We decided in June 2013 that it was indeed to time to return to our 'Travel Bucket List' and begin planning for a trip to Myanmar aka Burma.
Why Burma? Well its attraction stems from its romantic attachment to the British Raj (Rudyard Kipling et al) as well as our fond memories of our 2011 trip around Northern Thailand with its friendly and outgoing Buddhist culture. Being predominantly followers of Theravada Buddhism the Burmese share the same philosophical precepts as do those in neighbouring Thailand, Laos and Cambodia.
Timing of the trip was to be all important in order to miss that country's notoriously torrential wet season between May and October and maintain our family commitments down in Victoria over December and January. On applying for a Tourist Visa we learnt that Myanmar very strictly enforces a 28 day stay. We then set about trying to secure flights out of Australia to fit in with these strictures and stumbled across a discounted return (Singapore Airlines) flight from Brisbane to Bangkok around these dates -the only stipulation being that one had to purchase two tickets - too easy and deal done enabling us to fit in a 5 day stop over in Bangkok at either end of our Myanmar sojourn.
Myanmar vs Burma
In May 1989 the governing military junta decided to change the name of the country from Burma to Myanmar. At the time, they argued that the new name was more inclusive of all of the ethnic groupings within the country and not just the predominant Burmans. Within the country the local population had used both names (Burma in the spoken language and Myanmar in the written). At the same time the government also changed the spelling and even names of some towns eg Rangoon became Yangon, Pagan became Bagan, Pegu became Bago, etc...They also moved the capital from Yangon to a new purpose built and geographically central town of Nay Pyi Taw where all the administration was compulsorily transferred. However, most western nations still maintain their diplomatic headquarters in Yangon.
Aung San Suu Kyi maintains that the country's name should remain as Burma until the name change has been approved by a common plebiscite. She and her supporters within the League for Democracy party are gearing up for the next parliamentary and presidential elections in 2015.
Researching for this trip was made more difficult by the limited number of travel blogs and an out of date (2011) Lonely Planet (LP) guide. While the main centres of interest in the country are fairly well documented not so the inter-connecting means of travelling solo between them. Internal airline schedules were vague, the trains and govt ferries painfully slow and unreliable and the buses made quite uncomfortable by the woeful state of most of the roads.
I did manage to read George Orwell's Burmese Days in which he rather heavy handedly put down the excesses of the colonial regime during the 1920s. Also some of Aung San Suu Kyi's essays on the state of political reform required in Burma as well as rather good general travelogue by Caroline Courtauld: Burma in Style 2012, a local train schedule and of course poured through the Lonely Planet. We also spoke to a couple of people who had recently visited the country - one solo and one on a tour.
A new (another) camera was purchased - a Panasonic with excellent reviews which has 16megapixels and a 20X zoom lens - all for less than $300.....bargain
Our final chore was to sort out the money. Because of Myanmar's primitive and isolated banking system there are no facilities to permit payment for anything on Credit Card and the number of ATMs in the country can be countered on one hand - so you have to pre-pay for as much of your holiday accommodation using www.booking.com or www.agoda.com or some other third parties before departure. You then have to stock up on US$ notes but not any old notes - they must be printed after 2006 and not be creased, torn, dirty, scribbled on or defaced in any other manner. We got ours in Brisbane - the dollar bill issue proved a real hassle once we got over there and we had several fail their close inspections.
The long 7-8hr flight up to Bangkok was made easier by a less than full plane. Those Singapore air stewardess' remained incredibly poised throughout the flight and their ability to drop to their knees to retrieve some item at the bottom of their service trolleys made me wince in envy. The airline is also super efficient in loading its planes. We bought some duty free booze during our 3hr stop over at Changi Airport (much better deal than in Brisbane).
Unfortunately, the cheap transit bus services from Bangkok's airport into the city's major districts have been abolished and instead one has to organise a public taxi at a fixed price which in our case was nearly $45. However, one can still get a seat on a mini bus back to the airport from your hotel for only $5. Maria was quite frightened by the kamikaze driving techniques employed by our taxi driver as he sped and weaved us through the city traffic along the spaghetti like freeway system into the city - she even foolishly suggested that he slow down to no avail.
Our first full day in Bangkok was spent getting Maria to a pre-arranged dental appointment and then to a Johny's Gems - a jewellery shop we have used before to organize the manufacture of a replacement ruby ring which she lost months ago in Brisbane. This was all done utilising the ever reliable but toxic Tuk Tuks and return journey using the Sky Train system.
Tuk Tuks are very handy in overcoming peak hour traffic gridlock as they are able to circumvent the mess by cheekily utilising footpaths and the maze of skinny back alleys that weave about the city often alongside smelly klongs and through the odd backstreet market.
The Tuk Tuk vs Taxi
It also gives one a marvellous opportunity to witness everyday life in the city as opposed to the frenetic and yet sterile street scapes on and bordering the city's major arteries.
Hotel - Villa Cha Cha
Breakfast at Villa Cha Cha Hotel
Pad Thai and Rice and pork soup breakfast is the go but the local 'machine-made' coffee is a far cry from that which you can get in Vietnam and Cambodia.
Daily Charging Chore
We had a free day in Bangkok to do what we wanted and decided to do a bit of pagoda hopping. I also arranged accommodation in the Sukhumvit area for our return after Burma. We also took a ferry tour of Bangkok's klongs.
Very Different Pagoda Offerings
Pad Thai vendor
Sights of Khao San Rd
Deep fried Insects - delicious! & Beer specials
The Business District of Sukhumvit Road with Sky Train above
It was during this free day that we became aware that Westpac had placed a temporary stop on our credit cards. Crisis so early in the trip and it was a Friday. Tried some panicky email to Amy and then to our local branch. We eventually sought the assistance of the Australian Embassy in Yangon in order to place a reverse charge phone call to the Bank in Sydney. The Bank had previously advised me by email that I had to speak to them personally. The international phone system in Myanmar is chaotic-nay useless; even at the their GPO.
Our 90 minute Air Asia flight to Yangon was only half full and apart from ourselves their was only 3 other westerner tourists. We had arranged for our pre-booked hotel to collect us from the airport and after exchanging the first $50 of our precious and pristine US notes we jumped into his dilapidated Toyota sedan and drove at a crawl into Yangon - avoiding all freeways and tollways.
Old Yangon Airport facade
Those who have travelled extensively in Thailand have often remarked about the number and beauty of the Buddhist pagodas here and there. Well Myanmar leaves Thailand for dead on this score - there are pagodas literally everywhere in side streets, on hill tops, in rice paddies and on river banks etc. A wealthy individual or group of villagers seeking to increase their chances of attaining Nirvana will simply donate money to restore an old pagoda or to build a new one seemingly anywhere they choose. You get your first experience of this as your plane descends over the Ayeyarwady Delta to land in Yangon - and the sun catches the myriad of golden stupas sticking out of the watery countryside.
Our hotel turned out to be in a scruffy light industrial suburb quite close to the port and as a consequence we had to put up with a lot heavy traffic noise from trucks laden with teak logs and the constant local buses which seem to lack any exhaust system and belch volumes of diesel fumes. They are all manned with a tout who screams the bus' destination to any would be commuter on the street. The Motherland 2 Hotel (we never sighted Motherland 1) is patronised primarily by European backpackers with a scattering Canadians, USA and Japanese tourists. It is staffed by a myriad of young Burmese who, with broken English, are able to provide quite a deal of useful touristy info from their tiny and noisy lobby. This hotel and others I booked are all rated as between 2-3 Star and cost in the vicinity of US$50-70/night for which you get double bed, ensuite, aircon and hopefully a fridge to store and freeze water for the following day. However, the quality of the rooms do not compare to what you can get for the same price in other SE Asian countries.
