A Travellerspoint blog

Reflections on a simpler Burmese way of life

Wondering the streets of Mandalay

overcast 30 °C

Mandalay, Myanmar

With many of the tourist sights around and about Mandalay now visited we were able to spend a day wondering the streets of Mandalay with no particular goal or purpose. Life in Myanmar is very different to that which we are used to. Trishaws are often used to carry vast loads on metal and wood. Horse drawn carts, piled high with yellowing hay, are not an unusual sight in the city. A constant stream of friendly waves and smiles, shouts of ‘hello’ and ‘where are you from’ greet us. This is not a country to visit aloof from the locals but to dive into. Spending time talking with local people understanding their hardships, their trials and tribulations offers an often sad insight into what we might consider to be courageous lives.

Walking down busy streets four feet high walls and large bowls, next to a stream provide, for a Burmese shower where the more voyeuristically inclined can watch longyi clothed locals showering, essentially, in the street. A similar sight had greeted us in Amarapura the previous day with swimmers in the lake not for their pleasure or physical exercise but to wash, in the brown colored water of the lakes.

On previous visits to Myanmar I had stayed away from Mandalay told it was a dirty city with little to offer. This is only partly true. Dust and dirt from the roads is a problem but as a portal to traditional city life in Myanmar it has few equals. Where Yangon might have relative sophistication, compared to the rest of the country, Mandalay still evokes a time, long passed in the more ‘sophisticated’ west. A simpler time where the ability and need to laugh, smile and simply talk had not been lost or forgotten.

Posted by jamesh1066 15:21 Archived in Myanmar Comments (0)

Living the life of the photogenic and famous

Meeting locals on the U Bein’s bridge

overcast 28 °C

Mandalay, Myanmar

Renting bicycles the next morning, for a 16 mile round trip ride to the world’s longest Teak bridge in Amarapura, we soon found ourselves back in the scooter chaos of downtown Mandalay. Whilst cycling affords another opportunity to observe Burmese life pass by constant vigilance is required, with erratic road maneuvers and incessant horn blowing to contend with.

Cycling around Mandalay

Cycling around Mandalay

Passing through the centre of town we are soon riding along the slightly quieter streets of the southern suburbs. Throughout our journey roadside accommodation whether they be concrete, wooden or bamboo are never far away. The open countryside does not beckon this close to Mandalay. Carrying no map but with a helpful and friendly population knowing that this road south has only one destination for two sweaty, western cycling tourists a variety of shouts and gesticulations take us from the main road and along a veritable labyrinth of narrow village streets, towards U Bein’s Bridge.

Our first sight of the U Bein bridge

Our first sight of the U Bein bridge

With traffic and a number of stops our journey south takes a relatively slow two hours. Having seen no tourists during our ride it is clear that we are approaching U Bein’s Bridge when we can see a number of tourist buses parked in the distance. Approaching the Taungthaman Lake, the 1300yd-long teak bridge across it is suddenly visible. Still strong after 200 years, the world’s longest teak span is obviously still in daily use: small boys cast a line, with an old water bottle acting as a float, locals walk their bikes home to Taungthaman village and monks in saffron robes carry alms bowls between monasteries on both sides.

Relaxing after a long bike ride

Relaxing after a long bike ride

The teak U Bein Bridge

The teak U Bein Bridge

Curving to better withstand the wind a popular activity is to be rowed out to get a close-up look at the 1,060 post bridge from the water. Yet, after a cold beer, we decide to simply walk across the bridge savoring the ancient views and window into local life that it affords. Unexpectedly this decision also affords us a view of living the life of the photogenic and famous. For we are unable to make much progress across the bridge as a constant stream of holidaying Burmese smile, gesture and sometimes ask (in English) if they could have their picture taken with us…well typically Trey. Group and individual shots are all requested. At times we move from one photo pose to another as other holidaying Burmese, seeing our willingness to submit to the picture taking, make their request. With pictures taken and to the inevitable squeals of happy laughter they would continue on their journey clearly delighted to have had their picture taken with Westerners. For once I wish I had shaved that morning.

Posing with locals

Posing with locals

Trey's new found fame spreads

Trey's new found fame spreads

Finally reaching the far shoreline younger children, eager to talk with westerners would ask us to take their picture, some walking back across the bridge with or at least close to us. It was that kind of friendly bridge. A great tourist draw but one that few western tourists were visiting today.

