There is great controversy about whether to visit Myanmar or not. Political activists claim that a boycott of Myanmar is a must because of the “human rights violations committed upon its people by an illegal military junta that thirsts only for money and power”. The junta seized power in a 1962 coup, and its rights violations allegedly include “torture, extra-judicial killings and rape by members of the armed forces, forced labor including the use of child soldiers and forced relocation of villagers”. The “Boycott Myanmar” group argues that anyone who chooses Myanmar as a holiday destination supports the regime and ultimately prolongs the abuses.
What about the dozens of local Burmese we interacted with who had absolutely no government affiliation and were reliant upon the scant tourism dollars they could bring in to support their families? Is it fair to isolate and punish them for their government’s abuses? After spending weeks researching the pros and cons of visiting Myanmar, we decided to visit and make a judgment for ourselves, based on our own experiences there. We subscribe to the school of theory that experiencing something for ourselves is the only real and pure way of finding our own truth. Rather than blindly accepting someone else’s version of the truth, we wanted to see, feel, taste, hear, touch and breathe Myanmar on our very own.
And now that we have returned, we know exactly which camp we will be in when someone raises the “Should I visit Myanmar?” question. Hint: its an absolute YES!
In 1890, Rudyard Kipling’s ever-popular “Mandalay” poem first appeared in The National Observer. This poem has struck chords with and inspired countless travelers to experience this idyllic and alluring version of Mandalay. Ironically, Rudyard Kipling never set foot in Mandalay himself! This poem was based on interviews with British soldiers stationed in Burma who spent their R&R delighting in the pleasures of Mandalay. The poem that inspired millions to seek “The Road to Mandalay” is below.
MANDALAY (By Rudyard Kipling)
By the old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin’ eastward to the sea, There’s a Burma girl a-settin’, and I know she thinks o’ me; For the wind is in the palm-trees, and the temple-bells they say: “Come you back, you British soldier; come you back to Mandalay!” Come you 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!
‘Er petticoat was yaller an’ ‘er little cap was green, An’ ‘er name was Supi-yaw-lat — jes’ the same as Theebaw’s Queen, An’ I seed her first a-smokin’ of a whackin’ white cheroot, An’ a-wastin’ Christian kisses on an ‘eathen idol’s foot: Bloomin’ idol made o’mud — Wot they called the Great Gawd Budd — Plucky lot she cared for idols when I kissed ‘er where she stud! On the road to Mandalay . . .
When the mist was on the rice-fields an’ the sun was droppin’ slow, She’d git ‘er little banjo an’ she’d sing “Kulla-lo-lo!” With ‘er arm upon my shoulder an’ ‘er cheek agin’ my cheek We useter watch the steamers an’ the hathis pilin’ teak. Elephints a-pilin’ teak In the sludgy, squdgy creek, Where the silence ‘ung that ‘eavy you was ‘arf afraid to speak! On the road to Mandalay . . .
But that’s all shove be’ind me — long ago an’ fur away, An’ there ain’t no ‘busses runnin’ from the Bank to Mandalay; An’ I’m learnin’ ‘ere in London what the ten-year soldier tells: “If you’ve ‘eard the East a-callin’, you won’t never ‘eed naught else.” No! you won’t ‘eed nothin’ else But them spicy garlic smells, An’ the sunshine an’ the palm-trees an’ the tinkly temple-bells; On the road to Mandalay . . .
I am sick o’ wastin’ leather on these gritty pavin’-stones, An’ the blasted Henglish drizzle wakes the fever in my bones; Tho’ I walks with fifty ‘ousemaids outer Chelsea to the Strand, An’ they talks a lot o’ lovin’, but wot do they understand? Beefy face an’ grubby ‘and — Law! wot do they understand? I’ve a neater, sweeter maiden in a cleaner, greener land! On the road to Mandalay . . .
Ship me somewheres 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’, an’ it’s there that I would be — By the old Moulmein Pagoda, looking lazy at the sea; On the road to Mandalay, Where the old Flotilla lay, With our sick beneath the awnings when we went to Mandalay! On the road to Mandalay, Where the flyin’-fishes play, An’ the dawn comes up like thunder outer China ‘crost the Bay!
We booked our tour to Myanmar with the same travel agent that organized our Cambodia tour. Mittapheap Travel & Tours, based out of Phnom Penh, is an excellent tour operator that organized every single detail of our tour. They also offer tours to other Asian nations, so check them out if you want impeccable service at affordable rates. Their website offers more details/prices at www.tourismcambodia.com or email Sophy Phean at email@example.com.
We decided to prolong our vacation into a combination style tour. In our case, our combination tour included Thailand (Bangkok), Myanmar, and Bhutan. Our route was circuitous: fly Kabul – Dubai – Colombo – Bangkok – Yangon – Bangkok – Paro – Delhi – Kabul. The flights were surprisingly easy to organize! A one-way from Kabul – Dubai on Kam Air, followed by a one-way from Dubai – Bangkok on Sri Lankan Air (with stop in Colombo enroute), and a roundtrip to Yangon on the very cute, comfortable and affordable Bangkok Airways (who launched a “Boutique airlines” service), followed by a scenic flight to Paro on Druk Air. Another flight on Druk Air to Delhi and an Indian Airlines return to Kabul rounded out the rest of our trip. The only tricky part of booking our flights was to ensure that we had enough time allotted in between connecting flights, and juggling dates/availability on certain sectors.
Our tour was called the “Experience the former Myanmar Empire City” and the main sights included Yangon, Bagan, Salay, Popa, Mandalay, and Heho (Inle Lake). We invited Becky’s Vietnamese relatives to join us, and while we originally intended to have a small group (6 or less), the tour grew in popularity, and before we knew it, we had a group of 11 travelers to contend with! This was by far the largest tour we had ever organized, and we weren’t sure how the group dynamics would be with such a large and diverse group. Our tour members included Ann and Bob (Becky’s parents), Di Tam, Di Sau (aunts), Cau Nam, Cau Chin (uncles), Anh Long, Anh Hai and Ji Sung (cousins). Sophy (from Mittapheap Travel & Tours) reassured us that a large group would not be a problem, with everything coordinated for us beforehand. The only worry was booking the tour ahead of time, to ensure that we got seating on the internal Myanmar flights (from Yangon – Bagan, Bagan – Mandalay, Mandalay – Heho, and Heho – Yangon). With 11 travelers, nothing can be spontaneous, and luckily, the flights we wanted were all available for the dates we requested.