Downtown Yangon is a pretty dirty place with the years of neglect all too obvious. Both the streets and footpaths are badly broken and made all the more difficult to negotiate by the lack of readable street signage.. The danger of breaking your neck stumbling over these very uneven pavements cannot be over-emphasised. Then there is the confusing traffic laws which require right hand sided vehicles to drive on the right hand side of the road....so crossing roads can be a death defying exercise.
The exception to this geographic mayhem, are the beautiful colonial buildings scattered around the town.
Fine Colonial buildings in downtown Yangon
British and Australian Embassies
Scott's Anglican Church
On our first day we managed to pop into the former Sarki Bros Strand Hotel which they built around the same time as Raffles in Singapore and Eastern & Oriental Hotel in Penang.
Main Bar at The Strand
We also managed to have a peak from the 20th floor Sky Bar atop the Sukura building which lies opposite the 5 star Traders Hotel. One can get remarkable views from this bar and the drink prices are commensurate.
PS There is no Happy Hour up there!
Sule Pagoda in downtown Yangon
Mouth of the Yangon River
Shwedagon Pagoda (the big one)
We hope to dine at both on our return in November. We ate at a riverside Chinese restaurant which was very ordinary. The next night we ventured to a LP recommended Burmese restaurant (Danuphyu Daw Saw Yi on 29th Street) which was much better but I thought the meal servings rather small but it only cost about $10 inc drinks.
Our next day was spent trying to obtain consistent advice about how to negotiate a ferry trip on the Irrawaddy (now known as the Ayeyarwady River). We had wanted to spend 1-2 days on the river beginning in Bhamo in the the north and finishing in Mandalay. This includes one of the most scenic stretches of the river through a deep gorge. But initial advice was that Bhamo was out of bounds for foreigners, then there was not enough water in the river for the ferry and finally that there were no available airline seats to Bhamo anyway. Sorting this lot out was proving extremely frustrating especially given the temperature of 39 C and humidity of 110%. LP suggested a travel agency called Good News Travel and they at last were able to sort out a compromise strategy of a flight to Mandalay, followed by a same day overnight train to Katha and then slow government IWT (Inland Water Transport) ferry back down to Mandalay.
This same firm also booked our remaining outstanding transport links with flights from Bagan to Ngapali Beach and back to Yangon
We took a bum-numbing 3 hour ride on the local rail system's Circle Line which gave us a good look at the surrounds of Yangon.
Train Commuters and trackside market
We later visited the Bogyoke Aung Sun market and saw some rather tempting hand crafted lacquer ware - but we resisted the temptation preferring instead to purchase same at its point of manufacture in Bagan later on.
Mangosteens and those insects again (they are a type of cicada and are farmed) - a favourite snack of the locals
Huge farmed tiger prawns
We have left our tour of the country's most prized attraction the Shwedagon Paya (pagoda) until our return.
While Yangon's traffic is pretty chaotic, the number of taxis (all unmetered) is amazing. They would easily constitute over 70% of the traffic. Apart from these, you have the smelly local buses and a Bemo styled Pick-ups which can get you around the city. But taxis are the go with fares rarely costing more than $3 . It is said the lack of motor scooters from the streets is due to the ruling generals distaste for them.
Yangon and, as we were to find out later, the whole of Myanmar is plagued by homeless dogs which roam the streets and or sleep in doorways quite unperturbed by whats going on around them. We never once saw anyone feed one and only on a couple of occasions did they growl menacingly at us.
The widespread use of Betel (Areca palm) nut throughout Myanmar makes for red stained roads and pavements to say nothing of the users' mouths when they open them to talk and/or yoick a great stream of red juice usually at an unsuspecting passerby's feet.
We then arranged for an overnight trip to the town of Kyaikto where Burma's second most holy pagoda rests on a gold leaf encrusted boulder. Now our ticket was supposed to be for an express air-conditioned bus but it turned out to be neither. These buses keep their punters mind off the aircon by playing a constant stream of local karaoke and soap operas on DVDs.
On arrival we booked our trip up to the pagoda which is perched on a mountain top 1100m above sea level which you access on a specially converted Nissan 4x4 tip truck.
The 15km road trip up from the base camp at Kinpun was quite scary and incorporates numerous very tight and steep switch backs. Our truck was laden with 30 odd pilgrims plus our heathen selves and frequently had to back up when approaching these tight turns. One can of course elect to hike up the mountain which for the average pilgrim would take about 6 hours.
It took nearly 2 hours to negotiate up and yet only 45minutes to go down - equally as scary.
We were quite lucky with the weather when we eventually reached the summit and the pagoda as the low cloud decided to briefly ascend enabling us to take the odd photograph before the whole area was again shrouded in mist.
German tourist elects to use a sedan chair for the final climb
Maria engaged in footwear removal
Golden Rock on Mt Kyaiktiyo (legend has it that the boulder remains precariously perched where it is by the presence of a hair from the Buddha placed in the stupa in the 11th C)....only men are permitted to place gold leaf on the Golden Rock.
An Australian pair of Pilgrims complete with their US$6 passes around their necks
Porters employed to carry tourists luggage to the very expensive mountain top hotels and for general goods
We also secured a sterile tiled double room with Ensuite, aircon and fridge for $20......but the owners had first to reconnect the water to the bathroom!....a recurring problem see later
Back in Yangon we packed up our bags for our 0615 hr one hour flight to Mandalay...it meant getting up at 0400hours.
On arrival in Mandalay (airport is 28 miles out of town), we noticed a QANTAS 747 parked on the tarmac (first 747 to land in Mandalay). We later learnt that it was on a around the world charter @$40 000 per head - nice hols for some of those AB demographics.
QANTAS jumbo dwarfs Mandalay's airport
Meanwhile, we used a LP recommended Taxi to take us direct to their travel agency to see what they could organise for our river trip. Nothing as it turned but our taxi driver proved most helpful in first taking us to the train station and securing a seat on that day's overnight train and then to the hotel I had booked for 3 days hence to park our big bags while we cruised the river. This was Maria's brain wave and it was a good one. We then sought refuge from the heat in the nearby Shwe Ingninn Hotel's rooftop bar and restaurant where we were befriended by the hotel's Food and Beverage Manager (Zin Lin Htun - firstname.lastname@example.org) who insisted on inviting us back to his home once we had returned from our river trip.
Mandalay is much cleaner and more orderly than Yangon with the streets in its downtown planned in a grid around the old palace and moat and numbered from East to West from 1 to 49 and North to South over 50. Their signage is also consistent and therefore great.
However, as with Yangon they have surrendered their footpaths to everything other than pedestrians eg cars, motorcycles, goods for sale, Betel nut sellers, so the overladen western tourist has no option but to walk on the road and try and avoid the chaotic traffic mix of bikes, push carts, taxis, motorcycles, buses and trucks......sure keeps one alert.
Alternative use for the scarce usable footpath space
Horror Train to Naba (Katha)
Our 1620hr train to Naba (25km from Katha) eventually left at 1745 hours. We had asked for the best seats assuming we would be given First Class (airline type) seats. However, our train only consisted of Ordinary class with wooden benches and Upper class (with half an inch of padding over the same wooden benches) - there is a First Class but none on this train and so we spent nearly 14 hours in agony on these seats.
Mandalay's grand railway station - just a pity about the trains that run out of it!
Already a little apprehensive about the journey - but at last on our way
During the journey the carriages rolled violently from side to side and then began to bounce uncontrollably so that the passengers were flung into the air -initially most of the passengers thought this funny but by journeys end had had enough. One's sleep was constantly interrupted by hawkers both inside and outside the train trying to sell passengers food, cigarettes, betel nut, water, beer etc. This was not a good experience - we should have checked on the type of train but this would not have been easy given that neither the tourist nor ticketing offices were manned by an English speaker.
