We had been told not to go to Mandalay; that it was dusty anddirty and nothing more than a big town! It was, however, the last royal capital of Burma, and I personally felt compelled to go there. We loved it! Yes, it was dusty and dirty, but if you took the time to explore it really did contain some veritable treasures. We spent a great few days there, exploring both on foot and on the back of a motorbike. We stayed at the Rich Queen Guest House! Nothing like a rich queen, hey! It was quiet and comfortable, yet right in the centre of Mandalay, near the central market.
Smack bang in the centre of town, our guest house was virtually on top of the central market, which was abuzz with action from the early hours of the morning until dusk. We wandered around there several times in the course of our stay doing everything from eating, observing and buying. The natural focus of the city is an abrupt hill, rising above a vast moated and walled square. Once upon a time it contained a sprawling royal city but nowadays it is the reconstructed Mandalay Palace. Mostly an out-of-bounds area of military encampments, we certainly were not prepared to hand over some of our money to the Burmese government to see a smidgeon (of what they wanted us to see!) of the inside. We were quite happy to hire some bikes and go around the outside, observing daily life, the sunset and some other great temples surrounding it.
Our Mandalay highlight, without a doubt, was the day that we both spent on the back of a motorbike taking in the many spectacular sights around the city. Myaung and Pho Se were just the best tour guides, not only taking us around but giving an amazing commentary everywhere we went. They both had a great sense of humour and had us laughing the whole way. We started at 8.00am and finished at 7.00pm. We came ‘home’ exhausted but satisfied! First off was the Mahamuni Pagoda, one of Myanmar’s most famous. Even in the early hours people were scuttling about, praying and observing. Alex had a chance to see the famous and highly venerated 13 foot high Buddha image, which many locals believe is 2000 years old. Over the years so much gold leaf has been applied by the (male only!) faithful that the figure is now entirely covered in a knobbly six inch layer of pure gold!
Mandalay stone carvers.
Close by was the marble stone carving. It was amazing to watch so many people chip, blast and polish away in order to create Buddha images of all shapes and sizes, but I could not help but wonder what the fine dust was doing to their lungs! OH & S … what’s that! We then continued on to the bronze casting area, which was basically the bronze version of the marble version! All done by hand too. We then visited a couple of monasteries and even a nunnery. They were all very interesting and the number of rules they adhere to is quite impressive (if that’s the word). Not the life for me, I must say! But then I am not really one for rules, am I?
Mandalay sits on the Ayeyarawady River, and as you cross over it you cannot help but be blown away by the visual impact of Sagaing’s uncountable white and gold stupas. They shimmer alluringly on a series of hills that
Saigang as seen on the back of a motorbike.
rise above the almost flat town centre of Mandalay behind. A steep walk up to the top of one of the pagodas (not for the faint or the weak hearted!) provided us with an amazing view over the sparkling pagodas, which apart from being an assault on the senses, looked like a highly polished 22 carat gold necklace. Sagaing is also known as the ‘Buddhist Land’ or ‘Religious City’ due to the many stupas in a relatively small area.
The infamous U-Bein Bridge.
Our guides also took us to a number of less-known attractions as we not only wanted to see the path less travelled, but we did not want to pay money to the government by going in to the main attractions. Often, we were the only ones there! We did, however, go to Amarapura, which is famous for U Bein Bridge, the world’s longest teak footbridge. It gently curves around the shallow Taungthaman Lake, creating one of Myanmar’s most photographed sites. It is said that the best time to visit is just after sunrise when hundreds of villagers and monks commute back and forth across it. We, however, went for the sunset. It was absolutely chockers and thronging with tourists. Our guides, however, took us underneath it, and showed us a different side … fishermen, people having wedding photos taken, kids swimming. They managed to make a touristy experience into a not so touristy one. They had certainly worked us out! Tourists aside, it was impressive indeed!
Our Muslim roti hangout in Mandalay.
