...the road to Mandalay.... not on your Nellie...

Trip Start Sep 25, 2003
Trip End Apr 23, 2005

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Wednesday, February 18, 2004

Abstract: Set off to Mandalay via a very picturesque road where we visited Mingun Paya (what would have been the world's largest stupa had it been finished), monestaries, pagodas, gold leaf pounders, embroiderers, markets & G had giardia! Took day trip to Sagaing, Amarapura & Ava. Left Mandalay for the hilltown of Pyin U Lwin from where we took a train over the Goteik Viaduct before heading west to Monywa

Factoid of the Day: "Please provide necessary assistance to the international travellers" - from goverment propaganda sign, Inle

Nitty Gritty:
G was feeling well enough to travel so we packed our trunks and headed off to Mandalay via a very picturesque short cut through rolling hills which became parched mountains (all sadly deforested), and in some places the road was lined with huge gum trees so it looked a bit like the Australian outback. We passed small villages where villagers were riding on tractors to and from market and where the hilltribe people wore coloured towel turbans.

On this road we had our 1st puncture of the trip. No sooner had we got out of the car when a car from the same company as ours stopped and the young lad driver who was a friend of OTs changed the wheel in record speed and the tube was repaired when we stopped for lunch. The area was well known for orange growing and OT bought us some oranges and we ate lunch watching the kids from a school opposite playing with sausage shaped balloons in the playground.

The road was very twisty turny and we were feeling pretty travelsick by the time the road straightened out alongside a river. The road was by now lined with huge trees with orange flowers and enormous buttress roots.

Finally we reached the main road to Mandalay where we stopped to see fresh turmeric being dried by the side of the road. When snapped in half the root was bright orange and had a medicinal smell, far more pungent than the dried powder.

The main road was new and would have been fairly quick except for the tolls. We may not have mentioned these yet, but every 20miles or so the roads are barred and a toll has to be paid - this was the picture for the whole country as each district collects money to maintain the roads etc.

Mandalay was full of motorbikes and bicycles unlike Yangon and was almost as noisy as Hanoi.

We'd been eating so much chinese food that we fancied something different to eat on our first night in Mandalay, but found it hard to find anywhere. We ended up having freshly cooked chapatis and potato curry from a street stall that was absolutely packed and this is where we first met the Myanmar Jesus. He was one of the owners of the open air restaurant and was a really tall, good looking (apart from betel nut stained teeth) Indian man with a beard. Our dinner cost 10p and we ended up eating there every night we stayed in Mandalay !

Saw a depressing sight on the way back to the hotel. A women was searching a pile of rubbish by candle light (there was quite a lot of rubbish around the streets of Mandalay) for food to give her 2 small children. She had found some rice and was feeding her children when we passed. This really upset us and we gave her some food that we had bought earlier.

The antibiotics G had been taking were not working and at 2am we came to the conclusion that he must be suffering from Giardia so started him on suitable treatment. We were therefore both pretty tired when we woke up the next day for a trip up river to Mingun Paya.

We shared a boat with Sharon & Michael a couple that we'd met from Woking who were doing the same road trip as us. Mingun Paya would have been the largest stupa in the world had it been completed and would have stood 150m high. All that remains today in the base which was badly damaged during an earthquake and resembles a huge impressive pile of bricks.The Mingun bell, the largest uncracked bell in the world, was also pretty impressive.

Once back in Mandalay we spent the afternoon doing a spot of sightseeing. Shweinbin Monastery was beautifully carved from teak & Maha Muni Paya contained a huge Buddha that had become bulbous over the years from all the gold leaf that worshipers have applied to it. From here we visited a gold leaf pounders which involved burly men pummeling gold and women pounding it in a small underground room where the noise was deafening and very few of them appeared to be wearing earplugs. Goodness knows what health & safety officers would make of it. It was fascinating to see the girls applying the gold leave to the backing paper - it was like making smoked salmon sandwiches as no piece was wasted.

We got talking to 2 lovely young monks at Kuthodaw Paya. They asked us the best way to learn english and wanted us to explain what 'gonna' meant in songs they'd heard - it was so cute!

G wasn't too well the next day so whilst he stayed in bed, R went to see some more sights. It was Myanmar Union Day and there were few people around which made my trip to the first pagoda really enjoyable. The place was pretty much deserted and as I padded around barefoot, I noticed sparrows nesting in several of the Buddha statues, so the tranquil atmosphere and birdsong were very enjoyable.

