Tuesday 30th December, 2003 Sydney to Bangkok
A gorgeous warm day to set off on this long-awaited holiday. We decide to start our adventure right from the front door so with backpacks on, we walk down to Hamilton Station. From here it’s an easy two and a half hour train ride to Sydney’s Central Station and then ten minutes to the International Airport. We’re over three hours early but already people are lined up to book in. At the British Airlines desk we’re asked to move over to the next counter where the check-in lady gives us the unbelievable, incredible, mind-blowing news that ‘we’re upgrading you to Business Class’ !!!!!!!!!!! This is our dream come true and the best bit is that we can now spend the next three hours lounging around in the Qantas Club rooms. Everything is free – food, newspapers, magazines and every type of alcohol imaginable. This really is ‘us’, we decide, so we act like total snobs drinking wine and turning our noses up at the riffraff down below.
On the plane we find that Business Class is even better than we expected as this is not just ‘ordinary’ business class but the old first class. This means we get individual little cocoon-like seats that totally flatten out to a real bed. We’re so excited but pretend we’re cool and ignore all the losers heading for the back of the plane. We agree that there really should be a separate entrance for ‘cattle class’ – such undesirables, darling!
Of course, we must have champagne and Kir Royales and dinner is a la carte with three courses. This is such luxury and a shame to waste it sleeping but the bed is so comfortable and I manage about four hours straight. Never arrived anywhere feeling so great. Bangkok is hot and humid as usual even though it’s ten thirty at night. The airport bus has just left so we ask another couple if they want to share a taxi into town which means that we’re at Khao San Road in half an hour. We head straight for Mamas Guesthouse where luckily they have one room left. It’s basic and windowless but we’ll move to better spot in the morning. Right now we just want to eat and have a drink. There’s a shabby looking Japanese Restaurant next door so that’ll do. Don’t stay up long as we’ve got a lot planned for tomorrow. Sleep in our clothes.
Wednesday 31st December, 2003 Bangkok, Thailand
New Years Eve – very excited about spending it here in exotic Thailand. We wake early and set off from Mamas towards Soi 1 to look for a guesthouse in this much quieter area. It’s only a ten minute walk from all the action in Khao San Road but it’s in a lovely residential area with stacks of atmosphere. On the way, we visit a Chinese temple overlooking a wide klong. This is our first taste of Buddhism for the trip and I feel ecstatic. Turning left into Soi 1 we head for the Bamboo Guesthouse which we found last March on our way home from Egypt. It’s just perfect and today they have one double room left – so many things going right for us already this trip. We have breakfast on the street then grab our gear from Mamas and check into the Bamboo.
Our second floor room is big and airy with wood panelled floors and walls. Windows along one wall look out onto the verandahs of old teak houses, so close we can almost touch them. There’s a narrow klong below but it’s so filthy it’s more like a drain and we get a foul whiff every now and again – it’s Asia after all. The shared bathrooms are clean, though, and the lounging around area is fantastic – all this for only 220 baht a night. There’s the same poor little dog with a bucket on his head to stop him scratching a skin disease on his back. He’s blind as well and keeps bouncing off the chair legs – must be very loved. The only thing wrong with it here is the grouchy old owner. His wife is sweet but he and the grandmother walk around like someone just died. Too bad for them, we say.
We don’t unpack much gear as we hope to be leaving tomorrow. Cold showers cool us down as the humidity is high even this early. We’ve forgotten to bring towels with us so we dry ourselves with a sarong. Now we wander around the market stalls in Khao San Road and then look for a travel agent in Thanon Rambutri. We’d decided to wait till we get to Bangkok to arrange our flights to Myanmar as they’ll be cheaper here than if we’d booked from home. The only risk is that we might not be able to get there when we want. Hopefully we’ll be able to fly out tomorrow, the first of January, but this will only give us today to book. If we do have to hang around Bangkok for a few days longer, well so be it. Bangkok is one of our favourite places and this is our fifth time here but there’s still so much to see. We also want to get clothes made so we’ll need a few days either at the beginning or at the end of the trip to get measured and fitted.
Luck is on our side again and we book cheap flights to Yangon with Myanmar Airways International (MAI) for tomorrow morning. We have to be back between five and six o’clock tonight to pick up the tickets. Now we cross over to Mamas for our usual massages. Sharlo and her husband are here and baby Puchai has grown so much. Love the massage like always and feel so at home in their little room. Mark says ‘Mr Mama’ is the best masseur in the world. Afterwards we eat shrimp and chicken on the street and drink Beer Chang to celebrate our first day back in Asia. The smells and the sight of all the food stalls along this street make me happier than I can say. It’s so familiar and we feel very grateful to be here.
Our plan now is to walk to Wat Saket. It’s on the map I’m trying to decipher but it takes Mark to actually find it. We spend a hot half hour walking in the sun before finding some shade along a busy klong. The temple is on a hill but almost hidden by trees and the area around the base is wonderfully green and cool. By the time we get to the temple, though, we’re dripping with sweat. At the top are orange-robed monks, lots of Thai tourists and great views of Bangkok. We ring temple bells and spin prayer wheels on the way down before jumping in a tuktuk to take us to Wang Suan Phakkat. This is a traffic-jammed half hour ride from Wat Saket and we hope it’ll be worth the headache of getting there.
Wang Suan Pakkat is also known as the Lettuce Farm Palace and consists of five traditional Thai houses all made of warm, dark wood. It sits amongst pretty green gardens set out with ponds and little bridges. It’s not exactly peaceful here, though, as the palace is next to a main road and the traffic noise is inescapable. We enjoy ourselves anyway eating ice-creams under a tree and wandering around the beautiful buildings. Each house is elevated off the ground and joined to each other with wooden walkways and the whole place looks over a large pond. We cool ourselves with coloured cane fans that come as part of the ticket price and enjoy the elegant Lacquer Pavilion at the rear of the palace.
Enough sightseeing for today, so we suffer another traffic-choked tuktuk ride back to Khao San Road. We’re both feeling tired but don’t want to give in just yet. In Thanon Phra Sumen, we like the look of the Pavarati Bar and drink a jug of Carlsberg beer sitting on stools at the bar. The atmosphere is quite upmarket but still casual enough for backpackers. It’s good to sit down but we become so relaxed that we decide to go back to the room to rest. The Bamboo Guesthouse is close by – across a small bridge over the klong and then through a couple of alleyways lined with small shops and lots of people sitting outside their homes.
With the overhead fan going, we both fall asleep. Just on dark Mark asks me the time. We can’t believe that we’ve forgotten to pick up our plane tickets! Mark races off to see if he can do anything while I tell myself not to stress. Is this payback for all the things that have gone our way in the last two days? Mark is away for an age but finally arrives back with two towels and the tickets. The travel agent had still been open, thank Buddha – now we can go out and celebrate.
After another cold shower we walk to the big park on the river but nothing seems to be happening here yet. Across the road is a string of trendy Thai restaurants which we head for to get something to eat. We pick the Dog Days Cafe because it’s small and atmospheric – and it’s air-conditioned. We have salad and pork noodles and break out our duty free Bacardi and bourbon. After a few drinks we decide to take on Khao San Road before it gets too busy. A big bulb-flashing archway has been erected at the entrance just for tonight and the street is even crazier than ever. Hundreds of backpackers and young Thai people are having a great time already. It’s only nine thirty but we won’t stay here for long. We don’t think it’s a great idea to be here at midnight for two reasons really. Firstly it’ll be jam packed with pissed idiots (backpackers) and secondly because if there was to be a terrorist attack against westerners, Khao San Road would be a likely spot on New Years Eve. We’re not paranoid about it but no need to take obvious chances.
This street is so electrifying tonight and we’re shoulder to shoulder. We peel off from the crowd moving along the street and somehow manage to find a table at the open-air Cyber Cafe. Music is coming from all directions and the excitement is catching. A couple of drinks later we head for nearby Soi Rambutri where most of the backpacker bars and cafes are situated across from the temple. Every night the cafe owners set up tables and chairs along the temple wall so we find a good people-watching spot opposite Sawasdee Guesthouse. We love sitting here in the warm night air and feel very at home.
Apparently the main fireworks will be happening down on the Chao Praya River so our next stop is a huge open-air restaurant that overlooks the water. Ferries and boats strung with party lights are slowly making their way towards the bridge so we know we’re in the right spot. Mark orders a mushroom soup which literally smells like the klong outside our room so we share my battered fish. At last it’s midnight and the fireworks display is surprisingly spectacular. What a thrill to be here!
Now it’s time to get some sleep, though, before our early start tomorrow and the beginning of our Myanmar adventure.
Thursday 1st January, 2004 Bangkok to Yangon, Myanmar
New Years Day. The alarm wakes us at six and we’re speeding off to Don Muang Airport by seven o’clock. Bangkok drivers are notoriously mad and our elderly sweet-looking driver is no exception. Like our ride-from-hell experience out to the airport last March, we do hair-raising overtaking maneuvers on the left shoulder and get up to terrifying speeds on the freeway. So glad to get here!
Inside we’re told to check into Thai Airways although we’ve paid for the cheaper MAI flight. Upstairs we find a restaurant we’ve never seen before and have a relaxing breakfast before going through immigration. The plane is late so I spend an hour lying on the floor in the morning sunshine while Mark takes pictures of Gate 12 and our missing plane. The flight is only an hour across the Gulf of Mottama in the Andaman Sea and at last we land in hot, sunny Myanmar.
It’s hard to say Myanmar and not Burma and to say Yangon and not Rangoon – a remnant of old Social Studies classes in primary school. The Irrawaddy River is now disappointingly called the Ayeyarwady – not so romantic, I think. Apparently it was always called Myanmar and it was the British who made all the name changes. After the 1988 Uprising everything reverted back to its original name. Anyway no matter what the name, we’re here and let the journey begin!
There’s a one hour time difference so we put our watches back to 11.30am. Outside the airport we’re greeted with the usual taxi-driver crush and we’re soon whisked away by a beaming Mr. Zaw. Our packs are thrown in the back of his van while Mr. Zaw gives us a quick language lesson in Burmese. Say ‘mingalaba’ for ‘hello’ and ‘cezu tinbadeh’ for ‘thank-you’. The weather is perfect and the half-hour drive into Yangon shows how very green it is here. We pass numerous golden chedi and closer to town, the massive Shwedagon Paya which is at the top of everyone’s must-see list. As we enter central Yangon the traffic becomes heavier but for a city of four million people it’s surprisingly laid-back. Mr. Zaw points out the zeigyo which is the Burmese name for main market and in Yangon is called the Bogyoke Aung San Market. It looks huge and jammed with locals and is also on our list for tomorrow.
Mr. Zaw is trying so hard to suck up. He keeps up his free guided tour as well as telling Mark that he looks like a movie-star. He asks us our plans which are apparently all wrong and says that he can show us all of his beautiful country in his private car. We make no promises but agree to let him show us the sights of Yangon tomorrow. He starts with some exorbitant price and is shattered when we bargain him down. I guess it works sometimes so there’s no harm trying. After dropping us at the Three Seasons Hotel we arrange to meet him outside at eight o’clock in the morning.
The Three Seasons is a Lonely Planet recommendation in the mid-range section so we pay US$18 a night. It’s expensive for Myanmar but a bargain for its position and its mixed colonial/Asian atmosphere. There’s a small courtyard behind the tall front fence and the foyer is lined in dark paneled wood and furnished with elaborate lounge chairs. It’s very welcoming and so are the owners. Our room is on the next floor and is also lined with wood with bright pink curtains decorating the window. There’s no air-conditioning but we have a fan and our own bathroom so we’re happy.
Downstairs, we ask the lady who runs the guesthouse how to get to the train station as we want to book tickets to Mandalay for next Monday. It’s a thirteen hour overnight trip so we hope to get a sleeper car and we’ve read that you have to book at least four days ahead. She tells us it’s not far along the main road and back towards the market so we decide to walk. The temperature is in the high thirties but we don’t mind the heat. Walking also gives us the chance to get amongst the street life. Like all Asian cities so much goes on out of doors. On the footpaths people are cooking noodles, rice, chicken, vegetables and pancakes over hot coals. Others are sitting on baby-sized plastic stools eating bowls of food with wooden chopsticks. Teashops are common in Burma and we see lots of locals (men only) whiling about the day drinking tea and eating all sorts of tea snacks.