We caught a pick up truck (Nissan long-bodied utility) to take us across the mountain range to Katha and the Ayeyarwady River. Now on arrival at the river and ferry office I noticed a fast and slow ferry both going up river to Bhamo - so we could have done it after all. However we were now victims of tiredness having spent the past 40 hours sleep deprived by early plane and slow night train. We just booked the standard Govt (Inland Waterway Transportation - IWT) ferry back to Mandalay US$9 each (the fast boat is US$50). One of the luxury cruise boats was tired up at Katha. It provides everything one could want for the fortunate 16 couples (no doubt part of AB demographic) it caters for.
IWT Government Ferry (the Olde Flotilla)
A major attraction of Katha was its association with George Orwell's book Burmese Days which he wrote while stationed as a policeman at the town during the late 1920s. We hired a car and driver to show us around the old British Club, Tennis Club, District Commissioner McGregor's house and Orwell's police house.
Former District Commissioner's house Former British Club
Katha's Anglican Church Katha's Tennis Club
All very interesting to me at least. We then found a Burmese restaurant and bar to await the ferry which departed on time at 1645 hours on its 24 hour trip. This restaurant had massive cauldrons of different curries which I was very tempted to try but fear of the quality of the forthcoming Ferry ablution facilities quelled my enthusiasm.
Katha Cafe & Bar with owner peeling loads of garlic
What a selection of Burmese Curries - while they looked great - fear of the forthcoming night with the ferry ablutes quelled our enthusiasm
While we were wandering about Katha, Maria inadvertently brushed her leg against a still hot motor scooter exhaust and during the following evening it became infected and caused her a deal of pain and worry on the ferry trip.
Ayeyarwady River Cruise
Our ferry turned out to be full of locals and apart from ourselves there is only one other European on board (Christina - a young German backpacker). There were no cabins available and so along with everyone else we set up 'camp' on the middle deck floor. All the locals came prepared with straw mat and blanket. plus loads of food to eat during their journey. We had purchased several pieces of fruit plus some water. The ferry has a locally manned kitchen from which they cook up a variety of traditional dishes. The toilets are squat type but quite functional - much better than a couple I can recall on Greek Island ferries. During the evening and the following morning many locals donned jumpers and coats - the temperature had probably dropped to 29C.
Capt at the no frills helm
Freight and no frills Squat Ablutes
Communing with the locals
Night time but not lights out
Kids with fireworks Moon Rising
Moonlight on the River and little while later - Sunrise on the River
Top Deck Passengers (quite wet from the overnight dew)
The river offers a constant changing scene of rural life together with plenty of different types of pagoda. The ferry occasionally pulled into a village to let off and let on passengers and freight.
The farmer above is tilling one of the many mud bars on the River
More River and Pagodas
During the early morning I pulled out a copy of Kipling's 1890s poem The Road to Mandalay I had especially brought along for this quite pleasant drift down the river; viz
Come ye back to Mandalay,
Where the old Flotilla lay,
Can't you ear their paddles chunkin' from Rangoon to Mandalay,
On the road to Mandalay,
Where the flyin-fishes play,
An the dawn comes up like thunder outer China crost the bay!
Elephants pilin teak,
In the sludgy, squidgy creek,
Where the silence 'ung that 'eavy you was 'arf afraid to speak!
Ship me somewhere east of Suez, where the best is like the worst,
Where there aren't no Ten Commandments an'a man can raise a thirst;
For the temple-bells are callin, and its there that I would be -
By the old Moulmein Pagoda, looking lazy at the sea......
Come ye back to Mandalay,
Where the old Flotilla lay,
Can't you ear their paddles chunkin' from Rangoon to Mandalay,
On the road to Mandalay,
Where the flyin-fishes play,
An the dawn comes up like thunder outer China crost the bay
Well the dawn did come up like thunder and it began to rain lightly but I failed to spot any 'Flyin fishes'. The river silt is so fertile that as the river levels drop the local farmers begin to till the mud bars for rice and various other vegetable crops.
I used part of the next morning to type up some back notes of this trip and this created quite a deal of interest from my fellow passengers (especially the children) who crowded about me as I balanced the laptop on my knees and tried to work.
Ruins of the ancient city of Mingun and its incomplete Paya (just up stream from Mandalay)
Now we had a relatively restful night on the boat and were surprised to learn that the current was running so strongly that we would be 4hours early into Mandalay.......railways be damned! Soon the bulk of Mandalay Hill and the city's few tall buildings came into view along with the muddy banks.
Mandalay Hill dotted here and there with the odd golden stupa
Mandalay's few high rise buildings (mainly posh hotels)
Back to Mandalay
On arrival at Mandalay's riverbank jetty, we eventually succumbed to a couple of motorcycle taxis to drive us to our hotel which took about 30 minutes.
Mandalay Dockside (NB there is a modest floating pontoon for ferry passengers to disembark)
Maria on her Motorcycle taxi enroute to our hotel in Mandalay
Unlike Yangon there are precious few taxis on the roads here. The general public appear to opt for buses and motorbike taxis.
Local pick-up taxi
This is a real concern for foreign tourists who will have to rely on a lot of taxis in this town which itself is very widespread and typically takes 30 minutes to go from side to side of the central area. This is exacerbated by the need to go around the centrally located Royal Palace which occupies an area of perhaps 100 acres and is surrounded by a 230ft wide moat and a crenulated 26ft high wall. The original palace was destroyed by fire during WWII and the site is now used as a military barracks. The government has rebuilt some replicas of the original Palace buildings for tourists but they seemed to have lost a lot of their architectural integrity and the wooden carving not as good as we had seen in Angkor Wat.
Royal carriages Royal Palace Watch tower
Our hotel in Mandalay's east turned out to be a typical Chinese businessman's style hotel with grand foyer and reception area, lots of garish tiled walls and polished wooden furniture designed for giants.
As in Yangon, there is no designated tourist or backpacker district in Mandalay. Anyway when it came time to un pack our bags and sort laundry and finally have our first shower in 2.5 days we discovered there was no hot water. Manager was beside herself but being a full moon holiday she doubted she could get it fixed that day. She offered Maria a bath full of hot water while I stoically used the warmish shower in our room. Hot water was not restored to our room for two days and even then took 10 minutes to come through.
We had both noticed ourselves developing head colds/chest infections probably from our close encounters on the train and ferry with many locals coughing and sniffling. We sought out a pharmacy and he gave us some pills which hopefully will restore us to good health shortly. We returned later for some cough syrup. We dined at a Burmese Beer Station which are scattered all over Mandalay and which all offer a Bar B Cue menu of an array of meats and vegetables on skewers and then served them up to you chopped....some of the offerings included pigs tail, goat, chicken feet, okra, green spinach,........rather nice as well as a 'complimentary plate of pop corn and watermelon!......cold draught beer at $0.70 a handle. A band started up singing western pop songs in Burmese and so we opted for an early night. As predicted by LP the power supply throughout Myanmar is a little dodgy and we had several 5 minute blackouts in our region of town during the night.
Beer Station with Skewered (stick) food
The 'Bar-B-Cue' cooks
We rang our earlier contact Zin Lin and arrangements were made for us to be picked up at about 1100 hrs and taken to his home for lunch and then for a discussion as to how he could best help us see the best of Mandalay utilising the services of his friend (Soe Kyaw) in a private car.
Lunch turned out to be a marvellous event with his father, wife and son present in his small traditional bamboo woven house. In keeping with Muslim practise they would not eat the meal they had prepared with us. We had chicken curry, herb soup, fish cakes, spicy beef jerky, fried water cress and mushrooms, plus steamed rice and after the meal some digestive condiments of pickled tea leaves and fried garlic - I think that was all. The family even took pity on our aged inflexible joints and permitted us to sit on small stools rather than sit cross legged on the floor.
Zin also introduced us to the Muslim tradition of eating with 5 Chopsticks aka fingers! This was an extra-ordinary act of friendship on the family's behalf for which we will remain eternally grateful.
