On arrival at Mandalay airport, we were pleasantly surprised by the efficiency of the immigration queues as well as the speed in which our bag turned up on the conveyor belt. Getting a taxi to Mandalay, nearly 45 minutes away, was also relatively easy. I went to a taxi stand and asked, ‘How much to Mandalay?’ and the woman replied, ’15 000 Kyats’ so I moved over one metre to the next taxi stand and repeated the question. This time, the answer was, ’10 000 Kyats’. Naturally we took the cheaper option. Once our man took us out to the taxi rank a taxi stand war broke out. There was a lot of car boot slapping, Italian gesturing, raised voices and pacing around. We stood on wondering what the fuss was about. I expect it was because we paid $5 less than the going rate and the others didn’t like it one bit. Even once we got on our way it continued. Our taxi driver was repeatedly beeped at and gestured at for most of the trip by one particular taxi all the way to Mandalay.
The following day we jumped on bicycles yet again and sped towards the palace which is surrounded by immense fortress walls containing not only the palace but also a military base. Even though the palace is a reconstruction from the 1990s, it is still impressive to visit. The architecture of the buildings is interesting as well as the throne room of King Mindon.
The highlight of Mandalay itself though was definitely Shwenandaw Kyaung. Beautifully carved, the teak monastery contains gilded scenes of the past life stories of the Buddha. It had a lovely atmosphere which contrasted greatly to the other places of worship we encountered in Mandalay. Many of the Payas contain stunning Buddhas but we’ve struggled to appreciate the enclosures due to a state of immense uncleanliness and a preoccupation with Buddha’s halo being made from disco lights. It is in no way a spiritual experience compared to the quieter, smaller, less technologically advanced Payas.
Eventually, we made our way down to the Ayeyarwady River. Although we were hot and tired, it was very appealing biking along under the huge trees with the river to our right. It is certainly a highway and there is much to observe on the river. We decided to reward ourselves with a plate of spring rolls and lime sodas from a posh place in order to give ourselves more energy and to soak up the atmosphere. It was well worth it.
There is not a lot to see in Mandalay itself; most people use it as a springboard to other places so we decided to hire a car and driver to take us out to Inwa, U-Bein bridge, Mingun and Sagaing. Fortunately, our driver was not a crazed psychopath as so many of them are here so our ride along the river was splendid. The scenery is gorgeous as there are so many trees and little water ways criss-crossing the back roads.
We asked Win San to take us to a school if that was possible or a monastery for nuns. Somewhere near the base of Sagaing Hill, he pulled into an orphanage organized by a monastery. On reflection, it really was one of the highlights of our trip to Myanmar but it was also a real tearjerker. The orphans here are crammed into tiny classrooms and like many classes across Myanmar, they learn by chanting and rote learning. In saying that, most of the students looked like they thought they were very lucky to be there and indeed they are. Education is expensive in Myanmar. Our driver believes that probably less than half the population actually ever go to school.
We stayed there for a while, observing classes, chatting to the teachers and asking lots of questions. I was clung to, jumped on and at one point had about three young children hanging off me from the Kindy class. The lovely young teacher explained that they are all orphans and long to be picked up and cuddled – they don’t get a great deal of that, I suppose. So, there I was letting all these little people paw at me and I had to keep lifting them up and cuddling them and letting them grab hold of my legs. The poor wee mites just wanted one person to love them and take care of them instead of one very lovely by time starved teacher giving them the only affection they receive.
It had a real effect on us, that orphanage. I’d say a day hasn’t passed since that we haven’t spoken of or thought about those children. We are not sure what we can do yet but we will do something.
The rest of the day was filled with touristy activities. All were interesting but nothing spectacular. We enjoyed the rough bumpy ride on a horse and cart around Inwa and the world’s longest bridge made out of teak was fascinating despite the wobbles. I wouldn’t want to be on it during rush hour for fear of an imminent collapse, though.