Sunday, 2 Apr: After a night of hard partying on Khao San Road, none of us were ready for our Myanmar tour early this morning. Even the sight of the breakfast buffet offered by the Sawasdee Backpacker Inn made all of us feel queasy, and we knew we were in for a long day as we had not planned for any “down” days in Myanmar. Today we all had to suck it up and explore Yangon, hung over or not! Thankfully, getting to Bangkok International was easy, as we hopped on the A2 airport bus (pick up directly outside our hotel), and were the first to be checked in. The friendly Bangkok Airways staff invited us to wait for our flight in their boutique lounge, where an array of snacks, juices, coffee, tea and free internet access was to be had. Our flight into Yangon was surprisingly pleasant, and we arrived just a few minutes past noon.
We had read beforehand that Myanmar customs was a nightmare to navigate through, but the entire arrival process must have been ironed out as it was super easy and efficient. Our visa-upon-arrival enabled us to whisk our way through immigration, and our luggage was already lined up in a row. The airport “meet and greet” staff escorted us through the customs officials who declared Becky’s jade bracelet but didn’t give a second glance at our electronic gear (laptops, cameras, cell phones). And suddenly, we were thrust out into Yangon’s glaring heat, where we finally met our tour guide for the trip, Mrs. Tin Tin Aye. She is a representative for Columbus Travels & Tours, and she informed us that she would be our guide for the duration of the tour. After loading up on our bus, Tin Tin handed out maps and a present to each one of us (locally handcrafted Columbus tote bags…free advertising for them!). She took us directly to the Yuzana Hotel, located at the foothills of the magnificent Shwedagon Pagoda. We were all given rooms with views of the Pagoda, and Tin Tin reassured us that we would spend some time later this afternoon getting acquainted with the temple complex.
None of us were super hungry, but Tin Tin said the first stop on our afternoon tour was for lunch, where she had ordered typical Bamar dishes for us: rice (htamin), and pork and beef curry (hin). We also ate thouq, a light spicy green bean salad tossed with flavorful peanuts, lime juice, and onions. (The Bamar are also commonly known as the “Burman”, and they make up over 65% of the Burmese population). These light and tasty Bamar dishes were excellent, and we knew we would all eat very well on this tour.
Due to the ongoing bird flu scare, the Myanmar government had forbidden restaurants to serve either chicken or duck meat, so our choices revolved around pork, beef, and fish. Not that we were complaining, but it did feel like the Myanmar government had gone a bit overboard in its zealousness to prevent the spread of bird flu. Our lunch was excellent though, and we thoroughly enjoyed the light fare of Bamar curry, which is dramatically different from Indian curry! After lunch, we made a quick detour to pick up some longyi (sarong-style garments) for the men. Longyis are quite simple, comfortable, and cheap…plus 95% of the men in Myanmar don this simple garment as part of their daily wear. The men of our group wanted to fit right in, so we bought a half dozen longyi, and our bus driver had to assist Anh Hai in the proper technique of wrapping the longyi around his waist.
Our next stop was the Chaukhtatgyi Paya, which is an enormous reclining Buddha image located just beyond the Shwedagon Paya. The feet of the Buddha were quite decorative, and the Buddha’s individual eyelashes were massive iron bars. Just to gain perspective on how large this Buddha was, we gathered for a group photo at the base of the Buddha’s feet, but laughed when we saw how easily we had been dwarfed!
The real highlight of the day was the Shwezigon Pagoda, which was our final sightseeing stop. We had read that this pagoda was listed as one of the highlights of Yangon, but nothing prepared us for how magnificent and utterly beautiful the Shwezigon was. The main pagoda itself is sheathed in 11 tons of pure gold, with 4,350 diamonds weighing over 1800 carats. This is considered by many Myanmar Buddhists to be the most sacred site in the country, and they aspire to visit it at least once during their lifetime. We were absolutely stunned at the pagoda’s beauty. It is a living, working pagoda, surrounded by hundreds of devotees praying, meditating, or simply taking in the marvelous view.
Surrounding the pagoda are planetary posts, representing each day of the week. There are 8 days, with Wednesday broken down into Wednesday morning and Wednesday afternoon. At the north end stood the planetary post for Venus, or those born on a Friday, the animal sign of a guinea pig. 4 members of our group were born on a Friday, so the ritual of pouring water over the statues was conducted most solemnly, while curious Burmese children looked on at us intently.
We found the Burmese to be very friendly people. Bob kept getting engaged in conversation with the red robed monks, who found a great similarity in their baldness. Every woman and child’s face was covered with thanakha paste (a soft outer tree bark that is ground on a whetstone, mixed with water, and smeared over the cheeks and forehead. It is mildly astringent, and used as a combination sunscreen, skin conditioner, and cosmetic. We decided to stay for the sunset, and soon the pagoda lit up in unbelievable hues of gold. The evening lights soon lit up the pagoda, which dazzled even the most jaded traveler. Burmese families asked us to pose with them in photos (which we happily obliged), and we took photos to capture the magical atmosphere of this very special, spiritual place. Long after the sun had set and the pagoda was glimmering beneath the moonlight, Tin Tin finally pulled us away for dinner.
The floating Karaweik Palace restaurant put on a cultural show during our dinner buffet. Dinner was quite good, and we enjoyed the dancing, puppet show, and theatrics put on by all the performers. Gearing up for the water festival a bit early, the cheeky dancers snuck behind us and doused us with ice cold water (rubbed in for good measure). It shocked us all awake, and we laughed as some audience members turned the tide on the dancers and soaked them back in return. Before an all out water fight broke out, the dancers ended the show and dodged behind the stage. All in all, not a bad way to spend our first day in Myanmar!