After lunch the planning session began and it was decided that we would contract his friend (?brother) Soe Kyaw for the remainder of that day plus 3 extra days for about $200. Excellent value and it provided a personal touch to our exploration of this town. And so for three days Soe drove us around to all the major iconic tourist attractions plus some.
Kyauktawgyi and the 900 tonne marble statue of Buddha
On our trip to Mingun he bought his wife along. It rained several times during our stay and it was interesting to note how long it took the water to run away from this very flat city basically built on river silt. The temps stayed in the low 30s but the humidity was the killer at 90+%. We at last saw our first group of European (mainly) tour groups at these historical sites and pagodas.
Zin arranged for Maria to see a local doctor about her leg (she had previously burnt it on a parked motor scooter exhaust - it had become infected. (These scooters clutter every inch of pavement and make it quite difficult at times to access shops, cafes and bars behind). The visit only took about an hour and cost $20 - alls well and Maria has a supply of sterile pads and an antibiotic gel to put on it.
We dined at the Green Elephant, a Burmese but tourist orientated restaurant nearby our hotel but were not overly impressed with their offering.
Actually it has proven difficult to date to access good and stomach proof Burmese cuisine - we must try harder maybe downtown will offer more than our local suburb. It is evident already that good quality Burmese food has not readily made the transition from small scale street stalls to commercial restaurants and that instead these latter establishments tend to serve Chinese or Thai cuisine.
We were impressed with the moated walled Royal Palace and the views from Mandalay Hill - we took the car plus the escalators rather than the more traditional 45 minute steep walk up the covered stairway. Unfortunately the cloud cover from the earlier rains prevented us from getting a good clear picture of the sunset.
Sunset over Mandalay from Mandalay Hill (very cloudy evening)
We spent a day driving to the former royal capital of Inwa (Ava) as well as to Sagaing (Shan capital from 1300-1760) and Mingun (site of the 18th C planned biggest but never finished pagoda).
Mingun Paya (rudely referred to by some as the largest pile of bricks in the world - it can be climbed but only in bare feet - ugh!)
Maria bangs or bongs the giant Mingun Bell
Inwa was seen via a very uncomfortable horse drawn buggy which was extremely dirty and uncomfortable. The driver never let up on whipping his poor pony as it struggled on the muddy tracks.
Tour of Inwa ruins by very uncomfortable horse drawn buggy
Sagaing Hill from the bridge over the Ayeyarwady
The next day our driver took us on a tour of the very popular Mahamuni Paya home to a seated statue of Buddha believed to be over 2000 years old with over a six inch layer of gold leaf over his body. His gleaming face is exempt and is washed every morning at 0400hrs as are his teeth! This monastery is approached by covered colonnades of inhabited by merchants selling religious and non-religious Buddhist paraphernalia as well as T shirts sunglasses, jewellery and other assorted commercial items....the Buddha himself does look a wee bit podgy around his body on account of the amount of gold leaf which has been affixed to him..
Mahamuni Paya (very distorted and podgy)
Stolen brass statuary from Angkor Wat (they are rubbed for good health - hence Maria's furtive stance)
Next he took us on a tour of all the various craft guilds, gold leaf, weaving, embroidery, marionettes, marble sculpting, wood turning and sculpture. During this session we appeared to be followed by a succession of tourist tour buses all descending on the same spots as ourselves. It was here that I began to notice the same faces of those tourists seen before in other pagodas and I reckon there is scant few of us around at present.
Embroiders Gold Leaf Pounders
Sculpturing with angle grinder (note Betel stains) Maria explores the fine Buddha's
Marionette workshop Hand Weaving
Hand Weaving of Longyi cloth John buying his first Longyi
We then had a delightful lunch at the Royal Lake Bar and Restaurant on Lake Kandawgi. Lovely setting and food at very reasonable prices.
It was then off to visit one of Mandalay's most venerated monasteries built of teak the Shwe In Bin which was the best example of fine wooden temple carving I have seen since Cambodia. Unfortunately this venerable building is slowly falling apart and needs some urgent attention but the government has other priorities. We have still not been out Wat'd!
Shwe In Bin (built of solid teak) monastery
Beautifully carved teak doors and ceiling
We then drove to the iconic U Bein's bridge to catch another elusive sunset . Unfortunately, it was not to be, given the rain earlier in the morning so once again we have been nobbled.
The world's longest (1300m) solid teak bridge
Pyin Oo Lwin (Hill Station out of Mandalay)
We had originally planned to overnight to enable us to catch an early morning train and view an amazing viaduct over a jungle gorge a little way out of town, but Zin Lin convinced us a day trip was all that was required. So we set off in our car at 0800 hrs. Shortly after leaving Mandalay our driver pulled into a small Buddhist shrine to seek a blessing for our safe return from over the mountains.
The road was for the most part a divided road not only to assist navigate the numerous hairpin bends but also to assist the huge trucks which daily use the road which is the main link to the most commonly used border crossing with China. This area has a sizable number of Muslims and there has been a bit of religious/political unrest in recent times which accounts for the number of heavily armed military personnel deployed along the road.
Pyin Oo Lwin is major cut flower centre and we saw many trucks and motorbikes overloaded with white, yellow and red chrysanthemums heading into Mandalay for sale to the pilgrims wishing to use them when visiting a pagoda. This town has a disproportionate number fine and expensive hotels and guesthouses as well as many grand private homes.
Our first stop was to the Botanical Gardens (the only one in Burma) which was established by the British back in 1924. The gardens were I think a little over prim but colourful nevertheless. There was an excellent wetland elevated boardwalk, orchard of tropical fruit trees, aviary, orchid garden and butterfly collection. The gardens are set out around a lake which hosts both white and black swans. There is also a 12 story high ancient Chinese wooden watchtower which I managed to climb (Maria took the lift).
This exotic bird in the walk through aviary had managed to find a child's lolly to eat
We then had lunch in a tourist orientated restaurant which offered mainly Chinese/Thai/Western dishes. We keep hearing repeated to us that true Burmese cuisine has not yet been elevated from the street vendors and that most restaurants appealing to foreign tourists opt for Chinese and Thai fusion.
After lunch we searched the local market and shops in the town for tourist type souvenir clothing but alas like elsewhere in Myanmar - this type of industry has yet to be established. The lack of tourist infrastructure is evident everywhere you go ie simple multi-purpose cafes for casual drinks and light food. Foreign tourists can readily avail themselves of genuine local craft products but will find it hard to pick up a tourist T shirt etc. However, there is no difficulty in obtaining a British soccer club memorabilia whether in clothing or accessories for motor scooter helmets, seats etc
Our driver then took us to some rather beautiful water falls which doubles as the local swimming hole and the attendant food and ice cream stalls detracted from the natural beauty of the spot.
It was then home and a sad farewell to our driver of the last 3.5 days who had shown us so many things. He had tried to negotiate an extension to our original contract by letting him drive us down to Inle Lake the following day but his price of nearly US$100 for the 6 hour trip seemed excessive compared to the US$30 VIP bus fare.
Moustache Brothers Show
That night we went to see the Moustache Brothers satirical vaudeville show (in English) which was quite interesting but does come with some rather boring sessions of classical Burmese folk dancing. The famous political activist brother died last year from lead poisoning from the painted water containers in his prison cell. The remaining brothers offer skilful sets of political satire. I bought one of their T shirts to support the cause of political freedom in Myanmar. One of the brothers then arranged to drive Maria and I home on motorbikes.
Our last day in Mandalay was spent packing, typing up diary blog and then we went off to the Zoo (very average apart from their collection of tigers), then to the Central Market (very utilitarian and of little interest to foreign tourist and then we went in search of the View Point Bar on the banks of Ayeyarwady highly recommended by LP only to find that it had closed. But our motorbike taxi drivers soon identified an excellent replacement (Cafe YMH on Kanar Road) on the river bank from which we could view the river traffic gliding up and down during sunset - while enjoying a cold Myanmar Lager.