I managed a few more pagodas, another monastery and the Mandalay market before the end of the day. At the latter I managed to stock up on medication from a great little pharmacy all off prescription and at very low prices.

The next morning we set off for a whistle stop tour of several ancient capitals of Myanmar. We started at Amarapura, just outside Mandalay . On the way we stopped at an embroidery workshop where exquisite (if not to our taste) beaded embroidery was being made. The embroiders were incredibly accurate and quick at their craft and the results were stunning.

We were taken to a huge monastery complex at Amarapura to observe the monks feeding time which was most bizarre indeed. At 10.30am each day the monks process into the dining hall with their alms bowls and collect food at the door. All of this is done in silence and is observed by hoards of camera toting tourists - it was quite a spectacle though!

Next stop was Saigang, now a pilgrimage centre with dozens of monasteries and pagodas dotted across the hills. We were quickly becoming pagoda tired on this day!

After lunch we headed to Ava (Inwa) yet another ancient capital which required persuasive negotiation skills to hire a horse and cart for a tour of the 'sights' the most impressive of which was a beautiful teak monastery which had not been restored and was set in lush green paddy fields and was a lovely place.

The end of the day was spent back at Amarapura at U Bein's bridge which is a 1.2km teak bridge which is extremely picturesque especially when saffron robed monks are walking across. From here we watched huge flocks of ducks being herded by men and women in small canoes using catapults to fire stones into the water near to ducks who were going AWOL (they didn't hit any of them!).

Sunset was magical from the bridge and we got talking to various people including a monk who spoke english in a gangster rap fashion and called himself 'crazy monk'.

We left Mandalay for the hill top town of Pyin U Lwin, Northeast of Mandalay where it was somewhat cooler. We had decided to spend 2 nights there and pottered around the market before hiring a bike to take us to the Botanic Gardens. The cycle shop only had one bike, so Graham cycled and I sat on the back and I cycled him back to the hotel. The locals thought this was hilarious. The gardens were lovely, left over from the colonial times, and the surrounding streets had many fine colonial houses.

Once back at the hotel we (G) sat and talked football with OT & the hotel owner. They are soccer mad in Myanmar and everywhere we went we were asked about the Premiership and which team we supported. Many were Arsenal fans and the rest Man U fans and they were all mad about David Beckham! It is possible to watch more Premiership football on terrestrial TV in Myanmar than it is in the UK. OT had a bit of a flutter on the football and G became a bit of a god one day when he correctly predicted which teams would win a list of matches.

The next day we took a train from Pyin U Lwin north over the Goteik Viaduct which was built by the British and was an amazing feet of engineering for its time. The train was much like the ones in Cambodia & we opted for ordinary class. The locals were a bit more wary of us than they had been on the Cambodian train and there was no waving at us from further down the train. At several stops, women were selling beautiful dahlias and strawberries in rattan punnets. The scenery was much like that of other SE Asian countries, with bamboo houses on stilts.

We needn't have worried about missing the viaduct as we could see it from quite a distance. The locals were very concerned about us taking photos and everyone around us indicated for us not to. There is a military base close by and photos are supposedly forbidden and we suspect these people wanted to be seen to be telling us off for fear of who else might be on the train matching them. The gorge the viaduct traversed was wide and deep. We got off the train at the next stop which was about an hour further north, before returning to Pyin U Lwin on the train travelling south. On this return leg we had to spend some time convincing the guard that we wished and had indeed paid for ordinary class as he wanted us to sit in first class. It has only been fairly recently that foreigners have been allowed to travel in ordinary class.

From Pyin U Lwin we drove to Monywa stopping first at a huge pagoda that looked very like a huge whitewashed boob with a golden nipple and then at Thanboddhay Paya which was a gaudy complex of temples reminiscent of the Cao Dai temples in Vietnam and finally a massive reclining Buddha on a hillside behind which they are building a colossal standing Buddha of which 13 stories have so far been completed and 87 stories still to complete.

Monywa is a quietly attractive river town which we really enjoyed. There were very few tourists around and people stopped to talk to us as we watched sunset over the river. The real highlight was an evening visit to Shwezigon Paya where we were befriended by an old man caretaker who showed us around and organised photos to be taken of us with various groups of local children who were hanging out there. We were treated to tea whilst the old man discussed the town and showed us postcards he'd collected from other travellers. The paya contained a small Buddha said to be 1000 years old and studded with diamonds. {we were subsequently disturbed to hear Monywa was the site of the recent assasination attempt on Aung Sung}
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