Sunday, November 29, 2015

Up the Irrawaddy to Mandalay

21 November, Mandalay

Our trip up the Irrawaddy today was definitely in keeping with the romantic notions of the Orient portrayed in the works mentioned in our previous blog. We had taken the “fast” boat but, against the swift current of the river, we proceeded at a leisurely, old-world pace. Fishermen were setting their nets while, on the sandy banks, women washed clothes and children splashed around in the shallows. Ox carts rumbled along riverside paths and passengers on board local ferry boats waved as we passed. Simply idyllic.

Our day had not started this well, however. Woken by the silence in our room, or the increase in temperature due to the loss of power to the air conditioner, we awoke to a pitch-black room. With the help of our tiny torch and the light from our trusty tablet (nicknamed Sam), we managed to dress, find all our stuff and feel our way to our hotel’s Reception where a taxi had been booked for us. This is a very small town and getting a taxi at 4:45am would have been a challenge, so we had pre-booked. Our best-laid plans looked like coming unravelled when we couldn't raise a soul at Reception and the exit gate was locked! Mild panic ensued! After some serious banging on the back door of the Reception area, we finally roused our man and were on our way.

Crew almost outnumbered passengers as we set off at 5:00am. As usual, Australians made up the bulk of our travelling companions.

The entry into the river port of Mandalay is quite spectacular. On the west bank of the river, hundreds of gold and white stupas pepper the hillsides, while on the eastern bank, hundreds of river barges were lined up, many being manually loaded with bags of grain, timber and bales of clothing.

We were first off the boat, scrambling up the muddy banks as quickly as we could to avoid the swarm of taxi touts who haunt landings like this. We quickly did a deal with a motorcycle taxi and were off through  the very much “old Asia” streets of Mandalay.

22 November 2015, Mandalay

We obviously never learn! Fooled by the mild, even cool, morning conditions, we decided to walk to the sites we wanted to visit today. From our roof top hotel dining room this morning, the Royal Palace and Mandalay Hill looked to be a fair distance, but definitely not beyond our capabilities. By the end of the day, we were again struggling with the heat and humidity.

Our hotel is extremely well-appointed, but it is located in a side street that might put a few tourists off. It is unsealed, dusty, crowded with small street stalls, motorbikes, people doing their washing – including of themselves, albeit very modestly - in the street, kids flying kites and playing a hacky sac-like game with a wicker ball. On the corner, men sit cross-legged on motorbikes chewing betel leaves, grinning at us with red-stained teeth. The kids call “hello” as we pass and we know we are in the real Asia.

The walk out to the Royal Palace is rather pleasant, particularly if done in the early morning. Mandalay is a well-treed city and even though the footpaths might be a bit rough in places, the walk alongside the Palace moat was the most relaxing part of our day. The military control the old Palace grounds, so access is restricted to the road into the palace complex itself. We had to pay K10000  each for a Mandalay Pass at the Palace gate. It covers all sites in the city. The original Palace was built in 1861, but it was totally destroyed during WWII. The current buildings are replicas built in the 1990s. A lot of maintenance will be needed if the buildings are going to last much longer. From a distance it all looks great, but up close, timbers are rotting, brickwork is crumbling and mould is growing on the concrete surfaces. The scale of the walled area of the Palace is staggering. The outer walls are more than 8kms around.

Mandalay Hill is adorned with dozens of temples and scores of souvenir shops. Before we tackled the 1729 steps to the summit, our interest was drawn to a forest of small stupas at the base of the hill. Lucky we decided to have a look, because these 1774 stupas housed marble slabs that bore inscriptions of the commentaries on the writings of the Buddha. But there was more. Behind this complex was another, with 729 stupas that contained more marble slabs which recorded the original writings of Buddha. Combined, these slabs lay claim to being the biggest book in the world. We have no idea where the second biggest book is, but it also has to be a must see!

We had procrastinated long enough; time to scale the 1729 steps. The guide books say the climb should take about 30 minutes. Well we are getting on we know, but we are still fast climbers and after 2 months’ hard travel in South America, we are still fairly fit. It took us closer to an hour, including photo stops and a few walks around temples. As it turned out, climbing Mandalay Hill on a humid, tropical day was probably more about meeting the challenge than seeing any spectacular views from the top. The day had not only started out mild, but it was also fairly clear when we set out. By the time we reached the summit, the haze had built up and the view was a little disappointing, but at least we could feel superior to the tourist types who took the escalator from the carpark!