We’re walking along Bogyoke Aung San Road which is remarkably quiet for being one of the main streets in a capital city. There’s still the overcrowded buses and cars and a few motorbikes but the road is so wide the pace seems less hectic. Trees have been planted along both sides of the street which give us some much needed shade. There’s a pervasive English influence in the once-beautiful buildings which are now seriously rundown. Despite the neglect, they have a decaying elegance that makes this city so special.
We finally find our way to the Dagon Mann booking office which isn’t at the railway station but in what seems to be a disused siding. This is an amazing place where lots of poor people are hanging out and a few decrepit teashops have been set up. We have no idea where to go and no-one seems to speak English. Soon though we’re being guided to the right counter by a helpful lady and our sleeper train tickets are booked and paid for. It’s not cheap at A$50 each because the government makes sure that foreigners pay for everything through the nose.
By now we’re starving so we set out for the Sakhantha Hotel which is part of the old Yangon Train Station. The station is on the other side of the tracks across a busy bridge. It’s a striking building that seems to be part colonial, part Chinese. We’re so hot by the time we get here and can’t wait for a beer. We sit in a kind of bar/restaurant with a lot of locals and order fried chicken and a tomato salad which comes covered in a sate sauce. It’s all good and I even manage to eat mine with chopsticks. The beer is on tap and not bad so Mark drinks a bucketful.
Our next job is to find somewhere to send emails and we’re sent on a wild goose chase from the Sakhantha Hotel to the Yoma Hotel to the Queens Park Hotel. Here we have to pretend that we’re thinking of staying the night so we waste precious time looking at their rooms. We finally realize that they only have local email so it really is a waste of time. The girls are so sweet though so we try to look impressed and promise to come back later. After all this, we find an internet cafe just around the corner from our hotel only to find that we can’t use Hotmail in Myanmar. There’s some sort of government block on Yahoo and Hotmail but the young guy in charge helps us to sign up with Paok and we finally get to send a message off home
Our quick walk to the railway booking office has turned into a five hour trek and we’re both exhausted. We collapse in the foyer of the Three Seasons and order lime sodas. After a shower and a quick lie down we’re out in the street again. There’s a few Lonely Planet recommended restaurants around here so we set off to find them. The 50th Street Bar and Grill is first on the list. It’s dark by now but still warm and so nice walking around the streets. This area is like a ghetto with high rise apartment blocks that look like they should be condemned. It’s weird, but we like it. Kids are still running around outside and we can see inside the doorways of the flats. Most of them have no electricity and people are out on their balconies. Candle-lit food stalls and cafes are set up along the edge of the street that leads down to the Bar. The road is unpaved and potholed and it’s pitch black. Even though we’re walking around in the dark in a slum area we feel totally safe. We always feel like this in Asia.
The 50th Street Bar and Grill is a huge contrast to the world outside. The bar would be impressive in the middle of Sydney let alone in this poorest of places. A couple of westerners are sitting in an alcove but other than that, we’re the only ones here. We have a beer each sitting up at the bar and talk to the barman. One look at the prices on the menu, though, and we decide to eat somewhere else.
This turns out to be a good move. Back down in the main street, we sit at a rickety old table set up on the footpath and order chicken and chili noodles. It’s cooked in a wok over hot coals and has to be the best meal we’ve had for ages. Much better sitting here anyway. There’s so much street life and even the traffic is amazing. Buses are taking people home from central Yangon and bursting at the seams. We could stay here and order more food but we decide to try the nearby Shan restaurant. It’s open to the street and down a couple of steps. The food is displayed at the counter and looks totally unappealing. I stick with the free soup but Mark piles up on chili squid and a vegetable dish. Really starting to lose our momentum by now so we head for the Three Seasons and our comfy beds.
Friday 2nd January, 2004 Yangon
Our beds may be comfortable but we’re kept awake half the night by mosquitoes. We’re up at five o’clock and have breakfast in the dining room overlooking the street. Breakfast is included in the room price and it’s a feast – pawpaw, grapefruit, sticky rice, pancake, toast, scrambled eggs, tea, coffee and juice. After getting our day packs ready, we wait downstairs for Mr. Zaw who doesn’t turn up. I guess he’s found someone who’ll pay more but we don’t mind and prefer to do our own thing anyway.
The first thing we see outside the guesthouse is a line of monks on their alms rounds. They each carry a wooden alms bowl that the local people fill with rice. This is a fabulous sight and one we’re sure to see many times on this trip. Eighty seven percent of Burmese are Theravada Buddhists and almost half a million monks live within the fifty thousand monasteries throughout the country. All males are expected to become novice monks for at least a short time between the ages of ten and twenty and then become fully ordained later in life if they choose. As a novice they mustn’t steal, lie, drink alcohol, have sex, eat after noon, listen to music and do any of the other fun things we westerners like to do.
Heading out onto the main road, we cross to a monastery on the other side. We’re met by the sweetest of men called Wimyam. He’s a layman at the monastery as well as owning a tiny shop next door. He takes us upstairs to the monks’ quarters and explains how it all works. The monks sleep in bare rooms around a central area used for praying and hanging out. It’s a peaceful, homey atmosphere and I pat one of the live-in cats. A group of young male students are eating around a low table and have the greatest fun when Mark videos them and plays it back. They’re so excited and incredibly innocent – brings it home how much we take the things we have for granted. Downstairs we talk to the head monk who brings out kittens for us to play with. Mark reckons I love monasteries as much for the cats as for the monks.
Now Wimyam shows us his cupboard-sized shop set up under a tree outside and we watch him making betel nut packages for the locals. He paints a lime leaf with a white paste and sprinkles on tobacco and betel nut and then wraps it up in a little parcel. He sells us some tiny wrapped lollies and then proudly has his photo taken in front of his shop. This has been an unexpectedly great start to the day.
Across the street is an interesting teahouse so we find a table inside and order sweet milk tea and tea snacks. Our waiter is a young guy who wants to be in the video and his mates in the kitchen are giggling in the doorway. We’ve found the people here to be the most sweet-tempered and well-meaning that we’ve met anywhere. Despite being deeply oppressed and kept poor by the military government, the Burmese people have such dignity and a gentleness of spirit that we find admirable and enviable.
And because of the fact that Myanmar is ruled by a military government, we had to decide if coming here was the right thing to do. The military regime has had the democratic leader, Aung San Suu Khi, under house arrest twice since her victory in 1990. Our decision had to be balanced against seeming to support the government and coming here to support the Burmese people. By ensuring that we only travel on non-government transport and only stay in non-government accommodation, we feel we may still be helping the local people. We hope so anyway. Aung San Suu Khi is a hero of human rights beyond words and we want to experience the country and the people she loves so much.
From the teahouse, we send off some emails from the internet place around the corner and then grab a taxi to take us to the Bogyoke Aung San Market in central Yangon. The market has been running for seventy years and sells anything and everything. Apparently the British called it the Scott Market so we feel much at home. Mark buys a longyi which is the traditional dress worn by all the Burmese men and women. One long piece of material is sewn together and then wrapped around the waist like a sarong – totally practical in the hot weather and looks great. All sorts of strange animal entrails are being sold in the food market as well as the usual fruit and vegetables. At a makeshift cafe we choose chicken on skewers for lunch while ear-shattering music is played on a CD player. The young girls here are so pretty and keep smiling at us to make sure we’re enjoying the music. I buy a purple silk longyi and a white cotton blouse to wear in the temples and then we’re back outside and in another taxi heading for the Shwedagon Paya on the outskirts of town.
The Shwedagon Paya is Myanmar’s most sacred Buddhist sight and attracts thousands of locals every day. It consists of a massive golden stupa surrounded by countless prayer halls, smaller stupas, bell pavilions, temples, shrines and four bodhi trees at each corner. As we approach the paya we can see the ninety eight metre golden dome rising from its hilltop position then a tree-lined sweeping drive takes us to the foreigner’s entrance. We take off our shoes and pay a US$5 admission fee to enter the lift which takes us up to the level of the paya. The sight before us is dazzlingly beautiful. All the temples and smaller stupas are elaborately carved and covered with tiny mirrors and gold leaf so that the whole scene is a glowing spectacle. The main central stupa is topped with a seventy six carat diamond sitting on a golden sphere studded with thousands of precious stones and over four thousand smaller diamonds. Considering the poverty of the people it seems ironic to see so much wealth in these payas but it just shows that our western way of thinking just doesn’t mean the same here.
We spend ages wandering around all the pavilions and watching the locals praying and giving offerings. The whole area is paved with white marble so even though it’s swelteringly hot, the ground is cool enough to walk on with bare feet. We leave by the main entrance which is almost as magnificent as the stupa itself. An enormous enclosed staircase lined with dark carved wood leads down the hundred or so steps to the sunshine outside.
According to our map, Lake Kandawgyi isn’t far and we think it might be cooler down there. It takes ages, though, walking in the hot sun before we find it. At the Kandawgyi Palace Hotel we stop for a drink. This is so luxurious with a tropical garden right on the lake with swimming pools set into grottos and a thatched bar. Sitting on bamboo chairs at the bar we order beers and lime sodas and wish we were staying here. Too late now as we’re off to Bago in the morning. Another long, hot walk around the lake then we taxi it back to the Three Seasons for a rest.
After dark we find a trishaw down in the street to take us to the Strand Hotel. Trishaws are the Burmese version of a rickshaw except that there are two tiny seats next to the driver with each person facing opposite directions. I sit facing backwards and get to ‘mingalaba’ with the locals going past in other trishaws. Tonight is warm and still and we feel very blessed to be here. At the Strand we pay off our driver and enter the lovely old foyer. The Strand was built in 1896 by the same guys who built the Raffles Hotel in Singapore and has that same colonial elegance. It was a hangout for the British colonialists and still has that old world feel. We sit on stools at the bar and order a Manhattan and a beer then move to a comfortable corner for a lime Margarita and a white wine.
Outside again, we find another trishaw to take us into the main part of town to look for one of the rooftop restaurants we’ve read about in the Lonely Planet. We pass Sule Paya glowing gold in the night and through a maze of dark streets. There doesn’t seem to be any street lights probably because of the electricity restrictions which means different parts of the city experience regular brownouts. We spend ages driving around while our poor driver tries to find the restaurants. He can’t read our map and no-one he stops seems to know anything about them. We decide to get out and walk and take an hour of wandering around and backtracking before finally finding them. This is a horrid, sleazy area and the restaurants don’t look much better. We share an elevator with a group of pretty young girls all carrying a hard plastic carry bag each. Apparently there’s a fashion show on later and these are the models.
Inside the restaurant we’re shown to a table surrounded by a few scrawny plants and it’s so dark we can barely read the menu. Our young waiter stands to attention beside our table but then sits down for a chat. The beers are served in cold plastic mugs and we’re entertained with a karaoke competition while we eat. Next is the fashion parade which is so bad it’s almost funny. About twenty girls model one outfit each and for some reason videoing is strictly forbidden. Another cultural thing, I suppose. We don’t stay long and need to get back to the room anyway to pack for our early start tomorrow.
Saturday 3rd January, 2004 Yangon to Bago
Mark has a head cold this morning but still manages to eat some of our huge breakfast. At eight o’clock we order a taxi to drive us to the Highway Bus Station. After forty minutes driving we begin to think our driver must be either lost or he thinks he’s taking us the whole way to Bago. The scenery is great anyway with people setting off for work and for school and we like the look of this more rural area.
Soon we see the bus station which is spread out over a wide area and it’s still a mystery as to why it’s so far out of Yangon. Our driver stops a few people to ask where the Bago bus departs and drops us at one of the ticket offices nearby. These are set up in a row of old sheds and we’re told that the Bago bus will leave in an hour. We buy our A$2 tickets from a man sitting at a small table and then we’re told to sit on little wooden stools to wait. A young boy makes room for us and Mark reads while I wander outside to look at the food stalls. A small market sells fruit and cooked noodles to passengers waiting to board buses to all parts of the country. Everyone here is Burmese except for us so I get lots of smiles and ‘mingalabas’.
When the bus arrives Mark throws our packs on the roof while I find that we have excellent seats right behind the driver. I buy a bag of chopped watermelon through the bus window before we leave on time at ten thirty. All the seats are full and a dozen people have to stand. Instead of spreading themselves out along the aisle they all crowd together as far to the front as they possibly can. I don’t know why, but we’ve seen this happen in most Asian countries including India. It’s a bit claustrophobic with three people just about sitting on Mark’s shoulder, but it’s good people watching.
