Another adventure with Scott McGregor. We have been looking forward to the planes, trains, boats, trams and bus adventure to Myanmar after a wonderful experience with him in Sri Lanka.
Dan flew in from Nairobi and I came up from Adelaide. Armed with loads of tropical medicine, probiotics and natural fibre clothing, I arrived in Yangon at 5pm. In the plane were six other travellers branded with Railway Adventures tags on their bags. Altogether we were 7 and we introduced ourselves. Our guide Willie met us and gathered our little group together and we were shepherded into a waiting bus to take us to our hotel the Sule Shangri-la conveniently located in down town Yangon. On the way he gave us a quick run down on the notable buildings we were passing interspersed with stories of the ancient and modern history of Burma/Myanmar.
Willie whose real name is Myint (Tuesday) Kine Oo would prove to be a remarkable and knowledgeable character. Enthusiastic, a keen if quirky sense of humour and with a great love for his country, he was keen to show it to advantage. We grew very fond of him.
The traffic although relatively orderly, took some adjustment. I observed a phenomenon that later became an obvious pattern, a national sport of overtaking… it being apparently a sign of great weakness to let another vehicle stay too long in front of your car, bus or truck. Someone observed that many of the cars appeared to be designed for left hand driving but the people drive on the right! Evidently an astrologer had determined a few years ago that cars should drive on the opposite side. We learnt that Burmese people place a lot of faith in astrologers as do many people in the countries surrounding them.
Burma or Myanmar …. what to call this place? The Australian Government has recognised the new title” the USA has not. ‘ Burma’ is the British version of ‘Bama’ the name of the local tribe. Some people we met continue to use to use the word ‘Burma’ however the term ‘Myanmar” translates as ‘mother country’ and encompasses the original 14 ethnic groups that make up the entire country. This is the rationale behind the military government’s renaming Burma to Myanmar. The Lady, Aung San Suu Kyi is reported to favour “Burma” although I do not know her present position.. After some indecision and changing of mind I have decided to use the term Myanmar.
The bus driver took us past the former home of U Thant the 3rd Secretary General of the United Nations. I had just read a book “Burma” by Benedict Reynolds which described the attempt by the government to dishonour him in death by demanding his family cremate his body and have a quiet funeral. There was uproar, his body was stolen by protestors and the government capitulated and there was a public funeral. His body is now buried near the Schwedagon Pagoda. I wanted to ask Willie about these events but it seemed a bit early and I was reluctant to compromise him.
It is an interesting time to be in Myanmar. Aung San Suu Kyi had just won the popular vote in the recent elections and was engaged in negotiating the transfer of power from a military to a civilian government. A new President was to be announced on March 17th. I could find little about the negotiations in the local papers. They seemed to focus only on the existing President and his wonderful deeds. Splendid summaries of his recent speeches featured in every paper. Only a weekly magazine reported more fully and gave some details of what was happening. The President’s speeches comment on the need to respect the constitution which is well known to exclude the eligibility of Aung San Suu Kyi. The book on Burma describes the development of the constitution as a process totally corrupted and dominated by the military. There were threats to those who would not go along with the recommendations. The referendum was equally corrupted.
Willie explained that because Burma’s isolation, it has been left in a time warp. The wonderful colonial buildings line the streets of Yangon intact and dirty. Such a great potential for restoration and refurbishment. It is hoped that they can be converted rather than removed as in other capitals like Bangkok.
The buildings are mostly empty. They used to house government offices but all these have now been transferred to Nay Pyi Taw (naypidore), the new capital. (see later notes).
Willie told us that some of the antiquities in Myanmar have been stolen and can be found in Thailand and other places. The government was now trying to stop the pillage of their precious history.
There was a fair bit of building development in the city as the economy starts to respond to the opening of the country by the government and the influx of tourists. We saw new flyovers and road designed to improve the traffic flows. Someone needs to develop a public transport system for the city!
We noticed the absence of bikes and were told they were banned in the city. Evidently the government ministers were driving in a convoy once and a man riding a Harley Davidson came close (may have crossed through the convoy). The Generals were spooked and decided they weren’t safe in Myanmar so they decided to build a whole new capital city between Yangon and Myanmar at Nay Pyi Taw. They also banned bikes at the same time. It turned out that the offending bike rider was the son of a General.
There are 51.4 million people living in Myanmar and 5.2 are in Yangon. As we drove to our hotel we saw industrious people with stalls selling all kinds of goods, mostly food. We saw new flyovers, widening roads, new hotels. We saw the digging of a ditch for a new water pipeline through the city to handle the growth. Electricity services were improving but still unreliable. We passed a 33 ton piece of raw jade. We saw kapok trees whose soft fluffy seeds are used for lining pillows and mattresses. Many of us on the bus could remember our families using kapok pillows and mattresses.
