A day (and a bit) in Mandalay

After having that darn “Road to Mandalay“ song in my head nearly the whole time we’d been in Myanmar, I was happy to have the chance to see the actual place. The first hotel and neighborhood we’d stayed at when we were catching the ferry had left a pretty grungy impression. Though the city does have a bit of a run down feel, it came across as much more charming on our second meeting.

Given the day we lost when the boat got stuck, we had even less time than we’d planned in Mandalay but it felt like we managed to see a good amount in and around the city. There was a mix up with our hotel reservation, so the first day was all about sorting out a place to stay (we ended up at the Silver Star which was didn’t have much personality but otherwise just fine), reviving and getting cleaned up from the train journey, sorting out food (dinner was at a Lonely Planet recommendation called Nepali Food. We were waited on by the sweet teenage daughter of the owner who sang or did her homework at the back of the restaurant when she wasn’t working. The thali was great and it was fun to eat by candle light when the power to the street got cut).

We set out the next morning, our only full day in the city, with a laundry list of things we wanted to see. We hired a trishaw driver to take us to our first spot but hadn’t got very far before we heard someone calling our names. Who did we see but Elmer peddling madly after us on a bicycle! He and Ohmar just happened to be eating on the street by our hotel and had seen us through the restaurant window as we wheeled by. It was such a nice surprise, and we arranged to meet them for dinner after our sight seeing.

Sights and activities

Our first stop was an area of the city known as the monks’ district. The draw was an old teak wood monastery. We didn’t end up managing to find it, but we loved wandering around the quiet neighborhood, which had a lovely, gentle energy about it. We spent time at an open air tea shop, drinking three-in-one coffee sweetened (as if it needed more sugar!) with condensed milk and people watching and visited a (non teak wood) monastery where we shared an impromptu chat with a lovely, passionate monk.

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Monks and others watching TV in a restaurant in the Monk’s district

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Detail from a sign

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Bridge heading towards the monastery

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Communal water jugs inside the monastery

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Hard working bus boy (literally) at the tea shop

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Playing games below a chinthe

We visited a shop where gold leaf was made. The city of Mandalay is the primary producer of gold leaf for all of Myanmar and there is a whole neighborhood that centers around this old craft. Here is some info about the use of gold leaf squares in Buddhism – it’s about Thailand but definitely pertains to Burmese Buddhists too. The gold leaf is produced through some very hard core manual labor – pounded by hand by men with wooden hammers and muscles like rope, and finished by women into the small squares for fixing onto statues, gilded bodhi leaves or other items for sale in the shop.

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Pounding gold wrapped in leather

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This boy worked in the workshop. He looked about 11 or 12 years old, 13 max. Note the hard core tattoos.

We got a ride outside of the city to visit the U Bien bridge and watch the sun go down. It was a bit touristy (shops and tour buses just outside of the best camera shots 😉 ) but still beautiful and we enjoyed just hanging out watching people fishing the river next to the bridge.

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Fishermen wading in the shallow waters by the bridge

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Monks commuting across the bridge

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Buses before the bridge

Dinner with Elmer and Ohmar was great. It felt so fun to have friends to meet in the city, and we caught up over everything we’d all done since Bahmo over beer and a tasty meal expertly ordered by Ohmar. We had a lovely night stroll back to our respective hotels, walking along the moat of the old city palace, before saying our good nights. The next morning, Roman and I would be flying off to our next stop – Bagan. Elmer and Ohmar would be heading there too, but wanted to spend a bit more time in Mandalay, so we arranged, again, to meet up when we were all back in Yangon.

Other Mandalay photo impressions

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On the bus

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This particular blue was everywhere in Myanmar but specifically in Mandalay. Once I noticed it that day, I couldn’t help but see it where ever I cast my gaze. Here it is on a wall carved with text in the monk’s district.

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Laundry line

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Tea break

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Typical cabs in Mandalay – these gorgeous, old school Mazda trucks

Crazy train

The train ride from Myitkyina to Mandalay was unlike anything I’d ever experienced before. If you ever considering traveling this route and are young and healthy, I’d encourage you to go for it. If you’re less fit, or get motion sickness easily, then just read this post instead! 🙂

The train car we were on was definitely older but still comparable in many ways to what we’d gotten used to in India. We had booked in the train’s only first class sleeper car. Our cabin had two wide, relatively generously cushioned berths on either side (something we’d be really grateful for rather soon!). The two large windows were completely open when we boarded the train, which, in the afternoon heat, suited me fine.

