The hotel were kind enough to let us refresh by using the staff shower for which we were very grateful as sitting on a night bus covered in a thin film of traffic scum and when you have been sticky and sweaty all day would not have been nice for us or the other passengers
We headed to the bus ticket office at 6:30pm to await out transfer. We were politely ushered to sit on two small plastic chairs close to the building with others milling about on the chairs placed on the tarmac carpark. There was a medium sized red and white bus parked up which we assumed we were catching. So when the driver jumped on and the locals promptly followed (as they are always keen to get going) we jumped up and grabbed our bags but the guy from the ticket office said no not Mandalay, please wait. A further 15 minutes and a caged pick up truck arrived half laden with parcels and boxes- we bundled in with a couple of others, enjoying the dusty gritty joyride at speed through the dark streets of Yangon. The driver was great – foot down all the way. Unfortunately Marie bagged a seat next to the wasted tourist smelling of beer and sweat. Emma just got a sore bum cheek as she only had one on the seat. We got a bit slammed together on the rare times we braked which wasn’t often as generally we went around obstacles – even if that meant driving down the wrong side of the road for some distance.
The bus station was not like we have experienced elsewhere on our travels, it was a number of streets in a grid pattern, the road accommodating every mode of transport that can fit in it. It is absolute chaos with large luxury coaches trying to get space between endless pick-ups, taxis, smaller buses, trishaws, bicycles and pedestrians – more than the street can actually deal with. We delivered a few parcels to other offices before weaving and stalling through the dense streets to our bus. We were grateful for the doorstep delivery given the darkness, dust, noise and chaos.
Once at the bus office we jumped out like pros and got straight into our ‘taking a long bus journey routine’. Pillows, water, lollies, jumpers, neckies, toilet roll handy we gave our bags over and they were loaded into the bus through the window and placed by the back seat. We think this might be because the space underneath was for cargo, other people travel carrying very little and the fact the bus had about 16 seats free. We left about 10 minutes late weaving our way slowly following traffic out to the highway before overtaking a few trucks and hitting speed. The bus played a mantra and video of Buddha before we departed which was soon replaced by some Myanmar pop music program.
We had been on the road less than an hour when the light and TV were turned off and so we wrapped ourselves in the bus supplied fluffy blankets and settled for sleep. We managed to get some shut eye only to be woken by an automated woman’s voice announcing, it turns out, that we are stopping for a 30 minute break. This was service station Disneyland. We parked up at a complex littered with restaurants and refreshment stalls. There were decorative LED water features and bright orange LED palm trees. Not expecting anything quite like it we jumped off the bus blurry eyed and forgot to take a photo. We just hung out there being stared at by teenage bus boys before heading to fantasy land for something sweet and the toilet (buses here don’t have them onboard). 20 minutes later we were back on board, lights out as if we have never stopped at the overstimulating theme park in the middle of the night. We slept ok waking roughly once every hour.
A 5am stop to get the bus washed gave us a good opportunity for a behind the back of the shed toilet stop which basically resolved our question about whether monks wear underwear – they don’t – Marie saw one having a wee.
A bit of freshening up and waking up we watched the final few kilometers into the outskirts of Mandalay as the city woke up and we arrived at the bus station spotting some guesthouse touts from the bus and gearing ourselves for early morning hustle and bustle. We had originally thought we should hang out at the station until later as we had no accommodation booked and didn’t want to wander round town too early but a friendly taxi driver offered us a shared taxi to downtown Mandalay at a fair price with the offer of taking us around a few places until we found somewhere we liked. We took the opportunity and jumped into the back of another caged ute – this time sitting on the floor which was much more comfortable and rucksacks loaded on the roof.
The taxi driver was very chatty and Emma did the obligatory room checks before committing and Marie hung out with the driver keeping an eye on the bags. He took us to the guesthouse we had intended to check out first and as they were full the driver whizzed us around the corner to another which was a good sized room for a reasonable price. Soon enough we were checked in (by 6am) and paid a small amount extra for breakfast that morning. The other tourists decided the room was too small and decided to keep looking. Emma thinks they were fussy. 8am we had changed and had breakfast ready for a day exploring the Mandalay streets with our free map we had brought up from Yangon.