On the far bank of the river

On the far bank of the river

Local transportation

Local transportation

Deep water fishing

Deep water fishing

Trey and her new friends

Trey and her new friends

A friend on the bridge

A friend on the bridge

Returning to the city and our hotel, dodging the afternoon monsoon, our bicycles had afforded us another opportunity to both view and talk to an immensely friendly local population. Yet the massages we partook of back at our hotel were also welcome. Helping to ease away the muscle strains of a long days exercise.

For some reason the hotel thought we were honeymooners!

For some reason the hotel thought we were honeymooners!

Posted by jamesh1066 15:03 Archived in Myanmar Comments (0)

Punished by a vengeful Government for speaking English

The sights and sounds of a day in Myanmar

overcast 30 °C

Mandalay, Myanmar

The mere mention of Mandalay, in part thanks to Kiplings The Road to Mandalay, conjures the most peaceful and serene settings imaginable: Asia at its most traditional, timeless and alluring. Possibly as Kipling never visited Mandalay this image may not quite translate to the rather scruffy, dusty, booming city on a wide bend of the Ayeyarwady River. Yet, our initial introduction to the city gave us a pleasant perspective on this unexpectedly enticing city.

Hiking up Mandalay Hill

Hiking up Mandalay Hill

The view from Mandalay Hill

The view from Mandalay Hill

Tasty treats on the steps

Tasty treats on the steps

Looking out from Mandalay Hill

Looking out from Mandalay Hill

The Royal Palace and Mandalay city in the distance

The Royal Palace and Mandalay city in the distance

Rising 760ft-high Mandalay Hill breaks out of Mandalay’s pancake flat sprawl to the north of the city. Commencing our bare foot ascent from the south entrance we were soon passing small shrines and temples on our forty-five minute hike to the summit. Close to the top of the hill is a huge standing Buddha with outstretched hand towards the Royal palace. According to legend the Buddha climbed the hill on one of his visits to Myanmar. He prophesied that in the 2400th year of his faith a great city would be founded below the hill. By our calendar that 2400th year was 1857 – the year King Mindon Min decreed the capitols move from Amarapura to Mandalay. With a pleasant Buddhist temple at the summit of the hill and outstanding views towards both the Mandalay Palace, the rice fields of the plains and towards the distant green hills of the Shan Plateau our mid-morning hike is certainly worthwhile. A great introduction to a city we would grow to enjoy.

Looking out towards the Ayerwaddy River

Looking out towards the Ayerwaddy River

Legend tells of the Buddha's Prophecy

Legend tells of the Buddha's Prophecy

Looking out over Mandalay

Looking out over Mandalay

Painting with razor blades

Painting with razor blades

Rice fields from the top of Mandalay Hill

Rice fields from the top of Mandalay Hill

Not graffitti but paid for dedications and memorials

Not graffitti but paid for dedications and memorials

In need of a little R&R time after our hot and humid hike to the top of the Hill we were soon on board a trishaw that was to take us on an unplanned afternoon long tour of the city. With our peddler ‘very happy’ to take the two of us across town, for only then can he earn money to pay the daily trishaw rental that he must pay, we are soon barreling along the dusty streets dodging scooters, buses and other random and erratic motor vehicles. The relatively slow pace offers us a terrific opportunity to see life on the streets of Mandalay. Stopping frequently to visit interesting stores and imbibe a few cold drinks. Entering a gold leaf store we are able to watch the process of taking relatively thin but mechanically created strips of gold and through six hours of manual sledge hammer pounding achieve the requisite wafer like thickness of gold leaf. A bundle of hundred two inch square gold leaf sheets retails for 100USD. With no immediate use for a little gold leaf we make our excuses. After some thirty minutes of pedaling we reach the southern suburbs of the city and one of Myanmar’s more famous Buddhist sites – Mahamuni Paya.

Beating the gold

Beating the gold

Gold leaf is packaged for sale

Gold leaf is packaged for sale

A rich addition to Trey's skin - Gold leaf

A rich addition to Trey's skin - Gold leaf

The gold and crimson site was originally built by King Bodawpaya in 1784. In 1884 the shrine was destroyed by fire; the impressive wood work on display was, therefore, comparatively recent. The Paya’s fame comes from its shrine centerpiece, the highly venerated Mahamuni buddha image, which was seized from Mrauk U in Rakhaing State in 1784. It was believed to be of great age at that time and it may even have been cast during the 1st century AD. The 13ft-high seated image is cast in bronze, but over the years thousands of devout Buddhists have completely covered the figure in a 6in-thick layer of gold leaf.

