Travel time again! Check in for our flight with Singapore Airlines and cop a snooty checkin operator that fusses over the weight of our carry on luggage. Both about a kilo over, despite other people checking in with all their worldly belongings. So a bit of rearranging to placate her, and then she admits the scales are out anyway. Through the new electronic immigration gates putting more people out of work, wander around the duty free stores, then off we go to Yangon via Singapore. Watched 3 movies on the flight and ate an enormous Indian veg meal before we arrived in Singapore and checked into the transit hotel, which is very comfortable and you can look out of your windows and see planes.
After a good sleep we have an ordinary breakfast at Changi, then run backwards and forwards between terminals 1 and 2 twice because Jetstar won’t let you check in in the transit lounge. Jump the queue at Jetstar and we’re off to Yangon. Quickly through customs and immigration with our preorganized “Evisa” . Changed money and ended up with a thick wad of 1000 kyat notes. Took about an hour from the airport to our hotel in Yangon, the Rose garden on Upper Pansodan Road. Had a nice lunch there while we waited for our room, which turned out to be very new and large and nicely decorated. We could even see the Shwedagon pagoda from our window. Went for a walk as far as the central railway station, passing 3 mosques on the way. Opposite the station was a really interesting supermarket/department store, the Ruby Mart, which had a really good CD/Video shop and lots of unusual food. Walked along Bogyoke Aungsan Rd and back past the national stadium, which wasn’t very big and looked like it was falling down. In the evening we had our Intrepid tour group meeting and dinner. Interesting group of people, mostly older than we were expecting, but at least all well travelled. Our guide seemed a pretty fun guy.
We’re not big fans of tours and one of the big problems for us is the early starts, which looks like we are in for most days this time. After a very nice buffet breakfast we went first to the Botataung pagoda on the riverfront. A very holy one that like many temples contains some of the Buddha’s hairs. This one had been rebuilt after being hit by a bomb in WW2, but it was very attractive, with the central shrine surrounded by a gold maze of corridors. Also on the site was a Buddhist “fun fair” game, where you threw banknotes into rotating baskets, and a turtle pond at the entrance to a nat (spirit) shrine. From there we went to the Strand Hotel, built by the same brothers that built Raffles in Singapore, and then walked up Pansodan Road past many colonial buildings, most of which were crumbling and had trees growing out of the walls. Stopped in a square that was bounded by the Sule Pagoda, scene of horrific events during the 1988 uprising, the City hall, Supreme Court and Mahabandoola Park, which has the Independence monument at its centre and seemed the place to hang out. Back on the bus to Kandawgyi Lake, which had a nice park and a fake royal barge theatre restaurant. Then sat in traffic for a while before lunch at an overpriced restaurant, and then to the Chauk Htat Gyi reclining Buddha, a very pretty feminine Buddha that replaced another statue that was actually removed because it was so ugly.
In the evening it was off to the splendid Shwedagon pagoda. The whole complex is covered in gold, with numerous stupas as well as the large pagoda itself, topped with a jewelled “hti”. It looked all the more dramatic with some dark clouds of an approaching storm. The beauty of the site kept changing as the sun set, and it became more sparkly as the floodlights came on. A magical place.
Had dinner at the Taj Indian restaurant on Gyo Phyu St, which was very good, especially their breads.
BAGO to HPA AN
Next morning it was time to hit the road. Headed off via the airport (to recover a lost wallet) to Bago, where our first stop was the Kyaik Pun pagoda, an uninspiring monument consisting of 4 buddhas sitting back to back. Then we went to the Shwemadaw Pagoda, at 114m the highest in Burma. The temple grounds were quite interesting and included large lumps of collapsed masonry from previous earthquakes (which thankfully all seem to have stopped hitting Burma). The pagoda was covered I scaffolding as it was being regilded, a regular occurrence for pagodas here so be warned! Bago was an old capital so we next visited the replica royal palace, set amongst the ruins of the ancient palace. The building itself was tacky but contained some amazing ancient teak pillars.
Next it was off to Kyaiktyo town, where we boarded a truck with aluminium benches in the back that take you up to the Golden Rock pagoda. It was an odd setup, a terminal just for these converted trucks, that you board from a raised platform. The drive itself was great fun, climbing at high speed on a winding road to the top, with numerous hairpins and dips up to the hilltop. Dumped our bags at the Mountain Top Hotel then off to the Golden Rock, basically a balancing boulder painted gold with a little Stupa on top. The boulder is believed to be held in place with the Buddha’s hairs, but its still amazing that it hasn’t fallen down in an earthquake. Funnily enough, it looks better in photos than in real life, but the activity around it from pilgrims, monks and tourists, the views, as well as the most insects I’ve ever seen in one place made it a special evening up on the mountain. Dinner was average at the hotel restaurant. Our room is half way down a cliff with a very steep staircase, so we will get lots of exercise!
