We finally make it to Myanmar!
Myanmar had been high on our ‘travel dream’ list for a very long time. For many years its military dictatorship and consequent abuse of human rights, meant that the country was not an option for ethically-minded travellers. However, in 2010, Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest. Furthermore, the democratically elected leader gave the green light to tourism. As a result, three years later, here we are on New Year’s Eve 2013!
Air Asia were kind enough to organise a free shuttle bus to downtown Mandalay. The bus took us from the tiny airport along a narrow lane until we hit the dual carriageway to the city. We were dropped off and walked the twenty minutes to our hotel, The Hotel Emperor, where we received a very warm welcome.
The streets are on a grid system, similar to many U.S. cities, and so it was pretty easy to find our way around. On the other hand, the city wasn’t particularly pedestrian friendly.
We went straight out to have lunch at a rooftop Indian Vegetarian restaurant called Marie Min. It was basic, but the food was good and cheap. As a matter of fact, we paid a mere 9,500 kyat (about £6.00) for three bottles of water, a large beer, an egg curry, dhal, two portions of rice and some poppadums!
Mandalay Hill Temple
In the afternoon, we took a taxi to Mandalay Hill and climbed the 1729 steps to the summit barefoot (no footwear allowed). There was plenty to keep us entertained on route including many shrines, statues and stalls selling flowers and incense. We were befriended by a monk, who we walked with. Every now and again, he would stop to offer prayers to Buddha and then catch up with us again. We exchanged details about our lives and he seemed especially interested in English football, not to mention T’s affinity to Liverpool!
Watching the Sun go Down on 2013
The pagoda at the summit was pretty impressive and was surrounded by brightly coloured mirrored walls and arches, glistening in the fading sunlight. We watched the last sun of 2013 go down over the Ayarwaddy River.
Many of the pagodas in Mandalay are grouped together and on New Year’s Day, we set out to explore them. We wandered between monasteries and temples, all of them unique in their own particular way.
Friendly People of Myanmar
Everywhere we went, the people were friendly and helpful, pointing us in the right direction and requesting nothing in return, or simply waving and smiling as we passed. Indeed, in many Asian countries, you become accustomed to persistent hawkers and people offering themselves to you as guides. In all honesty, most folks in Myanmar seemed genuinely friendly and pleased to see us, which was refreshing. Indeed, it seemed that the people were not yet jaded by the mass tourism present elsewhere.
The Royal Palace
We walked round the moat that encloses the Royal Palace and through the military zone to the palace itself (we weren’t allowed to veer off the road or take photographs). It was disappointing after all the beautiful temples we had seen. As a matter of fact, the palace was also controversial, having been re-constructed using inappropriate materials and using forced labour.
A ‘Bus Day’ in Mandalay
The following day was a ‘bus’ day – a midday checkout and a bus to Nyanungshwe at 8.00 pm. In the first place, we went to V Bar, a slightly kitschy seventies style bar/restaurant. In fact, we wiled away four hours drinking watermelon martini’s(T) and Myanmar beer (Ku). Dinner was at the Rainforest, a rooftop restaurant crammed with antique Buddhas and other artefacts.
For the equivalent of just a couple of pounds more, we had opted for the VIP bus. Not only were we given donuts and coffee, but a boiled sweet half way and a refreshing wipe and toothbrush/paste upon leaving the bus!
We were dropped off outside of town at about 3.40 am. It was pitch black except for the incredibly bright stars above. Luckily for us, we could just about make out some taxi touts for a ride to The Aquarius Inn, our accommodation for the night.
After a couple of hours sleep and some pancakes for breakfast, we had a walk around town and along the river where boats took their passengers to Inle Lake. We found yet another lovely temple and then had lunch. For various reasons, we decided not to do the trip to the lake, but nevertheless enjoyed a relaxing day in Nyanungshwe before taking a bus to Bagan.
As with Nyanungshwe, we had to pay an area fee of US $15.00. Unfortunately, this money goes to the government, who have botched up the restoration of Bagan’s temples. As a matter of fact, they didn’t pay attention to the original architectural styles and have used modern materials. Because of this, Bagan hasn’t been designated as an UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Bicycling in Bagan
Despite this, Bagan was amazing – our favourite few days of the trip so far. WWe explored by bicycle, cycling down dusty tracks and stopping off at any temple that we liked the look of. Between 1044 and 1247, Bagan’s rulers constructed over 10,000 religious’ monuments within an area of forty square miles. Each day we arrived back at our guest house weary but happy, Bagan’s magic having cast its spell on us.
Many men, women and children wear a gold coloured paste on their faces. Called ‘thanaka’, it is made from tree bark and is a very popular beauty product which is supposedly very good for the skin. (See below!)
We decided to splash out on a car and driver to take us to Mount Popa (£13.00 each). It was a tricky place to get to, but we really wanted to see it and consequently opted for a taxi. On the way, we stopped to see how peanut wine was made. They used a traditional method of crushing peanuts involving a cow walking in circles attached to some wooden machinery! Ku helped out in the procedure and is now a bona fide peanut crusher!
We continued on the road to Popa. It was very rural. In fact, we passed more cows pulling carts than cars. We wound our way up into the mountains, through a market, until we caught our first sight of Mount Popa. It was stunning – a golden temple perched on a mound-shaped hill, looking like something out of a fairy story.
As usual, our ascent of the 777 steps was done barefoot. Monkeys scampered around and men cleaning the steps requested ‘cleaning donations’. Not a pleasant job with all those monkeys around! To say nothing of by the fact that ‘monkey food’ was sold wrapped in paper which the monkeys discarded having eaten the food. At the summit, there were several shrines and sweeping views of the surrounding countryside.
Sunset in Bagan
Back in Bagan that evening we went to one of the quieter temples to watch the sun go down over our magical time in Bagan.
Our visit to Myanmar had been a fleeting, but fascinating insight into a country hidden away from the rest of the world for a long time. 2014 brings election time to Myanmar. Indeed, we can only hope that the process is carried out fairly and above all, that the situation for the people continues to progress in a positive manner.
Our abiding memories will be of the smiling faces and friendly waves of the people of Myanmar. Despite having been through so much, they have a disposition rarely seen in the western world.