And so our day on the back of a motorbike was coming to an end. As we made our way home, I contemplated life, with the wind blowing through my hair, or was that over my helmet and into my face! How lucky I am to be able to live the life I live! I felt at peace and I felt happy! We arrived back at the guest house exhausted, and thanked our guides profusely. I am not sure who was happier and more stoked … them or us! We were hungry so we went out to find a bite to eat. We had previously found a Muslim set-up on the road (quite literally!) that made cheap rotis and curries, and made our way over for a quick meal. Small tables and even smaller chairs by the side of the road, we shovelled the yummy food in.
Our last day in Mandalay was spent seeing a few more of the local sights and meeting some new fun people, like Teresia and Fred from Swaustralia (is that what you call Swedes that have lived in Australia for ten years?) and their friend Jenni from Scotland. They would be going on to Bagan and so would we. Maybe we would see them there.
Time was flying. Bagan would be our last stop and the place where we would spend our New Year.
Horses, carts and temples of Bagan.
I said a Bagan New Year not a bogan one! Whilst our bus ride from Hsipaw from Bagan was Winner Guest House. The owner is obviously very used to these ridiculous-o-clock arrivals, and so greeted us with a smile, a cup of tea and lit a fire by the roadside for us. Minties moment! comfortable, we did indeed arrive at ridiculous-o-clock, just before 3am! There were a number of horse and carts (famous in Bagan) and other forms of transport ready to take people to their hotels. Let’s face it, what are the other options at 3am? We knew that we were only a couple of kilometres away and so Alex and I decided to walk it. Myanmar is generally an extremely safe country and the centre of Bagan not that big at all. The walk was quiet and peaceful and some of the temples were lit up, so it all looked very impressive and felt rather overwhelming. It was another one of those travellers’ moments where I not only felt so very grateful to be alive bit so honoured and thankful that we were able to do this! I constantly remind myself of how fortunate I am able to be able to travel to the places I do, and see things that the very locals I visit cannot. In no time at all we arrived at
Sunrise over Bagan.
Famous for both its sunrises and sunsets we decided to do both, not initially in one day, but that’s how it turned out! After a relaxing hour at Winner we decided to take a horse and cart and go and see the sunrise; so off we went in the early hours of the morning to Shwesandaw Pagoda. The tourists were arriving in throngs, with the same aim as us, to take some photos from a spot that is renowned for both its sunrises and sunsets. This pagoda not only offers mind-blowing views of the many temples that fill the surrounding valleys, but it’s also a spectacular spot to view the hot-air balloons that set off very close by. Balloons over Bagan is possibly one of the most exotic hot air balloon experiences in the world. If that’s your gig book well in advance and start saving your pennies! Alex and I were content with seeing them and not being in them … this time!
Out and about in Bagan.
We came back to Winner hungry but feeling exhilarated. After some brekkie and a shower, and feeling somewhat reinvigorated, we set off by bike to see what we’d come here for … temples, temples and more temples in a place that can only be described as a temple wonderland! Over the next few days we would see these countless temples on foot, bicycle and electric bike too. Beside highways and rickety train tracks amble ox carts through rice fields and rolling plains, all rimmed by the Shan Mountains to the east and the Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy) River to the west, conjuring up scenes that hark back centuries. There were big temples, small temples, hidden temples, fancy temples, discreet temples, crumbling temples, all having something to offer. We often found that the hidden, more discreet ones were the most fascinating, as the local gatekeepers would come out, unlock them and tell us a story. On our first night we ended up back at the Shwensandaw Pagoda, along with throngs of tourists, viewing the sunset. Different, but equally as spectacular as the sunrise. Needless to say, that night we were buggered and slept like babies!
Laquerware factory in Bagan.
Whilst in Bagan we also visited a couple of lacquerware factories and shops. The way in which they cut and weave the bamboo and then lacquer it is amazing. It’s quite an intricate process and to watch the several steps involved is very interesting. From tiny bowls to huge vases, we saw them ply away at their craft. Found a coffee-shop-stop at the Black Bamboo; great coffee but overpriced and overrated food. Of course, we didn’t eat the food, we just wanted a good coffee!
With the Swaustralians and others on New Year’s.