Monday, 3 Apr: Tin Tin had advised us all of our very early wake up call for our morning flight to Bagan. Nevertheless, the high pitched telephone ring felt like an offensive intrusion in the wee hours of the morning. 11 breakfast boxes were waiting for us and we climbed onto our bus for a few extra minutes to snooze before reaching the Yangon domestic airport. The best part of our tour was the ever-patient and wonderful Tin Tin, who took care of all the mundane details such as tipping the porters, checking in all of our bags, getting seat assignments issued, and herding us through the necessary screeners. All we really had to do was show up! The domestic airport had a wonderful Chinese restaurant tucked away in a corner serving up small but delicious morsels of dim sum. Ann came back armed with a variety of dim sum snacks, which we hungrily devoured just as boarding was announced. And of course the eating didn’t stop there…the Air Mandalay flight offered us a delicious Chinese style breakfast, so we emerged from our 0635 flight to Bagan overstuffed but definitely satiated!
We had seen photos of Bagan prior to the trip, but no amount of pre-trip research could prepare us all for the panoramas of Bagan. Lonely Planet describes this ancient city as “the most wondrous sight in Myanmar, if not Southeast Asia. Across 40 sq km of country, stretching back from the Areyarwady (Irrawaddy) River, stand thousands of stupas and pahto (temples). In every direction you’ll see ruins of all sizes – huge and glorious temples like the Ananda Pahto soar towards the sky; small, graceful zedi (stupas) stand alone in fields.” The Nyaung U – Bagan airport is only a few kilos from Old Bagan, and on our short ride to our Kaytumadi Dynasty Hotel located in Bagan Myothit (New Bagan), we passed hundreds of ancient stupas. We soon wondered how our sightseeing of Bagan would be, as how do you choose to visit one stupa over another? Tin Tin agreed that the sheer overload of temples and stupas would be overwhelming if we didn’t concentrate our efforts into the highlights of the central Bagan Archeological zone.
We checked into the garden bungalows of Kaytumadi Dynasty (on Myat Lay Road, www.kaytumadi.com) and saw hundreds of fish underneath one of the garden bridges. Tin Tin had given us 30 minutes to get ourselves organized before facing the rising temperatures and sweating to the sights. (Becky didn’t realize that April is one of the hottest months to visit Myanmar. Only after she booked the tour did she read how “miserably hot” the months of March – May could be…nevertheless, all our hotels came equipped with full-blast AC to make the heat bearable).
Our first stop of the day was to the Tayokpyay Paya, a stupa that offered amazing panorama shots of Bagan. The interior of the base of the stupa showcased hundreds of Buddha images on the roof and walls. We climbed up a narrow passage to the second and third floors, and were immediately captivated by the hundreds (perhaps thousands) of stupa and temple pinnacles that pierced the skyline every angle we looked. Can you just imagine a 360 degree view of stupas? It was amazing! We were surprised that the Myanmar government still allowed visitors to climb all over this pagoda, as there was nothing (save our balance) to prevent us from stumbling and falling over the edge. But with caution in mind, we explored every nook and cranny and told Tin Tin that this was the perfect first temple to get ourselves oriented with the sights of Bagan.
After exiting Tayokpyay Paya, we stopped by the souvenir stands and of course were amazed that such lovely handicrafts could be had so cheaply. It was almost embarrassing how the Vietnamese contingent managed a little cutthroat bargaining to sheer the prices to their absolute rock bottom. We came away loaded with woven place mats and an eight day wheel sand-painting. Tin Tin encouraged us to purchase our souvenirs from these local craftsmen, who rely solely upon tourism dollars to boost their scant incomes. And we really didn’t mind skipping the government emporiums, as the local handicrafts were quite wonderful, we had a massive selection to choose form, and we were contributing what little we could directly to the local economy.
Afterwards, we stopped by to explore a trio of temples called the Thonesu Paya. An old lady stood by posing with her massive cheroot (just imagine a fat stogie) and we weren’t sure if it was for show or if she really was getting a kick out of huffing and puffing away. We were able to enter into Thonesu, but weren’t allowed to take photos of the marvelous murals of Jataka scenes. Local painters had actually recreated the scenes, and followed us around to show us the “before” and “after” scenes of the temples. It was very cool, and we wished we had waiting to buy our sand-painting as the Jataka scenes were really intricate.
Our third stop for the day was to Bagan’s very own Shwezigon Pagoda. This beautiful bell shaped pagoda is one of the oldest in Myanmar and its design became the prototype for all other stupas in Myanmar. Incidentally, it is also the site where the Bamar monarchy first officially endorsed the 37 pre-Buddhist nats (Even though Buddhism is widespread throughout Myanmar, elements of the pre-Buddhist practice of nat or spirit worship still thrives). The Shwezigon Pagoda is the first place that we ran into young children with the “friendship” scam. Once we entered into the pagoda area, these children gave us presents (a butterfly pin) and then left us alone. Minutes later, they would reappear and pressure everyone to give them a “present” in return, specifically money. We laughed and handed the butterfly pins back to them, but Bob got suckered and made tons of “friends” that day!
We were making good time, so instead of lunch, we opted to see a few more temples. The Manuha Paya, built by King Manuha, was next on our list. This King lived in captivity, and he built the Paya to express his own physical discomfort with being confined. The massive Buddhas appear to be “squeezed” into their own tight cells, and there is not much extra space between the Buddhas and the walls surrounding them. Adjacent to Manuha Paya is the Nanpaya temple. This early-style temple has some amazing stone carvings, especially on the bases of the interior pillars. Make sure you bring a flashlight though, as the inside of the temple was quite dim.
There are several excellent lacquer ware workshops in the Myinkaba area, so we took a quick tour of one of them. Even though Vietnam is a great source for lacquer, none of us were familiar with the process of how it is made. We were all fascinated to learn that the pliable lacquer baskets were made from horse hair wrapped around bamboo frames! And layer upon layer of lacquer is added in a series of steps. The artists were quite gifted, and while we didn’t buy any souvenirs, we did find this an interesting stop.