Tomorrow we fly back to Yangon for the last day of our trip.

23 November, Myanmar National Airlines Flt. 404

Mandalay International Airport is a good hour from the centre of the city.  At home the taxi fare would have been close to $100. Here, $14. Last night we treated ourselves to dinner and a traditional dance and puppet show. Compared with our normal dinner prices on this trip, the $30 price tag was astronomical. The show was very pleasant, but spoiled to some extent by the constant gibbering of a tour group of very noisy and rude French tourists.

This flight has no allocated seats, so the rush was on from the terminal gate. Unfamiliar with these games, we were among the last on the plane. As a result, we are crammed into our seats with our backpacks at our feet. Lucky it is only an hour and ten minutes flight!

24 November, Tune Hotel, Kuala Lumpur

Our last day in Yangon was spent on the Yangon Circle Line suburban train. What an experience!

We had waited until the morning rush was over before we made our way slowly through the already steamy streets to Yangon's oriental style Central Station. The original colonial station was destroyed during WWII  and rebuilt in 1954. Sadly, not much maintenance has been done since the reconstruction.  The circuit route is popular with only a few diehard travelers, wishing to be part of the everyday lives of some of the local Burmese commuters. Initially, our primitive, windowless carriage was almost empty, but 15 minutes into our slow 3 hour journey, street hawkers with baskets of bananas, newspapers and every sort of snack imaginable, would join us briefly, before alighting at the next stop and perhaps returning to their point of origin. Some had a few words of English, but most just smiled and gestured.  The general mayhem accelerated significantly at the first station outside the city area, when dozens of farmworkers descended on the train, throwing bales and baskets of vegetables through every door and window, consuming the floor space completely, before settling themselves, cross-legged and sideways on the bench seats.

Travel time was used to sort, bundle and trim vegetables for sale. The whole time, the young farmers chatted and laughed. As the train turned through its slow wide circle, the sun swung to our side of the carriage and the temperature and humidity slowly overcame the breeze through the wide-open windows. We all sweated along with the farmers, hawkers and families.

In the early afternoon our train slowly creaked back into Central Station. Our short, shared journey was over. Possibly the best experience anywhere that $1 can buy.

25 November, AirAsia Flt.  D7 0202

Last night we broke our journey home in the Tune airport hotel at KLIA2. We are becoming regulars at this great hotel. For a while we were staying in the city, but we have seen as much as there is to see and at $50 a night, the Tune is a real gem. AirAsia now has day flights to Coolangatta, making KL an even more attractive transit hub.

Our stay in Myanmar has been all too short and we have enjoyed every moment of it. Myanmar has only been open to foreign tourists for a few years but things are developing quickly. The success of the National League for Democracy, led by Aung Sun Suu Kyi in the recent elections in Myanmar will more than likely further accelerate the growth of tourism and with it, the loss of many of the most attractive aspects of Myanmar - the natural friendliness the people, the sometimes rough and primitive nature of the countryside and the crowded, hectic street life. See it now before it is too late

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Yangon to Bagan

 18 November,  MK Hotel,  Yangon, Myanmar

Day time flights to Asia are far less draining than travelling overnight. The only drawback is that days become way longer as you travel west and even that can still throw out our sleep patterns. So here it is, 6:30 and we are up and about. Yes that is both of us!

Our flight out of Coolangatta was delayed for over an hour yesterday morning. Best we could figure was that we were one passenger short, or one over? The crew and ground staff must have done the headcount ten times before their tally balanced. We scored a minor upgrade to the AirAsia, "Quiet Zone" with a vacant seat between us. We subscribe to a deal called Option Town, through which you pay a nominal amount to get priority access to rows with spare seats. We have used it several times now and never missed out. It's not a bad deal, especially given that you get your money back if you don't get the spare seat. The Quiet Zone is an area of about 10 rows, just behind business class. The area is quiet because no children are allowed. But there are other minor benefits as well, like priority exit and early meal service. All these luxuries were a little wasted on us because we were on edge about our connection from Kuala Lumpur to Yangon which, due to the delay, was extremely tight! All was fine in the end, even though we broke land speed records getting from one end of the enormous KLIA2 Terminal to the other.