Bago is only eighty kilometres from Yangon but the bus isn’t capable of getting up to any sort of speed so it takes three hours to get there. Along the way we stop at a roadside cafe for lunch. At least that’s what we think is happening. No-one speaks English so we just keep our eye on the driver in case we’re only here for a toilet stop. We’re not game to order anything that could take too long so we buy a bag of hot potato snacks cooked on the street and soda waters from the cafe.
Back on the bus, we crawl towards Bago and finally arrive at one thirty. The main street is busy and unappealing with three and four storey buildings looking very rundown and totally lacking in character. A group of young guys are touting for the local guesthouses and they surround us as we get off the bus. The hotels are near the bus stop and all look as bad as each other so we go with the guy we like the most. His name is Peace and he walks us across the street to the very glamorously named Emperor Hotel. Our room is on the second floor at the back and overlooks a roof covered in rubbish that’s been thrown from upper storey windows. A minaret from the local mosque is right behind us as well so it’ll be interesting to see if the call-to-prayer is as noisy here as it was in Cairo last year. The bed takes up most of the room but we do have a bathroom and surprisingly, a television. Peace proudly shows us the luxury suite across the hallway which is bigger and even has a plastic table and chairs and a vase of plastic flowers. It’s sad to think that this awful little room is ‘luxury’ to these people who have nothing.
Peace also tells us that we won’t have to go back to Yangon to get on the Mandalay train as it definitely stops in Bago. This will save us so much time and hassle backtracking to Yangon – we just hope he’s right. He even promises take us to the station to get us into the right carriage as the train only stops for two minutes.
By now Mark’s head cold has become worse and I’ve got sinusitis as well so we decide to sleep for a while. Besides this we’re both covered with mosquito bites from our nights at the Three Seasons. At five o’clock, Peace walks us across the bridge to the ‘chemist’ to get some tablets. It’s a tiny hole-in-the-wall place but they have something to dry up Mark’s nose and my sinuses. Peace tells us that we can watch the sunset from the roof of the hotel so we grab our duty free grog from the room while Peace rounds up some coke. Six flights of steep stairs leads to the rooftop where we find another traveller who’s staying here as well. He’s Mark from Holland and we make plans to have dinner together. Meanwhile the sun is setting behind a distant haze created by the thousands of wood fires used in homes all through this area. Peace points out all the local temples and we can see how very small the town is. Also it’s good to see that the yucky part of Bago is confined to the main street while directly behind is thatched villages and pretty temples. Looking forward to seeing it all tomorrow.
At six thirty Mark and I walk around to the Shwe Li Restaurant recommended by Peace as the cleanest place in town to eat. Because the electricity is out, it’s very dark in the street. Most hotels and restaurants have their own generators so the Shwe Li is a dim glow in a rutted dirt laneway near the Emperor. It overlooks the Bago River and seems to be popular with locals. When ‘Holland Mark’ turns up he tells us we should steer away from eating meat in these rural areas because the constant power cuts mean that the refrigeration is pretty dodgy. It’s a good tip and we all order vegetarian dishes which are all good anyway. Mark tells us about his life and his travels in Burma and gives us a few tips for when we head up north.
We get to bed about ten o’clock but it’s not long before I start the first of my many toilet visits for the night – great tip about the vegetarian food! Hope ‘Holland Mark’ is having an even shittier time than me.
Sunday 4th January, 2004 Bago
Peace told us last night that hundreds of monks do their alms rounds past the hotel at 5am so even though I’m exhausted after a sleepless night, I make myself get up. The electricity is off and the corridor outside our room is in darkness. I can see that it’s still dark outside as well and anyway I can’t get past all the sleeping bodies at the top of the stairs. Peace and the other people who work here have to sleep on the tiled floor and someone is lying on the counter.
Now we sleep till ten thirty before dragging ourselves down to the 555 Cafe next door for breakfast. It looks like it’ll be a wasted day with me still running to the toilet and Mark feeling even sicker with his cold. The mosque hadn’t been too noisy but we could hear chanting all night so Mark didn’t get much sleep as well. As we sit down to order, he has to make a dash for our room so now we’ve both got ‘Bago Belly’. The menu of ‘fried air bladder’, ‘gort fighting ball’, ‘fried crisp duck webs’ and ‘pork balls’ isn’t very inviting on a sick stomach so we settle for fruit salad and an omelet.
The rest of the day is spent sleeping, toileting, sleeping, toileting …. – never thought we could sleep so much in one day. The electricity is on sporadically so we pass some of the time watching television. The trouble is that we’ll be halfway through watching something when the power goes off and by the time it comes back on the show is over. Our room is getting more horrid by the minute. The toilet and the shower are in the same tiny dark cell which means that we’re forever walking water through the bedroom. The floor is vinyl so it’s continually wet and the toilet/bathroom has a bare cement floor that looks like it could breed almost anything.
By nightfall we can’t stand being here anymore so we decide to try and eat dinner. No way will we be heading back to the Shew Li tonight. Across the street near the bridge is the Panda Restaurant which is about the only other place in town to eat. It’s a featureless bare room that steps down off the street and we’re the only customers. One look at the menu (more ‘air bladders’ and ‘gort balls’) is enough to make us almost throw up on the table and we order the closest thing we can find to a salad. Mark has to get some sort of food into him because of his diabetes but neither of us manages to eat much before crawling back to bed.
Monday 5th January, 2004 Bago to Mandalay by overnight train
After a better night, we wake at seven ready to spend the whole day taking in the highlights of Bago. Both still feeling a bit precious so breakfast is watermelon and an omelet at the 555. We’ve missed the monks’ alms rounds the last two mornings but now here is a group of Buddhist nuns walking towards the cafe. They’re all shaven headed and dressed in soft baby pink robes that look wonderful against the golden brown of their skin. They’re happy to have their photos taken while they collect cooked rice from the people in the cafe.
Yesterday we’d met a young trishaw driver called Zawtun who is now waiting outside to take us around town to some of the temples and monasteries. His beautiful smile reflects his beautiful nature and he tells us that he’s the best guide in town. The morning is clear and warm and we’re optimistic of having a wonderful day. Zawtun has an extra cushion on the front of the trishaw because he says that Mark ‘is fat’. And because Mark ‘is fat’, he also has to sit in the front seat so I have to sit behind facing backwards again. Off we go about eight o’clock cycling south out of town. As we reach the bridge over the railway line, Mark quietly announces that we have to go back to the hotel – fast! My poor darling has lost what was left of his insides in a brown watery mess all over the trishaw. Poor Zawtun quickly turns around and we speed back to the Emperor. Mark races embarrassingly up to the room while Zawtun cleans the seat. He thinks it’s a great joke and soon half the town knows about it. I go to see how Mark is going and he greets me at the door in the longyi he’d bought in Yangon and never thought he’d wear. It’s the only clean thing he’s got left but he looks great anyway.
Downstairs we set off for the second time after Mark has swallowed half a packet of Imodium. He’s determined we’re going to make up for yesterday – thank you, baby! Back across the bridge we turn right into a village area that is so lovely. Tropical gardens, flowering bougainvillea and lots of palm and coconut trees line the red dirt streets and surround the wooden and thatched houses. We pass children on their way to school wearing white shirts and dark green longyis and carrying multi-coloured shoulder bags. Burmese music is blaring from a parked truck while someone encased in a huge papier mache head is collecting money from people walking past. Zawtun says that they’re raising funds for one of the many small monasteries spread out around the town.
Because Zawtun knows what happens where and when, we’re happy to just go where he takes us. Our first stop is the Kha Khat Wain Kyaung Buddhist monastery on the Bago River. A dirt track runs alongside the water’s edge and we can hear music coming from the thatched village on the opposite bank. Before going inside we take off our shoes then walk along the cool tiles of the long shaded walkway to the central area where gardens and trees are planted between all the buildings and pavilions. Zawtun shows us the kitchen and the giant-sized, black metal pots used for cooking rice and vegetables. All this is done over wooden fires and adds to the constant haze that rests over the town. In a large open pavilion hundreds of novice monks are sitting cross-legged in front of tiny wooden desks on the bare floor. They’re doing a Pali exam but apparently we’re welcome to watch. The silence is beautiful and only broken by birds singing in the gardens outside.
While the exam is still going on we visit one of the monks’ quarters which is just as bare as those we saw in the monastery in Yangon. Maroon robes are hanging on two ropes strung across the room and thin mattresses cover most of the floor. A couple of monks are reciting Buddhist scriptures and give us shy smiles. From here we follow Zawtun into the eating hall where low round wooden tables are set ready for the monks to have their ten-thirty meal. They dine once in the early morning and again before noon after which they can’t eat at all. Young monks carry in trays from the kitchen. Each tray is about three feet across and holds a dozen metal bowls containing some sort of vegetable soup. One is placed on each of the round tables along with large silver teapots.
While we wait outside the hall, two young girls try to sell us postcards and paintings. “I’ve already bought some, yesterday” I say to which one replies “Yes, but they were bamboo, these are different”. Incredibly the word has got around town even about something as insignificant as this. Mark’s hairy legs have them in fits of laughter and even more when he shows them his stomach. Now, very daintily, they paint my face with thanakha. This is a white paste from the thanakha tree and used as a cosmetic by all Burmese women. They paint great blobs of the stuff on their cheeks, forehead, chin and down the nose. Some say it’s used as a sun screen but mainly it’s their form of makeup. At first I like the cool feel of it on my face but then it dries into a sort of stiff mud mask. It’s good to be one of the girls anyway and I buy a jar of it to take home.
By now the monks are ready and a head monk hits a bell with the butt end of a thick piece of wood then uses it again to hit a bronze gong. This is the Burmese version of the dinner bell and here they come! This is a magical sight and one I’ve always dreamed of seeing. One thousand monks walking in straight lines come from two opposite directions towards the eating hall. They each carry a wooden alms bowl and all walk in total silence. As they reach the entrance they’re given a scoop of rice each and then they move inside to take their place at one of the round tables. We follow them in and sit on the floor to one side near the eighty year old head monk. He’s being helped by two very young novices and looks like he hasn’t a clue what’s going on – asleep even? Mark leans backwards and cuts his hand on a piece of glass propped up against the wall. He really is having the worst luck today.
When all the monks are seated three of them stand at the front and recite a loud musical chant with the palms of their hands together in front of their third eye. When they finish everyone else has a turn and one thousand monks say grace – beautiful. From now on, though, there’s absolute silence as they spoon some of the soup into their rice bowl and use their fingers to scoop it into their mouth. The sun slanting in through the windows turns their maroon robes into a vibrant red – a marvellous sight! We’ll never forget this special morning.
Back out in the sunshine, Zawtun rides us back through the village and over the bridge along the Yangon-Mandalay Road to the southern side of town. Along the way we pass another truck with a man on the back yelling into a loud-speaker. Accompanied by deafening Burmese music, he’s advertising the latest film playing at the Bago cinema. We pass a school and then turn into a rutted side street. To our right is the very pretty Leikpya Reservoir and small food stalls are built along both sides of the street. Finally we stop in front of a roughly built wooden shack where a man and woman are cutting the ends off home-made cigars. The family who live here are all cigar makers and Zawtun takes us through to another shack at the back. Sitting on a bare wooden floor in the oldest of buildings are the women of the family – a couple of younger women with a little girl each and an older woman swinging a sleeping baby in a small hammock by pulling a string attached to it. Two tiny withered old women are obviously the grandmothers and they all welcome us and want their photos taken. They work automatically like they’ve done this forever. It’s a happy family atmosphere.
From here we ride down a long wide avenue where the golden Shwemawdaw Paya stands impressively at one end. At one hundred and fourteen metres high and one thousand years old it’s the main tourist attraction in Bago. The entrance fee goes straight to the government so Zawtun sneaks us into a side entrance where we don’t have to pay. A long covered stairwell leads to the main paya where an old man takes pity on Mark’s attempt to tie his longyi and redoes it for him. For a while we sit in the shade near the stupa then find the massive original pinnacle which fell to the ground during the 1917 earthquake.