Lunch was down by the river at the Green Elephant. We were at a high vantage point, and could peer over the edge to watch the locals in the river washing their clothes. Lunch here was delicious (especially the green bean/peanut salad), but even in the shade we were sweltering with the heat. But we had to drive on, as we still had many more things to see in the Old Bagan area.
Gubyaukgyi Temple was the next stop on our agenda, and Tin Tin spent some time briefing us at this stop. Gubyaukgyi is famous for having some of the oldest mural paintings in all of Bagan. We all got a big kick out of the mural paintings of these devout monks who wandered the countryside and asked virgins to “sacrifice” their virginity to them for religious purposes! This was a popular custom hundreds of years ago, so we all smirked and said no wonder the men aspired to be monks! Myazedi temple is adjacent to Gubyaukgyi, so it was the next logical stop. A huge donation bowl lay in front of the temple, and a ladder was erected so we could climb up and peer inside the bowl. The most noteworthy thing to see at Myazedi is its massive stone inscription in several scripts.
By now we were getting a bit weary of temples and pagodas, but Tin Tin had saved the best for last. The Ananda Pagoda is one of the finest, largest, best preserved, and most revered of all the Bagan temples. The most fascinating part of visiting Ananda was its perfect proportions, and its huge 9.5 meter solid teak Buddhas. These 4 Buddhas (facing North, South, East, and West) were carved from one gigantic teak tree, and while a fire destroyed 2 of them, 2 of them are original. The Southern Buddha is rather special, and we found that if we stood at a distance, he appeared to be smiling. However, the closer we walked up to the Buddha, his expression changed to that of sadness.
Sunset was rapidly approaching, and we wanted to watch it over the Ayeyarwady River. Lonely Planet said that sunset was best at either the Mingalazedi or Bupaya temples. However, neither temple is allowed to be climbed up anymore. So we went to the Shwe-san-daw Paya, which was already teeming with like minded travelers. Since this is one of the highest vantage points (save a hot air balloon), it was the best spot to watch the sun disappear over the horizon of the Ayeyarwady. The dusk panoramas from Shwe-san-daw were amazing…hundreds of pagodas and temples dotted the landscape for as far as the eye could see, and their silhouettes against the setting sun are unforgettable!
When we climbed back down, half of our group was surrounded by vendors trying to sell matching skirt ‘n shirt outfits for the bargain price of $5. We ended up buying a few outfits before hopping back on the bus for our return trip to Kaytumadi Dynasty.
On our ride back, Anh Hai became quite animated on his quest to find some goat meat. Tin Tin laughed and thought he was joking at first, but after repeating his desire for a goat banquet, she said she would ask the hotel staff to see if something could be arranged. Anh Hai was tortured at the sight of so many goat herders along the country side, and yet he had not seen a morsel of goat at any one of the restaurants. He even volunteered to barbeque the meat if only we could buy some at the local market. We ended up having dinner at the Kaytumadi, before calling it a day. When Bob tried to get a drinking party established in his room, only half of the group joined him (albeit reluctantly) as everyone was pretty wiped out from a full day’s activities.
Tuesday, 4 Apr: After breakfast, we grabbed our leftover toast to feed the fish that were teeming in the Kaytumadi’s pond. They were starving, and soon we had dozens of fish fighting for breadcrumbs. When Anh Long leaned over to feed the fish, his sunglasses fell in, and we all had a good laugh as he stripped down to his undies to retrieve the sunglasses. What a way to start the morning!
Anh Hai was still coveting goat meat, but Tin Tin reassured us that the hotel staff would take care of the barbeque feast for us tonight upon our return. Still, the sight of the local Bagan market was much too alluring for everyone to pass up, so our bus made a quick pit stop (20 minutes) so that fresh fruit and vegetables could be bought. Of course, 20 minutes wasn’t nearly enough time, and fruit and veggies weren’t the only items bought! The bus driver was dismayed when he saw the notoriously smell durian fruit clutched in Di Sau’s hands. He absolutely drew the line against bringing on the fresh shrimp and chicken meat, saying they would rot in the heat all day, so he flagged a motorcyclist and sent him carrying all the perishable food back to our hotel.
Today we were driving from Bagan to Salay, onward to Mount Popa, and back to Bagan. This circuitous tour would last the majority of the day, but the bus was comfortable and had A/C, so nobody complained. Salay is considered to be much more of a religious center than Bagan, as evidenced by its plentiful working monasteries. Our first stop was a quick visit to the Yoke-son (Youqson Kyaung) Monastery, which is famous for its fantastically wooden carvings depicting scenes of moral lessons. We walked around the exterior of the wooden monastery and admired the 3D carvings of jataka (stories about Buddha’s past lives), and Ramayana tales (one of India’s legends). The hall of the monastery is held up by 170 teak pillars, and we were all wowed by the intricate carvings. Afterwards, a short walk through a ruined old monastery brought us to a 19th century shrine that shelters the largest lacquer image in Myanmar, a 13th century lacquer Buddha image found floating on a river. The caretaker invited to gaze inside the Buddha, which was accomplished by entering into a small opening at the base of the rear of the Buddha. Indeed, we can all verify that the massive Buddha is indeed hollow and could easily have floated atop a river.
We hopped back onto the bus after donating several bananas to the young red-robed monks who were watching our every move. They looked so cute standing there with their food-pots in hand. It was time for us to eat, and we stopped at a local Burmese restaurant with food on our minds. The owner was a gregarious man who boomed loudly at the local vendors to leave his customers alone. He recommended fried fish, sweet and sour pork, peanut rice and a vegetable dish. Everything was delicious, and when he noticed that Bob was sweating after eating something spicy, he ran over with a fan, and proceeded to manually fan everyone at the table! We really enjoyed this meal, and wished that more of our meals were held at restaurants catering strictly for locals (the food is normally better than tourist restaurants!).