Mandalay is quite different from Yangon the streets are architecturally much less interesting with much more concrete and the streets are littered with scooters. The temperature was about 26 degrees at this time in the morning We opted for the cheapest form of transport – walking. We were asked on the way by blue taxis, taxi scooters, trishaws if we wanted a taxi but people are not pushy here, they accept your refusal and often decide to chat anyway. The streets are wide and most have pavements of sorts although these are obstructed by street vendors, holes, and plastic tables and chairs. Walking around has given us many opportunities to interact with people which we have enjoyed. The roads are busy and junctions tricky to cross but we are pretty patient as we don’t want to die yet. It took ages to walk to the Pagoda even though its only 2 and 1/2 miles partly because of the increasing heat which set itself at a happy 34/35 degrees and partly because of the number of crossing we had to negotiate.
Although we got a few looks as we wandered round, these were broken with a smile from us returned with a smile. People are willing to help here, pointing us in the direction of the Ma Ha Myat Muni image we walked to see. We stopped at a tea shop on the way for a coffee and a tea which is clearly somewhere tourists don’t visit and gave them some entertainment. We love walking the streets mainly because it really uses all of your senses and you get to explore things that catch your attention unlike travelling on the back of a bike.
Finally we made it into the sanctuary of the Pagoda. Unusually women are only able to get a detached view of Maha Muni the 15ft seated Buddha believed to be 2000 years old. Men are able to apply gold leaf directly onto it and have clearly done so for a very long time shown by the knobbly texture it now has (all except the neck and head of course). There are some Hindu-Buddhist figures within the complex made from bronze and pinched from Angkor Wat they include Shiva and Airavata on which you rub sick parts of your body on to be cured.
Leaving the tranquility we headed back downtown on another route taking us through the market with lots of fresh fruit and veg, dried fish, basketware, cleaning implements and other useful ‘stuff’. We bought a pineapple as Marie has been craving one for a refreshing afternoon treat. The seller was bemused but chuffed by our purchase and although we had absolutely no idea what each of us was saying had a nice conversation ending with Emma getting a complement on her dimples.
The market felt very safe and we took a bit of time looking at things but kept moving to keep cooler, passing spices in baskets, rice and flour being unloaded off a truck giving us a light white dusting as we passed. We didn’t get bored by looks, smiles or hellos and the fact we were on foot meant we ‘lost’ any other tourists. We got back to the hotel for some respite from the early afternoon heat and Emma entertained the hotel staff with what appeared to be an unconventional way to chop a pineapple. They gave her a cleaver which wasn’t her usual toolset. They declined to eat any when she offered…
The evening was spent hunting for food close by. Tired but happy from our day we sat on the steps of the hotel to take in the evening scenes and chatted to a guy called Mr Linn who has a motorbike taxi and some bicycles for hire and sits the rest of the time alongside his wife who has a street stall whilst touting for business. He speaks great English having studied and previously worked in the hotel and we enjoyed asking him lots of questions to which he was happy to reply. He described the challenges of his life here through the price of various vehicles, the drive from the government to get rid of vehicles more than 20 years old and the impact of this on many taxi drivers who cant afford to buy a new car; blue taxis will be a thing of the past. We bought water supplies from his wife and the usual evening routine was punctuated by a series of blackouts as the government electricity supply is much less reliable here.
Sagaing, Amarapura and Mandalay Hill
There is a developing ‘standard tourist route’ which includes Sagaing, Amarapura and some other nearby villages by taxi, motorbike or for the mad and the brave – bicycle. Having talked to our friend Mr Linn the night before we managed to arrange a tailored version for ourselves. Although we considered it too far on the back of a motorbike (because Emma is scared of anything with 2 wheels) he was happy to organise for us to go with his friend. Unlike other parts of Asia this is not because he is getting a heavy commission for it, he was just happy that someone gets the business and if its someone he knows, all the better. He tells us ‘ this is our culture, I am happy for him he can make some money’.