We don’t stay long as Zawtun is waiting for us at the back entrance. We follow him along a narrow covered walkway to the Hintha Gon Paya. This is a lively temple where lots of local people are selling flowers and incense at the bottom of the stairs. Like all Buddhist temples a long staircase leads to the stupa where we can hear loud clanking music. Three men are playing traditional gongs, drums and xylophones while a fat lady ‘sings’ into a microphone. The band sounds like a preschool percussion class gone wrong and the singer sounds like a wounded cat but apparently it’s the real thing. Two very odd looking people with heavily made up faces are dancing in long black dresses and hats and carrying a bunch of leaves in their left hand and a long sword in their right hand. Zawtun tells us that this is a nat ceremony so we’ve come at just the right time. Nats are spirits and Burmese Buddhism actually incorporates many aspects of nat worship. Offerings to Buddha ensure happiness in a future life while offerings to the nats ensure happiness in this life. A small group of local people are sitting on the floor watching the performance and every now and again the ladies pin money to the dancer’s clothes. The dancers are spirit mediums called nat-gadaw and are usually transvestites which accounts for their bizarre appearance. The next dance involves five more dancers wearing even more elaborate costumes. It’s their job to lure the nats into possessing them until they go into a trance. The whole thing feels a bit skin crawly, really.
Now it’s time to eat but Zawtun wants us to see one more paya on this side of town. We bounce along a pot-holed track on the edge of the village to an ancient, rather ugly looking temple. Mark is over-heating so he sits in the shade while I go inside with Zawtun. The walls are lined with hundreds of golden buddhas and glass showcases hold precious Buddha images. Too hungry to see any more so we decide to head back to town. My white painted face brings lots of smiles along the way especially from the ladies who all give me nods of approval.
At the 555 Cafe we order noodles and soda waters while I catch up on the diary – so much has happened today already. Burmese cafes have a certain atmosphere that makes them somehow different to other places in South East Asia. I think one reason is that all the cooking is done over hot coals so there’s always a smoky cloud hanging in the air. As well as this they all have dark interiors probably because the electricity is usually off but this creates a wonderful mystical mood and we feel like we’re in some sort of Burmese time warp. The only thing that brings us back to reality is that all these cafes have posters of David Beckham decorating the walls. He’s the only western face we’ve seen in any sort of advertising and they seem to be obsessed with him here – and what good taste, I say.
We ask Zawtun about getting a massage so he says he’ll take us to his village. This is just behind the main road and it’s a lovely contrast. In between grass and wooden huts overhung with trees we ride along rough dirt tracks till we pull up in front of Zawtun’s hut. Like all the others around here it’s built on stilts with an area at ground level beside it where all the cooking is done. There’s no running water so outside each hut is a large ceramic pot filled with water that the villagers have to buy. It’s unimaginably basic but wonderfully appealing. Planks of wood lead up to the two rooms inside where we sit on woven cane mats on the floor. Zawtun’s wife was originally from the Karen tribe in northern Myanmar and she brings us a pot of hot green tea. Their eldest son is at school but we get to meet the baby of the family who’s wearing thanakha on his face like the rest of the children in the village.
Soon a man who appears to be drunk arrives in a trishaw and he’s introduced as Mark’s masseur. My tiny massage lady arrives a few minutes later and we can’t believe how old and frail she is. Looks are deceiving though and she gives me the usual painful business. Mosquito coils are burning on the floor next to us and we can see through the slats of the hut to the life going on outside. Zawtun’s parents live next door and we can see them sitting on the verandah. His mother is making cheroots and after our massages she gives me a funny but unsuccessful lesson. We have an audience who also follow us to look at the river. The babies are so adorable and there seems to be a lot of them around here. Zawtun shows us the local shop which consists of a few sad looking things in plastic bags hanging outside an old hut. We watch a man making kindling for the cooking fires and take lots of photos of our fan club before they wave us off.
It’s getting late but Zawtun insists on taking us to see the huge reclining Shwethalyaung Buddha. To get there we ride though another pretty part of town but stop on the way to visit a small park full of Buddha statues and again at a giant erection of four buddhas standing back to back. The reclining Buddha is surrounded by a large shed where we’re supposed to pay an entrance fee. Zawtun goes ahead ‘to check on the military’, as he says, but apparently they’ve gone and we can get in for free. Inside we find that the resting white Buddha is fifty five metres long and dressed in saffron robes but, although longer, is not as beautiful as Bangkok’s Wat Po, we think.
From here we ride a little farther north to a Mon village. The Mon people are one of Myanmar’s many ethnic groups and make up two percent of the population. Their traditional weaving techniques are still practiced in this village so we hope to see some of it today. The track to the village is so rough and sandy that we have to leave the trishaw and walk some of the way. Beneath one of the stilted houses we find women weavers and spinners at work using ancient looking wooden machines. It’s all done by hand and looks incredibly complicated. I really can’t leave without buying something so I get fitted for a green and black longyi which a young woman makes up on the spot. Back along the track we have to move aside for a pair of oxen pulling a cart. There’s no machinery in Myanmar so all the farm work is still done using animals and hand ploughs. This is by far the most primitive of all the Asian countries we’ve visited yet.
Now it’s time to head back to the hotel. Mark pays Zawtun before getting back on the trishaw so that the hotel owners don’t know how much we give him and won’t be able to get as much commission. He’s given us a wonderful time and it’s up there with one of our favourite travel days ever.
At the Emperor we find that Peace has had to go to Yangon and won’t be back in time to take us to the station. The Indian owner says he’ll fix it so we pack and grab something to eat downstairs. At six thirty we set off on foot in the dark with a smiling young man called Ko carrying my big back pack. We follow him through the candle-lit village which is now full of life and very exciting. The station is just as exciting with lots of locals waiting for trains. There’s only a few bench seats so the rest of us have to sit on the ground. A large family looks like they’ve set up for the night and eat a picnic spread out on a blanket then curl up together to go to sleep.
The train is an hour late then as it makes its slow approach we all cross to the platform on the other side of the tracks. Ko tells us to stay with him as he knows which carriage we’ll be in. When it had been relatively calm before, now there’s a sense of urgency and as the train stops everyone is running in all directions. I follow close on Ko’s heels and Mark is right behind us. Our carriage must be at the far end of the train but finally Ko finds it and we jump on. Ko and I jump on, that is, but where’s my baby? I can’t see him anywhere and I start to panic. If he was on the platform he’d be head and shoulders above the Burmese people so he’s just disappeared. I stick my head out the window and scream at two Indian guards standing on the platform. “Where’s my husband?”. One points in one direction, “he get on up there” while the other guard points in the opposite direction, “he get on down there”. “Where’s my husband?” I keep screaming like a woman possessed. Now the train is starting to move and I don’t know whether to get off or stay put. Ko is frantically trying to climb out the nearest window but he can’t fit so by the time he leaps through the door the train is well under way. Poor Ko – he didn’t even get a tip let alone having to throw himself from a speeding train. I can’t believe this is happening and it’s awful and hilarious at the same time. Suddenly Mark appears from the other end of the corridor and looks as stressed as I am. That we’re happy to see each other is an understatement. In the chaos on the platform, he’d missed seeing Ko and I get on the train and had run right past us. As the train was pulling out, he’d just jumped on hoping I was already here somewhere. We really should have plans for times like these.
By now we’re thundering our way towards Mandalay. I say thundering because the train is just about jumping off the tracks and the noise is deafening. Our private cabin is as decrepit as could be with hard, double decked bunks and a fan that doesn’t work and a window that doesn’t open. The door won’t close properly so Mark has to jam it shut so hard I doubt we’ll ever get out. At least we won’t have any unwelcome visitors during the night. After popping a sleeping pill each and putting in earplugs, Mark gets out our pillows and we try to make ourselves comfortable. Despite the bumping and bouncing and the dodgy cabin we love this train trip.
Tuesday 6th January, 2004 Mandalay
It’s still early when we wake so we watch the scenery from the corridor window till the train finally pulls into Mandalay at nine o’clock. The day is warm with clear blue skies so it’s a good start. Outside the station we grab a taxi to take us to a guesthouse. Taxis in Mandalay are tiny blue trucks so we’re squeezed into the back with all our gear. The Natural Inn Guesthouse appears to be closed so we backtrack across town to the Silver Swan Hotel. It’s a ten storey block and too upmarket for us, both in price and atmosphere. But going on what we’ve seen of Mandalay so far, it’ll be too much trouble trying to find something else, so we check in.
Our room has all the trappings of a four star hotel including a bath and hot water. Since we’re both still feeling a bit off, it’s probably a good idea to stay somewhere like this for a couple of days anyway. The foyer has a friendly atmosphere and is very elaborately Asian – dark carved furniture and vinyl lounges covered in white crocheted doilies. There seems to be too many staff for the amount of guests and no-one seems to care that most of them are lounging around watching television. Before going out we book boat tickets for Bagan on Thursday morning and ask about boats to Mingun for tomorrow.
Apparently Mandalay’s only internet place is back over in the town centre. A taxi near the guesthouse takes us to the ultra-modern Cyberspace Cafe on the third floor of a partly finished building. The stairs lead from a busy market on the bottom level, up two flights where there aren’t even any walls and the floors are covered in sand, to the third level expensively fitted out with a bank and computer shops. It’s the most stylish internet cafe we’ve ever seen and we even get served coffee while we type. Back outside, though, we can’t find a taxi anywhere and we’re getting majorly frustrated. I don’t know if I like this town yet. The temperature is in the thirties and there’s no transport till we get within a few blocks of the hotel.
Finally we’re saved by a trishaw driver called Mohammed. He’s an Islamic Burmese with nine children and an intelligent, happy face. His English is good so he’ll be a great guide for the rest of the day. The historical area lays to the north-east of the town just below Mandalay Hill so we, or rather Mohammed, has a long ride to get there. The whole town is basically flat but the roads are so pitted and uneven that it’s a slow trip. Besides this, Mandalay Fort is a two kilometre square compound smack in the centre of the city. An attractive, seventy metre wide moat surrounds it as well so wherever we go it means going around the whole bloody thing.
We haven’t eaten all day and still can’t stomach Burmese food so Mohammed cycles us to the European BBB Restaurant. The room is dim and cool and the food expensive because of the English menu. Unfortunately everything still tastes Burmese and we don’t eat much. But now we’re ready to take on the temples with our lovely Mohammed. Another long ride takes us through the shabby outskirts of town and past a few imposing buildings behind tall fences. When I ask Mohammed what they’re used for, he looks straight ahead and says ‘Government. The fucking government!’
The first of the temples is called Shwekyimint Paya which is very special for some reason but looks same, same. The nearby Atumashi Kyaung is better because of it’s intricate wooden structure but the nicest thing about both of them is the setting. This area is tropically green and shaded by tall trees which look like they’ve been here as long as the monastery and temple themselves.
A short ride and we come to Kuthodaw Paya which houses what’s called ‘the world’s biggest book’. The ‘book’ is actually a series of seven hundred and twenty nine marble slabs inscribed with the entire Tripikata which is sort of the Buddhist bible. Each slab sits in its own stupa all of which surround the central golden stupa. Beneath this main stupa is a monk sitting on a sort of raised throne reciting Buddhist scriptures to a small crowd of female worshippers. They’re all sitting on the ground under a spreading tree and we stop to listen.
Nearby we visit another amazing paya which is surrounded by hundreds of blindingly white stupas each containing more Buddhist writings but we’ve definitely had enough by now and decide to head back to the hotel. Here we rest and lay around in the bath before we meet Mohammed outside again. We’ve arranged for him to take us to a few of Mandalay’s ‘hot’ night spots.
The first is the night market. This is far from hot or even interesting and mainly sells out-dated clothes and cheap household stuff. The lighting is so bad we can’t see much anyway and after looking at a few food stalls we head east to the other side of town. Again poor Mohammed has to do a half lap of the Mandalay Fort till we come to the Little Mandalay Restaurant. Mohammed has chosen it for us and we love the setting. We sit outside in a garden lit by fairy lights and candles with an extremely posh group of diners. Almost everyone is French except for a very black woman wearing a turban and speaking with an upper class English accent – we try to eavesdrop. Despite the wonderful atmosphere, the food is only mediocre and the beer is either headless or has a six inch layer of froth. Mark spoons some of his froth into my glass and we enjoy ourselves immensely.
