Chapter 10: All that glitters in Myanmar really is gold!

After an amazing few days in Mandalay it was time to move on. We decided we would mix things up a bit and decided to take a night bus.  We were told the journey would take 10 hours: hurray we thought. We’d save a nights’ accommodation money.

We got to the bus station and all was looking rosy. Dean cast his expert eye over the bus, raised an eyebrow and nodded in agreement. With our oversized bags on board we got on. The bus had the makings inside of a good nights’ sleep. With only three well-recling seats across, fluffy (fluorescent pink!) blankets and free (almost boiling as the bus had obviously been in the sun all day!) water it had the makings of a good journey. There was only one fly in the ointment, the quality of the roads! Now for all my travels, I can be at times the world’s worst traveller as I get ill at the drop of a hat. Unfortunately this journey was no exception. As we swayed from side to side on the dark roads I felt like I was on a super turbulent flight and my stomach started to churn. Needless to say it was a long journey and I was still ill the next day! That said it actually wasn’t as long as we thought. I felt a tap on my shoulder and the voice of the conductor said, “Your stop arriving”. We looked at the clock – 3.33am – having left at 8pm it really wasn’t a 10 hour journey!! Our hotel took pity on us though and didn’t charge us for this extra bit of a nights’ stay – so thank you Good Will Guest House in Nyaung Shwe at Inle Lake!

Originally we weren’t sure how long to have at Lake Inle, but my bout of bus-induced-sickness made the decision for us. We had two full days and it was perfect. On day one we took it easy and explored town, the local markets and then headed out on our bikes to a couple of monasteries we had spotted a few hours early on our taxi ride in. One of them, Baw Ri That, was one big gold stupa surrounded by lots of smaller stupa. There were no tourists there and it doesn’t make the Lonely Planet, but in our opinion it was the best one in the area. From there we headed out to the Red Mountain vineyard for sunset and a glass of wine to settle my stomach! You may have read my previous blog about our trip there so I won’t repeat myself, but in brief Myanmar wine is surprisingly good – if only we could get it in the UK.

A good drop

A good drop

The next day we were up early and headed out on our longboat on Inle Lake. Whilst a bit too much of a tourist hot spot you can understand why. It’s beautiful and a must see. As we sped out onto the lake we saw the first of many fishermen catching their prey. What is unusual about these guys is the way they fish. Whilst throwing their wooden net from their sand-pan style boat, they stand at the end of boat and row using their leg wrapped around the oar. It’s hard to describe yet fascinating to watch and a technique I have never seen anywhere else in the world. We would have been quite happy to have watched them all day but we had things to see!

An unique fishing technique

An unique fishing technique

Enjoying Inly Lake

Enjoying Inle Lake

Our ‘boat driver’ Mon Pei took us to a number of sights during the day but the first was to see the markets which were today in Inthein. These markets float from village to village daily so it depends on the day of the week where you will find them. We were pleased they were here as it also gave us the chance to see the Shwe Inn Thein Paya temple ruins. Not dissimilar to some of the Angkor Wat complex, these ruins had trees growing amongst them.

Shwe Inn Thein Paya

Shwe Inn Thein Paya

Our next stop took us to see the Padaung tribe ladies. These ladies are famous for wearing copper rings around their neck. They are super heavy and they never take them off, resulting in their neck being stretched as much as 14cm. As they are so heavy they do not go to school or work and we’d heard lots of conflicting things about them. Some people say they like following the tradition others say young girls are forced into it and we never did get to the bottom of it. We felt uncomfortable really as it seemed like these ladies were on show much like the monks in Mandalay, but we bought a few of their handicrafts ever hopeful it would help them in some small way.

Gazing out

Gazing out

For the rest of the day we visited a couple of craft places and cruised around the stilted villages and floating gardens. The lake is home to so much life. Life that is massively different to our own. I can’t imagine walking down the stilts of my house and washing in a sarong in the lake with people driving past. But this is what these families are used to and judging from so of the smiles, they really enjoyed waving to passers-by.

Our time at the lake was over and it was time to move on. We decided to fly back to Yangon and it was the best decision. We checked in at Heho airport and waited for our flight. I saw people disappearing outside next to the tarmac so I followed! I spent the most amazing 45 minutes watching the planes land. I was so close the back draft of one it nearly blew me back inside! The pilots were stood smoking whilst the re-fuellers did their job in flip flops talking on mobile phones. I saw over eight planes land / take off and loved being closer than any other airport security would allow. Eventually my fun was over and an airport official ushered all us plane spotters back inside!

Plane heaven...

Plane heaven…

Back in Yangon and we hit the real Myanmar heat – 36 degrees! We spent a day there initially visiting Sule Paya (a beautiful monetary situated in the middle of the Yangon’s main roundabout!) and walking through some of the Colonial areas of town. It was a nice introduction.