Next morning we ascended the cliff for brekky, and then it was the descent in the crazy truck. Stopped at a small pagoda on the road to Hpa An (which means frog vomit!) but not sure why. Also stopped at a few caves, one nicely decorated (Kaw Kune) and the other claustrophobic and very muddy (Bayint Ni). Also stopped at the Shweyinmyaw Pagoda near Hpa An. Went for a walk at sunset in Hpa An, but it was too smoky and dusty to go far. Went into a local supermarket where everything was in glass cabinets and the assistant followed me everywhere. The view over the lake was nice and there were some nice bars across the road. Stayed at the Glory Hotel there, very noisy. The balcony doors had no glass so everything came through them – noise, smoke (there was rubbish being burned in piles all over town) and mozzies.
Started the day after a so-so breakfast going to the Lumbini garden, at the base of sacred limestone Mount Zwegabin. But luckily on the way were celebrations for the Kayin (Karen) tribal new year, so we got to see the locals in traditional costume getting in and out of various forms of transport. The garden was basically a paddock with hundreds of Buddha statues in neat rows. Next stop was the Kyauk Kalat Pagoda, a unique pagoda with a stupa on top of a natural limestone pillar on an island in a lake. It was very hot already so the cool tranquil island was a relief after the hot walk across the bridge. The lake was full of fish and water birds. A pretty little place, even the toilet was accessible by a pretty bridge. It was then onto Mawlamyine (Moulmein under the British), with a rest stop at a dusty, rundown monastery built by a philanthropic timber merchant in the 19th century. Reached the city over its very long bridges, checking in at the very nice Ngwe Moe hotel on the waterfront. After a break we headed off firstly to the Seindon monastery, a dilapidated but atmospheric wooden building that only seemed to have one old, crotchety monk present. Some nice carvings there, and we even got a special blessing from the monk. Up some stairs from the monastery was Kyaik Talan pagoda, which was pretty and had great 360 degree views of the town and river. Group dinner at the Attran Hotel at the top of the Strand which was ordinary but they had excellent draught beer for only 70c a mug!
Next morning after a very nice buffet brekky with the nicest samosas in Burma, we finally got to a local market. Not a big one but certainly very busy. Lots of unusual veggies, including chokos, and lots of leafy things. Also at the market was the usual hardware, lots of betel leaf and areca nut which is hugely popular here, and even monks on scooters. Merrill posed with a lovely old lady at a tiny restaurant amongst the stalls. Then drove further south to Thanbuyazit and the War Cemetery there, where the Thailand Burma railway ended. A few thousand graves, Australian, British and Dutch, sat in a perfectly manicured lawn spotted with flowering shrubs. Very serene and well cared for. It also just happened to coincide with the Remembrance Day 11th hour of the 11th day commemoration which we had realized a few days before, and our guide was able to rejig our itinerary so we would be there at the right time. After a simple lunch we saw the actual remains of the railway line and an old locomotive, next to which a new museum is being built. Next stop was the Win Sein Taw Ya, the world’s longest reclining Buddha at 180 metres long! Not that old but already showing signs of deterioration, it is very big but not really all that spiritual. Didn’t go inside, too hot and too many stairs!! More interesting was the water slide below the Buddha (which finished with a concrete platform – ouch!) and the road to it, lined with hundreds of statues of monks in procession. Following on the monk theme we visited the Pa-Auk forest monastery, which was in a lovely rainforest setting but very boring. Spent a lot of time waiting for a supposed event that didn’t happen. Lots of foreigners come to this place. Had some cute meditation huts but really not worth the time to visit. Back at our lovely riverside hotel we had a rest then I went for a walk into town. Walked up Lower Main Road which was interesting, lots of busy little shops, many quite old with lovely teak cabinets, and 3 Victorian era mosques reminiscent of old British railway stations. Unfortunately the market was packing up for the day, so went for a beer at the Attran hotel and watched the sunset. Walked back along the Strand in the dark, with a few spots of cooling rain. Dinner was veggie burgers and chips at the cute My City Café on the waterfront, an ice change from garlicky stir fries.
