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

 

Chapter Five – Breathtaking Tibet.

Tibet.  A region of the World that sparks so much passion, support, angst, anger, controversy… I could go on.  The history here is so recent, and most people are aware that currently it is not a Country in its own right – rather a region controversially under Chinese rule.  Before I start, I should add that this is probably the most difficult of all the blogs we have written.  Not because of our experiences (in fact it is one of our favourite regions to date) but more that we didn’t want to say or write the wrong thing as the situation in the whole area is so delicate.  We did the ‘paper, rock, scissors’ as to who would write it – and you got me!

There really are two trains of thought about visiting Tibet.  Some people firmly think that you shouldn’t go, for fear of supporting the Chinese regime, thus boycotting for Political reasons.  Others think you should go to support the local people and learn more about their culture, which is incredibly different to that of the Chinese.  We chose the latter – choosing to support the locals and make our own mind up.  Even this decision of ours was met with some negative re-tweets of some of our Twitter posts – proving how emotive this region is.  There is so much to say about the political situation, but that’s not what this blog is about.  Slowly (actually very quickly) Chinese development is encroaching on the traditional Tibetan ways, and for us it was a privilege to visit and see things as they are now.  Leaving the politics aside, this is a land of big skies, beautiful landscapes and incredibly incredibly warm hearted people.  So this is our account of a beautiful part of the World.

You will already have read Dean’s tales of travelling to Tibet by high altitude train.  It had been nail-biting waiting to get our permits.  Currently Chines rules state that you must travel through the region ‘in a group’, ‘with a guide’ and ‘with a permit’.  We might have been a group of two, but that still counted!  So as we got off the train, we were met by our guide Tashi.  Tashi was, quite simply, one of the best local guides we have ever had.  He greeted us with welcome scarves and pressies and settled us in.  We knew instantly it was going to be a good ten days.

We spent the first four days acclimatising in Lhasa.  At well over 3000m its high and an assault on all your senses!  Whilst the air was thin we were rewarded with amazing BIG blue skies.  There was plenty to do in Lhasa so it really was no hardship to be there.  On day one we headed out to the Jokhang Temple.  This is the key central site in Lhasa, and the site of great pilgrimage for Tibet’s largely Buddhist population.  As it was winter time we were assured it was a great time to see the Pilgrims as they had travelled far and wide to be there (something that they don’t do as much in summer as they are busy with their farms).  Together, day and night, they walk several ‘Kora’ (circuits) around various sites and religious buildings in the city.  The Kora around Jokhang Temple was just over 1km long and fascinating.  As soon as you walked up to it you couldn’t help but join in, and before you knew it, you had walked several circumnavigations of the site with the locals!!!  Tashi took us into the temple.  On the way in he explained what all the people were doing outside.  Quite simply it appeared like they were repeatedly throwing themselves on the ground.  This practice of ‘prostrating’ is a form of prayer, and is done repeatedly and really showed their dedication to their religion.   Later on we would even see pilgrims prostrating alongside the road, all the way from a-b on journeys that would take up to a year.  That really is dedication!  Most of the people we saw outside would do this all day.  Like all the Temples we saw, Jokhang was quite fascinating inside as well as our and was very powerful, with the many images of Buddha.  What struck me, and was almost moving, was to see the locals queuing for hours on end to make their offerings of money, barley, and most importantly yak butter milk (poured into big candle like vats that burnt away silently).  Although Tashi said in Buddhism you are not supposed to have favorites, mine was clearly the Compassionate Buddha.  An image that I started recognising everywhere!

The Kora around the Jokhang Temple

The Kora around the Jokhang Temple

The next day took us out to the World famous Potala Palace, once home to the Dalai Lama.  Many hope and pray he will one day return, but for now he lives in India.  The Palace visit was the first time we had really exerted ourselves.  It involved climbing 13 floors up over uneven steps but we were rewarded with fabulous views.  This doesn’t sound much but at over 3000m it makes you feel very unfit!!  The many rooms in the Palace were well worth the effort and it was just such a wonderful building.  Like with the Jokhang Palace the day before, perhaps the best bit of the experience was getting out and in with the locals and seeming them on their pilgrim trail making their offerings.  There were so few tourists there, it felt like a real privilege to be part of their experience.

Overlooking the magnificent Potala Palace

Overlooking the magnificent Potala Palace

The third and four days were spent exploring other temples.  I won’t go into every one as you will be asleep, but needless to say we had our first experience of crossing a high mountain pass.  Here it is traditional to hang prayer flags over the road.  As we crossed underneath the red, blue, white, yellow and green flags flapped in the breeze, bringing luck and fortune to all those who had strung them and protecting those who passed beneath.  They were to become a familiar site and one we would never tire of.  In fact we even have some to bring home!

Prayer Flags over the road!

Prayer Flags over the road!

