Shan State is the largest of the seven states in Myanmar and it is an important region as it borders China, Laos, and Thailand to the east and partly to the south. Taunggyi is not only the administrative capital of the Shan State, but it is also a popular hill resort town 4,712 feet high on a mountain and is a fast-growing commercial center.
Those who visit the Inle Lake region usually make a side trip to Taunggyi which is only 17.5 miles to the northeast. They go there for shopping, to buy Myanmar, Shan, Chinese and Thai goods which are in abundance there, in the thriving department stores and the busy markets including the five-day market where the local tribesmen and women of various ethnic races come to sell their native produce, fruits, flowers, and vegetables.
It is at Taunggyi that people of the Shan region, with its diverse ethnic races, all engage in commerce which includes cross-border trade with neighboring countries. The people are affluent and getting a bit Westernized, many wearing jeans which are suitable for the cool climate there, but at the same time visitors can still see the colorful costumes of the different hill tribes like Shan, Pa-O, Danu, Intha, and so on.
Taunggyi means “Great Mountain” as indeed it is built on a small flatland only about 6.20 square miles wide on the side of a steep slope of a huge mountain. This plain is only about four miles in length north to south, and from three-quarters to one mile in width. The town itself is also dominated by two mountain peaks, rocky crags which rise sharply to the east 5,755 feet and 5,612 feet respectively above sea level, or about a thousand feet above the town.
One of these rocky crags is a favorite place for the town folk, visitors, and climbers who go up the steep slopes to visit the little pagoda built on top. The vast Inle Lake region, which is on a plain, is directly below and it is only about five miles to Shwe Nyaung by footpath down the mountain, through the winding road takes 12 miles to climb up in hairpin bends up the steep mountainside. Another road has been built so that the traffic going up to Taunggyi will not meet the down traffic at the dangerous sharp bends.
The railway built by the British in colonial times terminated at Shwe Nyaung but in the last decade, it has been extended right up to the mountainside to Taunggyi, and it is being further extended to the region beyond the town towards Hopong ( about 11.5 miles to the east ) and eventually even beyond there.
Nowadays, visitors usually come to Inle and Taunggyi by plane from Yangon, Mandalay, or Bagan. The airfield is on the Heho plain and going by car to Inle or Taunggyi from Heho, the road crosses over some hills to arrive in the vast Nyaung Shwe plain.
A few years after the British Annexation of Upper Myanmar in 1885, a civil and military headquarters was established at Fort Stedman near the present-day town of Maing Thauk in the Inle Lake region, southeast of Nyaung Shwe. It was A.H. Hildebrand and later Sir George Scott who preferred a milder climate and Hildebrand probably first found the five Shan villages on a plain of about 2,000 acres with natural springs to the east and the west and he decided to shift the administrative center to this place. Taunggyi was established on 15 September 1894. There used to be a quarter where the Shan chieftains, the Sawbwas, and Myo-sas, had their official residences called haw or haw-nan, and some of these old buildings from colonial times can still be seen today.
Taunggyi has a special festival every November during the Full Moon Day of Tazaungmone. This is the Buddhist festival of Tazaungdaing which is celebrated all over Myanmar and is a public holiday. Tazaungdaing is also celebrated in Thailand as Loi Krathorn. It is a Festival of Lights like Thadingyut, one month earlier in October which marks the end of the Buddhist Lent and also coincides with the retreat of the southwest monsoon from Myanmar. Thadingyut is sometimes marred by some rain and storms as it is a transitional period of seasonal change, but Tazaungdaing in November is a time of clear, bright blue, azure skies with hardly any clouds and so this second Festival of Lights is usually celebrated on a grander scale. In fact, it is said to be a pre-Buddhist festival.
Taunggyi is justly famous for its Tazaungdaing Festival when fire balloons are lit at night in various fanciful shapes and made to go up into the clear, cool, night sky as offering to the devas and nats. These huge balloons are made of local Shan paper or rags and are of different sizes and shapes, some human, some animals, some just fanciful products of imaginations.
The Shan State Cultural Museum and Library located a little to the south of the town center of Taunggyi is well worth a visit. It is not big, but within its two stories, visitors can see the regional ethnology with displays of the costumes of about 35 hill tribes which inhabit the Shan Plateau. There is a large map to give locations of the different tribes. There are also ceramics, tribal weapons including dahs, the native swords and knives, “opium” weights, local folk artifacts, musical instruments, and other interesting items. Visitors can see the Regalia of the Shan chieftains, the sar-daik manuscript chests with Shan Tipitaka, Jatakas, and Kammavacas. There are also a number of illustrated Shan Parabaiks or local paper folding manuscripts. In a room on the first floor, visitors can learn about the Pangong Agreement which Bogyoke Aung San signed with the leaders of the Shans, Kachins, Chins, and other ethnic races in 1947. This brought about the Independence of Myanmar.
Like many of the towns in Myanmar, Taunggyi has her pagodas and Buddhist monasteries. Some of the pagodas reverently built on surrounding hills offer superb views of the town as well as the Nyaung Shwe plain far below. Especially form the fairly new, 1985 built Hsu-taungpyi or “Wish Fulfilling” pagoda about two miles south of Taunggyi, visitors can admire the wonderful views of the surrounding area. There is a reclining image of Buddha about to enter Nirvana.
In the southern part of the town itself is the Yat Taw Mu or “Standing Buddha” pagoda. But on the whole, Taunggyi does not have many famous pagodas like the famed Phaung-daw-oo Pagoda in the Inle Lake or the Shwe-umin Pagoda of Pindaya.
Montawa Caves about a mile beyond the Hsu-taungpyi Pagoda also has interesting Buddha images beside an underground river.
Taunggyi is well-known for its local cheroots which though large are rather mild. Foreign visitors like to see the Ma-Ok Cheroot Factory northeast of the market and near the Nyaung Shwe Pond. There many Shan and Myanmar girls are busy rolling cheroots and cigars which are sent all over the country.
There are a number of good hotels and many restaurants where good Shan, Myanmar, and Chinese food is available at very reasonable prices.
Whether on the way to or return from Inle Lake, Taunggyi is an interesting place to visit, to see the gems and local market, and to learn something about the local history and ethnology in the museum.