BACK TO YANGON
Following day was the long drive back to Yangon. Last chance for the yummy buffet brekky before it was on to the bus. Crossed the Thandwin river on Burma’s longest bridge, with “Shampoo Island” on our right, which provided water for the royal family’s hair washing. First part of the drive up to the town of Thaton was beautiful. Lots of green countryside, stupas and wooden farmhouses. Stopped to watch a procession on its way to offer presents to the monks, complete with massive sound systems blasting out K Pop. Had lunch at a roadside restaurant where you pick your ingredients and they fry them up, even choko leaves. After Thaton scenery a bit boring, very dry and flat, with only the odd lotus pond to brighten things up. Stopped at the huge Taukkyan war cemetery. Over 27000 graves and memorials here, including many Indian regiments and surprisingly West African soldiers too, from Nigeria, Gold Coast and Sierra Leone, the forgotten non-white colonial troops that also died in large numbers in both wars. Once again nice gardens and a nice memorial building. Coming into Yangon we stopped at Inya Lake to look across to Aung San Suu Kyi’s house. While there we saw a famous general being interviewed which made our guide’s day. Dinner was at a tourist rip off restaurant though their curry wasn’t bad.
Next morning was a bit of a mad rush all because of poor maps in guide books and Google maps. Walked to the tomb of Bahadur Shah Zafar on Ziwaka Road, which on maps looks closer to the city but is in fact closer to Shwedagon, and it didn’t help that some roads are actually no longer accessible near the old president’s palace. Anyway, was worth the rush and exertion as it’s a peaceful and interesting place, being the end of the line of the Moghul emperors of India. The tomb itself was only discovered in 1991, and it is considered a holy Sufi site. Had to then rush back in a taxi as we were off to the airport for our flight to Lashio on KBZ airlines. Arrived at the domestic terminal which was absolute chaos. How anyone knows what flight they are supposed to be on is beyond me. Checking in was bedlam and was glad our guide was doing it. Announcements were a muffled squawk, and who knows how the boarding gate system worked! Anyway we found our plane and the flight itself was quite pleasant with good views over mountains and valleys. Arrived in the “frontier” town of Lashio around sunset, then had a rather dark and scary drive to Hsipaw in amongst convoys of Chinese trucks. Checked into a lovely big triple room at Mr Charles hotel.
Took a boat trip up the river, first stopping at a seemingly random spot and walking up the hill. Met a very funny old Shan lady who lives alone at the end of a paddock, with just a one room hut and a small kitchen. She was very spirited and highly amused by all the strangely shaped foreigners. The rest of the group continued up the hill to a monastery, but it was probably more fun hanging out with the old lady. Back in the boat to a Shan village which was lovely, almost like a movie set it was so perfect. Happy people, solid, cared for houses, bountiful crops. Amazingly though it still didn’t have electricity! Some solar panels (all through Myanmar we saw single panels being used to charge a car battery) but really it was such a perfect village it almost didn’t need power. It did have a train line running through the middle though. In the afternoon we managed to escape the group for the afternoon and wandered around town and the markets, which didn’t take long, but was nice to be ourselves. Had dinner at Mr Charles. Across the road was a school where the poor kids chanted lessons for about 4 hours straight!
Visited the market again in the morning with the group to buy snacks for the train ride. Hung around at the Hsipaw station for the train, which once on rocked and rolled the whole way, usually side to side but sometimes would bounce instead. Scenery was gorgeous, beautiful farm land, valleys and hills with lots of birds sitting on wires along the way. Eventually we reached the highlight of this line, the famous Gokteik viaduct, over a hundred years old and over 100m high. It’s a bit scary but the views are superb and thankfully the train slows down so you don’t rock too much! Hopped off the train at Nawnghin, then drove to the old hill station of Pyin Ool Hwin, which had some nice colonial buildings and was known to the british as Maymyo. Had a standard dinner at the Club Terrace before a windy drive down the escarpment to Mandalay where we checked in at the Oway hotel on 78th street.