Relaxing with a non-alcoholic smoothie

Relaxing with a non-alcoholic smoothie

Plenty of shopping opportunities en route to the temple

Plenty of shopping opportunities en route to the temple

Intricate filigree work

Intricate filigree work

From the Paya it is a relatively quick ride to the stone carving street where hundreds of craftsmen use angle grinders and drills to fashion detailed alabaster Buddha imagines and other religious statues. With alabaster dust hanging heavily in the air and with dusk falling we are soon at a disappointing night market. With nothing of interest we retire our trishaw driver at a local Burmese restaurant, partaking of a Barma curry and a cold Mandalay beer. Evening brings pleasant temperatures and an opportunity to stroll without the affects of heat and humidity.

Our favorite beer - Mandalay Blue

Our favorite beer - Mandalay Blue

Artisans use drills and an angle grinder to create intricate alabaster carvings

Artisans use drills and an angle grinder to create intricate alabaster carvings

As is typical, throughout Mandalay, walking back to our hotel illicit cries of ’hello’ and ‘where are you from’. Certainly at this time of year tourists in Mandalay are relatively uncommon. Seeing few westerners we are usually a centre of attention. No matter the age or background a cry of min-găla-ba to any of the locals immediately brings a bright smile and a similar response. After visiting various countries whose populations actively appear to disapprove of tourists this warm welcome and apparently genuine hospitality makes a pleasant change. With shouts from passengers hanging from passing pickup trucks, on bicycles and street corners our evening stroll, as with all our strolls in Myanmar, requires constant waves and returned shouts. We walk as if the entire town knows us, welcoming us as old friends.

Walking around the vast moat of the Royal Palace

Walking around the vast moat of the Royal Palace

Just in case there were any doubts about the intention of the Government

Just in case there were any doubts about the intention of the Government

Outside the walls of the Royal Palace

Outside the walls of the Royal Palace

One such shout of ‘hello’ is from a older gentlemen sitting on a busy street corner, with his wife, enjoying the balmy evening. As a semi-retired English teacher, forced into this position by the Government, he is keen to share his story. As an intellect and speaker of English he is seen as a threat by the Government. All such persons in Myanmar are punished. It is their revenge for others past transgressions. Our tri-shaw driver earlier in the day, a pleasant 15 year old boy with some English works from 8am to 10pm, seven days a week. He pays no tax but is not punished by the government. The educated are taxed and penalized. If he works, teaches English, in any official capacity a significant piece of his income will be taken by the Government, “revenge”. Powerless he finds his children are not interested in learning English. It is of no real value in Myanmar. The Government assumes anyone speaking English is the agent of some mythical western power. The situation is sad, terrible and disgusting but it is not an unfamiliar story. A Government oppressing those they fear, happy to overlook the transgressions of those who cannot threaten them. A sad story and one to reflect on as we return to our hotel to sleep and consider the unusual tourist happenings that become typical during a visit to Myanmar.

Posted by jamesh1066 14:44 Archived in Myanmar Comments (0)

Riding a time machine to Mandalay

Travelling on the Express train from Bago to Mandalay

rain 29 °C

Bago to Mandalay, Myanmar

Waiting for our 07:30 Express train to Mandalay few vestiges of the modern world were visible. Bago station was not replete with electronic (or any) departure boards, tannoy announcements or wi-fi enabled cafes. This station belonged to a much simpler age. A diagram of a train, made from green plastic discs, noted the order of carriages on our train – although as this was all in Burmese help with translation was required.

Nuns waiting for a local train

Nuns waiting for a local train

The Bago station platform just after a local train had departed

The Bago station platform just after a local train had departed

Waiting for our ‘11Up’ train – as we were heading north – the number of fellow travelers, on our platform, steadily grew. For roughly the next seven days an important nat or spirit festival was to be celebrated in Mandalay. As such the train would be busy.

Goats happily wonder through the station

Goats happily wonder through the station

Our trusty Express train arrives, only a little late

Our trusty Express train arrives, only a little late

Watching the dilapidated carriages arrive into the station we were reminded that these could have been the same carriages that a Kipling or Orwell may have travelled in. Clambering en board our reserved Upper Class seats were already occupied. Not that these were Upper Class in anyway comparable to Virgin Atlantic’s product offering of the same name. Offering some padding and a slightly bent foot rest they would be our accommodation for the 400 mile, 16 hour journey to Mandalay. After gesticulations and an extreme reluctance from our seat squatters movement encouraged us to think that our seats would soon be available. It was only as they arose from our seats that we realized one of the passengers was manacled to the seat with a short chain, around his neck, ensuring he could not make a break for freedom. As they headed to an Ordinary Class carriage with its wooden seats we stored our bags and settled in for the journey – the aging springs of our seats already make unfortunate and unwarranted explorations of their own.