Still flows the Ayeyarwady River - dusk in Mandalay
IWT Ferry on its way down river to Bagan
This we did till around 1800 hrs when it was time to return to our hotel , pick up our bags and head to the bus station to catch our overnight bus to Inle (pronounced In-lay) Lake.
This time our bus was almost express, fully air-conditioned with fully reclining business class seats - luxury. We left at 2000 hrs and after arriving at Shwenyaung we shared a taxi with a German couple down to the Lake's major town of Nyaungshwe - arriving at our hotel (the Aquarius Inn) at 0600hr - far too early to gain access to our room. En route we had to stop and pay the General's US$10/head entry fee (LP quote US$5/hd) to the Inle Lake zone. The Germans expressed some indignation when they noted that the fee was also set at €10 - foreign exchange rates be buggered!
After a short sleep in one of the hotel's spare rooms we gained access to our own palatial room. It is excellent. With 200 degree views and spotless bathroom. Lovely fridge and a secure balcony with patio chairs all for $40/night (including beautifully prepared breakfasts- which varied every day).......best price thanks to www.agoda.com . most of the guests were Europeans (German, French & Spanish).
Aquarius Inn (highly recommended - book early)
Ensuite and Private Balcony (Maria bought her bottle of Chivas Regal from local shop for a ridiculous price of only US$22)
Aquarius Inn's lovely private garden
After check in we got the hotel to book our lake boat trip for the following day and for our bus journey over to Bagan 4 days hence. I then told him our tale of not being able to experience much genuine Burmese cooking and seeking restaurant suggestions from him here at Nyaungshwe. He gave us a short list of three and bingo the first we tried for lunch was a winner with a beaut herb soup based on Pennywort and Shan beef curry. This restaurant (Lin Htett just looks like any other cheap cafe but its a gem and is coincidently given a big wrap in the LP) Served with 3 beers it cost $8.
Aung San Suu Kyi - her portrait hangs in all cafes, bars and shops throughout Myanmar - just like the Queen used to hang!
We have booked the best one for our last night. We did try his second choice (Green Chilli) which turned out to be a rather expensive but tame Thai place which however did serve bottles of the local wine which we tried - a rather ordinary Sauvignon Blanc - I also noticed a James Hardy on the wine list).
On the way home we dropped into the local supermarket to have a look and lo and behold were able to buy a bottle of Chivas Regal for $22 and big bottles of beer $1.50. I again acted as camel for the walk home.
Nyaungshwe also supports a decadent French bakery and pastry cafe. We succumbed one rainy lunchtime for chicken liver pate' and a chicken vol au vent plus two (real) cappuccinos......very naughty! ....but at least we ate, other European backpackers just sat their with their bottled waters and mooning over their IPods and smart phones (exploiting the free WIFI) all day.
Boat Cruise on Inle Lake
Inle Lake sits in a valley almost 1000ft above sea level and measures approximately 32km long by 5kms wide and supports a population of approximately 150 000 Intha people unlike the Shan tribesman who surround them. The Lake is connected to the town of Nyaungshwe by a 3km long canal and for the most part is quite shallow (less than 2m).
A 0730 start was a must, however the rain which began the night before was a bit inhibiting; especially given our lingering chest colds. However, we were convinced to venture out onto the Lake by another pair of Americans we had met the night before. It turned out to be the best decision we ever made as the rain soon abated and while low cloud covered most of the surrounding mountains the Lake basin remained clear.
The boats which ply the Lake are all a flat bottomed long tail variety in which you are seated in remarkably comfortable cushioned deck chairs (max of 5-6 persons per boat). The extended boat trip around the Lake takes about 8 hours and costs about $18 for the boat.
Same boats being used as local taxis and to cart local produce to lakeside markets
Maria started off the day with a life jacket but eventually dispensed with it as her comfort level rose
Fishing for bait fish with a cast net
Of course, one of the most famous sights on the Lake are the local fisherman who have developed a one legged style of rowing leaving both of their hands free to drop their uniquely-styled conical nets over the fish in the shallow waters below. One now has to pay to film them providing a demonstration of this strange movement.
We took hundreds of photographs and hopefully a selection of these will do proper justice to this magic experience. Plus I experimented with our camera's video capabilities with varying degrees of success.......but still cannot get the video clips to plug in successfully to this website.
The boat trip itinerary includes visits to floating market gardens, the Ywama village built on wooden stilts out on the lake's waters, silver and silk weaving workshops and numerous expensive souvenir (trap) shops; complete with a couple of token Padaung women with the brass rings around their necks.
Floating Market Gardens
Padaung women showing off their brass neck and knee rings which frequently causes them to have deformed collar bones
Resort built out over the lake
At the weaving workshop we were able to watch the making of the very labour intensive and expensive thread made from the fine silk-like strands extracted from the water lily stem. Hand woven scarves made from this thread are almost twice as expensive as those made from silk. Apparently much of the thread is exported to Japan for the manufacture of fine scarves
One also visits a number of pagodas and Buddhist monasteries scattered around the Lake. One in particular you have to walk through a large market to get to and then up a covered walkway flanked by stalls selling all manner of Buddhist paraphernalia as well as tourist souvenirs. The pagoda itself consists of over 1000 golden and weather beaten stupas.
Monks enroute to the Shwe Inn Thein Pagoda
Ethnic tribeswomen busy at the market
Maria hiding amongst the zedi as nature takes hold of others
You are also taken to the Phaung Daw Oo pagoda wherein you can view five ancient Buddha images which over time have become unrecognisable blobs covered in gold leaf. Four of the five images are paraded around the Lake once a year in a special barge. Now some years ago the barge capsized and only four of the five images were recovered. Upon returning to the pagoda they found the fifth image 'miraculously' back in its normal position - it now stands guard at the pagoda while the other four are annually paraded.
Gold leafed blobs (just discernable)
You can also view from afar the half a dozen ritzy resorts ($200+/night) built over the lake. As you travel about the lake you become aware of that the vast majority of foreign tourists at Inle Lake come as part of an organised tour with the tour group's name displayed prominently on their boats.
As we returned to our home it started to rain again and this slowly strengthened over the evening and kept up overnight - so much for getting our hotel to wash our dirty clothes. All clothes being dried only in the sun.
The rain kept up all day and made a bit of a quagmire of the big weekly market at Nyaungshwe. Most of the stalls are out in the open and protected only with neck high tarps which proved a little awkward for most foreign tourists looking for the odd cheap shirt, longyi, trinket etc.
Betel leaf smeared with slaked lime and the nut from the Areca palm
Market favourites (deep fried chook's head on a stick with a dash of chilli)
On our last day we further explored the town and then decided to visit a local winery for lunch. The Red Mountain Estate Winery offered a wide range of wines including, Chardonnay, Shiraz. Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir and Muscat. We had a fine time tasting and then enjoyed a rather decadent lunch of smoked salmon.
Red Mountain Estate winery for lunch
Later that evening we had dinner in the highly regarded Viewpoint Restaurant (www.inleviewpoint.com) which is located right on the busy canal which links the town to the Lake proper (claims to offer Nouvelle Shan cuisine). Well we opted for a very nouvelle Bar B Cue set menu of five meats on knife skewers stuck into a pumpkin and accompanied by a selection of five different marinades. You cooked the skewers yourself basting at will. We accompanied it with a local bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon......very very nice.
Burmese/Shan Shish Kebabs
Fine dining at the Viewpoint Restaurant including a trip to their humorous toilet 'marionette' signage
We had booked the 0730 bus to Bagan (pronounced Bargun). It took us over the mountains at about 2000m above sea level and then wound its way down to the plain of Bagan. En route the bus developed suspension problems which necessitated extra time to fix. We eventually pulled into the commercial heart of Bagan (the town of Nyaung-U) at about 1830 hrs - a very long albeit scenic drive over the mountains. On occasions the bus had to back up to negotiate a couple of the hair pin bends. Contrary to expectations, this was not an express service but instead picked up and dropped off locals all the way. There were probably about 10 foreign tourists on the bus including a pair of Canadians we had met briefly in Nyaungshwe a couple of days earlier. As we neared the Bagan plain we started to view large stands of Eucalypt trees which appear to be part of a major international re-forestation program for the Bagan area.