Our taxi was waiting for us when we got outside the hotel, a maroon mini pick up with bench seating on the flatbed on the back, again with a frame round it and a PVC roof for shade and rain protection. We headed out of Mandalay close to the river passing relocated villages who in the dry season are located in the Ayeyarwaddy plain but forced to a narrow strip of roadside for several months of the year when the plain floods. The result of this is is quite amazing. Houses are set up with shops for basic provisions, farmyards, workshops and herds of buffalo all sharing a space either side of the highway no wider than 10m. Fishing skills are developed with men wading into the flood waters shoulder deep with a bamboo fishing rod in each hand. You can see its a hard time of year as you get a sense of the vast space the buffalo must occupy in the dry. We crossed a new bridge built across the river which is 4 lane highway with lines and tarmac seal and it seems, road rules where everyone sticks to lane and drives slowly…
Sagaing is known for it’s hill so we were dropped at the bottom of it for the walk up. It was a brick path with three steps then a ramp then three steps then a ramp and so on. Luckily they have built a corrugated iron roof to cover the walkway so you are in shade all of the way. It was very quiet up there and at the top the view opens up 360 degrees around a beautifully maintained stupa shining golden at 97ft – amazingly built in 1312 and still in good shape.
We were accosted by a nun and two monks to have our photo taken which was really sweet although a bit of a surprise. The nun was really confident and getting us all into position although the boys were quite shy. It was a nice opportunity to take a photo of them all in their robes too. We usually don’t get chance to photograph everyone we meet as we’re too busy talking and forget to snap the people we talk to. The view was really worth the walk so we hung out there for a little longer, the vast plains ending with mountain ranges, quite green but hazy due to the humidity. We could see the landscape dotted with gold and a huge bell shaped pagoda in the distance, having absorbed it we walked back down the way we came.
A short ride further we arrived at Amarapura- the main attraction being the U-Bein bridge which is signposted the U-Pain Bridge. This is the longest teak footbridge in the world and stretches across the Taungthaman Lake. The lake was choppy as there was a strong northerly breeze – nothing like Wellington but the most wind we have encountered. It was warm but refreshing all the same and the cloud cover made it quite a pleasant temperature. The bridge is about 3.5 metres high and also with no handrail but not as high as the water village in Brunei and although Emma didn’t like it the wind was a good distraction. There were heaps of tourists, mainly Burmese, and a few hawkers at one end who soon got bored.
We took a slow walk across as we wanted to see the Tibetan/ Nepali style temple the other side. Built in 1847, so not that old, but with a unique 5 tiered roof. We enjoyed the tranquility there staring at the artwork on the ceilings a while before heading back across the 1.3km bridge. About halfway across we were stopped by a woman with her husband and son and we assume her father. We must have been looking good this day as they asked us for a photo with them, telling us we were beautiful. Emma did well considering she didn’t really want to stop on the bridge… Afterwards we discussed whether we should be more in your face about asking to take people’s photos but decided we like our approach more.
On the way back we saw people swimming and wading which made us realise just how shallow some of the lake currently is and helped us visualise just how much land has been swallowed up by the wet. Striding back to the taxi we sought a recommendation on food from our driver and went whizzing back to the city – there are so many more temples and so on to explore but we want to appreciate all of them and save our energy for Mandalay Hill later.
Our driver dropped us at a Myanmar Food Restaurant where although he declined to join us looked like it would feed us some good traditional fayre. We were quickly ushered upstairs to air con and fan. We had been eating roadside most of the time and when you eat you get hotter – with the cool air we got our appetite back. We ordered cooked pork to share and some rice – no sooner had we done so than a number of condiments arrived on the table practically taking up all the space. We’re not talking salt and pepper here but what can only be described as several substantial side dishes. We ate the pork which was just delicious then continued to eat the condiments with our rice. As soon as you are close to halfway finishing the mountain of rice they give you they ask if you want more. Nicely stuffed we hopped back in the taxi thanking our friend for the hearty meal and weaved through the streets to Kythodaw Paya at the base of Mandalay Hill.
