It was before 5AM when we arrived at the Yangon airport and a young man directed to sit in the waiting room. He came back to fetch us when our airline check in was open but there didn’t seem to any resemblance to a line up. There were people all over the place with bags and boxes and agents putting random bags on the scales. Our helpful friend got us checked in, our luggage weighed and tagged and then walked us over to security and immigration. The security was very lax, we didn’t even have to get rid of our water. We had a green and yellow sticker put on our shirts and sat and waited. There were people with many different colored stickers on their shirts all waiting too. When it was close to 6AM we saw other people with a green and yellow sticker go to the boarding gate, so we followed them. There was never an announcement or sign that we saw; you just had to pay attention to the stickers.
We were met by our pre arranged transfer upon arrival in Mandalay. There was quite the excitement at the airport with people milling about and taking photos. We thought it may have been for us (ha ha), but there was a very famous rock band on the plane with us. A bunch of guys from Yangon with really long hair and the band was called Iron Cross . Our driver was quite star struck. I went over to one of the band members and asked where they were playing tonight, but it was quite a few hours out of Mandalay.
Our drive in was wonderful, the landscape very lush and green with so many vegetable and fruit stands on the sides of the road. We stopped at one to get some papaya the size of footballs, avocados and lime. The produce is all fresh and organic. Mandalay reminds me a bit of India with the 18 seater busses going by with 50 people crammed in, some on the roof, others hanging from the sides and lots of baskets and bags of goods on there as well. There were a lot of motorcycles here as well, which we didn’t see in Yangon. Oxen or horses pulling little wagons with families inside and all their produce.
We arrived in Mandalay city and once again it is a very big noisy dusty place. Our hotel is new apparently only 2 years old. We don’t believe it, It is already looking very warn and not well maintained. The area is not great, although I don’t know if any area of Mandalay is that great. We are just not that thrilled with the big cities. We went to our room to rest for a while and then decided to catch a cab down to the jetty and hire a boat to Mingun.
The area on the edge of the Irrawady river is home to the very poor, fishermen most likely. Homes made of bamboo on stilts with very meager belongings inside. Children as young as 2 running up to us asking for pens, money, what ever. The smell was less than pleasant. It reminded me of being at TonLeSap lake in Cambodia. There are many boats tied together, large wooden boats that have seen better days. Some were to take out tourists and others were for people to live on and still more for fishing. A young man comes up from the boats and we negotiate a price. You can do a tour in the morning but it is now 1PM and we would rather hire our own boat anyhow. We should have insisted on seeing the boat first in hindsight. There wasn’t any kind of a pier. They lay a very narrow plank from the edge of the bank to the closest boat.
Are you kidding me?
Then two young men stand at either end with a bamboo pole in their hands. This is the makeshift handrail, and it worked. We climbed across three large wooden boats and ended up on the worst of the lot. Directed up some rickety steps we sat on wooden lawn chairs under a tarp roof for our journey down the river.
It was wonderful. There were many little huts and farms at the edge of the river, people fishing, washing, and working near the edge. There are many golden temples dotting the hills all over Mandalay. The journey took an hour to the small village of Mingun. In front of us is this huge brown hill that is the base of a temple that was going to be built, but the king died in the early 1800s before it was finished. It would have been the largest in the world.
As the boat is pulling close to shore we see a wooden cart pulled by two oxen racing towards the boat. I joked and said ‘here’s our ride’ and the older man in the cart pulls up and says ‘Taxi?” As tempting as it was we decided to walk. We were accosted by many women trying to sell us things, paintings, fans, jewelry and hats. We did buy these very dorky bamboo hats but it really helped keep the sun from frying our brains. It was very hot. The women would ask us for lipstick and perfume and makeup. It was very hard to take after a while. You want to help them but it encourages begging. They would follow us for a few blocks trying to either sell or get items from us, but we just kept smiling and saying ‘no thank you’. There are also young men that come up and want to practice their English and say they are going to school to be a tour guide. Can they please practice on you, you don’t need to pay but you know that they still expect something. The village was a typical rural Myanmar village and we visited some Buddhist temples and monasteries. The largest uncracked bell in the world is at this site which weighs 90 tons. It was a great afternoon and we had another early night. What a bunch of party animals we are.
Ko was our driver again today and we had a very full day in store for us. We headed out of Mandalay at 8:30AM and our first stop was a little shop where they made some incredible embroidery and marionette puppets, antiques and interesting objects for sale. The artists were there creating these works or art in front of us. We always think that these items are made by machine but artists like these spend hours on them and probably get paid very little. Two young men dressed Lana up as some kind of Myanmar princess.
Next stop was a silk weaving shop where we saw men and women making beautiful silk scarves and fabrics. Of course the silk store is attached so that we can buy some of these amazing fabrics but we found the prices quite high and the tour bus had just arrived with a bunch of German and Swiss tourists. We spent the day trying to stay ahead of all the tour buses, we were all on the same circuit.
Next stop was the monastery to see the monks eat lunch. There were more than 1000 monks lining up to have their lunch and then eat in silence. The young novices, some around 5 years old, wear white robes while the older ones wear burgundy, unlike in Laos where they wore orange and saffron. Unfortunately it was an absolute zoo with so many tourists. We took a few pictures and then wanted to high tail it to the next stop before the rest of them got there.
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Sagaing Hill was home to a large Paya (Pagoda) and offered a fantastic view of the surrounding area. The Pagoda in Yangon has spoiled us for any other I think and although they are beautiful with the gold glistening in the sun they just don’t measure up.
Ava was the next destination on our circuit. This is a small village on an island so our driver dropped us at a dock and we took the ten minute ride across the river. There were very few tourists there at this time as they were probably making a lunch stop. Horses pulling carts lined both sides of the dirt road waiting to show us this quiet and peaceful island. I got to sit up front with the driver; Lana was a bit nervous because the driver had not gotten in yet so I told her that I was driving. The journey was fascinating and so beautiful and relaxed. There was one place where we came upon a scene in front of us with women working in a rice paddy with the ruins behind them. Breathtaking. Our ride was quite bumpy and jostled us around a lot however. We got off quite a bit to take photos and wander around the many ruins and payas on the island. It really reminded me of some of the ruins at Angkor Wat except that there was hardly anyone there, it was fantastic. We could have spent the entire afternoon here but not on the horse cart. We found bicycles for rent which would have been a wonderful way to spend a leisurely afternoon.
Our last stop for today was U Bien Bridge in Amarapura. This bridge is a teak wooden foot bridge that spans 1300 yards over the Taungthaman Lake. Over 200 years old this is the worlds longest teak bridge. 2500 locals walk across this bridge morning and night to and from the village on the other side. The bridge is curved to withstand the wind and is the most photographed spot in Myanmar. We walked across part way and then came down some stairs to be met by our boat driver for the evening. He rowed around the lake and we saw many fisherman up to their waist in the water, as it is not a deep lake, fishing for small red fish like a Grouper.
We get into position along with some other boats to witness the bridge at sunset. Such a peaceful sight with lots of monks and locals travelling across the bridge with their bicycles and purchases on their heads.
A perfect end to the day.