We shared the cabin with a middle-aged Burmese woman and a younger Burmese man who were travelling with a massive bag of longyis – I guess they were bringing these to Mandalay to be sold. They didn’t speak any English, but were SO friendly. We’d barely gotten our things and selves settled into the cabin before they were sharing their food and laughter with us.

Rocky road

Soon after we pulled slowly out of Myitkyina, we discovered what Elmer had warned us about. The ride was smooth and easy at first, but once we reached a rougher patch of the ancient tracks, our car began to sway back and forth like an oversized cradle. Roman and I smiled at each other – this wasn’t so bad at all! Then the bouncing started.

The car started softly jigging up and down, building up momentum until we were literally being thrown a few inches off our seats with each bounce. This is when the thick padding of the berth started to really come in handy. I loved it, being jogged around like a small child on a parent’s lap – it was hilarious and Roman and I couldn’t help but laugh every time we hit another spot of decrepit tracks and got launched into the air.

Even when we were attempting to sleep later that night, we still got the giggles. Like on the boat, the train cars weren’t heated and as soon as the sun disappeared, things got really frigid, even with the windows closed. Unlike in India, the Burmese train didn’t provide blankets, but the sweet woman in our car loaned us one of hers. Even with her generosity and extra layers of clothing, it was still freezing, and Roman and I huddled together on one berth to try and keep warm. When the bouncing would suddenly start, we’d have to hold tight to one another to avoid knocking into each other, and together we’d be flung sometimes up to a foot off of the berth as we bounced along. This happened at least a couple times an hour. Needless to say, we didn’t manage to sleep much that night, but we did laugh a lot!

I need to say that the journey must have been a lot less fun for folks in the normal cars, where people were crowded into hard, wooden seats. The poor woman in our berth had a rough morning – she seemed to have something go out of joint in her back over night and was clearly not feeling that great. I can’t imagine how awful it would be to have this be your only travel option if you were sick or infirm – and you could only afford a lower class ticket.

Beauty all around

The train ride was also amazing for us for the incredible scenery we got to see. I savored every moment I could look out the window before the sun went down. Most of the time we were travelling through wilderness or vast farmlands. Dried out rice paddies would stretch golden in the sun till they reached purple hills on the horizon. Occasionally the track would lead us through small villages, where young children would wave enthusiastically as we rolled by. More frequently we’d pass glittering, golden pagodas, at the edge of a village or simply in the midst of the beautiful but empty landscape.

The station stops provided just as much eye candy. The people watching was great and I especially loved the longer stops at night, where the women selling food in the dark station wandered by our open windows, calling out their wares and balancing elegantly on their heads the broad, round trays of fruit, eggs or fried pastries, lit only by a candle stuck in the center. An incredible sight.

As amazing as it was, still I was happy when we pulled into Mandalay the next morning – only one hour behind schedule (which is apparently very good by Burmese standards).

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The view from our cabin; the lovely woman who shared her food and blankets with us

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Train spotting

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One of many pagodas along the route

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Crooked picture. I blame the bouncing train.

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This butterfly tagged a ride on my windowsill for nearly a quarter of an hour. 🙂

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Travel notes: Bhamo > Myitkyina > Mandalay

Our original plan had been to travel from Bhamo to Myitkyina, where we would catch a flight back south to Mandalay, spend a couple of days, and then do the more touristy boat route from Mandalay to Bagan. We had worked with a travel agent the night we arrived in Mandalay (Seven Diamonds, nice people) who had been able to help us with tickets for parts of our itinerary, but could only get us on a wait list for the flight from Myitkyina to Mandalay.

We’d called again from Bhamo and still got no guarantee. We decided to risk it and take the bus to Myitkyina anyway, figuring that we could probably secure seats on the plane more easily if we showed up in person.

The bus to Myitkyina was definitely a change from the one we took from Yangon. Ancient and overly ventilated (doors and windows didn’t shut properly, if at all), the poor thing was also packed to the gills, with passengers squeezed onto little plastic seats in the aisles. It was a short (albeit bumpy) ride (I believe about 6 hours) and the scenery was great, so we enjoyed it. Probably not something we’d like to do every day though. Most of the roads we traveled on were dirt, so by the end of the trip, we, and all our gear, were covered in a thick layer of dust.