Kicking back in upper class

Kicking back in upper class

Large, wide open, panoramic picture windows provided a startling view of the passing landscape. No signs of modern day life were visible. For endless hours we passed water buffalo working in the paddy fields and ox carts being used as transportation and delivery vehicles. Golden Stupa’s punctured the landscape, some overgrown, their previous glories now tarnished. This was not a land of tractors or mechanical farming aids.

Golden stupas dotted the rice field landscape

Golden stupas dotted the rice field landscape

Since it was built by the British, track and rolling stock maintenance is clearly not an important consideration in Burma. For the third day in a row our journey became reminiscent of a vicious rollercoaster ride. At times physically airborne our carriage jumped, swayed and jerked for most of the sixteen hours to Mandalay. Making few stops our average speed throughout our ride was around twenty-five miles per hour. Given the violent assaults on our bodies as we bounced along, at times concerned the carriage would simply jump off the tracks, we felt this ‘Express’ train was travelling quite fast enough. We also remained thankful that we had not sought out the overnight train to Mandalay. Sleeping in an upper bunk on the Trans-Mongolian Express was slightly concerning with our heavy footed driver. On the Yangon to Mandalay Express it must be truly terrifying. If our experience were repeated surely any passenger not physically tied to their bunk would find themselves involuntarily departing their bed as some particularly violent section of track is traversed.

Every conceivable space held people

Every conceivable space held people

Upper Class on a Myanmar train is not quite what one might hope for

Upper Class on a Myanmar train is not quite what one might hope for

Golden temples passed us by

Golden temples passed us by

Yet, as our time machine hurled us back into a colonial age without machines or modern technologies that make travel more than tolerable the stunning panoramas that presented themselves throughout our journey more than compensated. Yet, when the periodic rain showers did occur the panoramic windows offered little shelter from the elements. Where windows were not or could not be shut umbrellas were used, inside the carriages, to shelter from the rains. However, neither rain nor the bouncing carriages could deter the constant stream of ever changing vendors offering their wares for sale. Cold beer, rice and curry, sweets, boiled quails eggs and warm samosas were just some of the items available – the latter two being particularly welcome at lunchtime!

Vendors hop on and off trains, touting their wares

Vendors hop on and off trains, touting their wares

Monsoon rains fell for much of our journey

Monsoon rains fell for much of our journey

Our journey North passed through relatively view towns, stopping periodically more to allow new vendors on board than passengers as most appeared to be travelling from Yangon or Bago, not alighting until Mandalay. After many hours, however, it soon became apparent that we were approaching the new Burmese capital of Nay Pyi Taw. Whilst the train line passes some ten miles to the east of the Government’s purpose built capital its affect on the local countryside it still visible. Six lane highways, built for SUVs, yet essentially deserted when we passed through and automatic level crossing gates (the first we had seen not operated manually, with a rope) held back the non-existent traffic of this strange, over the top attempt at capitol building, a complete anathema to both ourselves and from our conversations the Burmese alike. Yet, within a few minutes our ride back to the future with a modern, tiled, brightly lit railway station and multi-level offices and houses unseen on our journey so far was behind us and we returned to a slower age, without technology or modern conveniences impacting.

A typical landscape of bamboo huts and rice fields

A typical landscape of bamboo huts and rice fields

As darkness fell and the fireflies played outside the endless parade of snacks continued until finally, some two hours late we arrived in Mandalay. Even at midnight the station was busy. Many were asleep on the platform possibly awaiting a late departing train, possibly using the relative comfort and safety of the platform as a makeshift home. For everyone on the train it was the end of their journey. Hustling out of the station to the typical cries of ‘taxi’, ‘where you go’ and the like we were soon in a small blue Mazda taxi, hunched on the benches in the back heading to our hotel ready to spend a few days exploring that fabled town of Mandalay for finally we were ‘On the Road to Mandalay’.

Posted by jamesh1066 19:20 Archived in Myanmar Comments (0)

Behind bars in the Stationmasters Office

Buying train tickets in Myanmar. Certainly no on-line booking facility

rain 29 °C

Kyaiktiyo to Bago, Myanmar

After falling asleep to the sound of light rain we awoke to the sound of yet more light rain. Our room at the Government run hotel was functional and, I suspect, offered fantastic views over the surrounding jungle clad hills. Yet, we could see nothing but the white clouds enveloping us. With clothes still damp from the previous day we were keen to leave the summit of Mt. Kyaiktiyo and descend into what we assumed would be the warmth of the valley below.