Later, same day

Taking advantage of our early rising, we decided to walk around the major sights of Yangon. Seemed like a good idea at 7:00am, when the humidity was in the low 70s and the temperature around 26C, but by the time we reached Shwedagon Paya, the "must see" site in Yangon, we were not so sure. Are we getting soft in our old age, or have we just been spoiled by air-conditioned houses and cars?

For anybody wanting to catch the spirit of old Asia, Myanmar is probably the place. But hurry up. Things are changing quickly. New buildings are going up everywhere and roadworks are snarling up traffic. But, never fear - there are plenty of areas where the crowded, oft-dirty streets are still teeming with interesting people, sounds, smells and just enough life-threatening hazards to keep one focused.

The Shwedagon Paya was just as advertised. Spectacular. It is beautifully maintained, spotlessly clean and with many quiet, peaceful spots to sit and contemplate. We have experienced so many Buddhist temples and travelled in so many Buddhist countries, that we get the general ideas of peace, humility, kindness to all living things and all that. But here the monks are just a bit over the top. Tribes of "mini-monks" roam the streets, looking cute and chanting songs for alms. And all power to them. The philosophy is fine and the devout and near-devout locals get hit up on dailbasis by monks on their rounds, but we have never been approached by monks, or their trainees, in any other Buddhist country. Here, we seem to be easy game as well. Sorry, guys. We have rules about these things. We never give to beggars. Harsh, sad, probably heartless, but we decided 30 years ago to support, as much as we can, one charity that supports the poor in developing countries and we try to stick to that principle, as hard as it might be.

We strongly favour walking around cities we visit, but sometimes this approach can leave us more than slightly stuffed by the end of the day. Today, we estimate we walked about 25 kms, which isn't an outrageous distance for us in a day, but pour 33C and 100% humidity into the mix and you will understand why we had to anaesthetise ourselves with a couple of extra  beers at the end of the day.

Yangon is, in many ways, much like the Saigon we first visited 8 years ago - dirty, hectic, noisy, pretty much a shambles. Yangon's road system is probably better than that of most developing Asian cities, but the number of cars on the roads seriously stresses even this reasonably-developed element of the city's infrastructure. We remember a conversation we had with a bright young Vietnamese woman one night on the street in Saigon. We all bemoaned the state of traffic congestion. We suggested to her that there was worse to come when the tens of thousands of pushbikes and motorbikes were replaced with cars. She couldn't envisage that ever happening. Perhaps she should visit Yangon. Here, motor bikes are banned from the inner city. They have all been replaced by cars!

Having recently returned from a trip through South America, we are still very security conscious. However, we have been constantly assured that Myanmar is the safest country in South East Asia and, even after only one day, we feel much more relaxed. What does keep us on our toes is crossing roads. Our old tricks, learnt in Vietnam, of walking into ten lanes of traffic at a steady pace and letting the traffic move around you just doesn't work here. Firstly there are only cars, trucks and buses, no bikes. Secondly, they don't stop or weave around pedestrians. Traffic does stop at lights, but patience is required as light changes can take 3-4 minutes - or more.

For a cool break, we visited the National Museum this afternoon. We had low expectations and, if the building hadn't been airconditioned, we might have given it a miss. Reviews on the web and in the Lonely Planet were lukewarm at the best. The museum had an extensive collection covering the art, history and ethnography of Myanmar. There were plenty of English language explanations and the airconditioning was a blessed relief. We were impressed!

19 November, Oasis Hotel, Nyaung U (Bagan)

It wouldn't be strictly true to say that we are big fans of long-distance bus travel, but we are warming to it. If only buses left at a civilised hour! Our journey today was 9 hours, commencing at 8:00am. That doesn't sound too terrible, but the bus terminal in Yangon is 20kms out of town. Check-in was 7:30. Considering the horrible traffic, we figured we needed to leave our hotel at 6:00am to be safe. As usual, we over- estimated and arrived at the terminal just after 6:30 after a white-knuckle, high-speed trip through Yangon at speeds approaching MACH 1. We had skipped breakfast, so once our "pilot" had found our bus company among the many scores of buses lined up in what was more like a bus city than a terminal, we settled into a street cafe for breakfast. We were presented with coffee, which arrived with a couple of plates of deep-fried goodies and killed the hour or so until departure. Total cost $1.50. Who knows what we ate, but at those prices who cares?