Now we’re off to the famous Mandalay Marionettes. This is set in a quiet side street in a funny little wooden theatre. It only holds about fifty people and we find excellent seats in the second row. The band is directly in front of us and consists of five old men playing traditional instruments and wearing ancestral dress. The narration is in English and spoken with a sweet Burmese accent. Each scene ends with the curtain being raised above the little stage so that we can see the puppeteers doing their thing. The marionettes are so beautiful and we’ll definitely be buying one to take home. During the last fifteen minutes the old master shows off why he is the master and then comes around to shake everyone’s hand. It’s such a lovely ending to a lovely art form which is unfortunately dying out probably because of the introduction of television and the cinema.
The ride back is long and cool. I’d forgotten that Mandalay is so much farther north and gets cold at night at this time of year. Nothing to do but enjoy the ride. Tomorrow we’re off to Mingun so we get a good night’s sleep.
Wednesday 7th January, 2004 Mandalay to Mingun to Mandalay
Breakfast this morning is on the eighth floor of the Silver Swan. It comes with the cost of the room but is so awful we can barely eat it. We count eight waiters and four customers so the service is good but the toast is like cardboard and the tea is cold. No problem because we do have a view and the day is clear and sunny once again.
At 8.15 we meet Mohammed outside and set off on his trishaw to take on the bumpy streets of Mandalay. We’re off to catch a ferry to the village of Mingun. This is one of the ‘ancient cities’ that surround Mandalay and sits on the Irrawaddy River eleven kilometers upstream. To get to the jetty we ride through lively backstreets among temples, old shops and houses. Giant trees provide shade along unpaved streets, so rutted we’re nearly knocked out of our seats.
At the jetty Mohammed takes us to the ticket office which is a rickety shack set on stilts overhanging the bank. We follow a small crowd of people to the ferry which is tied up on the riverbank amid a tangle of boats. Plastic chairs are set up in two rows inside the boat which has a roof and open sides and only big enough to hold the twelve of us. The trip is a pleasant hour passing small clusters of thatched shacks along the shoreline and boys fishing from tiny canoe sized boats. The banks are green and flat and the surrounding hills are dotted with golden stupas sparkling in the morning sunshine. At last we see the huge Mingun Paya perched majestically on the opposite bank and we head for the shore.
Today Mingun is a small village but at the end of the eighteenth century, King Bodawpaya had grand plans to build the world’s biggest paya right here. Instead Mingun Paya is now described by Lonely Planet as the world’s biggest pile of bricks. It was never finished because an earthquake destroyed it’s base beyond repair in 1838. Even so, the base is over fifty metres high and over seventy metres square so it’s still a magnificent site. It dominates the whole area and we pull in just below it at a grassy shore.
A handful of hawkers wearing conical hats are waiting to pounce on us as soon as we reach the bank. As well as the ladies, there’s a couple of oxen-drawn carts driven by wrinkled old men who want to show us the village. Then a young man called Lu nominates himself as our guide so we head off first to see the paya. From the riverbank a narrow track leads us through a grove of trees growing around two giant stone lions called chinthe. They look out over the river and were built to act as guards to the temple.
And now through the trees, here is the magical Mingun Paya. It’s so much more impressive up close and we can see the two huge cracks caused by the earthquake that cut down both sides of the central portico. We follow Lu up wide stone stairs to the entrance then take off our shoes as we enter the inner chamber. Before a statue of Buddha is an old monk sitting on the floor and ringing a tiny bell. He shows us how to make an offering and gives me candles and incense to burn. The atmosphere is lovely with sunshine pouring in through the entrance and all so quiet and peaceful. The monk hands us a mandarin each as we leave and we give him a donation for his monastery.
Outside we sit on the steps for a while to enjoy this lovely area. It really is so calming. A few people wander along the dirt track in front and a few ox-carts go by but that’s about as fast as the pace gets around here. We talk to one of the ladies selling souvenirs from a bag slung over her shoulder and I buy three beaded purses which makes her very happy. She gives me a little plastic ruler as a ‘present’.
From the paya it’s an easy walk to anywhere else in the village but we jump in the back of an ox-cart just for the ride. An old man in a conical hat is driving two pale coloured oxen which pull our little thatched covered wagon. The track is dusty and bumpy and it’s all so much fun. We ask Lu about seeing the monastery so we jump out at the gate. Lu spent three years here as a monk when he was a teenager so he knows everything about it. He takes us to meet the head monk who Lu obviously idolizes. He’s an intelligent man in his thirties and is the youngest head monk in Burma. We chat with him sitting on wooden benches under a shady tree while we wait for the monks to start their morning meal. Earlier they’d gone to another temple and we soon find that they won’t be back for an hour so we can only see two tiny novices eating in the small dining hall. Only about twenty monks live here so it’s nothing like the size of the eating hall in the monastery in Bago. In the kitchen, a skinny monk, bare to the waist, is cooking over a wood fire and he giggles when we take his photo. Lu walks us around the grounds and we sit on a bench overlooking the river while he tells us of his years here as a monk. I think he misses it in a way. Now he goes to school in Mandalay and proudly teaches a group of kids here in Mingun for free.
Once more in the ox-cart, our next stop is the Buddhist Infirmary which is a sanitarium for the aged. It’s a muddle of old buildings set out in a leafy yard with chickens running around and people going about household chores. One building is divided into double rooms for couples but most people stay in dormitories. The ladies’ dormitory is big, airy and sunny with a mosquito net hanging from bamboo poles over each bed. We’re welcomed with huge toothless smiles and have our photos taken with a group of ladies sitting around a wooden communal table in the middle of the room. Mark thinks it might be a nice place for my Mum and Dad to retire and decides to tell them that he’s booked a spot for them. They’ll love the joke. Seriously though, I’d rather end up here than in a sterile old people’s home in Australia. Outside in the grounds again Lu introduces us to the head nurse after she bounds out of her open-air office to greet us. She’s a roly-poly sweetie dressed in a snow white uniform complete with a big white, starched head-piece. Her name is Than Than Sue and we’re happy to give her a donation for the hospital.
Across from the sanitarium, we now visit Mingun Bell. It’s the biggest, hugest, f……ing ‘uncracked hung bell’ in the whole universe – a claim to fame if ever we heard one. Mark gives the bottom rim a gong with a wooden pole and I guess it’s quite impressive but we’re out of there in two minutes. It’s better outside with the local people selling jewellery and hundreds of beautiful marionettes. We’ve already decided to get one and here will be a fabulous place to remember buying it. I take ages to choose and finally decide on a big antique looking one with a rust coloured costume. The lady who sells it to us gives a demonstration after spending ages untangling the strings.
By now it’s almost midday and we’re starving. Lu walks us back through this part of the village and past Mingun Paya to his auntie’s café. It’s a bamboo shack open to the street with one wooden table and two bench seats. No-one else is here and we get the royal treatment because Lu has brought us. We’re both still a bit seedy on the stomach so I order a salad and soda water and Mark asks for chips. He gets a packet of stale potato chips and I get raw cabbage and chopped tomato. It’s actually not too bad. Mark buys a black, very Rudyard Kipling style shirt from auntie who then wants her photo taken with him. Meanwhile, we’ve been watching two men climbing up and down gigantic palm trees opposite. They shimmy up the trunk like monkeys and hack off the big palm leaves at the top which apparently they use for thatching for their houses. This really is a lovely place and we feel extremely relaxed sitting here in the sunshine.
The boat sets off for Mandalay at one o’clock so we say goodbye to Lu and auntie and walk back towards the Paya. Along the way we stop to look at a small art gallery surrounded by thick tropical plants. There seems to be lots of paintings for sale in Mingun so it must be the local past-time. Some of them are really very good. Before getting back on the boat we take a walk along the river where vegetable gardens have been planted right up to the water’s edge.
The ferry ride back to Mandalay seems to be over in no time and Mohammed is there to meet us with his trishaw. Back at the hotel we decide to just hang around in our room for the rest of the afternoon so we make arrangements with Mohammed to pick us up in the morning. By nightfall we’re hungry so we head out in the dark to find somewhere to eat. This is easier said than done in Mandalay and we literally walk miles before we end up in the busy main street. We buy mandarins from a street cart and biscuits, chocolates and chips for the long boat trip to Bagan in the morning. At last we find a café but it has no atmosphere and the worst food ever. Chicken in black bean is too horrible to eat so we go hungry.
Walking back to the Silver Swan I give some clothes that I don’t need to a poor lady begging on the street. Before bed we repack our backpacks to be ready for our very early start tomorrow.
Thursday 8th January, 2004 Mandalay to Bagan
Our alarm wakes us at five and by five thirty we’re outside cramming our gear into the tiny truck Mohammed has borrowed to take us to the boat wharf. This is a lot further than the Mingun pier and Mark and I spend a chilly twenty minutes in the open, back cabin as we fly through the dark streets of Mandalay. It’s always exciting to be on the move again and we love these early starts.
It’s still dark when we arrive at the river but there’s lots of activity even at this hour. After saying goodbye to Mohammed we cross a gangplank onto a flat bottomed ferry where local people are sleeping on the deck. Most of them are wrapped in blankets from head to toe so at first glance it just looks like piles of material spread out all over the floor and we’re lucky we don’t step on anyone. We soon realize that this isn’t our boat at all and we’re only using it as a stepping stone to get to our ferry parked on the other side.
Our boat is the new Mandalay-Bagan Express tourist ferry which is very slick and modern and totally lacking the appeal of the local boat next door. We could still use the local ferry but it takes two days to get to Bagan and we just haven’t got the time. Inside our ferry, there must be about a hundred seats, all very big and comfortable. Mark and I have seats two rows from the front next to the window which is a real bonus. As we pull out of Mandalay at 6am, we get an even bigger bonus. All the seats are taken except the one next to ours and the two seats in front. I jump in front while Mark spreads out over three seats and we spend the rest of the day lying down reading and sleeping. With our great seats and our chocolates, chips, biscuits, mandarins and drinks we feel especially spoilt – but are we going to share our seats with anyone else? No way.
Throughout the day the boat pulls in at small villages along the river. Crowds come to meet the boat to unload supplies brought all the way from Mandalay. We wander around the deck a few times and drink tea in the tearoom on the middle deck but spend most of the time lying around. We thought the trip was only about six hours but it’s three o’clock and we’re still heading south. By four thirty we can see pagodas all along the river bank so we know we’re here at last.
Bagan is probably the main reason that most tourists visit Myanmar. Flanking the Ayeyarwady River, it’s a vast plain of forty square kilometres covered in hundreds of temples. From the eleventh century to the thirteenth century, up to twelve thousand stupas and temples were said to have been built but now after several earthquakes only two thousand two hundred are now still identifiable. We plan to spend the next three nights here so we can see at least a few of the temples as well as hang out in this peaceful laid-back area.
Again the ferry wharf is just a plank of wood between the bank and the boat and we’re the first to jump ship. We know that we’ll have to line up to pay a government entrance fee of US$10 before we can enter this archaeological zone. A small crowd of touts and travel agents are waiting at the top of the path next to the ticket sellers. After paying our fee we walk straight past the little woman holding up a sign with our names on it. Apparently the guy at the desk of the Silver Swan in Mandalay has arranged a guesthouse for us but we want to find our own. I don’t feel too sorry for the little lady because the sigh reads ‘Mister Mark Scott and one Australian’. I guess that’s me.
We jump in one of the waiting taxis and leave behind the offending sign as we bounce along a bumpy rock-covered road towards Old Bagan. This is a small village with a lively market but we drive straight through on our way to Nyaung U. This is only five kilometers from Old Bagan and is another sleepy village with unpaved roads, palm tress and thatched huts. We’ve chosen the New Heaven Hotel out of the Lonely Planet and it looks a good choice. It’s set in a dirt laneway with trees and a sad little garden in front. The owner is enthusiastically helpful and we’re given a comfortable small room with our own bathroom and a balcony. After doing a bit of unpacking we sit on the balcony to make plans for the evening. Just around the corner is a street lined with cafes and art galleries so we head for here to have a drink and dinner. We don’t make it past the first café as the owners are almost begging us to come inside. It has a nice atmosphere and we stay for pizza and a vegetable salad and cups of hot tea which I spill all over my leg. Very painful but no real harm done.