The next day we set off for what turned into one of the highlights of the trip. I had seen pictures of Mt Kyaikhtiyo or as its more commonly called the ‘Golden Rock’ when we applied for our visas in Kathmandu and I instantly wanted to go there. It took us about four hours to reach the bottom of the rock but then the adventure really began! We loaded into the back of a 36 ‘seater’ (just a narrow bench too small for even the smallest bum!) and hung on for the ride! As the truck spluttered and lurched forward everyone held onto each other. The single track path up the mountain was VERY steep but somehow we made it! The next challenge came when the hotel we booked had lost our reservation… And was full! However this turned out for the best as we walked into the temple complex and found a pilgrim hotel with a view over the vast forests below and cheaper as well. Perfect!

Simply Stunning

Simply Stunning

We then spent the next 24 hours gazing at the Golden Rock at every time of day. For Buddhists this is a really scared and holy site and it certainly had ‘something’ special. Like all holy sites in Myanmar you leave your shoes and socks at the door (or in our case our hotel room). There isn’t much you don’t walk through! We’d become accustomed to having dirty feet, but our problem here was burnt feet! The midday sub has heated the marble flooring to such a degree that we could barely walk on some bits! We quickly learnt to avoid the black tiles and run from shady patch to shady patch!

Sunset

Sunset

We returned later on it the afternoon and watched the sun go down. As it did the rock almost became more golden, if that’s possible. We bought some gold leaf and Dean went and rubbed it onto the rock for both of us (ladies are not allowed). Once darkness has fallen the rock was beautifully illuminated and so we re-took all our pictures again! By this point several pilgrim groups where already chanting their mantras. Some of them we’d find in the same place doing the same thing several hours later at sunrise – that’s dedication for you!

Dean rubbing the gold leaf onto the rock

Dean rubbing the gold leaf onto the rock

We had a few hours rest before getting up for sunrise. Here it was almost like someone drawing the curtains on the rock as the shadows peeled back and the sun lit up the gold. It’s a difficult place to get to but one that’s truly spectacular and well worth the effort.

On the way back we spent a very enjoyable day in Bago. We visited several temples and sights, but the two most noteworthy off us were the lying Buddha (and his ever-so-slightly smaller brother next door) and Kyaik Pun. Which is four giant sitting Buddha’s each with funky sparkled nails!

Kyaik Pun

Kyaik Pun

On the way back from Bago we stopped at Taukkyan War Cemetery. This is maintained by the commonwealth was graves commission and contained the remains of 6374 allied service men, as well as the inscription of the names of 27,000 others whose bodies were never found. Perhaps the most powerful headstones I saw were those for shoulders killed on the exact day that Dad was born. The Lonely Planet sums up this site very well and say, “slowly, as you walk around reading the names of those who died and the epitaphs commemorating them, the heat of the sum seems to fade and the noise of the road recedes, leaving you alone in the silence of your own thoughts in this immensely sad place”. They have never said a truer word.

Taukkyan War cemetery

Taukkyan War Cemetery

When we got bank to Yangon we did the rounds of all the sites, before saving the best until last. Rising up about parts of Shwedagon Paya – a magnificent pagoda both in the day and at night which is the jewel in the crown for Yangon tourism. So much so they have even built lifts up to the base, but it really isn’t that far so we walked. This Myanmar icon certainly didn’t disappoint and the longer we sat ‘watching it’ the more special it became. The diamond orb right at the top holds over 4351 diamonds of unthinkable size carats whilst slightly below, the umbrella section contains over 1/2 a ton of gold and is encrusted with 83,850 items of jewellery and 4016 small gold bells. Within the complex are many bells, Buddha images etc etc as well as an interesting photo exhibition. However the site of the pagoda as a whole stands out above all these things put together. There is a white marble Buddha for each day of the week, and tradition states that you find the day of the week you were born, then place five cups of water over Buddha praying for five different things – the last of which should be the health of your family. Dean and I both found the relevant day and joined in. We had left if until late in the afternoon to visit as the light is best. The sun initially made the gold glisten before slowly dipping. As it got dark the lights came on and again camera shutter clocks resonated out. This truly was a fitting place to finish our time here.

Shwedagon Paya

Shwedagon Paya

 

Dean pouring water over the Buddha image for his birth day of the week

Dean pouring water over the Buddha image for his birth day of the week

Myanmar is a very special place. Since it opened up tourists has flocked, mostly in groups (try and go independently as the money gets to local people more). However no matter how much or how little people have, they are always willing to give you a wave or smile and say hello. Coming from India we had our defences up. Rarely do street sellers there offer you help or advice without a catch. In Myanmar they fall over themselves to help out and it was something that we both admired and appreciated. When you’ve been travelling for a while, certain countries begin to stand out as having especially nice people and for us, they can really make or break our experience.  Myanmar is special anyway, but the people here make it stand out as one of the friendliest places we have ever visited as well as one of the best. It’s simply amazing.