Let it rain!

Let it rain!

Descent, naturally, required a reverse of our previous day’s journey. Meandering rivers cascaded along the road as we trudged down to meet our wooden board equipped truck. Sitting on the truck we met our two friendly monks from the previous night and their entire family, confirming the quality of the previous night’s sleep and that they would be returning to Yangon today. Waiting for over an hour for the truck to fill waves of monsoon rain passed through the small village. Undercover we hoped that the truck driver in his warm, dry cab would not chose to leave at that precise moment. Eternally happy Chinese tourists departed in their own private truck but we continued to wait. Eventually, it was agreed that we would all pay a little more than the usual fare. This would allow us to leave “immediately”. Having paid the extra $.50c each we left fifteen minutes later. Different definitions of immediately here!

Whilst dry as we left it was clear, from the dark ominous clouds, that the monsoon rains would soon return. Bouncing down in the mountain in absolute Disney rollercoaster style the lack of passengers encouraged our sliding over our boards. Soaked from the monsoon rains, that had duly arrived, we suddenly broke through the cloud line and into a world of clear bright skies. Stunning vistas of sharp, jungle clad mountains could now be seen. A warm wind below to dry our moist clothes. The truck still bounced, jerked and attacked each and every corner on our descent but at least the water boarding had stopped.

Hot tea at a traditional Burmese Tea House

Hot tea at a traditional Burmese Tea House

With an easy pickup truck ride back to Kyaiktiyo, surrounding by extremely smelly but delicious tasting Dorian fruit we were soon ensconced in a traditional Myanmar Teashop sipping sweet milky tea. After being approached by our helpful bus tout from the day before we were happy for him to arrange our tickets back to Bago, although, now wise to the ‘ticketing process’ we bargained our fare down to around half of the price we had paid the previous day.

Our modern bus at the service area

Our modern bus at the service area

Relaxing in the teashop we could observe traditional Burmese life pass by. Travelers in this part of Burma simply pass through. Constant shouts of ‘Hello’ from small children and adults alike greeted us, as they have throughout Burma. Pink clad nuns and maroon clothed monks walked by. A cornucopia of scooters, trucks, buses and a lone car continued their journeys, some stopping to pick up passengers or visit the bustling market. Betel nut stalls prepared their green leaf encased, teeth destroying wares and street food vendors hawked all manner of meat, fruit and drink to passing locals.

Sad to leave this typically Burmese yet still alluring vista behind we had soon boarded our bus bound for Bago. With a brief stop at the ‘services’ where a strange selection of curries, crispy prawn cakes and locust were on sale we arrived back in Bago a few hours later.

Great bugs on sale at the brief stop in our bus journey

Great bugs on sale at the brief stop in our bus journey

Slightly less room in the cheaper pickup truck option

Slightly less room in the cheaper pickup truck option

Meeting us at the bus station our untrustworthy bus agent now explained that he needed to show the station master our passports in order to buy our train tickets to Mandalay. Unable to see the scam, unless it was to try and get us to purchase bus tickets, but certainly not happy giving this agent our passports we climbed into a tuk-tuk and headed for Bago main (well only) train station.

The local bus

The local bus

Housed in a dilapidated building as one might imagine some hundred locals were waiting at the ticket windows to purchase their two dollar tickets to Mandalay. As westerners our tickets would cost fifteen times that amount. Yet, as westerners we would not have to queue. Our agent escorted past the lines and into the stationmasters office. With thick iron bars for windows we were now looking back at the queue of eager travelers seeing the ticket sellers view, one that presumably repeats all over Burma.

Tasty street treats for supper

Tasty street treats for supper

After only a few minutes and without needing to show our passports, our whole reason for being in the back office, we had our tickets to Mandalay. Why the agent had not just purchased the tickets we will never know. However, now we had our tickets, we could check into our hotel and find some food and a cold beer. Returning to a bar close to the main market Trey thoroughly amused the local street hawkers by purchasing some of everything they had on offer. Retiring to the bar we sampled our excellent food selection, washed down with a few cold beers, as heavy monsoon showers arrived. This time undercover the rain was of no consequence. Later we would walk back to our hotel in the driving rain but for now we could sit and reflect on our worthy pilgrimage to Mt. Kyaiktiyo, having toiled and strained as all pilgrims must.

Even the hardest monsoon does not keep us from a cold beer

Even the hardest monsoon does not keep us from a cold beer

Posted by jamesh1066 19:03 Archived in Myanmar Comments (0)

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