Subsequent investigations revealed that Eucalypt plantations have been established commercially since the late 1960s to supply 1) fuel wood, charcoal, poles, posts and small timbers for rural community; 2) timber for farm implements; 3) raw material for paper industries; 4) mine props and fishery posts; 5) to establish plantations under harsh climatic conditions with poor soil as this is the only species that can withstand such severe condition and grow well; 6) to protect erosion in the catchment area
However, there have been complaints about the plantations visual impact on the Bagan plain as the trees tend to conceal many of the historical pagodas from the tourists' cameras........another 'green' quandary perhaps.
At the entrance to the Bagan international heritage zone all foreign tourists were ordered off the bus to pay a US$15 or €15 visitor fee ...(LP quoted this fee at US$10). What the hell its all supposed to go towards the preservation of the area.
Our pre-booked Mya Thida Hotel in the New Bagan township turned out to be a little underwhelming especially as it did not include a fridge. Our arrival coincided with a local power outage which tended to make things look even more grim.
Our nasty basic room in New Bagan - crap
However hunger overcame these minor difficulties and we quickly found a local Burmese restaurant for a plate of pork curry and fried rice. On returning to our hotel we found the power back on but a very weak WIFI signal....could spell future problems for using email and the internet.
During dinner we chatted with an American and English girls who are both staying at our hotel and they gave us a few tips of how best to explore the various sites down here. They also warned us that the Balloons over Bagan had not been able to launch for the past 3 days on account of the local rain!
Apart from the busy Ayeyarwady port town of Nyaung U (also home to the airport) to the north, the majority of the important archaeological sites are located between Old Bagan and New Bagan to the south - within an area of about 26 square miles. There are over 4000 such sites and it is up to the individual as to which ones to visit and choose their preferred method of transport; ranging between bicycle ($3/day), Electric Bicycle ($10), horse cart ($25), taxi ($35) or taxi with guide ($75).....we initially opted for a taxi without guide and managed to visit all the major sites over a period of 10hours - a lot of shoe removing and sarong garbing made for a long and tiring day but we were anxious to ensure we had the big ones covered prior to our hot air balloon flight the next day.
Electric bike and horse with cushioned cart
I learnt from our hotel that, like in Cambodia, tourists are not permitted to hire small motor scooters in Myanmar on account of the lack of proper third party and personal insurance cover....so be it.....but it would have been very handy.
In fact we started our first full day in Bagan by checking in with the Balloons Over Bagan company (an Australian joint venture) where we witnessed a rather torrid exchange between a German couple and the staff over the former's cancelled flight that day.
Now this is what we envisaged we would see from our balloon ride:
We were then warned that, despite the fine weather, our flight the next day was still in doubt because of the direction of the wind.....we left to do battle with the pagodas with our fingers crossed. It should be noted here that we booked this expensive ($350 each) one hour sunrise flight back in August and all the rest of our travel plans were structured around Balloon Day 31 October 2013. At any rate we were advised that if it was on, a bus would collect us at 0455 hours the next day.
The pagodas, temples and monasteries of Bagan are all made from red bricks covered with stucco. Many are now in a serious state of disrepair due to government neglect. In addition the government has been keen to promote the re-forestation of the area which in time will make it virtually impossible to discern the pagodas amongst the vegetation. The plain of Bagan is a notoriously a dry region receiving far less rain than the countryside around it.
During our day of exploration we saw many impressive structures, 11th - 13th century frescos, Buddha's in all manor of guises and of course souvenir venders peddling everything from, postcards, copied religious art, T shirts, parasols and of course lacquer ware for which the region is famous. In addition, their were some shifty types furtively approaching one in the shadows of the pagodas with 'precious gems' and illegal 'genuine archaeological' figures in grimy handkerchiefs.
Myiakaba and gold leafing
John on one of the few pagodas one is now permitted to climb
A bit of gold leaf here and there
Easy to suffer from pagoda overload
Wherever you looked there was another stupa and or golden spire. Unfortunately the Government has made a rather ham-fisted job of re-building the Royal palace which was finally destroyed during devastating earthquake in 1975. Many other restoration projects are of questionable authenticity have been sponsored by wealthy locals and by foreign governments.
At sunset our Taxi took us back to the Shwe-san-daw pagoda to celebrate the sunset amongst the 1000s of others perched on every camera vantage point of the steeply terraced pagoda - reminded me of the monkeys crawling over the temples in Bali.
Shwe San Daw Paya - Sunset Clamber up
The Sunset over Bagan (Ayeyarwady River in background)
Bagan ranks with Angkor Wat in Cambodia in grandeur although much of the pagoda decorative stucco freezes have fallen away what remains is as good as the stone work one sees in Cambodia.
The next morning we were woken by the hotel staff at 0415 to prepare for our ballooning adventure, only to be called again 15 minutes later to be told it had been cancelled. We both felt bitterly disappointed and although our money will be fully refunded we have been robbed of the experience of a lifetime.......as have many others in the same boat.
Instead we took a half day tour of Mount Poppa some 2300m high with a rather gaudy pagoda on top. Its a fair hike up 777 steps of a covered walkway being constantly watched and harassed by temple monkeys who shit and piss all over the tiled stairway. One bugger tried to relieve me of my water bottle. It was good to see one of the many souvenir stallholders utilise a Shang eye against these pesky pests.
Maria half way up those steps (barefoot) to the pagoda atop Mt Poppa trying to avoid the bloody monkeys who piss and shit all over the steep stairways
Monastery below Mt Poppa and view of Bagan Plain from the summit
On the return journey I got our taxi driver to stop at a Toddy Bar where the process of collecting the juice from the female flower of the sugar palms and then first fermenting and later distilling the juice into a fiery alcoholic spirit......yes we did have a small taste....reminded me of Raki back in Crete years ago. We also were shown how they employ an ox yoked to oil press to extract peanut oil for general cooking. We also tasted and bought some local confectionary (Jagggery) made from palm sugar mixed with coconut....quite nice and tasted not unlike coconut ice.
Collecting Palm Juice for Toddy
Palm Juice being distilled
Tasting some distilled Toddy (reminded me of the Raki I had drunk in Crete many years ago) - the chap is holding the female flower from the sugar Palm which they tap for the raw juice
Our final day in Bagan was spent shopping for unique cotton umbrellas and fine lacquer ware for which Bagan is famous. We toured some of the best lacquer ware workshops where we were shown the laborious and intricate art of producing this fine handicraft - up to 18 coats of lacquer are applied. We managed to buy a couple of pieces but their bulkiness has since proven to be a bit of a problem in stowing safely.
Purchased Lacquer ware
We utilised a Horse taxi to do this and it was to prove very helpful.
Our favourite parasol shop (near the Black Bamboo Restaurant in Nyaung U)
While touring around the shops that day we were fortunate to witness a procession of heavily decorated horse and ox drawn carts carrying quite young children and their parents to a pagoda to begin their Buddhist education
In our search for Lacquer ware our initial exploration of a prestigious workshop was thwarted by a military cavalcade escorting the wive(s) of the Chief of the Indian Defence Forces who wanted to shop at the same shop as ourselves. We eventually found what we wanted and after some hours retired to the Sunset Restaurant on the banks of the Ayeyarwady River. Sunset occurs in this part of the country at 1730hrs cf Darwin at 1830hrs. It was a beautifully tranquil location.