– Natalie

Chapter Nine: Treasures of Myanmar – The Road to Mandalay

One country that is on all the ‘Top Destinations of 2014’ lists and a country that is literally buzzing within traveller circles is Myanmar. Having only reopened to tourism about four years ago and with tourist numbers soaring, now is the time to visit. With that in mind, and wanting to visit Myanmar before tourism gets too commercial, it was one destination that had really excited us in the planning phase of this trip.

A few important things to note, firstly credit cards are not accepted almost anywhere in Myanmar, (with a very few exceptions) international ATM cards are only accepted by cash machines in a few places outside the capital of Yangon, (thankfully this is on the increase though), and entrances for historical and cultural sites must be paid in either local currency or US Dollars, and US Dollars must be pristine, almost as if they had just been printed. This certainly means you must have a good grip on your finances and adds another important dimension to trip planning throughout the country.

As Natalie had mentioned in her Hot Air Ballooning Blog, our first destination was the so called Jewel in the Tourism crown on Myanmar, Bagan. The Bagan Archaeological Zone consists of over 2,200 red brick stupas and temples scattered over the country side. Clive our balloon pilot had told us that originally there was an estimated 6,000 but over the centuries many had been destroyed, looted or damaged from earthquakes and invaders. Covering an area of 42 square kilometres for most of your explorations you can be excused for thinking you were the only people there. Most visitors head to Ananda, Sulamani, Shwesandaw and Dhammayangyi. However we liked the smaller complexes of temples. Bunched together these small red brick pagoda made you feel like Indiana Jones searching for buried treasure or uncovering a new site  for the first time. In fact the whole Bagan region felt like it belonged in some Hollywood adventure movie.

Some of Bagan's Pagoda soaring over the landscape

Some of Bagan’s Pagoda soaring over the landscape

Unlike the rest of Asia, the rickshaw has not really taken off in Myanmar, meaning the easiest way to explore Bagan was by something called an E-bike. Not quite a push bike and not quite a scooter, these bikes had pedals (which you only used if the bike ran out of juice) and ran on a small battery reaching an estimated top speed of about 15 kmh. Though not designed for it they are great for off roading and all throughout Bagan you could hear the hum of the electric bike followed by the rattle and shake of said bike being taken some-place it was not meant to go.

Natalie modelling our 'off road' E-bike

Natalie modelling our ‘off road’ E-bike

Each day in Bagan culminated in finding an elevated vantage point for sunset. The best time to view the temples is early morning and the two hours before sunset. As the sun dips in the sky the temples and pagoda light up a fiery red colour, a striking contrast to the green surrounding them and the brilliant blue skies. Everyone in Bagan has the same idea though, which means there is little hope to find a secluded temple top to watch the sun go down, but regardless watching the sun drop behind the hills silhouetting the many temples is one of Myanmar’s must do experiences.

One of our favourite temples in Bagan

One of our favourite temples in Bagan

Sunset over the temples

Sunset over the temples

We also made the half day journey out to visit Mount Popa. An extinct volcano with a monastery complex on top, Mt Popa was a great way to break up visiting all the temples around Bagan. There is a catch though, and that is the 777 steps you must walk up barefoot to the summit. Throughout Myanmar, whenever you visit a religious site it is shoes off, regardless of how hot, sandy dusty, muddy or covered in bird droppings that site is, tradition states you must remove your shoes. Needless to say our ‘Western Feet’ have at times protested and are looking forward to reaching Australia for some much needed love and attention!

From Bagan it was then off to Mandalay, one of Myanmar’s many former capital cities. Unlike Rudyard Kipling’s poem ‘Road to Mandalay’, we chose to take a boat. Public transport in Myanmar is not really set up for tourism but set up to cater for the locals. Most intercity transportation is either in rather uncomfortable pickup trucks where as many people as possible are rammed in tightly together or overnight coaches that depart and arrive at particularly inconvenient times, as one local said, ‘Myanmar people would never miss a day of work to travel intercity, they prefer to do it at night, oh, and the buses don’t overheat as much!’.

So the boat seemed to be our logical choice. An 11 hour journey, we were excited to see some of the rural life along the river. We were met by a stunning sunrise just after the boat departed but that was about as good as it got. Before we knew it the weather closed in and the majority of the day we were subjected to a huge down pour. As we approached Mandalay in the late afternoon it felt like the rain was getting worse, or perhaps it was because we knew we would soon be getting off. We trudged off the boat into the back of a pickup truck for the short drive to our chosen guesthouse, soaking wet we arrived, and despite the horrible weather we were surprisingly happy as it was the first real full day of rain we had experienced in months.