We were struck by the lovely clothes being worn by the people. Longyis are cotton long tubes which are tied at the waist for men and at the side for women. They were long like sarongs. Men tuck in shirts and women have tailored tops. (Think images of Aung San Suu Kyi). We passed the home of the Lady in the distance and learned that until just recently the use of her name could lead you into trouble with the police. The honorific “The Lady” became the alternative. We were to see her house more closely next day.
We had the good fortune to arrive on the eve of Chinese New Year which seemed to be from the 5th to the 7th. Temples were lit up. We checked into the Sule Shangri La Hotel (great luxury) and joined the others for a welcome dinner. There are 18 of us including Scott and our guide Willie. It would turn out to be a wonderful group of Australians who related well and cared for each other and proved to be remarkably on time as we moved from stop to stop!
DAY 2 5th February.
After Scott’s introduction, Willie starts each bus tour with “Mingalabar, ladies and gentlemen” and then proceeds to give us an overview of the places we will see. Our comfortable bus took us to the Sule Pagoda to start the day and we were inducted into the ritual of taking off shoes which was to become very common. Note to others. Wear slip on shoes on tours around Myanmar.
We visited a beautiful British built church, St Marys Cathedral which is a still working church
The day focused on sightseeing around Yangon city. We stopped at the wharf area where we watched boats being unloaded by men who carried one or sometimes two bags of rice on their shoulders to waiting trucks for the 200 Kyats (chats) or 20 cents a bag. A little boy with a very cheeky face managed to score some money off one of our group. He had been begging by putting his hand to his mouth. He was set upon by two adults who pushed him to the ground, trying to steal his cash. He managed to wriggle from underneath and proudly tapped his pocket as he walked away, checking that the money was still there. It was all a bit confronting for a first day!
We caught a light rail train/tram from beside the wharf which went for about 8 miles and we had an interesting view of the city and surrounds. (They still use miles in Myanmar). We returned to the bus and passed a rather sad looking zoo with a single fence. We noticed the police barracks surrounded by two fences. We passed many embassies including the Australian one. Most of the embassies had decided to stay in Yangon rather than move to Nay Pyi Taw.
A visit to the National Museum was another highlight. It provided four floors of historical artefacts including many paintings. On the top floor there were scores of life sized mannequins dressed in the traditional costumes of the tribes of the 14 regions of Myanmar. They were beautiful. The display could benefit from better presentation and lighting but even so, provided a wonderful snapshot of cultures they represented. I bought a few things from the government sponsored gift shop. Willie spoke of the good jade objects which could be found in Mandalay. He also mentioned that a lot of people sell artificial jade in the local stalls and we should be wary.
On our way to lunch we saw the front gate and fence of the Lady’s house from where she made speeches. Pictures of Aung San Suu Kyi are now everywhere…. on calendars, bags, posters and paintings. She is obviously hugely respected and adored. The people have a lot of trust in her. We saw shops which displayed photos of her meeting the world leaders who had been supporting the democracy movement.
Our lunch at the Green Elephant Restaurant was generous and featured many delicious Burmese dishes. The menu had been picked for us by Scott and Willie to make sure we sampled a variety of the traditional flavours. The restaurant was very busy with tourists.
After lunch we were given options…. high tea, the Bogyoke markets or doing our own thing. I had heard of a gallery where one could reliably get genuine local art so Dan and I went off in search of the place. While we were standing on a street corner trying to work out which way to go, a small old lady patted Dan in the stomach, laughed and gave him the thumbs up sign.
Despite the lack of street signs, we found the Pasodan Gallery at 268 Pansodan Street, according to one report it is one of the city’s best love art spaces. The owner artist Aung Soe Min showcases the old Burmese masters as well as emerging artists and a variety of local contemporary and antique art and collectables. The latter includes pre junta historical posters and advertisements. The airline magazine I read recommends visiting on Tuesday evenings when the gallery plays host to artists and creative types. The gallery, although well sign posted out the front, was tucked away on the first floor of a dilapidated building. We spoke to the owner who took us up to see the historical artefacts and precious posters on the fourth floor then we went down to examine the collection of paintings for sale on the first floor.
Aung Soe Min represents 200 artists and he had plenty of their paintings available. I was looking for a modern piece representing some aspect of Burmese culture for my own collection. It was a hard choice. Dan and I have different views on art but I eventually settled on a green modern painting by ANGKO done in 2015. It was beautifully wrapped conveniently for air travel.