While at this restaurant we decided to order Crispy Duck at $7.50 but we failed to identify its arrival and instead thought the staff had brought us a side serve of deep fried onion for our soup. Only much later after steamed rice had been served did I enquire about our duck only to be told that we had sprinkled the costly animal's shredded deep fried carcass on our soup. We laughed but not as loudly as the staff at our western gaffe.
It was a splendid location to spend our last night and sunset at Bagan and to try and forget our disappointment over the non-ballooning experience which just happened to fly today - a day to late for us. We learnt today that they had had to refund over 60 reservations for flights booked months ago by punters such as ourselves. Warning to all readers - do not book a flight prior to November.
Tomorrow morning at around 0930 hrs we fly to Ngapali Beach on the Bay of Bengal via Yangon. We actually thought we had seen the end of transport hassles now that our remaining travel was to be on planes. Not so. Our flight to Thandwe (airport closest to Ngapali Beach) turned out to be a series of stuff ups. Our initial Air Bagan plane out of Bagan to Yangon was an hour late and then our connecting flight was also an hour late as well as being diverted to the more northerly town of Sittwe and then finally to our destination which we reached after nearly 8 hours of sitting in airports and planes (it should have taken 3 hours all up).
Bagan (Nuang U) Airport and that offending late plane
Wrong (Sittwe) Destination
The Laguna Lodge Eco resort turned out to be some 12 miles south of the Thandwe town and airport. But it is situated right on the beach surrounded by coconut palms. Our first floor balcony beach front room is very spacious with ensuite but no air-conditioning or fridge. We have to rely on the sea breeze blowing straight in the large French sliding doors.
Laguna Lodge with our upstairs balcony room through the coconuts
The lodge was set up by a German chef Oliver Esser who in concert with a number of other international chefs organises a range of free vocational hospitality training courses to local people (www.lagunalodge-myanmar.com). He lives in Yangon and has another German (Joachim) to run the place for him together with a number of local girls.
Room prices start at $40 for basic back packer double rising to $70 for our elevated beachfront room. The rooms are charming but basic - but you cannot beat the location. The ritzy Amata Resort (home to Ngapali's only tennis court) next door is charging over $300 for similar beachfront villa. There is draught beer on tap and beautiful breakfasts are included. Massages on the beach and fishing and snorkelling trips available.
Unfortunately, our chest infections have not cleared up so we will just soak up the sun and enjoy the fantastic seafood on offer at all the local restaurants. We shared 3 gigantic tiger prawns and a whole grilled red schnapper for dinner last night all for $8!....this is pretty close to paradise and we should have stayed here a week clipping days off Yangon, Mandalay, Bagan and Inle Lake
Every night the lights of the fishing boats can be seen working maybe 3-5 miles offshore and in the morning they sell their catch direct from their boats - can't get any fresher.
Fishing fleet at work
Unloading the catch
Ladies (with their faces daubed with Thanakha ) drying fish
Repairing fishing boats
Women selling Fish and Fruit up and down the street
The next evening the dodgy electricity infrastructure failed and half the town was plunged into darkness. This was doubly uncomfortable by the lack of a sea breeze that evening. After about 30 minutes the power was restored and fans began to function again and shirts wet with perspiration began to dry.
Ngapali is a little similar to Ko Lanta in Sthn Thailand but much cleaner and the place tends to be more friendly with less touts and horn beeping Tuk Tuks. While we are in Rakhaing State we did not see any Rohingyans - an ethnic Muslim minority group who claim persecution and fill many of the refugee boats headed to Australia - I did not see or hear a single mosque.
Sea water temperature is warmer than Darwin - beautiful swimming in clear water sans box jellyfish, sea lice or any other tropical nasty.
I have had to pay a ritzy resort up the road $5/day to utilise their WIFI hotspot - but its worth it albeit very very slow.
Despite our chest infections, we decided to take a half day boat trip around a local island. The initial emphasis was on snorkelling and while I gave it my best effort, a blocked nose and ears are not conducive to this activity and I soon gave it away even though our boatman was urging me to come and look at a groper he had spied.
There was plenty of coral about and it was interesting to note that the boatman chose to use a stone anchor to protect the local coral. The water was extremely clear and free of debris which often scars the odd Thai beach. The boats used a basically a scaled down version of the Thai Longtail but these are only powered by a 7hp petrol motor. We were told that the cheaper Chinese made engines only last 12 months whereas a Thai motor would last well over 5 years. Our boatman also gave me a professional "longyi tying demonstration - so I can now do it now with some degree of confidence and I wore it out that evening. We spent lunchtime at an island cafe (Lobster Restaurant) where they offer Painted Crays for lunch.
We dined again at our favourite restaurant Ambrosia (we did try the LP's favourite of Two Brothers but were not impressed). This time I tried a mild prawn curry while Maria had some tempura prawns....we then ventured into the Amata Resort for pancakes, ice cream and cognac....a nice finish to our final night. However, when we got back to Laguna Lodge we found that the owner Oliver like his namesake The Phantom had dropped in from Yangon and so we joined him and a couple of others discussing his volunteer vocational training programs...quite interesting and the 'on-the-house' beers were much appreciated.
Anyone contemplating booking into the Laguna Lodge needs to do so months in advance and then probably book room 10 or 12 on the beachfront up stairs for the perfect relax, great brewed coffee and fruit for breakfast and good company. It was amazing to see so many laid back guests do nothing but read the odd book, smoke (yes - these Europeans smoke alot), siesta, endure a periodic massage and have the odd swim and then dress up for a night out at any number of seafood eateries. Whereas for us it was trips to the local market, boat trips, inspection of the fishing fleet and their catch interspersed with the odd drink here and there.....each to their own
Back in Yangon
On this occasion our Air Bagan flight was on time and we got into our new hotel (The Clover Central) just behind The Traders hotel in the downtown area by about 1600 hours. This new hotel is another essentially Chinese hotel catering to an Asian clientele with a smattering of western tourists. We are now closer to things we want to see like the Central Market (similar to the Russian Market in Phnom Penh). We again re-visited the Sky Bistro for an expensive light dinner so as to be able to view, from the 20th floor, the magnificent Shwedagon Pagoda lit up at night. Just as we had finished taking our photos the whole city was plunged into total darkness as Yangon experienced a 5 minute blackout. No one seemed too alarmed in the Bistro.
Next day we initially walked to the Shwedagon up the tree-lined Shwedagon Pagoda Road which is home to a few wealthy people judging by the real estate located here. We spent quite a deal of time at this site. The pagoda, which dates from 600BC, houses relics of the four Buddha's who had attained enlightenment and is much venerated. It occupies an area of 14 acres and rises 320 feet from its base. However, for heathens such as ourselves its the treasure it holds that is gob smacking. Despite periodic ransacking, fires, earthquakes and WWII bombing, it has over US$3 billion worth of gold plate - the weathervane at the top is decorated with 1000 diamonds weighing 278 carats, then there is a 25cm hollow gold orb studded with 4351 diamonds weighing 1800 carats and the summit of the orb being crowned by a single 76 carat diamond.....you can join a queue to view this treasure more intimately through a telescope (we declined).
Maria makes her way up the Southern entrance steps (bare foot of course)
The southern Entrance's carved teak ceiling and the jewel encrusted hti or umbrella
Schwedagon Pagoda- its bigger than it looks
Historical photo found in The Strand Bar
After feasting on this golden edifice, I decided (much to Maria's misgivings) we could walk to a particular restaurant some 3kms away. However, this journey eventually involved a bugger of a walk (in the midday sun) probably three times this distance because of some ill understood directions I received first from pagoda staff and later from a policeman. English language and tourist orientated street maps not readily understood by those not directly dealing with westerners. Taxi drivers tend to be a little more savvy.
After a very ordinary lunch, I grabbed a taxi to help us visit another couple of significant pagodas in the city. The first was a huge reclining Buddha (Ghauk Htet Gyi pagoda) housed in what to all intents and purposes was a steel shed. It was nearly 66m long by 18m high - a monster.