Soon it was time to leave the city.  With Sonamdorje (or Dorje for short) at the wheel, Tashi, Dean and I were in safe hands!  We headed out of the city and started our journey along the famous Friendship Highway – last stop the Nepalese border.  What a journey it was going to be.  We were greeted with one of the highlights of the trip – views over Yamdrok-tso Lake – which translates into ‘Turquoise Lake’.  The colour of it was certainly that and it was just stunning.  We first saw it as we went over the mountain pass, but we then dropped down and followed it round, even dipping a finger in at one point.  Sorry Mum – I didn’t paddle as it was freezing (and it’s sacred so no swimming allowed)!!

Yamdrak-tso Lake - stunning

Yamdrok-tso Lake – stunning

The next few days were spent visiting several temples and sites in Shigatse, Gyantse and the surrounding areas.  Each and every one was different and we didn’t once tire or get ‘templed out’.  Each had their own appeal and style and between us we have some amazing photos.  In Gyantse we visited one called the Gyantse Kumbum which is very like some temples that are found in Nepal (with the eyes) so it was a nice introduction.  After that we took a wander through the back streets of old town Gyantse, where you find the best examples of traditional Tibetan life.  Again the generosity of the people shone through as one man invited us into his home to have a look around.  It was fascinating, but we didn’t dare look round the corner where the goat heads were hung!  We then carried on walking down the street, dodging the ‘doggy bombs’ on the floor and walking past the cattle ‘parked’ outside each resident’s house.  The style of the houses was beautiful, and even though it was dirty in parts, it had such character.  On our journey we also went to Samding Monastery – a nunnery on the banks of Yamdrok-tso Lake (the Turquoise Lake).  The ladies were busy at work and I would argue it was cleaner J  Nuns and Monks are on the same level in Buddhism, they just can’t stay together.  If I had to be a Nun then I would pick there!

Now when you travel for any great length of time, there has to be ups and downs.  We have loved travelling in winter.  It has been cold, but largely we have been rewarded by being one of few tourists in the area.  However we were about to stumble across our first big disappointment and downside of travel through the region at this time of year.  We had heard that Everest Base Camp (on the Tibetan side) was closed, however the Government had granted us access on our main permit, so we were hopeful we could get there.  In Tibet, to travel you don’t just need one permit, you need many!  When we were 90km from Everest Tashi and Dorje went off to apply for the necessary main Base Camp permit which had to be done locally.  We were all geared up to go when there was a knock on the door.  Tashi telling us that sadly it was indeed all closed and there was nothing he or the company could do to get us there.  There simply weren’t the Chinese guards on the checkpoints, and as we had learnt checkpoints are everywhere and there is no way through them except with the right paperwork.  It was disappointing but we consoled ourselves with the fact that we had at least seen Everest from a distance that day, which was better than nothing.  Sometimes you have to accept that things don’t work out as planned but that night it was a bit of a bitter pill to swallow.  It has made us vow to come back sooner rather than later to trek to Base Camp on the Nepali side (and maybe visit Tibet again!).

Mt Everest

Mt Everest

We picked ourselves up and enjoyed the rest of the journey.  Throughout the trip we had, for a large part of the time, felt like we were driving on top of the World.  There were mountain ranges (both snow-capped and incredibly dry) for most of the time, even surrounding the cities.  Tashi duly pointed them out and gave us manageable amounts of history and information.  Meanwhile Dorje gave us two of his CDs as we loved them.  Tibetan generosity at its best.  As I’ve said before (but it’s worth mentioning again!) the Tibetan skies were just so huge.  You could almost see the curvature of the Earth! We loved watching the view change out of the window and the last day was no exception.  We stopped at the top of a pass over 5000m and then slowly descended down a zig zag of switchbacks and passes.  Slowly the trees began to appear again.  We felt less and less like we were in Tibet, but were excited about our next adventure.

There is a wonderful quote by Mother Theresa, “Peace begins with a smile” and the Tibetan people sure know the meaning of this.  We were a fascination everywhere we went.  People looked at us inquisitively, and then we simply had to say ‘Tashi Dalek’ (hello) and they would break into this almighty grin.  They were so pleased to welcome us and this made the decision to come all the more worthwhile.  There is a sadness that extends over the Tibetans, but underneath they are such beautiful people and we fell so lucky to have visited now.

I have never ever had a guide that has made me feel so privileged to be able to travel.  Current Chinese Policy states that Tashi, as a Lhasa resident, has to wait until he is 60 before he can even apply for a Chinese passport and even travel within China (without passport) is severely limited with lots of clauses and restrictions.  It’s just the way it is, but he was so very well read and versed on other Countries in the World.  There we were travelling the World and our wonderful guide isn’t even able to travel freely within China, never mind venture out into the big wide World that he is so desperate to explore.  There is nothing more humbling than that.  One of those moments that makes you feel very lucky to have been born where we were.

With the wonderful Tashi at over 5500m

With the wonderful Tashi at over 5500m

Tibet – you are simply amazing.  Thank you.

–  Natalie

Dorje, Dean, Me and Tashi just before we crossed the border

Dorje, Dean, Me and Tashi just before we crossed the border