One of the first things we did upon arrival in Myitkyina was go to the airline office. It was a futile visit – we were told that there were no open seats until four or five days later. Even if we had wanted to hang out in Myitkyina that long, our limited visa and ambitious travel plans meant that we couldn’t afford to lose that much time.

We investigated other options and discovered that it was possible to get to Mandalay by train. To the train station we went then, where we booked tickets for the next day with what we understood to be a private company – difficult to verify if this was true or not however. The train was scheduled for around 2 in the afternoon and was due to take around 19 hours, overnight. (Just a side note for myself, after buying our tickets, we met the most lovely taxi driver outside the station called Duhrey (miss-spelled, I’m sure) who was eager to practice his English with us) This was even longer than our longest train journeys in India, and we’d heard the tracks were in awful shape (allegedly, they date back to the English colonial times), making for a rough ride at times, but we thought we’d be adventurous and try it. I’ll write more about the journey in another post – definitely an experience!! 🙂

One other quick note – at this point we’d left Elmer and Ohmar in Bhamo. They had a few more stops ahead of them before they planned to return to Yangon – some the same as us. The timing of our intended dates in the same places was a bit tight though, so we exchanged information and agreed to meet up again in Yangon, feeling very lucky for the insight and fun company they infused into the boat ride and time in Bhamo.

Life on the Irrawaddy: Part one

Our boat trip up the Irrawaddy is one of the most amazing and my favorite experiences of the entire trip so far.

We were traveling like the typical Burmese person travels. The long duration of the trip meant that we had more of an opportunity to interact with locals, even with language barriers. We had the good fortune of traveling with Elmer and Ohmar, and Ohmar really took us under her wing, acting like our own native tour guide, explaining things we saw and experienced along the way and introducing us to delicious foods we wouldn’t have been brave or savvy enough to try other wise.

Life on the boat and scenery along the river was consistently fascinating and nearly always stunning (felt like I missed an amazing scene every time I left the camera in the room). And things like the boat getting stuck in shallow waters (a seasonal phenomenon) for hours at a time added an element of adventure to the whole thing.

The route

There are different ways for visitors to experience the Irrawaddy river. Apparently a pretty typical route is to start in Mandalay and go down river to Bagan. Kalya suggested that we try a route further north, where we would have the chance to see and even spend an hour or two in some small, relatively out-of-the-way river side villages where the boat would stop to drop off and take on goods.

There are different government and private ferries and boats to choose from, depending on the time of year and the water level of the river. At one point during the trip we saw two of these impressive and no doubt crazy-expensive but beautiful wood luxury liners, manned with Burmese staff and Western tourists – probably something that can be hired privately. The boat we travelled on was definitely less cushy. 🙂

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We traveled on an Inland Water Transport ferry from Mandalay to Bhamo. (Map reference: https://alongthewaytj.files.wordpress.com/2011/03/myanmar.pdf)

This was the only time we chose to travel with government-owned transportation. Although the tourist ticket cost considerably more than the price Burmese people were charged, USD 54 per ticket didn’t feel like too significant of a financial endorsement of the government, and the side of Myanmar we would be able to see through this journey would be a worthwhile personal trade off.

The boat

I didn’t take a picture of the entire boat from the outside, so let me try to describe it.

It was a large, heavily used and hard working boat. It comprised three decks, plus a cargo hold at the bottom. Here’s what was on each deck.

Bottom deck

At the back was the engine room and some other rooms for the crew that were off limits. In the middle was the “kitchen”, the cook’s storage space and a couple of long wooden tables and benches that served as cafeteria, the entrance to the storage hold with a make-shift kiosk on top and around of it that had to be re-arranged every time we stopped at a port.

I’ll talk more about the food on board later, but let me say that the ship’s cook was just incredible. Wiry (he was thin but all muscle), tattooed, with thinning hair, there was still something child-like about him. He was constantly on the move, from before the dawn till late at night, chopping, cleaning and creating amazingly delicious meals on request with the most basic implements. Despite how hard he worked, he always had a smile for us whenever we happened to catch each other’s eyes, and even with no English managed to make us feel welcome.

Here’s the kitchen he had to work with: There were three ever-burning fires on the metal floor, covered by metal cylinders with openings through which to feed the fire. These basic “ranges” were topped by one massive pot for the seemingly constant rice production, another for cooking soups, noodles and the like and a big, flat wok where anything else that needed cooking got fried. There was a big plastic container full of water with a pipe fed from the river to rinse things. A simple sink (also river fed). One chopping board, some ladles for stirring and two butcher knives.