Drove out in the morning to Inwa, which we reached by a boat across the inlet. This was one of the former capitals. Visited the few remaining buildings by horse and cart which as well as being cruel was bloody uncomfortable. Most interesting was the Bagaya Kyaung, a monastery built with massive teak logs and the Maha Aungye Bonsan temple, built along the same concept as Borobodur, which was very attractive and had views over the Irrawaddy and towards another old capital at Sagaing. Not so interesting was the “leaning tower”. Had an overpriced lunch in a nice setting under a big mango tree before it was back into town to visit a gold leaf factory. Here two young guys pound gold leaf with big hammers endlessly in the heat. This was a scene to be repeated often, with manual labour still being used for repetitive jobs despite machinery being available. The gold leaf was mostly destined for the Mahamuni Paya next door, which we visited next (and only because I insisted on it to our guide!). A truly exciting and active religious site, with many pilgrims there to see the incredible Mahamuni image, centuries old and deformed with growths of gold leaf that have altered its outline somewhat. There is a ban of women being in proximity of the statue, though they can get pretty near if you go around the sides. Pretty amazing statue all the same, and in attractive grounds. Followed this with a walk down the dusty stone carvers street where health and safety are non-existent and the tools of trade are not chisels but circular saws, then a boring silk weaving factory. Next was the famous U Bein teak bridge which although looking like any coastal pier in Australia had a nice buzz about it and it was nice watching the sunset there from the bar on the island. The bridge is pretty much all that survives of the old capital of Amarapura. Yummy dinner at the Marie Min vegetarian restaurant off 28th street.
Lovely morning on an early boat to Mingun. Ayerwaddy (Irrawaddy) very silted up with large sand banks and sand islands in the river. Saw the huge unfinished pagoda, unfinished because of finances and earthquakes. Next to it was the famous Mingun bell, one of the largest in the world and also a white temple, the Hsinbyume, which supposedly represents sea waves, and was in poor state and full of annoying kids. Escaped the group again who were off to lunch and walked into town, stopping at the hectic Zeigyo market and “Little India” which was more like tiny India and consisted of a few temples and one restaurant, the Cherry, where we had nice thalis. Met an old Muslim guy who lectured us on US foreign policy, and spoke good old British English like most older Burmese. Crossed over the rail line at the main station, which is a bizarre building consisting of platforms under a shopping centre and steep ramps. Met up with group again and drove through the reconstructed Royal Palace inside the old fortified walls, but its basically just an army camp and some replica buildings. Then visited a wooden monastery, the Shwenandaw Kyaung, which had some excellent carvings and seemed to be a focal point for every tour group in Mandalay. From there went to the Kuthodaw Pagoda, which is famous for being the world’s biggest book. The book being over 700 pages of stone carved with the text of the tripitaka, a Buddhist sacred text. Each page is housed in a little white stupa spread around a temple. Then travelled by ute up Mandalay hill, which featured hazardous pointless Myanmar occupation number 3, a boy that hangs off the back of the ute and puts a chock under the wheel every time it stops, indicating the vehicles don’t have handbrakes. The slope wasn’t even that steep. On the hill it was packed out for sunset, found a nice quiet terrace with only monkeys and dogs keeping me company while Mez explored. Sunset was a fizzer, as was the temple. Too full from lunch so had coffee and cakes at a nearby bakery, and then a sleepless night because of all the noise outside.
Early start as we headed west to the Chindwin River and the town of Monywa. First stop was the Po Win Taung caves, a rough group of caves cut out of the cliff (they didn’t seem natural) and decorated with Buddhas and some more eccentric carvings as well. Interesting but not in the same league as Ajanta. Seemed very popular with the locals. Then had probably the best meal of the trip with a set meal of lots of small dishes at the Zaw Marn restaurant. After lunch we went to the most colourful pagoda in the world, the Thanbodday, painted in all sorts of colours with stupas, animal statues and buddhas galore. Things got even more outrageous when we visited the world’s 2nd highest Buddha, the Bodhi Tataung (named for the grove of Bodhi trees, each with its own statue) standing Buddha that is 129 metres high. Resting in front is another very long reclining Buddha, and even a very long concrete Buddha sleeping on his back as well. The pose is interesting, being the pose for liberation and new beginnings. Heading back into town looked at the very active night market with many yummy food stalls, before checking in at the Win Unity Resort which was very nice, with nice cabins by a lake. Nice dinner at the Golden Orange restaurant on an island in the lake.
Next morning became a how stuff is made day. Started at a noodle factory, where the noodles are variously made using combinations of tapioca, rice and chickpeas. A smelly and labour intensive process, especially for the four young guys that kneaded the dough for ages. Lots of cute kids kept us entertained here. Next it was a quick stop at a sesame farm so finally got to see what a sesame plant looks like. Some interesting farming practices here, including sprouting seeds in plastic bags sitting in channels, and large use of Chinese fertilizers. Next was leather slippers which I opted out of, then cheroots (like a cross between cigars and fireworks) and incense, both dreary, smelly repetitive tasks inflicted on young women. Lunch in Pokkoku then onto Bagan, via some nice farmland that included choko plantations, checked in at the Razgyo Hotel in New Bagan. It’s known as new Bagan as it is where all the villagers were sent when kicked off their land around the temples back in the 80s. Had a quick visit to a temple with nice views over the amazing temple studded plains. Dinner was at a theatre restaurant, where we endured an ordinary puppet show while eating ordinary food.