Rural Myanmar seems to exhibit the same uneven development we saw in Yangon. Some areas are extremely poor with grass shacks, ox carts and large numbers of people working in the fields. We even saw a few ox-powered grinding mills. In other places we passed through, housing was brick and concrete, there were tractors in the fields and even the odd convenience store in the towns. The sight of a couple of elderly women getting off our air-conditioned express bus and climbing up onto an ox cart while talking on their smart phones probably best captured rural Myanmar.

20 November, Nyaung U

Bagan is all about the temples. Many comparisons will always be drawn between Bagan and Angkor Wat and, of course, proponents of each will prefer their own treasure. We will opt right out of the issue by saying they are both modern wonders. We knew little about the temples of Bagan before coming here and there might be a message here for the Myanmar Tourist Board. We had seen the pictures in our guide book and a few on the web while doing our research prior to this trip, but we just had no idea! Two and a half thousand temples dot the plain beside the Irrawaddy River. There were once twice this number, but earthquakes and floods have destroyed many. Even today, many hundreds remain in the clutches of the jungle.

So, armed with heads full of "no idea", we strolled off through the back streets of Nyaung U, looking for a local bus to Old Bagan, the centre of the temple complex. This is a tourist town, but not a highly- developed one, so much of the town is as it has always been. It is only on the main road and "restaurant row" that the modern world has had its impact.

We were heading to Old Bagan with the vague idea of hiring bikes and peddling through the temples, but as we were finding it more and more difficult to find a bus, we opted for a horse-drawn cart to make the 4km trip to Bagan. As it turned out, this was a master stroke. The driver was overjoyed to hear that we were Austalians because an Australian doctor had come to Myanmar to do a heart/lung transplant on his son. Sadly, the young man had died after a couple of years. Sounds like a tourist suck-in, but definitely not. What else could we do? We hired him and his horse cart for the day.

After our first stop, we found that son number one had taken over because his horse was stronger. Not sure what that implied, but he was an extremely pleasant young man who had a great knowledge of the history and culture of Bagan.

What a great way to get around this sprawling complex - slow, shaded and with a pleasant and well -informed companion.Young folk on electric bikes and all sorts of people on push bikes and in taxis streamed past us as we clip-clopped along the dusty roads and dirt tracks of Bagan enjoying conversation and a cool breeze. Not sure that the horse was as happy with the trip. Everytime we got off or on the cart he snorted and jumped.

Sadly, the horse-cart drivers are finding it increasingly difficult to compete with electric bikes and airconditioned taxis and they may soon be gone as coach tours, taxis and electric bikes take over the roads. What a shame. Our day cost us just US$22 for an experience we will remember for a lifetime.

Tomorrow we head for Mandalay. Anybody who has read any Kipling, Hemingway or Boys Own Adventures, or watched early 20th Century adventure movies, will immediately relate to the romance, adventure and intrigue associated with exotic locations like Casablanca, Peking (Beijing), Shanghai, Istanbul, pre-war Singapore and Hong Kong, Marrakesh, Rangoon and Mandalay. Bing Crosby and Bob Hope took us down "roads" to many of these places. Bogie and Bacall tangled with evil Nazi henchmen and Biggles must have been in there somewhere.

We have visited all these places (except for Mandalay) and how times have changed. We missed Bogie among the industrial wastelands of modern Casablanca. Bing and Bob were nowhere to be seen in the mysterious cities of the Orient, although we were sure we caught a glimpse of them in the souks of Marrakesh. In Istanbul, we know Biggles was lurking. For those who have no idea what all this means... Use that Google thing and find out!

Tomorrow, we'll don our pith helmets, sip a G&T and relax as we take a boat up the Irrawaddy on The Road to Mandalay.