After lunch, we drove onward towards Mount Popa, which is an extinct volcano that rises 737 m from the flat surrounding plain. Mt Popa is the adobe of Nats (spirits), and we were told to avoid wearing red or black clothes, as the local superstition frowned upon those two colors. The monkeys own the covered walkway, and to make matters worse, we had to take off our shoes and walk barefoot to the top! It was rather disgusting having to dodge monkey piss, but the view at the top of the mountain was worth it. Various pagodas, shrines, and monasteries were awaiting us at the top, as well as spectacular vistas across the surrounding countryside. Our return trip was rewarded with bags of iced sugarcane juice, and we were quite ready to return back to Bagan for our goat feast later that night.
On the outskirts of Bagan, we pulled over to visit a typical toddy farmer’s dwelling. We had no idea that toddy is used in making wine (collected by a toddy tree climber), molasses (absolutely delicious and melted in our mouths), and hand made toddy oil for cooking. The farmer’s young children eagerly ground up thanakha and created a milky paste which they solemnly applied to our foreheads and cheeks. What a great experience! The thanakha quickly cooled, then tingled our skin and we can definitely attest that is felt like an astringent. The cute girls won over our hearts, and we were reluctant to leave, but dinner was a-beckoning! We waved goodbye to the entire family, and were back to Bagan in no time.
Anh Hai, Ann, Di Sau and Di Tam immediately went to work once we arrived back at the Kaytumadi hotel. They had a feast to prepare. The hotel staff set up an impromptu garden side table setting, and brought out a BBQ grill. In an hour, dinner was whipped up and we enjoyed spinach soup, chicken, shrimp, corn on the cob, and of course goat. Served with table wine and beer, this was a night to remember. Little did we realize but that was only our first course. The staff had also prepared a tour-inclusive meal, but we were all way too stuffed, and urged them to enjoy it instead. We ended up tipping the entire hotel staff for their excellent service, and joked that they had probably never seen any tourists who gave up their included meal in favor of cooking their own! The Kaytumadi hotel was so very accommodating to our demanding needs, and made this a special night to remember.
Wednesday, 5 Apr: We had an early checkout to catch our Bagan to Mandalay flight. The flight only took 25 minutes, so before we knew it, we were already there. We had heard horror stories about how unreliable Myanmar’s internal flights were, but flying on Air Mandalay was always a pleasant experience. Our driver was waiting for us in the arrivals lounge holding a “Welcome Becky’s Family” sign. The Mandalay International Airport (Tada-Oo) was recently built, but it is located over 40 KM outside of the city! Our bus ride took over an hour, and Tin Tin explained that the airport was somewhat of a dismal failure. The government had built the “international” airport in anticipation of a massive influx of tourists…however, the only international flight into Mandalay was some Chinese airlines. The rest of the world community appears to have boycotted utilizing Mandalay and opts for Yangon instead.
We checked into the Silver Star hotel, and were given 45 minutes until our sightseeing for the day started. When we heard there was an outdoor market nearby, we agreed to meet in an hour and set off downtown to buy some fresh fruit and take some photos. The locals were super friendly, and after Robby snapped a couple of photos, they handed him a string of white flowers to wear around his neck. Of course, he quickly wrapped them around Becky’s ponytail, but it was so nice wandering around without being hassled, stared at, or made to feel uncomfortable.
Our first stop of the day was to the Mandalay Royal Palace, located inside the Mandalay Fort. This immense walled place compound was originally constructed in 1857, but it has been continually restored since then. The municipal government halted its practice of forcing all young males in Mandalay to contribute one day’s worth of free labor per month when the international community roared its disapproval. We were told not to take any photos of the Burmese soldiers living in the interior of the fort. Once we got to the Palace, we were allowed to take out our cameras and snap away. The reconstructed palace was a bit too perfect for us…we wanted to see decay and crumble, but the palace sparkled newness with its recent renovations. The museum was worthwhile though, with royal articles and costumes.
Bob was stoked when he found out we were visiting a crispy duck restaurant for lunch, until Tin Tin broke the news that due to the bird flu scare, no duck would be served. Instead, we had a delicious meal of pork cooked inside a pumpkin, Chinese mushrooms, shrimp, and fresh vegetables. We were all getting used to eating well in Myanmar!
Afterwards, we visited a center that makes gold leaf, where the entire process of gold leaf production was demonstrated for us. It sure is hard, backbreaking work, and involves four strong men who continually pound wafer thin morsels of gold paper into even thinner and thinner pieces of gold. The final product is a fragile and almost translucent piece of gold, which is then applied as decoration to religious and house hold objects. We opted to forego a purchase, but made a donation to the very hard workers here. Our stop at the gold leaf cottage was perfect, as it gave us a huge appreciation for the Mahamuni pagoda that was next on our itinerary. The Mahamuni Paya is one of Mandalay’s most sacred sights, and the men of our group were asked to don their longyis as they visited the venerated gold layered 4 meter high Buddha. This Buddha is believed to have been cast during the 1st century AD, and over the centuries thousands of devotees have repeatedly plastered it with gold leaf. We read that at 4 am, a team of monks even washes Mahamuni’s face and brushes its teeth, but we didn’t get a chance to see that. Instead, Bob and Robby bought some gold leaf to apply to Mahamuni, and the women of our group joined the other female worshipers who were worshiping just outside. (Women are not permitted to walk up to or touch Mahamuni). Afterwards, Tin Tin walked us over to the six bronze Khmer figures which were originally enshrined at Angkor Wat in Cambodia. They were looted by the Thais in 1431, and stolen from Ayuthaya in 1564. Legend tells us that these figures have healing powers…therefore, whatever physical or mental ailments one possesses, simply rub the corresponding body part on the bronze statues and you will be cured. Needless to say, the statues were rubbed raw in their stomachs, knees, hearts, and heads.
