20.11.2014 - 02.12.2014
Cheadle Heath conjures up images of cricket and Pims on a sunny Sunday afternoon in a quaint little village green in the home counties. The reality could not be more removed from that, not just geographically. Mandalay creates all kinds of exotic images of magical kingdoms and slain dragons. The reality is more boring I am afraid. Mandalay is a rather sprawling city with large, wide featureless streets. If it was populated by fire breathing dragons they would somehow be rather dull. Like a culinary pancake disaster, it is flat, sprawling and hot. There seems to be no nucleus to the city despite the fact that there is a huge moated fort (once occupied by the British) in the middle of the city. Even that looks bland. It isn't an unpleasant city but unlike Yangon has no real character. It is nevertheless an excellent base for day trips. There is Amarapura, a former capital. Spanning the gorgeous Taungthaman Lake is U Bein Bridge. It is 1.2-kilometre long and was built around 1850. It is believed to be the oldest and longest teakwood bridge in the world. So plenty of things to fill 3 days as well as the obligatory temples of course.
Despite the city being generally flat there is a hill to award you with a perfect vantage point. Mandalay Hill is a 240 m walk past a number of pagodas. It has to be done barefoot. Sunrise therefore is a camera friendly and foot friendly (ie cool under foot) time to do the walk. So this is what I did. The young monk novices often talk to foreigners at the summit to improve their English. I am always happy to oblige in such circumstances since the conversation does not revolve around sales. It is at this point that I got to know more about the monks. Often boys as young as 6 or even younger commit themselves for a few years and learn the teachings of Buddhism. During this time of course they get free board, lodging and general schooling. Often after say 3 years they will leave the monastery and resume a conventional life. Some will commit themselves for longer. I spoke to a 16 year old who had been a monk for 4 years. He intends to stay for another 6 years. In this tenure he will apparently not see his family as they cannot afford the trip.
It is humbling when you speak to some of the monks and the locals about their sacrifices and experiences. I spoke to the elderly caretaker (one of the many Indian immigrants) at a colourful Hindu temple in Mandalay. He remembered the very day that the Japanese invaded. Scary times!.
Far removed from the tyranny and oppression that has blighted this country, as a backpacker in Burma now you certainly have choice, For example dining experiences can be pretty broad because of all the external influences, be it Burmese, Thai, Chinese ,western, plus a huge array of street grub from literally grubs to roasted sweet potato (simple, healthy, I love it) . Also in terms of travel, after 3 days in Mandalay I wanted to travel to the temple town of Bagan. The choices were flying, a 4 hour bus journey, taxi, pogo stick, slow boat (2 days) or fast boat (9 hours). I was on the verge of hiring a pogo stick but decided at the last minute to take the fast, very comfortable and memorable cruise down the Ayeyarwady river.
Bagan is often referred to as the Angkor Wat of Burma. There are 2000 of the 10,000 temples remaining that were build between the 9th and 13th century. Some of the restoration work is however far from subtle which has meant UNESCO has refrained from giving Bagan it's stamp. It is still all very atmospheric especially in the way it positions itself within the landscape. You are constantly aware of the rugged hills in the background. The roads are fairly safe, easy to negotiate, pleasantly tree lined and quiet. It is perfect for cycling, hence for me the hiring of a bike was a must, as it was the only way to do justice to the sites. Of course the temples vary a lot in size, the biggest (in terms of volume) being Dhammayangyi. The tallest is Thatbyinnyu at 60 metres. A number of temples give you a good panoramic vantage point. Even with 3 days, of course you can only see the major temples in this time period. It has to be said that I knowingly cycled passed bits of ancient architecture that in another situation you would travel half a day to visit. You can almost take it for granted. The best way to see it all is on a hot air balloon however. At $320 however it was clearly not in my budget. At that price I would expect to keep the balloon anyway.
Talking of budgets. In Bagan I had up to this point booked my only dorm room (3 nights). This was a necessity due to the generally high accommodation prices in Bagan. I nevertheless no longer have much tolerance with sharing a room with strangers. It is the fear of waking people up. It is also the assault course that you often have to negotiate to get to the loo. It is the torturous stench of unwashed feet of the locomotive snoring (often mine) that 'enhances' the experience. Fortunately the guest house had double booked and had had to put me in a single room at no extra charge.
A single room I had most certainly secured for my my next destination: Inle Lake. I arrived via overnight bus. I left Bagan this time more equipped for my journey, complete with arctic wardrobe. I was perfectly snug this time although I was rudely awakened at 3.30am the next morning as the bus had the nerve to arrive on schedule. As you can imagine this was several hours before official check in at the guest house and I did not want to pay for an additional night . On arrival at the nicest warmest, friendliest accommodation of my entire trip a kind young lady at reception let me sleep on a seat at reception and placed a blanket over me. Such service! Not wishing to waste any time, after breakfast at 7.30 I joined 2 Germans and a French Canadian on a one day boat tour along the 13km Inle lake. And what a journey, albeit it was interspersed with some very tourist market trips. This did not detract from the beauty of the lake however. The lake is interspersed with stilt-house villages, island-bound Buddhist temples and floating gardens. You can spend all day marveling at the fisherman controlling the steering of their wooden boats with one leg. The obligatory temple stop including what could only be described as a surreal walk through a dense forest of tall Stupas.
Once again, like Bagan, Inle has a nice low key mixed age backpackers vibe. There are plenty of small bars and restaurants selling ridiculously cheap but ridiculously good river fish. Once again I hired a bike. other sites |I visited a vineyard and tried some very acceptable white wine. Another day was spent walking with two Italian brothers (they seemed as tall as the dolomites. One of the brothers had been given some money from an aunt to donate to a local orphanage so we all went to make a donation. This of course was run by a monk. We visited this after the walk. It was on a weekend so there were no lessons. Even so it was great to see kids running around and well being kids.
So 3 days was not really enough for Inle lake, my favourite place in Burma. My third and final overnight bus journey took me full circle back to Yangon for the final 2 days/1 night. 2 weeks was just about enough time to see my well trodden limited itinerary. I wish I had had more time to explore the beaches, the jungles etc. I also felt that it had been a bit too slick and perhaps I had not been exposed to the rawness of public transport travel that I experienced (some say endured) in Bangladesh. To make amends I took a local boat to explore (via chartered rickshaw) villages on the other side of the river. On the other day, also using public transport, I visited ancient Bago (formerly Pagu) about 50 miles from Yangon. It is a gullavillian (OK not a real world) region of giant Buddhas gullavillian. This included SHWE-THA-LYAUNG RECLINING BUDDHA, and incredible 55 m long and by the Mon in 994. A big Buddha! Of course using public transport was not as straight forward as I had hoped. The journey back took 2 1/2 hours through the gridlocked carbon monoxide carpark. Getting the right bus there was helped by a local guy who wanted to assist. He also wanted to visit Bago so he joined me He was able to get a good rate for a chartered rickshaw. Despite his offering I would not let him contribute. Before we embarked on the excursion he took me to his village which can only be described as a very neat and tidy shanty town of bamboo huts.
So the poor who were not so visible on the streets of Burma were nicely tucked away from the periphery of the tourists vision. There are still documented incidents of villages being evicted from their cities to make way for tourist developments. On a positive note next year the gentle natured people of Burma could have a future as bright as one of their gold topped Pagodas. I hope that this is the case and I hope to visit it again.