Later start for once as some of our group did the balloon ride. Mez and I walked to Lokomanya Paya on the Irrawaddy river, a pretty and popular temple. Posted some postcards at the friendly post office (wonder if they will ever arrive?), changed money and had a swim in the hotel pool. Back with the group visited the impressive Ananda temple, with its tall statues and decorated niches. Also visited the Dhammayangi temple, the biggest in Bagan, and the Sulamani temple, which is possibly the most attractive. Later watched the sunset from a smaller flat topped temple with great views and less crowds. Had a nice Italian dinner at Ignazio’s, with a very good Dagon beer.
Next day we drove out to Mount Popa, a volcanic outcrop that is home to the Nat spirits. As is usual with holy places it is up many stairs, in this case 777. Lots of people, monkeys and of couse nat statues. Although not great architecture the atmosphere was very pleasant and the nats looked content. Great views from the top too. Some annoying monkeys and even more annoying cleaners asking for money to clean the stairs on the way down. A fun place to visit. Stopped at an overpriced lacquerware factory (zzzzzzz) and looked at some sand paintings that were pretty but pointless – why sand? While Mez had a break I explored some nearby neglected temples. Nobody else around except Buddhas, bugs and squirrels, but it was all a bit spooky and very overgrown. Had dinner in the lovely garden of the Yodanaradon Hotel, nice food and a very entertaining puppet show that included the traditional origins of twerking. Mez had a veggie burger which was lettuce and tomato in a bun!
Off to airport for flight to Heho (via Mandalay!). More craziness with flights going in and out and people wandering all over the runways. Drove via Aung Bann to the Pindaya caves, which are on a hill above a very cute town. Amazing large caves filled with over 8000 Buddhas in all sorts of sizes and poses. Very colourful and easy to get lost in the maze of images. Worth a visit if you can get there. Nice drive through lovely patchwork farmland, stopped to watch rice threshing and ginger harvest. Everything seems to grow here in abundance. Arrived at the hill station of Kalaw, staying at the very nice Pine Hill resort (sadly for only one night). Walked into town and had Nepalese dinner at the Everest Hotel. Nice little town, seemed a happy place, with people out and about, monks playing soccer, Muslims off to the little mosque, people coming back from market. Also was the coldest place on the trip and we had to have heating on all night!
Explored the Kalaw market, church and monastery and then the “5 day market” at Aung Ban. Had lunch at Khaung Daing village, then visited its snack food industries in people houses, making crackers and wafers. Checked in at Hupin Resort on the lake, great room over the water. It was so nice I skipped the boat trip (really not a fan of boats) and had a relaxing afternoon drinking beer on the verandah and reading and watching the lake happenings and the moon rise. Mez enjoyed the boat trip but wasn’t impressed with the “jumping cat’ monastery. Dinner was Ok at the hotel restaurant.
Big day on the lake today. I’d like to say its peaceful but that’s not possible with the noisy diesel engines on the boats. Went past lots of birds, water lillies and “spontaneous” demonstrations of fishing techniques and one legged rowing. Went for a long, hot walk in the dried tofu village and the very interesting Inthein pagoda and then lunch. Stopped at a lotus stem cloth factory, which just has to be the most labour intensive, pointless, boring craft I’ve ever seen. Each stem segment yields about 5cm of fibre, so you can imagine how much is needed for a cloth that didn’t seem to have any special qualities and is probably wiping out the lotus population of the lake. Also stopped at silversmiths, which could have been anywhere between Spain and Japan. Nice coffee and cakes at the Cat café, then back for a bit of relaxing on the verandah. Had a very tasty Shan set meal at hotel, with lots of choko!
Back to Heho for flight to Yangon. Walked into city centre and looked at old synagogue, very similar to Bombay one. Went ot markets and explored the sreets while Mez went for high tea at the Strand Hotel. Couldn’t find some of the things in the guide book, such as Little India (again) so had street food in the park, fought off a pimp and attempted haggling for some souvenirs but no one would haggle. Town was very busy and active, much busier than before when the election was on. Bought some stuff at Ruby Mart and then we had a nice final group dinner at BBQ beer garden opposite the hotel, a good way to end the trip with lots of draught beer.
Next morning said bye to everyone and had an easy flight back to Singapore. Bye bye Burma! I hope things work out post-elections but can’t see the generals stepping down in a hurry. The happy, optimistic Burmese deserve a break!