Mandalay is Myanmar’s second largest city and certainly had a big city feel after the relative quietness of Bagan. Almost dead flat it was easy to explore on push bike and were introduced to some of the country’s different road rules. Firstly they drive right hand drive cars on the right hand side of the road, not easy when you are overtaking, and secondly, Mandalay had hardly any traffic lights. Four way intersections were a free for all, you approach, look around and if you think you can go, you go, to be honest, even if you don’t think you can, you go! We visited a number of famous monasteries and temples, including the most famous, the Mahamuni Paya complex. Here males dab gold leaf onto a huge statue of Buddha giving it a lumpy look. Various religious sites or inner most sanctums are off limits to females, so Natalie dispatched me with numerous cameras and phones to snap the photos we have. We also visited the ‘Gold Pounders’ of Mandalay. These muscle bound locals smack small leather books filled with sheets of gold for up to six hours to produce wafer thin gold leaf for people to apply on various Buddha images and religious icons throughout the country. Certainly a hard way to make a living. Never have we seen so much gold everywhere as we have in Myanmar!

Monks applying gold leaf to the image of Buddha in Mandalay

Monks applying gold leaf to the image of Buddha in Mandalay

The Gold Pounders in action

The Gold Pounders in action

Our second day was spent visiting the various sites around outer Mandalay, including a famous monastery in the Amarapura district. Here the 1000 monks inhabiting the monastery all line up at 11:00 to receive their rice and fruit. The main walkway is chock full of tourists on either side and as the monks silently march in single file down to the dining hall all you can hear is the beeping and clicking of cameras. In fact many tourists were angrily barking at each other and muscling each other to get the best vantage point! While interesting Natalie and I could not help but feel sorry for the monks, it was almost like being in a Buddhist zoo, with the monks being put on show or paraded for the tourists to take their photos. While I enjoyed the experience of seeing the inner workings of a Monastery, next time I think I would avoid it.

We also visited the neighbourhood of Sagaing a lovely green hilly area dotted with numerous golden Stupa and the small ancient village of Inwa. We finished the day off with sunset over the famous U-Bein bridge, the longest teak wood bridge in the world and one of the symbols of Myanmar.

Natalie in the botanical gardens of Pyin Oo Lwin

Natalie in the botanic gardens of Pyin Oo Lwin

To break up our time in Mandalay we also spent a day out in the colonial village of Pyin Oo Lwin. Set up by the British as an escape from Mandalay’s stifling heat, it is now famous for arguably the best manicured botanic gardens in South East Asia. The gardens were beautiful, but the highlights were firstly seeing a huge motorcade of chanting monks and nuns driving down the main street ahead of a truck relocating a huge image of Buddha. People were singing, clapping and waving flags as the image trundled past. Secondly, the journey back to Mandalay was a real highlight. We jumped into a share taxi and headed out to an enormous military base. We drove past barracks and parade grounds, saw soldiers marching and doing martial arts and had a real feeling of should we be here? We arrived out to a small monastery attached to the base where an elderly monk came out and apologised for running late, did we mind waiting for him? Of course not.

After about half an hour he came out with two novice monks, both only about five or six years old. While the senior monk jumped in the front seat the two boys sat in the back with us. They were loads of fun, one we were told was very naughty, but they were as fascinated with us as we with them. This was particularly the case when the cameras came out, taking selfies on the iPhone they loved the fact they could see themselves. At one point as the taxi was flying down the hill the boys were making car noises and Natalie threw in the sound of screeching tyres and brakes and the boys thought this was hilarious.  Arriving back to Mandalay we said goodbye to our new friends and considered ourselves so lucky to have shared the taxi with them. This was a much more real experience than the touristy ‘zoo’ we had experienced the day before, sometimes when you travel you just happen to be in the right place at the right time.

Our taxi buddies posing for a selfie

Our taxi buddies posing for a selfie

Our final day in Mandalay was filled with a boat ride to the village of Mingun to see their various pagoda, including the ruins of what would have been the world’s largest pagoda, and a final run around Mandalay to visit a few last sites we wanted to see.

The stunning white pagoda in Mingun

The stunning white pagoda in Mingun

Myanmar is known as the ‘Golden Land’ and it is easy to see why. With stunning gold gilded pagoda dotting the landscape and some of the friendliest people anywhere in the world it truly is a special place and we were so glad we visited now before that mass influx of tourism and tourism money changes the cities but also the people. Our first half of our journey had been incredible and we had a feeling the second half was going to be just as amazing.

– Dean