The kiosk sold packaged snacks, drinks (water, soda and whisky), tattered books, Burmese salad (more on that later, too!) and above all, tons of betel (the Burmese equivalent of the Indian paan).

Towards the front of the 1st deck were more rooms for the crew and storage space crammed with goods like stacks of rubber tires, huge bags of rice and onions, rows of baskets, the occasional motorcycle. A few of the more privileged families camped out on the floor between the stacks of wares.

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Goods on the first deck

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The little on-board store covering the cargo hold entrance. Snacks hanging from the ceiling, books to the left, ingredients for salad and beverages to the right.

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The cook (in the hat) preparing vegetables in front of the kitchen

Middle deck

This was the general passenger deck. The front half had 10 simple, narrow cabins, five on either side of the boat, which is where we had a room. Each contained two beds, one small table attached to the wall and a doll-sized, non-functioning sink. The beds were some of the most uncomfortable I’ve experienced. About two feet wide, with an ancient two-inch mattress on a hard, wood frame, they were obviously made for one person but Roman and I ended up sharing one of the bunks. I’ve admitted before that I am a wimp – the nights got so cold and rooms were unheated so squishing together in that meager space was the only way I could keep warm enough to sleep. 🙂

Still, we had it much better than most of the other passengers. The back half of the 2nd deck was simply an open space where they spent the duration of the trip. People have to bring their own mats and blankets and simply sleep on the floor. The sides of the deck are open so any wind would blow directly through. I wouldn’t mind sleeping on the floor but I think the frigid nights would have been too much for me.

The floor also had two bathrooms (one squat, one “western” style – a raised squat toilet with a wooden box on top that had a big hole in the middle) and two rooms for showering (in cold river water. I’m not ashamed to admit my wimp-nature a second time– I decided to wait until we were on dry land, in a hotel, to shower :-)).

Outside our cabins was a narrow walkway with a couple of plastic chairs where folks liked to hang out during the daylight hours, gossiping and watching the landscape roll by.

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The corridor in front of our cabin on a very foggy morning. That’s Elmer in the striped hoodie.

Top deck

A place to soak in the scenery and warming rays of the sun by day and to enjoy a cold beer while thinking warm thoughts and watching the stars come out by night, the open top deck was a great place to hang out. There was a control room at the front and parts of it were used for goods storage, but there was plenty of space to relax. Some foreigners who were on board the first day had rented a couple of rickety wooden chairs, we used these as our make shift lounge. For some stretches of the journey, a handful of hardcore Burmese passengers actually stayed and slept up there, out in the (cold, cold!) open.

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Stairwell to the lower decks from the top deck – that’s how dark it got on the river at night. 🙂

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This is the closest I got to a picture of the entire boat from the outside. This is during one of our village stops You can see the bottom and middle decks. To the left of the middle deck is where our cabin was; the other side is the open deck where other passengers stayed and slept.

Yangon gold and the road to Mandalay

A good deal of our time in Yangon went towards logistics – talking with Kalya, pouring through Lonely Planet, calling up hotels around the country as we sketched our route. We did get out a bit however.

Shwedagon

One of our first excursions was a sunset visit to Shwedagon Pagoda. This is the largest, most iconic and holy pagoda in all of Myanmar. It towers over the city and is the stuff of local lore and historic legend. You can read more about it here if you’re interested.

As with many of the things we’ve seen on this trip so far, photos can not come close to capturing the grandeur of Swedagon – but as always I will post some of my pictures anyhow. 😉 Our first visit was a bit spontaneous and I didn’t actually have my camera with me – the photos are from a subsequent visit at the end of our time in Myanmar. We got a cab from the hotel to drop us at one of the four entrances. We hadn’t seen the pagoda before this (it’s visible from many, but not all, vantage points in the city), and it managed to deliver the drama.

One enters the large compound through a long, broad covered stairway. The entrance of each of the four stairways is guarded by massive chinthe on either side – for their sheer size already an impressive sight to behold! Vendors, devotees and orange-robed monks accompanied our slow ascent through the passage, and then suddenly the courtyard was before us.

We were lucky; on our first visit the pagoda wasn’t too busy. The atmosphere was peaceful in the soft twilight and it felt like we were the only Westerners in this gentle, sacred, awesome space.