We decide to go back to the room to get our duty free grog and end up at the Pwi Wa Restaurant for drinks. This is an open sided place with a thatched roof and tables inside and out. The tables outside are set up beside the ancient temple next door which tonight is covered with twinkling fairy lights – very beautiful under a starry sky. A small theatre is set up outside and we spend an hour watching the nightly marionette show. A great end to a relaxing day.
Friday 9th January, 2004 Bagan
We both sleep well in our very quiet room and then eat breakfast in the sunny dining room set up in a pretty building near the laneway. It comes with the price of the room and the banana pancakes are a nice change.
There’s a couple of guys in the laneway with horse and carts so we arrange with a young driver to take us around the temples. His name is Ow Ow and he can speak English. Mark sits up front while I hop in the cart with our day packs. Our carriage is very handsome with a black leather roof and red leather seats and a pooh catcher for the horse. This is the only way to get around as the tracks into each temple are deep in sand and so no good for cars. It adds to the atmosphere anyway and keeps the area peaceful, as it should be.
We head out of Nyaung U (pronounced Nyow Oo) and soon ride into our first temple called Gubyaukgyi Paya. It’s behind an ancient brick wall and we climb the stone internal stairs to the top. The stairs are steep and so narrow that Mark’s shoulders are too wide and he has to go up almost sideways. We have wonderful views of the whole area and marvel at the amount of temples we can see. It’s much greener and lush than we’d imagined and we can see the Ayeyarwady River on one side and a range of mountains behind it in the distance. In the courtyard outside the temple are souvenir sellers with chickens running around amongst their gear. It’s a warm sunny morning and so good to feel at peace.
From here we visit two more temples that seem much the same and all with spectacular views from the top. At the third one we buy four temple paintings from two lovely men who are the artists themselves. The paintings are colourful reproductions of those found on the temple walls and will be great keepsakes of Myanmar. From here we visit the biggest and best-preserved temple of Bagan called Ananda Pahto. It’s still used by worshippers and the surrounding area is alive with markets and music. Ow Ow drives us around to the back gate and we walk barefoot along an open corridor to the entrance of the temple. Inside are a group of monks sitting around an elaborate coloured shrine and village people are having picnics on the floor. One of the monks is chanting while the rest are sitting around low, round wooden tables eating from scores of metal bowls. They seem very happy and friendly and it’s a cheery atmosphere.
In the middle of the temple are four standing buddhas facing outwards from the central cube. Each are 9.5 metres high and made of teak but are entirely covered with gold. We buy patches of gold leaf to stick to the statues but only Mark is allowed to apply it to one of the big buddhas. Because I’m a woman I can only apply it to the little Buddha sitting beneath – male supremacy reigns worldwide, it seems. Back outside we head off to another busy temple where I buy a cotton blouse from one of the ladies outside. She also shows me how the women make thanakha to paint on their faces. She takes a thin branch from the thanakha tree and rubs it on a whetstone with a few drops of water. The milky white sap forms a paste which she rubs on my face so I leave it on for the rest of the day. Mark buys a bag of peanuts before we set off for the village of Old Bagan.
We’d passed through here yesterday after we’d left the boat and it’s just as busy and colourful this morning. Music is coming from shacks all along both sides of the road as we clip clop our way through the village. Ow Ow shows us the Tharaba Gateway which is all that’s left of the wall that once surrounded the town and in the shade of trees close by are women selling watermelon and sugar cane. Nearby is an open-air café where we order a Bamar banquet for lunch. This sounds very exotic but we end up with a table full of very unappealing dishes. The fried chicken consists of a bowl of bones and the fish is a plateful of tiny whitebait, both cold and God only knows when it was cooked. We’re given an electric fan which we think is to keep us cool but it’s actually to keep the flies off the food. All the food is cold but apparently this is the traditional way. It’s cooked in the morning and then eaten later in the day. Don’t know if we get someone else’s leftovers but I suspect it’s the case. I eat virtually nothing while Mark eats up a storm. I swear he’d eat anything. I amuse myself by feeding a starving cat under the table. He likes the fish and I hope I’m not giving him food poisoning.
Now we head across the road to the huge outdoor market. There’s a kind of carnival atmosphere and we spend an hour wandering around. Untold stalls of dried fish and huge mounds of anchovette make it very smelly in some parts and we don’t fancy the flies crawling all over the cakes and sweets. The rest of it is fun and I buy a watermelon from one of the ladies sitting near the Tharaba Gateway.
We’re ready for a break so Ow Ow now takes us back to the New Heaven. We have drinks on our little terrace then walk down to the village. At the Pwi Wa Restaurant we order chips and chicken salad for a late lunch and book traditional Burmese massages at a shack near the hotel. Rest and read in our room till the late afternoon then down the street to have our massages. Two young ladies are waiting and Mark and I lie on thin mattresses on the wooden floor. It’s so basically wonderful in here. The walls are woven bamboo and we can smell the combination of burning incense and mosquito coils.
It’s almost dark by the time we leave so we head back to our room for a quick shower. Back again to the village, we now turn right for a change and find an Italian restaurant playing Santana and some very atmospheric Italian music. There’s a full moon so we sit outside and eat pizza and tomato salad and drink Bacardi rum with fresh pineapple juice. Very romantic and we get a bit silly before an early night.
Saturday 10th January, 2004 Bagan
Breakfast is banana pancakes again and this morning we chat with a young German girl. She’s an expert on everything and a bit of a pain. We’ve just found out the bad news that we can’t use credit cards or traveller’s cheques in Myanmar so Mark does a few quick calculations and realises we won’t have enough American dollars to get us to the end of our holiday. The hotel owner is incredibly helpful and we get him to ring MAI to get us on an earlier flight back to Bangkok. The only flight we can get is one day before our scheduled one but it’ll have to do. We’ll just have to do everything on the cheap. We start to make plans to change our itinerary when I redo the calcs and we’ve got heaps more than we thought. For once my baby was wrong and we’re both happy that he was. Now we can fly from Lake Inle back to Yangon to save us the apparently hellish twenty hour bus ride. We book the flight now and also arrange to have a van drive us to Kalaw tomorrow.
Feeling very relieved, we hire bikes from the hotel and set off for a day around Bagan. Mark is a good rider but I’m scared and hopeless. Still determined, though, we head for the Post Office. This is out on the main road but there’s virtually no traffic so it should be a breeze. I don’t appear to have any control over the bike and always seem to be screaming at near misses with the gutter. The Post Office is hard to find because it’s not what we expect it to look like. It’s set behind a high wall in a very tropical area and the building is very grand and beautiful. I just miss a few stray dogs lounging around the door and then make an easy phone call home.
Back near the hotel we stop at a café for drinks then head off to the Shwezigon Paya. Across a wide dirt patch of ground I unceremoniously fall off my bike but no damage done. Leaving the bikes outside we look at the souvenir stalls along the long walkway to the paya and buy a copy of George Orwell’s classic, ’’Burmese Days”. Inside is the usual small payas and ceremonial halls all built around the central golden chedi. A young girl wearing a faceful of thanakha latches onto us and becomes our guide. She walks us around the compound and I buy gold leaf to put on a tiny Buddha statue inside a sort of low cave. She takes us to see the nats and we give her a donation as we leave.
Outside, souvenir sellers are waiting for us and as I’d promised to buy something on the way out we barter for a bronze elephant. They want too much and we don’t really care if we get it anyway so we leave. They chase us out to the bikes and we settle for a price that we’re happy with. Across from the paya on the main road is a string of cafes so we stop at the Nation Cafe for fresh pineapple juice and noodles. From here we ride out to a monastery where we’re hoping to arrange a meditation for tonight. It’s a barren dusty place with lots of scrawny dogs hanging around. I’m scared they’ll chase the bikes so we get off and walk. In an open pavilion a group of monks are chanting but no-one comes near us so we think we’ve got the wrong place.
On the bikes again we ride towards Shwezigon Paya and finally find the right monastery. It’s called Aung Myi Bodhi Dhamma Yeiktha or the Meditation Monastery and it’s beautiful. Past another pavilion of chanting monks we meet the actual meditation monk himself. He’s a tall thin man of about thirty and has the usual calm countenance of all Buddhist monks. He’s obviously totally relaxed as he cheerfully farts the whole time. He’s happy to show us around and takes us to a couple of prayer halls and then to visit his mother.
Her name is Dhamma Nandi and she’s a nun at the monastery. She lives in a bamboo shack behind the monks’ quarters and shares with a group of young people who are here to study for a few months. We climb up onto the bamboo platform raised a few feet off the dirt floor and our meditation monk makes us green tea and offers us biscuits and cigarettes. Surprisingly he smokes a packet a day. He wants us to take photos of the students and his mother but Dhamma Nandi is far from happy. She obviously doesn’t want her picture taken and is muttering under her breath. Apparently she wants to put on her nun’s robes so we wait while she takes out a pale pink shawl thing and wraps it around her and over her shoulder. Now she’s happy and is all smiles. She can’t stop laughing as she lights up a pipe and which has us all laughing too. We take fabulous photos and make arrangements to come back tonight.
At the New Heaven we get out our duty free booze again and relax on the verandah reading and writing. At five o’clock we get back on the bikes and ride out to Gubyaukgyi Paya near the village of Myinkaba. It seems that the tourist thing to do is to watch sunset from the top of one of the ancient temples. We’d visited this temple yesterday with Ow Ow and really liked it so here we are again. According to Lonely Planet, the best viewpoints are from a couple of temples in Old Bagan, but no way could I ride all the way there and back. The bonus is that we’re the only ones here and we can’t see how it could be better anywhere else. From the top we watch farmers herding bullocks across and field and see the sun gradually set in a cloudless, golden sky.
Now there’s still an hour to kill before we meet the meditation monk at the monastery at seven o’clock. We’ve brought our Bacardi with us so we head to a café not far away. It’s the Aye Yeik Thar Yar Restaurant and I drink too much alcohol while having dinner. It’s not a good idea to be drunk when you go to a monastery but then our monk smokes and farts so Mark reckons it’s even.
It’s a hairy, dark ride from the café and I almost flatten a lone monk as I wobble into the grounds. Mark is giving me ‘the look’ so I try to act sober. Inside the meditation monk’s room we sit on the floor while he makes us green tea and talks about Buddhism and his life. It’s all incredibly interesting and I get a bit enthusiastic and spill my tea all over the floor – wish I was sober.
Next we sit cross-legged on the hard floor behind him while we all face the shrine to Buddha. This is our forty-five minute sitting meditation and it’s agonising to sit like this for so long. Afterwards he shows us the walking meditation which we do for fifteen minutes while he sits smoking in his chair. Before we leave he gets one of the lay people to take photos of us all so he can send them to the head monk who’s living in Yangon for a year. A great night and a great experience with this lovely man.
At the hotel we take back the bikes and pack for our four-thirty start in the morning. We’re leaving Bagan for Kalaw and it’s sure to be a long day.
Sunday 11th January, 2004 Bagan to Mount Popa to Kalaw
A knock on our door wakes us at four fifteen and we’re soon taken to the breakfast room where the kitchen staff are sleeping on the tables and one poor man is woken to fix us something to eat. We’d rather let him sleep but they insist on giving us breakfast. Within fifteen minutes we’re in the van and being waved off in the dark by the owner and a couple of the staff. The van is an alternative to the local bus which we don’t fancy at all as it takes twelve long hours to get Kalaw. For US$70 we figure it’s worth it. We have a driver and another man who’s coming along for the ride.
Because it’s dark we both lie down across the seats and try to get some sleep. We wanted to leave this early so we could catch sunrise at the top of Mount Popa. It always amazes me that whenever we’re in a foreign country we just about walk over hot coals to watch a sunset or a sunrise and yet at home we wouldn’t bother to walk out the back door to see one. Just a part of travelling that we feel we have to do – like ticking it off a list, I suppose.
Mount Popa is just over an hour away and it’s almost light by the time we get there. Popa a seven hundred metre peak rising from the Myingyan Plain and the temple at the summit is a popular Burmese pilgrimage site. In the village at the base of the mountain we’re dropped at the stairs that lead to the temple. No shoes are allowed but there’s no-one else here this early so I keep mine on. It’s too cold to go barefoot but I soon decide I should do the right thing but then drop one of my shoes down inside one of the steep ladders – serves me right. The climb is a grueling half hour of walkways, steep stairs and ladders with monkeys running around all over the place. The ground is littered with monkey pooh that’s impossible to dodge. At last at the summit we sit on a ledge out of the wind and watch the monkeys chasing each other while we eat mandarins. The sunrise is lovely with a spectacular view of the plains below and definitely worth the climb.
