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