We wandered in barefoot across the still-warm marble of the compound,  watching the night descend as the endless lesser spires and buddhas were lit up, until we turned a corner and caught our first view of the main stupa itself. The thing is just huge and just incredible. Covered in plate gold and topped with an unbelievable number of diamonds, I would have thought the excess of riches could come across as tacky but it is simply awesome.

We were also lucky to meet a lovely, friendly monk named San Ta (sure I am spelling that wrong) who took time to chat with us and show us some of the lesser known sights within the complex.

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Shwedagon towers over the city of Yangon. This photo was taken from some swank restaurant in a high-rise that a friendly Burmese guy we met on the street took us to. (We went together for a tea afterwards at a normal shop where he taught me some basic Burmese words) 🙂

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Entering the complex

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Devotion

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Up close at the big pagoda

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Night falls at Shwedagon

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Neon Buddha

The (new) road to Mandalay

I may write more about our time in Yangon later, for now though, let’s get the trip started. After all the planning and preparation, we were finally ready to leave the creature comforts of the Classique and sink our teeth into the rest of Myanmar. We decided to start our trip with a boat trip up the famous Irrawaddy (or Ayeyarwaddy) River.

To do this though, we first had to get to Mandalay, the second largest city in Myanmar. Mandalay is another place I knew nothing about, but there is a Robbie Williams song called “The Road to Mandalay“ which I do know (which, reading the lyrics, has very little to do with the Burmese city I think) and this inevitably became the auto-repeated soundtrack in my head for much the trip!

We seemed to have great timing – we arrived shortly after the opening of a brand new highway the government had built between Yangon, Mandalay, and the new capitol, Nay Pyi Taw (if you are interested to learn more about the wackyness of the Burmese government, look into this place). That meant that the trip to Mandalay would only take around 6 hours by bus – something that would not have been possible a month earlier.

More affordable than planes and more reliable than the trains, buses are a really popular mode of transportation in Myanmar. We were amazed at the size of the bus center in Yangon. The place is a dusty maze of parking areas crammed with hundreds of buses old and new, food shops and ticket offices. It took our cab driver well over five minutes of driving around and stopping for directions until he found the right corner of the center where our bus was waiting.

We got a luxury bus for this leg of the journey. Decent seats, air con, a complimentary wet nap to wipe the grime of travel from our faces (unnecessary since we came straight from the hotel but boy could we have used it at later points in our trip!), and TV and stereo blaring primitively edited Burmese movies the whole trip long. (one about a man who cross dresses and poses as a nanny to get closer to the woman he loves seemed somehow familiar… 🙂 )

Travel on the highway was smooth but surreal. We saw hardly any traffic on the brand new highway traversing mostly empty plains. Some sections were still under construction – occaisionally we’d pass teams of construction workers protected from the strong sun by long sleeves and pants and broad hats. The whole length of highway between Yangon and Mandalay had only one rest stop, fashioned somewhat after the Western style, with huge (nearly empty) parking lots and a strip of redundant restaurants and shops (although the excessive number was western, the shops themselves were decidedly Asian, with things like dried fish hanging from the ceilings and free green tea with every beverage or meal ordered). The whole thing was bizarre but fun.

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Sign posts at the rest stop

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Workers at the side of the empty road

Travel buddies

We arrived into Mandalay on time (in fact, I still owe Roman for losing that bet…), pulling into a smaller but equally dusty bus station outside the city. There were a couple of other Westerners on the bus with us; we ended up sharing a cab (i.e. squishing into the back of a mini-truck) into town with a Dutch man and his Burmese wife.

Elmer and Ohmar ended up becoming our travel companions for much of the trip. Luck had it that much of our itinerary was the same, and even when we thought we would miss each other due to timing, we often ended up randomly crossing paths. They were good fun and generous with their local knowledge (Ohmar especially), and added so much to our experience of Myanmar.

We discovered that we were both taking the same boat ride to Bhamo for the next day, so they joined us at our hotel in Mandalay (cheaper yes, but a definite downgrade from the Classique (grungy, dark, big, inexplicable hole in the bathroom ceiling), but they were showing football in the lobby so Roman was pretty happy. 🙂 TV in Myanmar is pretty restricted by the government, but one thing that gets aired consistently and is a definite improvement over the often dull, contrived government-controlled local programming is European football. Folks in Myanmar are crazy for it and we met a lot of Manchester United fans during our time there).

The boat was scheduled to leave at 6am and we had to get there before hand because Elmer and Ohmar still had to buy tickets, so it was a short night in Mandalay before our early start the next day…