Now we wander around the temple and stupas where nat figures are set amongst coloured lights and burning incense. Outside the wind is cold and too strong to hang around so we make the long walk back to the bottom. On the way Mark manages to rescue my shoe and by now groups of pilgrims are climbing their way to the top. Most of them are carrying bunches of long leaves which must be some sort of offering to the nat spirits.
In the village we sit in a cosy café and have breakfast while we talk to a young English backpacker who’s spent a cold night in the local monastery. The young woman owner of the café is hitching a ride with us to the next village where a market is being held today. As we drive out of town we pass lines of monks on their alms rounds and temples dotted around the surrounding hills.
The drive for the next few hours is through flat areas where farmers are driving bullock carts and through a few small raggedy villages. At eleven thirty we pull in to the town of Meiktila and stop at a café overlooking the lake. We’re not sure how far we’ve come or how long we have to go but we’ve heard that it’s not the custom to ask so we just go with the flow – much better that way anyway. From Meiktila we start to climb the hills towards Thazi. The road is steep and winding and we have panoramic views of the valleys below as we crawl our way around hairpin bends. A petrol stop on the way is a welcome toilet stop. The ‘petrol station’ is a roadside café with a couple of plastic containers of petrol sitting under a thatched stand next to the road. A few hours later we stop for petrol again in the dusty village of Thazi. It’s a tatty row of houses built on the side of a hill with a few primitive shops and the ‘petrol station’. We wander around for a while and wave to the village people who’ve some out to look. Later we have a longer stop as a bus has crashed into a car on a narrow bridge. No-one is hurt but the vehicles can’t be moved until the police arrive.
On our way again, the road seems to keep on going up and up and remains rutted and narrow the whole way. It’s a long tedious drive and we can only imagine how much worse it would have been in the bus. At last we’re greatly relieved to arrive at Kalaw at four o’clock in the afternoon.
Kalaw has a British heritage as it was used as a hill station during the British occupation. It’s high elevation created a cool respite from the heat of Mandalay but God only knows how long it took them to get here in the late nineteenth century. Now it’s a small community home to Shan, Bamar, Nepalese and Indian Muslims which makes it vastly different to the other towns we’ve already seen.
The Golden Lily Guesthouse is run by a friendly Indian family and we manage to get a nice airy room with a wide verandah in front. We have our own bathroom, colourful curtains and bedspreads and the bedroom walls are lined with wood creating a nice homey feel. Our verandah looks out over the town and the market is just at the bottom of our street. We decide to check it out and find something to eat. At a Chinese café I have a fantastic egg salad but Mark is feeling sick so we head back to the room. By five o’clock we’re both asleep and don’t move till morning.
Monday 12th January, 2003 Kalaw
It’s seven thirty when we wake after fourteen hours sleep. Mark is feeling better so we’re ready for a busy day. Breakfast is in the sunny dining room downstairs where a few frozen backpackers are trying to warm up after a bitter night on the bus from Yangon. The Indian mother serves us breakfast then we arrange for massages in our room this afternoon and book bus tickets to get us to Lake Inle tomorrow. She also tells us that we’re lucky that the five-day market is happening in town today. This means that the people living in the surrounding hills come to Kalaw to sell and buy from each other every five days.
We head straight down to the market which is a huge area in the open air at the end of town. The Palaung, Black Karen, Intha, Shan and Kayah tribes people have their own dress so it’s a colourful sight. The vegetables and fish are the freshest imaginable and we spend ages wandering around. The women wear colored headgear wrapped liked turbans and all wear multi-coloured longyi and shoulder bags. Most are smoking cheroots while they squat in the sun next to their goods spread out on the ground.
From here we walk over to the main street which is alive with hill tribe people and locals. We stop at an interesting tea house and sit in the open window while we order tea and sweet tea snacks. A young man is making pancake-like sweets on a flat round metal plate and three turbaned men behind us are smoking cheroots. Nearby is the local market set up in a rambling warren of alleyways all lined with shops selling vegetables, flowers, household goods and clothes. We decide to make guacamole to have with our drinks at the guesthouse so we buy avocados, limes, garlic and onion.
Back at the Golden Lily we find that the avocados aren’t yet ripe enough so we make do with our duty free on its own. Soon the tiny old massage lady arrives and I have a one-hour traditional massage on the bed. She’ll come back later this afternoon for Mark’s turn.
Now we walk back down into town and visit a few temples before finding the Everest Restaurant for lunch. This is run by a well-spoken Nepalese lady and we have a huge thali meal in the very atmospheric surroundings. It’s situated in a quiet side street and highly recommended by Lonely Planet. We buy a guacamole dish and have it ‘take-away’ in a plastic bag to take back to our room. At the guesthouse we meet a young German guy from the room next door. He’s sitting on the sunny verandah so we spend ages with him drinking, eating and chatting. His wife is off trekking in the hills for the day but he says he wasn’t well enough to go – we suspect he’s probably just as slack as we are.
Now Mark has his massage then Frank’s wife Claudia returns from her day trekking in the hills. She’s on a total high and has lots of stories. We all decide to have dinner together and plan to meet downstairs after hot showers. We need to rug up tonight against the cool night air – nice for a different experience. Downstairs the frozen backpackers from this morning are all sitting around drinking and we stop to get introduced. They’re from all over the world and swapping fabulous travel tales. Sonia from Denmark is smoking a cheroot and she gives me one to try. Frank and Claudia turn up so we wander back into town to a Bamar restaurant they’d discovered last night. Good food, good atmosphere, good company and then back to the room for our early start to Lake Inle in the morning.
Tuesday 13th January, 2003 Kalaw to Lake Inle
We’re up at six o’clock and ready to leave within minutes. Outside the air is crisp and clean and the town is draped in a soft mist. The streets are empty and silent as we walk down to the bus stop near the market. The bus is waiting but won’t leave for a while so we order hot, green tea in the café opposite. Another backpacker is in the café waiting for the same bus and introduces himself as Mark from England. He’s been to Inle before and tells us we have to get off the bus at Shwenyaung junction and then get a taxi to the village of Nyaung Shwe near the lake.
At seven o’clock we leave Kalaw behind. As we look back, the town is beautiful in the pale light of dawn. The smoke of wood fires wafting from home chimneys melts with the morning mist to form a gentle haze that envelops the whole area. The next hour and a half sees us careering down the other side of the mountain range that we’d climbed two days ago. The scenery varies from rugged mountain ridges to the sunshine glaringly reflected from the mists lying in the valleys below. The bus is an adventure in itself. Except for us and Mark from England, all the passengers are locals rugged up to the eyeballs to keep out the cold. None of the windows shut properly and a cold draft pours in from unseen cracks. Everything is rattling and shuddering so it’s impossible to talk with all the noise. At last on the plains we drive through the small town of Heho and then pull up at Shwenyaung junction about nine o’clock.
Taxi touts are here to meet the bus so we make a deal with England Mark and share a car to Lake Inle. A straight flat road cuts through green cultivated fields and alongside Nan Chaung and Mong Li which are the canals that run into Nyaung Shwe. The Mong Li Canal broadens into the pretty Thazi Pond on the edge of town where ducks are paddling and women are washing clothes from small wooden jetties. We cross a rundown timber bridge then drive past the Mingala Market to the other side of town to look for a guesthouse.
After driving around for a while, we all settle on the Remember Inn in a quiet unpaved sidestreet just a few blocks from the market. The owners welcome us all with beaming smiles and show us a room facing the street. They think it might be a bit noisy but we haven’t seen a single thing pass since we got here. The room has that tropical, Asian feel that I always fall in love with. The walls are woven bamboo, the floor is wooden boards and the two big windows are draped with emerald green curtains. After unpacking we head to the big sunny dining room for breakfast.
Other travellers are here already and most of them look like they’re straight out of George Orwell’s ‘Burmese Days’ that I’m presently hooked on. One elderly man is even wearing khaki with a Rudyard Kipling style hat. Actually a lot of the travelers we’ve met in Myanmar are elderly and most are British or European. Not the package tour types either but intrepid adventurers who‘ve all got that ‘I’m off to shoot a tiger’ look – seems that the raj is still alive and well in the hearts of some.
Besides people-watching, our breakfast is the best we’ve had so far – thick banana pancakes and fresh strawberry juice. Now we book a boat to visit Lake Inle tomorrow then find that we’ve arrived again on time for the five-day market in Nyaung Shwe. This is near the canal and is already packed with villagers and Intha tribe people who live around Lake Inle. The Intha women wear turbans or even just towels wrapped around their heads and all carry the colourful shoulder bags. Like in Kalaw, they squat on the ground in long rows and weigh out their vegetables on primitive metal hand scales. I buy mandarins from a lady in an orange headwrap and then a bagful of weavings from a chubby, laughing lady at the Mingala Market. She jokes with Mark and is obviously proud of her sales. Mark has found an excellent pale beige shirt with a Nehru collar and embroidered buttons and I have two scarves and a tablecloth for home. Further down the street we stop to buy a Chinese food carrier then have another nap in our room. Why are we sleeping so much – lazy or just completely relaxed?
At 4pm we wander around to the Unique Cafe in the adjoining laneway for a late lunch of steamed fish, a tomato and egg salad and our favourite strawberry juice. The food is so healthy here and all these fresh fruit juices must be doing us wonders even if most of them are topped up with Bacardi. It’s a lovely time of day to be sitting here. Monks are ambling past and we think there must be a monastery down the street from our guesthouse. We’ll investigate tomorrow.
From the café we walk to the other side of town along some of the smaller canals. Groups of monks are down near the water and we stop to have our photos taken with three very young nuns in their pale pink robes. The sun is setting behind the palm trees and we can hear loud chanting from a nearby monastery. We follow the sound to a busy hall where local people are sitting in long lines but we can’t find the source of the chanting. It seems to be coming over loud speakers and is deafening enough to be heard all over town.
Wandering back towards the guesthouse we find the Golden Kite Café recommended by Lonely Planet. It doesn’t seem to have the wonderful rustic qualities the book talks about and we suspect it’s been ‘done up’ and lost its original atmosphere. We sit on the verandah anyway and have a drink before having another early night.
Wednesday 14th January, 2003 Nyaung Shwe to Lake Inle to Nyaung Shwe
Today is the day for the long boat trip to the villages around Lake Inle. It’s a cool misty morning but the clear skies promise another warm day ahead. We wake at 6.30 for a quick breakfast then follow our young boat driver called Owie through the quiet streets to the canal. England Mark and a suntanned Mauritian woman called Mylene are coming to the lake with us. The boat is tied up near the bridge and looks like a kind of wooden dug-out canoe. It’s very narrow with just enough seats for the four of us while Owie sits up the back next to the motor.
Before leaving Nyaung Shwe we stop to pay the fee to get into the lake – the government never misses a chance to cash in on the tourists. Now we speed along the canal for a chilly half-hour before entering the huge lake. Just at the entrance we’re lucky to get our first glimpse of Burma’s famous leg-rowing fishermen. They stand at one end of the boat and row with one leg wrapped around a long oar. This allows them to use their hands to pull in the conical shaped nets that they use to catch their fish.
Now we fly across the lake at top speed to the opposite shore when we slow down to make our way through the floating gardens. These really are floating and are made by the Intha people who form masses of soil, marsh and water hyacinth which they anchor to the bottom of the lake with long bamboo poles. Here they grow tomatoes, melons, papayas and all sorts of vegetables and we pick some tiny tomatoes as we float past. Soon we stop at a place where dozens of other boats are crowded together. Owie points to a dirt track and tells us to walk to the five-day Intha market which is about forty minutes away. The track runs past a canal where a group of women on the opposite bank are squatting on the ground next to piles of chopped wood which they must be selling. On the way we come across two water buffalo wading up to their necks near a wood bridge and, because it’s heating up by now, we start to peel off our jackets and long sleeved shirts. I can’t wait to go to the loo so I sneak into a field behind some bushes. Later we pass a village where local people are coming and going to the market further down the track. Oxen are pulling wooden wagons and it’s all amazingly primitive.