There are 729 marble slabs each contained within their own Stupa to preserve the scriptures scribed on them. These slabs present the 15 books of the Triptaka. It took 2400 monks months to read them start to finish nonstop. A lady approached us and was really friendly asking us our names with a smile and introducing herself, asking where we were from and proceeding to smile and tell us she has a daughter who is eight and that her husband was dead. She them proceeded to pull out a set of bamboo postcards which are made by her father and watercolour cards, she told us we were her first guests of the day and she would be very happy if we buy one at K2000 each. Not really wanting a card to send to anyone and with them being overpriced compared to the K200 postcard we bought earlier in the day we declined which provoked a bit more enthusiasm from her as we gently started to wander away wanting to see the place. She followed us telling us her father had made them for her to sell, we again declined and she told us it was ok for us to have a look around first before we buy them… We did a brief stroll around the pagodas mainly due to the fact the tiles were too hot for our little feet to wander for long then headed off, the lady came pattering along and asked us if we had thought about it and would buy one. Marie subtly wandered off thinking this would give leverage for Emma to say goodbye when she gave the spiel of tell me how much you pay, I am happy to sell, you tell me. Emma declined again slinking away to the shady tree Marie had parked herself under.
We sat in the shade and debated it for a while. She has been the most persistent seller we have encountered (so far) by a long way but as often with these things it is hard to tell if she is genuinely desperate in that any money is some money or if she just has an excellent sales patter – of course, most of the time you can’t tell the difference. At the end of the day we didn’t want what she was selling. Emma keeps saying she is running a fair and equal system where she gives to no-one. Leaving a quite disgruntled card seller behind we looked at the remaining slabs held at Sandamuni Paya then headed off for Mandalay Hill. Its only 260m’ish high but as Mandalay and its surrounds is very flat it gives a great view of the city and surrounding landscape.
The climb is all barefoot, again there was a covered walkway so the tiles were not too hot. We started from the very bottom with our taxi driver grinning and telling us it would be good exercise for the day. The walk up is a very long series of steps dotted with Pagodas, water and coca-cola stalls, souvenirs, places to buy offerings and viewpoints that gave us a chance to stop and catch some breeze. At 3pm it wasn’t too hot but still warm enough and our feet were fine. The number of false summits is entertainment for the climb including a large standing Buddha with a very unusual pose – pointing back the way we came with a grin on his face of course! He’s actually pointing out the location of the new capital of Mandalay, but it was not very motivational all the same!
We reached the top and sat our hot hobbit feet down, realising we had made it by the two very very steep flights of steps at the end and the spectacular views and temple decoration. It was definitely worth it although by the end of the 35 minute walk down our feet were sore.
We ended the day with a brief rest at the hotel and a chance to wipe the dirt off our faces followed by a cheap eat. As Emma’s hair seemed to be getting a bit long and with a hairdressing salon over the road she popped across for what Mr Linn had said would be a K1000 haircut. No sooner had she stepped in than she was surrounded by 3 people all trying to deciper what she wanted. Having clarified the style, partly assisted by Mr Linn shouting across the street that she wanted a no.2 and the staff having made sure they understood absolutely right the owner/ senior stylist of the salon set to work. Obviously not used to western hair she took the shaver through in a motion that would only be described as hedge trimming until she realised it glided through the soft thin hair easily. She was assisted by two girls and watched by 3 other who are trainees. There were plenty of smiles and giggles and the whole episode of a 10 minute haircut was only interrupted by compliments on her dimples and a young man who worked there who could speak English who kept coming over asking ‘are you ok miss?’ At one point she was surrounded by 6 people before the young man came over to finish off the back and sides. They were all very entertained and Emma left K1000 and half a head lighter, glad that she is not bothered about being stared at. It’s the best haircut for a while according to Marie.
More street walking and Mingun
We had a plan for changing money, internet catch ups, buying bus tickets and generally catching up as well as a bit more pounding the streets of Mandalay but with losing track of the date our best made plans were laid to rest. We were asked as we always are by the hotel staff where we were off to today and on our reply of going to the bank and maybe to the bus office we got a quick and sharp reply of ‘the bus office is closed because of holidays’. Today many government places such as banks (we’re guessing schools too) and anyone else who fancies it can close shop because today commemorates the death of Aung San. We were a bit dubious given the whole thing sounds a bit contradictory and that most people cannot afford the luxury of a holiday that we just casually replied ‘oh ok well maybe a change of plan for us then’ and headed out of the door.