The New Year was approaching … we had bumped into Teresia, Fred and Jenni again, and we decided to meet up at a place called Aroma 2. The night started with some drinks a few doors down (as they were cheaper!) and then ended up at Aroma. There was a fire going in the middle and the music was pumping. We all got into it and had a dance. Into the groove … and not the fire that is! Met some really good fun people that night as well as bumping into others that we had met in the weeks before and so had a really enjoyable night. The countdown was on … 10,9,8, 7,6,5,4,3,2,1 … Happy New Year!!!! And the fire crackers went off! Dangerous?! Not any more so than people dancing around (and not falling into) a fire!!! By 1.00am we were virtually being pushed out and told to leave! Keep in mind that the surrounding places had long closed and that the New Year is not particularly significant nor celebrate in Myanmar. The taxi drivers were asking for an obscene amount to drive the short distance to our guest house, so Alex and I decided to walk; coupled with the fact that we were totally sober and that Myanmar is generally safe at all hours, we felt comfortable doing so. Arrived safely and went straight to bed.
The things you find in temples!
Our last day in Bagan was perhaps a bit more cruisy than the others. We would be taking an overnight bus to Yangon, and our flight back to Bangkok would be leaving the next night. Our bus would leave at 4.00am and be getting into Yangon at ridiculous-o-clock (yet again). On the bus we bumped into our French friend Fabian; he’d been in Bagan too but we had not seen him. The bus ride was comfortable enough, and low and behold, there we were at the Yangon bus station just before 5.00am the next morning. Despite it being very early morning, the bus station was thronging with people. Fabien was going to Bangkok on the same flight as us, so we all negotiated a ride to the airport in a songthaew (passenger pick up). We decided that it simply would not have been worth going into the centre of Yangon, finding a place to store our bags and then coming back to the airport; the centre was an hour away from the bus station whilst the airport was reasonably close to the bus station.
Eating up before we fly out of Yangon.
OMG! I thought I was going to die! Seriously! Our driver was driving like a psycho! We all concurred that he was either drug or alcohol affected. We asked him to slow down but he seemed to laugh it off! I am the most easy going passenger but this time I wondered if we were going to make it to the airport alive! Every minute seemed like an hour and that ten minute ride had felt like the longest ten minutes of my life! We got off that passenger truck and I was shaking. We handed over our money, ‘thanked’ the driver and walked off. Big breath in, big breath out. I was standing and I was alive!
Goodbye Yangon and Myanmar!
That day at the airport was a very long and boring one. With only a couple of places to buy coffee and only one to buy food, we just sat down, relaxed, chatted and walked around the very small airport … several times. An exercise in how to occupy yourself indeed! Finally, it was time to fly. Bangkok here we come!
“Love is joy. Don’t convince yourself that suffering is part of it. ” – Paulo Coelho
Next: Last few days dining and shopping in Bangkok.
Inside a monastery.
International Buddhist University School.
Thet Kyadi Thay nunnery.
Mandalay central market.
View from the top of Saigang Hill.
One of the lesser seen temples around Mandalay.
Life beneath the U-Bein Bridge.
Our tour guides, Myaung and Pho Se.
Tranquility at a lesser viewed temple.
Locals hanging around the temples.
How some of the others live …children in Mandalay.
Alex with the local kids, by the river in Mandalay.
The many temples of Mandalay.
Sunrise at the infamous Shwesandaw Pagoda.
Back again … sunset at the Shwesandaw Pagoda.
Inside one of the many temples of Bagan.
Selfies with the locals of Bagan.
Taung Paw Teik Pagoda.
Praying at the temple, Bagan.
The many faces of Bagan.
Partying with the lovely Fabienne from Switzerland!
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Ombretta (Ombi) Zanetti is a co-founder of veryitchyfeet.com. She has been travelling the world since 1989 and since 1999 with her partner, Alex, who hails from Ecuador. They both like to venture to the lesser known places. Ombi shares her passion for different cultures through her travel stories and Alex through his lens. Come take a detour or two with them!
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