix of country roads and some tarmac, through villages and gorgeous scenery. Your luggage can be sent ahead and be ready at your hotel in Inle lake as you arrive.