We wanted to have a look at the gold pounding area where they break down pieces of gold into leaf. We took the shorter route and happened to be just a couple of blocks away from the bus office so we wandered by on the off chance that it was open which it was. Two helpful smiling ladies booked us two seats and we had tickets in our hand in no time including a transfer to the bus station. Saving ourselves K5000 in the whole process which is good given we are on a strict budget. We carried on looking for gold as we crossed the railway line under the flyover which was probably the roughest part of Burma we have seen so far. People living on woven bamboo sheets and cardboard, very dirty with rubbish all over the place and clothes that are obviously the only ones they have. A few small hands came out palm up as we walked by and we were followed very closely by one man who was clearly just curious about us but wandered back to his own world and away after we crossed the railway line and got back into the traffic congested street. Although we found the right street there was a distinct absence of goldsmithing although we could hear a distant rhythmic banging. We took a different route back for a dose of aircon.
We booked Mr Linn to take us to the boat jetty the next day to catch the tourist ferry to Mingun. Emma had been refusing all week to take the motorbike but as we had quite a rapport with him now she had decided she could probably make the 10 minute ride without freaking out. Turns out the next day that Mr Linn had a tourist on a sightseeing tour all day which of course he took and had offered up his trishaw friend instead.
This was a strange experience for us as it just seems weird that these two foreigners sit on this bicycle sidecar on a gearless bike while some dude peddles his ass off to take you somewhere you could have walked. It feels a bit colonial to be perched there but then again over the last 2 days we had seen this guy around the hotel getting more and more frustrated. No so much with people who said no thank you but moreso with people that just point blank ignored him, scurrying into the safety of the hotel eyes down at the ground. We’re not sure what they are scared of. Having seen the locals use it we decided we would get over ourselves and enjoy the ride. The traffic however was horrendous and sitting lower than bike level in a traffic jam seeing so many near misses was enough to make it a one time only experience. It is no coincidence that on the road to the bus station there is a huge billboard for Bangkok Hospital. There are very limited medical facilities here and the insurance company would for sure be needing to fly us out of here if we needed treatment.
20 odd minutes of traffic fumes and fear later we were at the ticket office at the river dock watching the comings and goings, loading and unloading, washing, trading and motorbikes dropping people. Our boat had an open deck on top and seated area below with no windows or aircon – just the river breeze. To board we negotiated walking up three single planks with the helpful boat boys holding up a bamboo pole as a handrail for the less confident. Once we set out we found the shady spot up top and stayed there for the slow steady journey. The river was very calm – you couldn’t tell you were going upstream at all. The backdrop soon changes to rice paddies and stilted houses then hillsides dotted with gold. We could see Mingun a long time before we got there as it is rightly known for having the world’s largest pile of bricks, they started in 1790 and never finished, Mingun Paya. Its not so much a pile but a cube.
As we approached the riverside we were greeted by some white Nat statues of Settawya Paya facing out to the river and had a welcoming party of women sellers who clearly don’t see us as their target demographic and left us alone (having said that they were a pretty relaxed bunch anyway). We headed through the village just as the cloud broke and the sun came out prompting us to head back the other way to the main sites dancing in and out of the shade on the way.
We took in the main sights of Mingun: The Mingun Paya (pile of bricks), the Mingun Bell (13ft high 16ft across and 90 tonnes) and the Hsinbyume Paya which has unusual white washed terraces representing the 7 mountain ranges of Mt Meru.
It was a nice break from the chaos of the city. After lunch we boarded the return boat meeting a nice Norwegian couple who gave us some recommendations on where to stay later in our trip. Turns out they are not that happy with the idea of the trishaw either and have said no to requests for money. They had an experience of being asked for food by a young boy as they sat out eating their dinner, and saw the boy take what they gave him and share with his mother and brother. The deep level of poverty here is not always that apparent.
We docked 45 minutes after departing only to see our trishaw man standing there waiting for us. We rationalised that actually this guy is just trying to make a living, we smiled, thanked him and jumped on back to the hotel, shutting our eyes. We got back and packed for out 7-8 hour bus journey to Bagan tomorrow.
- Mandalay is supposed to be on a grid system (or at least that’s what the town map shows), however down some back streets we encountered all kinds of bends. It made navigating interesting
- Banks close at 3pm
- Traffic police sometimes feel sorry for you on big busy roads and stop the traffic to let you cross
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