Adjacent to the Mahamuni Paya is a “stone carvers” street, and we strolled its length admiring the very hard work that goes into carving marble and stone Buddhas. Images of all shapes and sizes are cut from solid stone slabs, and we felt really bad for the carvers who often breathe in the very dust from the images they are cutting up and carving. It seemed like very hard, difficult, and dangerous work. One image that will stay with us forever was a man sitting inside a massive marble Buddha’s lap. He was painting on the Buddha’s lips, eyes, and eyebrows, and was simply dwarfed by the Buddha. We still had a few sights to see before our sunset view from Mandalay hill, so we headed over to the Shwenandaw monastery, which is famous for its exquisite wooden carvings. This monastery is a fine example of a traditional Burmese wooden monastery, but it also functioned as part of the palatial complex for King Mindon and his queen. The carved panels were amazing, but many of them were badly damaged by the weather. We caught glimpses of red-robed monks drifting through the monastery, and it made for a very picturesque sight.
From Shwenandaw monastery, we walked over to the Kuthodaw Paya, which has been dubbed as the “world’s biggest book”. Each page of the “book” is a massive marble slab with stone carved Buddhist scriptures. Each page is housed beneath its own individual stupa, and there are 729 marble slabs in total. Tin Tin explained that if someone read for 8 hours a day, it would take one person 450 days to read the entire book!
We were ready for our Mandalay hill view, but were not able to take our large bus up the windy hill. Instead, we hopped inside small jeeps that zoomed fearlessly up the hill. We passed by the two massive, carved lions at the base of the hill, and continued up the curving, narrow road. Three locals hopped onto the bumper of the jeep, and they provided us entertainment with their hooting and hollering, as well as synchronized dance movements. Little did we know but Bob was teaching the other jeep a song of his own entitled “I hope the brakes don’t fail!”
Mandalay hill is the perfect vantage point for a panoramic sunset view over the city. It is a popular look out point, and soon there were throngs of tourists and locals alike, admiring the view. The ride back down Mandalay hill was even more exciting than the journey up, and Bob’s song became very popular with everyone bellowing it to the driver (who of course didn’t understand a word). Dinner was held at a local restaurant, with Tin Tin going over our itinerary for the next day.
Thursday, 6 Apr: After seeing Mandalay’s main sights the previous day, we decided on a day trip to explore Amarapura and Inwa. Amarapura is located a short 11 km south of Mandalay, and our first stop was to visit Bagaya Kyaung monastery. It was locked up, but Tin Tin asked the caretaker to unlock it for us, so we could see the ancient palm-leaf manuscripts in person. In another section of the monastery/museum, there were over 500 Buddha images stored behind protective glass. We were a bit tired of museums at this point, but Tin Tin promised us that our next stop would definitely be a unique and interesting one!
The Maha Ganayon Kyaung monastery did not disappoint! It is located near the U Bein wooden teak bridge, and is the home to thousands of young, red-robed monks. Founded in 1914, it is a center for monastic study and strict discipline. We arrived just after 1030 am, and were early for the 11am donation feeding. It costs of $10,000 to feed the entire monastic staff, and the donating family took center stage in the middle of the feeding area. Imagine hundreds of monks donned in red or white robes (white robes are for the novice monks) formed in two disciplined lines, with each monk carrying a lacquer bucket for his food. We were amazed to watch how efficient the feeding line was. In a matter of minutes, all the monks had cycled through the feeding area to receive soup, rice, vegetables, meat, fruit, and even ice cream (a special treat). They were all so quiet and efficient. Within 30 minutes, they had downed their lunch, refilled their plastic buckets, and vanished to the four corners of the world….absolutely amazing experience for us. Bob became so enamored with the monks that he bought several CDs and books on Buddhism, and vowed to learn more about this peaceful religion.
What an exciting morning! We headed over to U Bein’s 1.2 km long footbridge at the culmination of the feeding, but were absolutely beat down by the midday sun. It was smoldering, and we grabbed bags of iced sugar cane juice to quench our thirst. The bridge is quite interesting…it is made out of teak wood, and has stood the test of time for over two centuries. It remains the longest teak span bridge in the world (even though some of the teak pillars had been replaced by concrete posts). There were numerous paintings and souvenirs down by the river bank, so we stopped to check them out and get an idea of the asking prices (from $5 – 20 for oil paintings)…Bob and Ann came away with two gorgeous pieces, one of two studious monks and the other was an old Burmese lady puffing away on her cheroot.
Lunch was held at a nearby restaurant, where we ate under the shade of the trees. Giant tree lizards came running down the bark to gaze at our massive group disrupting the silence, and we laughed when one of them lost its grip, and fell beside us, stunned. Once it regained its composure, it scurried back up the tree and out of sight.
Little did we know but the best was still to come. The ancient city of Inwa beckoned. Inwa is a historical capital founded by King Thado Minbya in 1364. It used to serve as the capital of northern Myanmar after the fall of Bagan, and is located on the Mandalay side of the Ayeyarwady River. The Myitnge River bisects the Ayeyarwady, and Inwa is an island at the convergence of these two rivers. We had to take a small ferry to get across to Inwa, and were immediately besieged by locals offering straw hats for sale. After buying several hats, we waved goodbye for the short jaunt across the river. Waiting for us on the other end were six horse carts and drivers.
And off we went! Bob loved it, and in no time at all, had convinced his driver to take a back seat as he grabbed the reigns and steered the horse down the narrow path towards Bagaya Kyaung. The horse carts were a great way to explore the Inwa area, as our drivers tried to outmaneuver each other. Our horses galloped furiously at breakneck speed, and whenever one would tire, another would overtake the lead position.
Bagaya is one of Inwa’s finest attractions, an 1834 teak monastery. The monastery is still functional, and we were able to quietly observe the young monks studying their lessons, and practicing their chants. Robby soon gravitated towards a silent young girl, who mimicked his every move. When he hopped backwards and spun out wildly, she would try her best to parrot his movements, and suddenly he realized that she was completely deaf. She couldn’t hear or understand a single word, but communication between them had transcended normal means. She finally requested a photo with Robby, and was super pleased to see her image on our camera’s display panel. Robby still claims that a part of his heart was left at Bagaya Kyaung with that very beautiful girl, whose innocence pierces through even today as a haunting memory. We would have been in trouble if Robby could have taken her away with us!