Soon we see the market on the opposite side of a bridge. Down river we can see that women are washing clothes and kids are playing in the shallows. Part of the market is set up under wooden shelters but most people have spread out their produce in the open. We stop to buy sweet cakes and Mark buys the biggest rice chip we’ve ever seen. There’s cock fighting and gambling games and lots of open-air eating sheds. We buy a potato dish and a salad for lunch and sit at rough wooden tables with the Intha people all wearing their traditional clothes and colourful headwear. We’re the only foreigners here so it’s a special experience.
Time to go and we meet up with England Mark and Mylene to walk back through the village and on to the boat. On the way we buy a Burmese book, a brass tin and two jade bracelets from some of the village people. Now we travel back through the houses built over the water and then once again enter the open lake. Soon we turn into yet another village built entirely on the water and pull up at a small jetty attached to a silversmith’s house. In fact all the people in this village are silversmiths. That’s the unique thing about Lake Inle – each village has its own cottage industry. There’s the silversmith village, the umbrella village, the blacksmith village, the cheroot making village, the silk weaving village and the boat making village.
At the silversmith’s home we watch two men making jewellery and ornaments then buy a pair of antique looking earrings for US$10 – very beautiful. From here we make our way to the umbrella makers’ village. As we turn into one of the canals, women in long canoes paddle furiously to block our way. They’re selling souvenirs from their tiny floating shops and hang onto the side of our boat desperate to make a sale. Inside one of the umbrella makers’ houses we watch as an elderly man makes the wooden tops with a foot-pedalled lathe while women sit on the floor decorating the paper umbrellas with real flower petals. The whole process is done here even from making the umbrella paper itself. We’ve seen paper-making many times before but it’s still fascinating to see it again.
The next village is where blacksmiths make knives and tools using the crudest of methods. Coal fires are kept hot by men pumping bellows above them while others take the knives from the red hot coals and pound them into shape on a flat block. Three of them rhythmically pound the knife until the metal cools hard. It’s then put back into the coals and the whole process is started again. The boat builders’ village is next. A group of men are making the wooden canoes by the same traditional method that’s been used forever. There must be a never-ending demand as boats are the only means of getting anywhere around here. Nearby is the silk weavers’ village and we can hear the clanking of wooden looms coming from all the homes. In one house we move from room to room watching wrinkled old women spinning thread while younger women sit at the huge looms weaving the beautiful silk fabrics we’ve seen all over Myanmar. One old lady is even stripping the stalks from lotus flowers and pulling out long silken threads to be used for weaving.
Back in the boat we head for a big temple built out on the water. We wander around inside and then buy weavings from a market underneath. Lunch is next and only a short boat ride away. The four of us have an excellent seafood meal before setting off for the cheroot-makers’ village. In a sunny, timber-lined room, where one wall is totally open to the water, a group of teenage girls are rolling cheroots the same way that Zawtun’s mother made them in Bago. Mark sits on the floor with the girls for a lesson while the rest of us drink hot green tea. After his lesson Mark plays a game of cannonball with a few of the local boys. It’s a type of soccer boardgame where you use your fingers to flick small discs into corner goals. Meanwhile I’ve been buying a lacquered bowl from one of the lovely ladies – just one more souvenir, please.
Our last stop is where I’ve been waiting to go all day – the Jumping Cat Monastery. The monastery is an elaborate but weathered wooden building built over the lake with polished floor boards and old Buddha images sitting on ornate carved pedestals inside. But the best thing about it all is the cats. They’re fat and healthy are laying around all over the vast expanse of floor space. In one corner I sit amongst them and even get to cuddle a few. A group of monks are hanging around and Mark talks soccer with them while we watch the cats doing their thing. One of the older monks holds a small hoop in front of each of the cats and they all have a turn of jumping through it. Afterwards they all get a cat biscuit as a reward.
Before going back to Nyaung Shwe we stop on the edge of the lake and turn the engine off to watch the sun set. It’s so peaceful and nearby are the leg-rowing fishermen pulling up their nets with a golden backdrop as the sun dips behind the surrounding mountains. The temperature has dropped by now so we’re all looking forward to getting back to town. It’s a cool half-hour ride to Nyaung Shwe where we pay Owie for a wonderful day.
It’s six o’clock by the time we walk back to Remember Inn and make arrangements to have dinner with England Mark. After showers and a change of clothes, we meet him at the Unique Café for the lovely atmosphere and a great meal. Now it’s bed by eight o’clock.
Thursday 15th January, 2003 Nyaung Shwe
Today is a free day – nothing planned and no traveling which is nice for a change. We don’t breakfast till eight o’clock then stroll around town to look for the Three Sisters Café near the main canal. One of the sisters tells us that they only open at six o’clock so we’ll look for somewhere else to eat for lunch. Next to the Nan Chaung Canal, we stop at an empty restaurant for cold lime sodas. Our window opens onto the water so we can watch the noisy boats going past. From here we find a cute café in a quiet laneway and have salads for lunch. The friendly lady serving us asks if we’d like to visit a family from the ‘long-neck’ tribe. We’d heard that a few of them live on the outskirts of Nyaung Shwe and we’re keen to see them.
We follow our little lady through the unpaved streets and over a canal to the edge of town. Ending up in a backstreet, she stops to talk to two young men. They’re both wearing longyis and look no different to the rest of the men here in Burma. They are, however, from the Padaung hill tribe and the husbands of the ‘longneck’ women. After we pay them a small sum, they take across a tiny bridge and into an open yard behind a two-storey timber house. And here are the Padaung women – a young girl of about ten, a teenage girl and the two wives who look much older than their husbands (nothing wrong with that, I say). They all have straight, cropped black hair with a short fringe and wear knee length black skirts and long white tops all trimmed in pink. The lower parts of their legs are wrapped in a dark blue material and they wear red and green head pieces with coloured ribbons that come down on either side of their face. But the most amazing part of their dress is, of course, the brass rings around their knees, wrists and neck. The rings are worn throughout their life and are gradually added as the girl grows. The older women have about thirty thick rings around their necks which must be so heavy. The rings actually depress the collar bone rather than stretching the neck which creates an incredibly deformed look – surely it must be painful. The younger girls give us little smiles but the older women never smile at all – just like the whole experience, really – quite sad and sobering.
The teenage girl is sitting beneath a small structure on stilts. She’s weaving the traditional way with a simple wooden hand loom. This is how the women make their money and the wives show us the weavings they sell in the market. We buy a blanket, a bag and a scarf that will be treasured mementos of this amazing meeting.
Now one of the husbands points to the back of the house and here we find an old lady having a wash. She’s sitting on a wooden platform and pouring water on herself from a tall metal container. She’s wearing a simple grey sarong so we can see how strange the neck rings have made her body look. At first we’re afraid that we must be intruding on her privacy but she’s all smiles and tells us to come closer. She has a wonderful gentleness and tranquility so maybe we’re just being paranoid about the women being unhappy. And maybe it’s just another lesson in remembering not to judge other cultures according to our western values.
Before leaving we take a few photos then Mark quietly gives the two ladies some extra money which they won’t have to share with their husbands. It’s been a special experience – moving and shocking at the same time. And are we helping by giving them money or are we just being voyeurs – hard to know.
Now walking back through the Mingala Market we stop to buy incense and cheroots by the bundle which work out to be about half a cent each. Back at the Remember Inn we order beers and take them on to the roof to sit in the shade and relax in front of the mountains overlooking the town. More beers in the dining room downstairs and then back to our room for a sleep.
On dusk we walk down the road past the Shan Museum to watch young monks playing soccer. Afterwards we walk to the street behind the guesthouse to have a traditional massage. This has to be the best one yet. In a family home, we lie on raised mattresses for a one and three quarter hour massage. Mark and I are next to each other while another traveler sounds like he’s having massage orgasms behind a curtain a few feet away – what a weirdo! We laugh with the man and lady who are doing our massages. The incredible thing about this massage is not only the time for the small price, but we’re actually walked on just about the entire time. They hold onto beams in the low roof above us and walk up and down our legs and backs – agonizing at times but generally great. Afterwards we drink tea with the family who all want to be introduced. A definite language problem but we’re still able to communicate somehow.
Now it’s only a short walk to the Unique Café where we have another wonderful meal under the stars. We celebrate our last dinner in Myanmar with bacardis and strawberry juice – a fitting end to a lovely holiday.
Friday 16th January, 2004 Nyaung Shwe to Heho to Yangon to Bangkok
An early start to pack and have breakfast before our car arrives at seven o’clock to drive us to Heho. The girls from the guesthouse wave goodbye reminding us again of just how lovely the Burmese people are. The one-hour drive to Heho is the essence of Myanmar and the time we’ve spent here. We pass farmers, ethnic women, green fields, monks, mountains, small villages and the ever present bullock carts. At Shwenyaung junction we turn onto the main road to arrive at Heho fifteen minutes later.
Here we turn into a long dirt track that leads to the tiny airport. After booking in our packs we find a sunny corner next to an open window and I lay across three seats for a sleep. Soon we’re told that the plane will be very late and that we’re all being given a free lunch. This means a ten-minute walk down the track to a café just off the road. About thirty of us sit at tables in the sun for our free drinks and noodles then Mark and I make our way back to the airport. Outside ladies are selling baskets of fresh strawberries so we spend an hour outside in the sun and eat a whole basketful. At last the plane arrives and in half an hour we’re back in Yangon with plenty of time to make our connection to Bangkok. We take off at four thirty and catch our last glimpse of this lovely country as we turn towards Thailand – ‘cezu tinbadeh’, Myanmar!
It’s been a trip we’ll never forget from the wonderful sights we’ve seen to the gentleness and kindness of the Burmese people and the experiences we’ve had with them. But now we’re back in Bangkok and ready for four glorious days in this city that we love so much. It’s incomparably different to Myanmar with high-rise buildings, elevated freeways and traffic clogged roads but its excitement blows me away every time. The airport bus is filled to the brim till someone decides we need an extra bus so we soon stop to unload half the people. This means an hour and a half of stuffing around but only makes us extra happy to finally arrive at Khao San Road.
There’s often a problem getting accommodation this late in the day but fortunately the Bamboo Guesthouse has one double room left. The window faces the sun and our room is like a sauna so we head straight back out into the streets. We spend the rest of the night in Soi Rambutri drinking and eating fresh seafood cooked fresh on the street.
Saturday 17th January, 2004 Bangkok
Today is hot and humid from the moment we wake up. After breakfast downstairs and cold showers we catch a ferry to the Wat Po pier and wander around the so-called up-market area in search of a tailor shop to get suits and shirts made for Mark. Everywhere seems to be the same price as the tailors in Khao San Road and so no advantage in having them made anywhere else. We walk for ages and stop at an Irish Bar for drinks but decide we hate the whole scene around here and make a beeline back to Khao San Road in the fastest tuktuk we can find. Back to our favourite at Aviv Clothes Making we meet up with our old friend, Alex. We’ve had clothes made with him before and Mark now orders three suits, three pairs of pants, six shirts and seven silk ties. Alex has taken a definite liking to Mark and wants us to come back tonight for a fitting and then to take us out to dinner.
The rest of the day is spent having a massage at Mammas and lots of drinking and eating. At six o’clock we meet Alex and cross Khao San Road to an Indian restaurant on the first floor of a building opposite Aviv. He tells us about his life here and in India while we have a wonderful Indian meal.
Sunday 18th January, 2004 Bangkok
This morning we catch a taxi to the nearest monorail station to catch the Bangkok Skyway to the Chatuchak Weekend Market. It takes about twenty minutes before we jump out with hundreds of local people. The market is a short walk from the skyway station and we spend three hours wandering around the thousands of stalls. It’s divided into different areas according to what’s for sale. The animal market is the most interesting selling chickens and lots of fluffy dogs. We buy a ceramic teaset decorated with gold but too hot and bothered to buy anything else.
Monday and Tuesday 19th and 20th January, 2004 Bangkok
The next two days are ‘same, same’, as they say here in Asia – wonderfully lazy and carefree. We have oil massages, Thai massages, manicures, pedicures, visit the temple, buy untold CD’s and a magnificent praying lady in Khao San Road. We visit the Mahatat Amulet Market and spend the nights in Thanon Rhambutri eating seafood and drinking at the tables next to the temple.
At two o’clock on Tuesday afternoon we catch a taxi to the airport for our five thirty flight to Sydney.
Yet another wonderful Asian holiday! We’ll be back in June on our way home from Italy. And can’t wait!!