Dread is the word I would use to describe how we felt about the bus trip to Bagan. Supposedly, it should take about six hours although the Lithuanian guys on our journey were told it would take four. Ha! Let’s just say that travelling on a budget is not recommended for most people. If we could say that we were just going to do the odd bus journey in developing or severely undeveloped countries on our year off then we could easily just suck it up. But after that, the thought of being on a bus for longer than about four hours is enough to make our stomachs curdle. The woman over the aisle from me threw up into her plastic bag for most of the journey, one of the Lithuanians couldn’t take it anymore and actually lay down on the floor despite the bumps and potholes, the monks at the front kept playing musical chairs and poor Scott kept looking at me with those when will it be over? eyes. I’m not even going to describe the toilet facilities at one of our frequent stops – imagine the worst toilet in the world then triple it. After seven hours, we pulled up not in Bagan but on the outskirts where we were told another bus would take us to Bagan. Well, that was it. I’d had enough. I found a taxi driver and managed to get him to take us the rest of the way for 8 000 Kyats. I should point out that the entire bus fare for the two of us was just 20 000 Kyats.
Ahhh. Our hotel was like an Oasis in the desert. It has just had a new development added so there is now a stunning pool, restaurant etc…but we were booked into the cheap rooms. Didn’t matter though because we were not on the bus. We felt excited at seeing some of the ruins on our taxi ride in but first we needed rest and relaxation.
At around 5am the rest and relaxation ended. Scott was first to let loose – sorry about the pun. No one needs a sensory, synesthesia description so I’m not going to describe the horror of the day that unfolded. Fortunately, we didn’t require the ‘facilities’ at the same time – we were in God’s favour.
We lost one whole day. We needed that day. Bagan is not a place you can do in just a couple of hours. I’m the sort of person where seven days at Angkor Wat is barely enough. I want to do things thoroughly. We now had just two days to see everything. We did the best we could even though it was such a struggle. Our bodies did not want to move and we had to keep stopping to sit and rest and then to sit some more and then rest. In fact, several days on and we are still in the throes of the virus.
And more photos of Bagan...
Bagan is spread out over a large area and the best way to cover the distance between sites is to either hire a bike, an E-bike or an electric scooter. We opted for the electric scooter and for $12.00 a day we doubled up on one scooter and sped between the ruins down the dusty and sandy roads. We had a few hairy moments on the scooter but generally navigated our way around incident free.
The variety of temples and stupas was incredible and as you often find, the best sites are the ones off the main tourist areas where we discovered some great architecture and Jataka frescos depicting Buddha’s life. One of the highlights is catching the sunset at 5.45pm from the top of a temple which we duly did.
Despite the above, there really are not enough superlatives to describe Bagan. It is beautiful and definitely a see before you die experience. Hopefully, some of our photos can depict just how stunning the place is. Go there and go there soon before it turns into some kind of tourist Disneyland.
After three days in Bagan, we hopped on the night bus to Yangon. After seeing the bus we were booked on, we decided to upgrade to the super deluxe VIP bus. This bus has three plush seats in a row that recline back similar to a lazy boy chair. Once again, let it be said, we loathe buses. This bus could not have been more comfortable but our stomachs were still not right and we couldn’t sleep because the minute I shut my eyes, I felt incredibly nauseous. It took roughly nine hours to reach our destination and we arrived very, very tired. As soon as we got to the accommodation we showered and fell straight to sleep.
Three days in Yangon is more than enough. Apart from the traffic, it is a pleasant enough place. The colonial walk gave us a small insight into the past and a visit to The Strand Hotel was a highlight. Shwedagon Paya was certainly impressive but all that gold makes it a little bit garish plus it was covered in scaffolding the day we visited. Our accommodation was lovely – a cute little guesthouse in the suburbs tucked in behind the five star Sedona Hotel and literally just down the road from Aung San Suu
All in all, we liked bits of Myanmar and we would return in the wet season to see Bagan again and Inle Lake. We felt that the lake would be best seen in the wet season, hence our decision not to include it in this trip. Certain aspects of this leg of our journey were really hard, especially the bus trips and for me the beetle nut spitting. It was always men and some of them even chewed and spat it out into plastic bags on the bus. A lovely sight when you are already feeling nauseous. Let’s see what India has in store for us ☺