After hopping back into the horse carts, we headed off to Nanmyin, a 27 meter high watchtower that is jokingly referred to as the “leaning tower of Inwa”. It certainly does lean in one direction, but we climbed up inside it and admired the view overlooking Inwa and beyond. Some of the stairs were a bit loose, so it was somewhat precarious climbing up the crooked tower, but well worth it. Our horses needed the short break our stop provided them, and we bargained with local vendors for handicrafts on sale at the base of the tower. Last stop in Inwa was the Maha Aungmye Bonzan, a brick-‘n-stucco monastery built in 1818. This monastery was vastly different from the other monasteries we had visited in Mandalay (it wasn’t built out of wood, for one!). Lots more souvenirs sellers offering painting, bronze work, and pottery for sale, and our group definitely pumped some money back into the local economy.
The gang agreed that the horse cart ride was one of their highlights on the trip so far, especially since it had come as a complete surprise! We made plans for the English speakers of our group to attend the Moustache Brothers “A-Nyeint Pwe” show this evening, after dinner at a local Thai restaurant.
The Moustache Brothers performance is touted as a must-do while in Mandalay. We were glad that we squeeze it in, even though it ran a lot longer than the 90 minute show we had heard about. A-Nyeint Pwe is more commonly referred to as vaudeville street theater, and is a fluid and adaptable form of Burmese entertainment. The Moustache Brothers were catapulted into stardom when U Par Par Lay was arrested in 1996 and sentenced to seven years hard labor for making fun of the generals running the country. After Par Par Lay was released in 2001, tourists flocked to view the Moustache Brothers performances each night. In fact, the slow but steady trickle of tourists who seek out the Moustache Brothers hideaway is a definite deterrent to the Myanmar government from wrongfully jailing the performers again…so by attending this performance, you essentially are providing protection for the Moustache Brothers and troupe. We learned a lot about Burmese dance moves from Comedian Lu Maw’s wife, who demonstrated complex dance moves for us in slow motion. If you have a chance to visit the show, go! The Moustache Brothers are located on 39th street, between 80th and 81st. The tuk-tuk ride back to our Silver Star hotel was noxious (the fumes weren’t properly ventilated), but thankfully it was a short ride back.
Friday, 7 Apr: Unfortunately, because Mandalay’s international airport is so far away, we had to get up super early for our morning flight to Heho. We stumbled in for breakfast and were served some noodle soup (only after Ann complained that toast did not constitute a “real” breakfast), and boarded the bus for our trek out to catch the 6T402 flight from Mandalay to Heho. Our destination today was Nyaung Shwe, better known as Inle Lake.
The drive from Heho to Nyaung Shwe was just over an hour, and we were rearing to get out on Inle Lake for our excursion. But first we had to check into the Hupin Hotel, which was a 10 minute walk from the closest dock. Our group boarded two motorboats, and we divided up our boats to make sure that each boat had some strong swimmers mixed in with the weaker ones (just in case the boat tipped over). Inle Lake is 22 km long, 11 km wide, and 875 meters above sea level. It is famous for the “leg rowers”, and Tin Tin said that we would soon see for ourselves what she was referring to. We slathered a ton of sun tan lotion, donned our straw hats, brought water bottles in tow, and headed off past the beautiful floating vegetation pads, fisherman, and wildlife. Inle Lake is famous for the fishermen using special cone-shaped nets that are stretched over wooden and bamboo frames. We passed by numerous fishermen with these special nets, but only saw a few in action.
Our first stop was to the Phaung Daw U Paya, one of the holiest religious sites in the southern area of the Shan states. Five images (four are ferried around the lake during the annual Phaung Daw U festival) are enshrined in the center of the building. Tin Tin informed us that whenever all 5 figurines were simultaneously transported, the boat carrying them would inevitably sink. This pattern repeated itself several times, until the locals realized that one image should always be centered at Phaung Daw U. After that, it was smooth sailing for the vessel transporting the four holy images. We tried hard to imagine what the 5 images originally looked like…due to heavy gold leaf application, the statues look like compact, round blobs.
We ate lunch at one of Inle Lake’s floating restaurants, where half of our group boycotted the rest of the day’s itinerary (they opted for sleep instead). But thankfully we had two separate motorboats, so we were able to split off and continue with our Inle Lake tour. Poor Ji Sung…she really wanted to continue on with the original tour, but each boat could only carry a maximum of 6 passengers, and there was no room for her to join our boat.
Before our group split up, we visited a lotus fiber weaving center, where neutral colored blankets, belts, and miscellaneous fabrics were created. Tin Tin explained that lotus Kimono belts were the rage with the Japanese, and this weaving center catered to the Japanese demand. Prices for these items were quite high, but after viewing the amount of work to harvest and create lotus products, we realized that the prices were fair.
A cheroot factory was next on our program, and we watched as a dozen young women hand rolled cheroots in front of us. The raw ingredients of tobacco, wrappers, labels, filters and glue were expertly bundled and wrapped in about 30 seconds flat for each cheroot. The women handed out cheroots for us to sample, and soon all of us were puffing away. Bob ended up buying a bundle to take back for friends back home, but the rest of us were quite happy with our sole cheroot experience. Our group split off into two separate directions after this, with the tired group heading back to the Hupin hotel, while the rest of us continued on.
Our quest this afternoon was to reach Indein, a quaint village on the Western side of the lake. It is accessed by a thin, winding river that is often too shallow to access late in the dry season. Our goal was to visit the Shwe Inn Thein stupas, but the trip to get there was utterly fascinating. We had to traverse up a series of dams, but amazingly, our narrow motorboat was able to jump up over the dams. The narrowness of the Indein tributary bonded us with the locals on either side of the river banks. Whether it was a young girl doing her laundry, or a man soaking his exhausted water buffalo, we made eye contact with, and were able to connect with so many strangers on such a spontaneous moment. It was magical…listening to the steady hum of our motorboat, the gaiety of the children, the contentment of the waterlogged buffaloes, the bustling vibe of the Pa-o tribal market place. We couldn’t believe this site only gets a two line inclusion in the Lonely Planet guide, but then again, it was fine by us. Perhaps the complete absence of other tourists only highlighted our complete enthrallment with Shwe Inn Thein….what a lovely corner of the world! The decrepit old stupas dotting the landscape made us all feel like Indiana Jones exploring some unknown ruins deep in the jungle…and we had the wonderful place all to ourselves.