Then on to another (Ngar Htet Gyi pagoda) which was noted for its solid carved teak background screen. In addition a wealthy Chinese woman donated the single diamond (third eye) valued at over US$1m - or so it is said.
We then caught a taxi back to our hotel. I had forgotten how plentiful and useful taxis are in this city.
Later that evening we cheekily walked into The Traders Hotel (its the biggest in Yangon) where we exploited their 2 for 1 happy hour up in their mezzanine Gallery Bar. Here we witnessed a bevy of business types meeting in small groups all with IPods, IPADS, Laptops, smart phones being given a thorough work over. All the while a pianist had been employed to play some rather pleasant medley of tunes which these jet setters totally ignored and oh yes the majority were Americans and Brits and smokers!.....Oh to be employed again - I could have joined in with this generically dressed set of men and women and discussed takeovers, new building projects, securing finance for dodgy deals, government liaison and kickbacks etc....these people appear to live in a social cocoon jumping from multi-starred hotels to hotels in limos and dining within the walls of their own hotels.
We eventually tired of rubber necking these wannabees and slunk out to find an everyday street cafe where we sat outside with some simple Burmese food and some cheap cold beers.
Next day - our last in Myanmar - we decided to tour again the Central Market on Bogyoke Aung San Rd - 5 mins from our hotel. During our tour around we found lacquer ware at exactly the same price as it was in Bagan where it is made....but no parasols for sale....lucky we bought them also in Bagan. We also investigated the price of Jade which varies immensely depending on the quality - but we are not qualified to differentiate; so we let it pass. During lunch we were witness to an extra-ordinary meeting at the table next door between an individual business man and half a dozen locals. A sale contract (presumably for some property) was being executed with initialled thumb prints and then 4 shoeboxes full of money was exchanged via a plastic shopping bag.....all to great applause....deal done!
As promised to ourselves we hit the Strand Hotel on our last night and tried to dine at their restaurant only to find it closed for a function being hosted by none other than our own Australian Governor-General (Quenton Bryce) - so we had been gazumped by vice regalty. We had even examined their menu which included Tasmanian salmon and Australian Sirloin - but the Australian wine prices at $40+ were a little steep. We had a leisurely game of 8 Ball on their Billiard table and left.
Instead we opted for the Chinese restaurant at The Traders Hotel where we were able to eat a whole Peking Duck and a local bottle of Red Mountain Pinot Noir for $70 plus a doggy bag for tomorrow's flight back to Thailand
Peking Duck complete with pancakes at the Traders
Arriving at Yangon airport the next morning we saw the RAAF's VIP jet parked on the tarmac and the Governor General being officially farewelled before flying up to Mandalay. My last impression of Myanmar was the sight of the shining Shwedagon pagoda glinting in the sun far below as our plane climbed into the clouds and headed for Bangkok.
Back in Bangkok
On arriving at our hotel about midday we were more than a little surprised that the US$50/night 'Superior Double Room' in Soi 23 Sukhumvit was a suite comprising: Bedroom with TV, Ensuite with two showers and gushing hot water, lounge room with TV and self contained kitchen plus a couple of small balconies. The hotel (23 Mansion) also has a pool on the first floor. We are close Asok Sky train station and a stones throw from the infamous Soi Cowboy if you feel like a bit of nigh time fun.
The Deluxe double room at 23 Mansion Hotel - a steal
The bedroom and view of Sukhumvit from balcony
The differences between Bangkok and the Myanmar cities of Yangon and Mandalay is huge.......the presence of safe footpaths, buses fitted with proper exhausts, fabulous metro, the absence of Betel nut chewing and yoicking and the modern shops, decent coffee and restaurants are but a few. The downsides to Bangkok being its traffic gridlock and conniving Tuk Tuk drivers who are constantly coming up with new tricks to ensnare naive western visitors......still it is great place to rest and recoup after a month's constant travelling through a country with extremely poor transport and tourism infrastructure.
On our first full day in Bangkok, we caught a streetwise Tuk Tuk ostensibly to revisit Johny's Gems (www.johnysgems.com) in Chinatown to collect the rings Maria had had made for her. However, enroute we had to stop at a tailors shop where I was convinced to have some shirts made and a little further on he dropped us off in no man's land and so we had to employ another to complete the journey....clever operators who get commissions by taking unwary tourists to tailors, gem shops etc.
With rings collected we caught the Sky train direct to Chatuchuk Market and spent quite a number of hours with an extensive shopping list The market is quite well set out and there is even an information booth and a market map which indicates the different sections of stalls by colour coding. The Sky train also takes you right there.
Despite the rigours of the market we decided to look over Soi Cowboy that night. Lots of girly bars with cheapish beer ($2.50) outside however these prices jumped to nearly $7 if you wished to venture inside these establishments.
Many a middle aged man could be seen with local girls and there is still 'Ladyboys' strutting their stuff on the street - but still, the whole place seemed a little tame compared to the non stop partying on Th Khao San.
Next day we decided to look over Th Khao San for some particular gifts we were after. This time we used the underground MRT rather than the Sky train which took us to Bangkok's main railway station (Hua Lamphong) and from there we grabbed a Tuk Tuk to get us across into the congested cobweb of the Banglamphu district. These rail journeys are a real time saver and only cost about $1.50 per trip. Despite lots of tramping up and down we could not find what we were after and returned home in the late afternoon. I then tried to organise a dinner at one of Bangkok's feature restaurant's but was only able to secure a lunchtime booking for the following day....NB one needs to book 3 weeks in advance for dinner.
As a consequence, on our last day we lunched at David Thompson's famous Nahm Restaurant on Sathorn Road, Silom (www.comohotels.com/metropolitanbangkok/dining/nahm). We opted for a set menu ($38/head) in which you were offered some set appetisers and then three main dishes from a choice of 10 followed by desert . We thoroughly enjoyed the experience and the flavours and presentation of the food was superb.
L to R
Prawn & coconut wafers with pickled ginger and Blue swimmer crab, peanuts& pickled garlic on rice cakes
L to R
Stir fried 'kurobuta' pork with yellow beans & ginger, Green curry of tiger prawns with apple eggplants & basil, Curry of chiang Mai chicken with sweet potatoes & shallots
However, the wine prices were astronomical with prices starting from $82/bottle which included many standard Australian names such Leeuwin Estate, Mad Fish, Watervale and Seppelts mixed up with a lot of Spanish, French and German brands. I opted for a 2012 Sauvignon Blanc from the Loire Valley which was beautiful but one would have had to pay the same for a similar variety from Vasse Felix .......anyway we were underspent on Amex. In comparison, the night before in a little Thai restaurant around the corner we bought a mid range bottle of Chilean Sauvignon Blanc for $27!.....I did wonder why so many other local patrons chose to drink exotic fruit juice based smoothies with their lunch.
We flew out of Bangkok at about 1230and arrived in Singapore 2.5 hrs later. We then had to fill in time until midnight for our connecting flight to Brisbane.
Reflections on our Myanmar Experience
The people are what makes any place and the vast majority of those we encountered in Myanmar were generous, outgoing and, in spite of the appalling lack of tourism and hospitality infrastructure, could not do enough for you.
They genuinely wanted to help you, even though the means at their disposal were scant. They really need a helping hand from the outside world to enable them to improve their standards of living and general welfare. The money injected into the economy through tourism does help and no doubt helps to create jobs and skills which would otherwise not be developed. However, tourism alone is not enough, and the country will only prosper once a broader and more inclusive system of government is installed. Only then will an orderly framework for the development of a modern and transparent economy start to emerge for the benefit of all the peoples of Myanmar.
For others wishing to visit the country; take at least three weeks to enjoy the natural wonders this country - for it has many unique experiences, including phantom hot air balloon trips and tiger parks which we were unable to partake......along with all the other things detailed above.
PS If you like coffee, take a supply of your own favourite sort!
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