Tin Tin knew that we were keen to visit with some of the local tribes here, so she arranged for a visit to see the Padaung (with their elongated necks and neck rings), the Lahda, and the Pa-O. The Padaung ladies were so sweet and super friendly. When they found out that Becky was half-Vietnamese and half-American, they pulled her to sit down in the middle of them, and kept pinching her cheeks. Their necks had become so elongated that without the neck rings, they would no longer be able to support the weight of their own heads! They did show us that they could “unhook” the very base of the neck rings so that the bottom three rungs fit over the rest of the rings, thereby giving them a little bit of breathing room. The Lahda lady wore beautiful white beads around her neck, along with a simple white headdress. The women sold woven handicrafts to support their families, and we gave them a donation for allowing us to visit their home and interact with them.
Inle Lake is also the home of the Indha tribe. The Indha use their trousers to catch fish from the lake, but we didn’t meet any of them firsthand. However, we did get to know the Pa-O tribe really well, as they are the main tribe at Indein village, and were easily spotted with their all black outfits and colorful checkered head scarves. We saw a group of Pa-O women bathing down by the river…they simply dipped under the river, unwrapped and soaked their black outfits, squeezed all the excess water out and rewrapped themselves and viola! Bath was complete. We still had one more sight to see, so Tin Tin rushed us out of Indein. Which was too bad, as it was our favorite village in Myanmar, and we would have loved to spend more time here. But the sun was setting, and we still had a long way to go to return back to our hotel. And we still had the Jumping Cat Monastery to visit.
The return trip from Indein to the Nga Hpe Chaung was fantastic, and more families were down by the riverbanks either fishing, or bathing, or washing their clothes. We loved the spontaneous smiles and waves, and didn’t feel as if we were intruding at all. In fact, we felt completely welcome as incognito observers, and cherished the interaction we had on both sides of the river bank. The Jumping Cat monastery was our last stop of the day. This monastery is built on stilts, and the monks have trained their highly photogenic cats to jump through small hoops. It was amazing…who knew house cats could be trained to perform circus style tricks? The monk explained that all the baby cats learn from the adult cats…kind of like “monkey see, monkey do”. In any case, we were amazed that the cats leapt as high as they did, perfectly through the extended hoop. Very cool!
The sun was setting as we jetted back towards our hotel. It took us just under an hour to reach the dock, and we thanked our lake guide for a fantastic tour. The rest of the night was spent eating and drinking local Inle Lake wine at the Hupin’s restaurant. Myanmar wine will probably never dominate the world market, but it was fairly decent wine that did complement our meal.
Saturday, 8 Apr: Tin Tin gave us the option to sleep in and have a later breakfast, so of course everyone agreed to a little extra sleep. However, the Vietnamese clan was eager to practice their English lessons, courtesy of Pimsleur’s “Quick ‘n Easy” series. We completed the first lesson, and Di Sau was the best student, quickly picking up key English phrases with a perfect accent. After lessons, we ate breakfast before checking out of the Hupin hotel. We had time to kill before our afternoon flight from Heho to Yangon, so we decided to visit the Heho market.
The Heho market hosts the largest of the five day markets in the southern area of the Shan state, and it was packed. There were lots of Pa-O men and women bartering for fresh produce, and we did see the quintessential elder smoking on a cheroot. The “parking lot” was pretty cool…horse and buggies were lined up as far as the eye could see, and it looked like a scene from the movies. We were able to freely mingle throughout the market with little fanfare. It was definitely a photographer’s delight, and we were able to capture lots of market scenes.
Lunch was served at a local restaurant near the Heho restaurant. None of us were hungry, but we did manage to eat most of our food! Upon arrival at Yangon, we checked back into the Yuzana hotel, and Tin Tin offered a shopping excursion to those of us who were interested. Since we were keen on picking up a few more oil paintings, we headed directly for the Bogyoke Aung San Market, a 70 year old British-era market that is sometimes referred to as “Scott Market”. We stayed past the official closing time (5 pm), but since the paintings were sold in an outside alley, we were able to peruse the selection without fear of getting locked inside the market. We ended up buying several oil based paintings here…the selection was fantastic but we definitely took our time and wandered through all the different shops. While most of the vendors gave us reasonable quotes (under $25), one store quoted a gorgeous tribal painting at over $400!
The Yuzana hotel served a buffet dinner, and Tin Tin told us to eat whenever we felt like it, since we no longer had a strict timetable to keep. We were amazed that our time in Myanmar had flown by so quickly and was nearing the end. We could easily revisit and spend over a month simply backpacking around.
Sunday, 9 Apr: Our return flight to Bangkok was at 1310, so we had a little bit of time to sightsee this morning. After checking out of Yuzana hotel, we headed towards the Maha Pasana Guha (the Great Cave), which is a large artificial cave (139m x 113m) that was built to coincide with the 2500th anniversary of Buddha’s enlightenment. Unfortunately, we were not able to enter the cave, but could only judge it from its outside façade. We were able to drop in and visit the nearby Kaba Aye Paya (World Peace Stupa), which was built in the 1950s for the Sixth Buddhist Synod. Surrounding the outside of the Stupa were Buddhas for various countries, including Vietnam and Afghanistan! Of course, we all walked in a circle until we found the Buddha representing our country and posing for photos.
Our last stop before heading to the International airport was a brief one to a mini-zoo where Myanmar’s most auspicious animal, the white elephant, was on display. Well, actually there were three of them on display, and the government takes great offence if you call them “albino” elephants. White elephants are supposed to bring great luck, and there were photos of various official ceremonies involving the elephants.
Back on the bus, Bob gave a brief speech on how much we all appreciated Tin Tin and what a wonderful experience our short trip was for all eleven of us. We were amazed at how fast it flew by, but definitely have many fond memories of our time in Myanmar.