We walked back to the hotel which to our surprise was quite close. On advice, we had followed a most circuitous path to get there!
The absolute highlight of the day and perhaps the whole trip, was the sunset visit to the very famous Shwedagon Pagoda. It is a huge and beautiful gold stupa covered with 8688 gold blocks and the top of the stupa holds 5 448 diamonds and 2317 sapphires, rubies and topaz. The central square on which it is located is 5.6 hectares or 14 acres in area although the entire complex is much greater. The stupa was surrounded by many other smaller buildings making up a small town, high up approached via the south entrance 104 stairs (we caught a lift to the roadway) where Myanmar’s history both modern and ancient played out. The British colonials refused to take their shoes off when they entered so they were banned and later, student protests made it an important site in the democracy movement.
There are 8 sides, 64 stupas, 4 main stairwells and a giant central terrace. The Burmese people have eight days in the week and this is organised by having two 1/2 days on Wednesday. Everyone has the day of their birth incorporated in their name. Around the main Pagoda were special prayer stations for the days of the week where one could splash water on images including Buddha and the animal symbol for their special day.
NAME DAY OF WEEK SYMBOL
Koko Monday Tiger
Myint Tuesday Lion
Win Wednesday Tusked Elephant
Wednesday Untusked elephant
Muu Muu Thursday Rat
Thi Thi Friday Guinea Pig
Tin Tin Saturday Dragon
Aung Sunday Garuda
DAY 3 Saturday 6th February
Our third day in Yangon began with a walk through the Heidan Chinese markets. These were located along narrow streets lined with stalls containing fresh produce, meat and vegetables. The surrounding buildings were many stories high and had no lifts. We noticed small black plastic bags in bundles and found that they were to be connected to ropes to be lifted up on to balconies.
We took many photos of the various meat stalls. Every part of the animal was available for sale including the gizzards. Fish were filleted as we walked past. The pork stall had a boneless pig face on display and the ducks and chickens were intact but plucked as were the chickens. The vegetables were very fresh and stacked high. Willie explained the names and uses of some we hadn’t seen before. Refrigeration isn’t that reliable in Myanmar due to the vagaries of the electricity supply so most people buy daily. Certainly at one restaurant we were told by the owner that every day they come to this market to buy their supplies so that they can serve the freshest food to their customers.
The markets were clean because they were being swept constantly and people (mostly women) in high visibility vests were carting the rubbish away on carts.
There were many stalls offering a range of Chinese New Year accoutrements. Lollies,moon cakes, decorations.
We stopped for morning tea at the Lucky Tea house. Lucky is a popular word in Myanmar…. lucky money, lucky day. We sat around on little chairs and drank coffee with condensed milk. Milk as we know it is not common in Myanmar in fact we didn’t find any but the substitutes were many and tasty including powdered milk, condensed milk and creamers. We had the lot. While on the topic of drinks, we became very fond of fresh lime and soda which sometimes had honey added and it became our drink of choice. We foreigners were discouraged from drinking local water and relied heavily on the dreaded water in plastic bottles. This was safest but we were conscious of our plastic footprint!
Being on the National Board of Red Cross I was pleased to see the Red Cross sign regularly until I discovered it was the symbol used by doctors to indicate their presence. The Red Cross in Myanmar has a good reputation globally and I did see their headquarters later in the tour.
We caught our first real train, the circular train which the British had built to travel around the outskirts of Yangon or Rangoon as they would have called it. We had seats and obscured views out of the windows which were darkened probably to reduce heat. We were delighted by the locals who came and went in our carriage. Some were traditionally dressed. Many had been to the markets. There was a lot of smiling back and forward. I think we were the subject of much curiosity. Some younger teenagers were wearing jeans. They stood out as a contrast to most other people still wearing the traditional longyis.
Two young boys entered our carriage. One was collecting empty plastic bottles we assumed for resale/recycling and the other was selling steel wool in a big plastic bags. Steel wool is a popular cleaning agent here. A young woman walked through carrying a tray of pineapple on her head and a small plastic chair in her hand. When she found a sale, she would sit down on her chair and take a piece of pineapple and chop it up on her palm. We were impressed that she managed her rather large sharp knife without doing damage to herself. Her hand was only protected by the plastic bag she covered it with to wrap the finished product in and give it to the customer.
We detrained at Insein (pronounced insane) station the closest stop to the airport. Insein is also the site of the notorious maximum security prison where the Lady had spent some time. We were disappointed that the railway workshops were closed because it was Saturday. Some of our group are real train buffs (Scott is obsessed and extremely knowledgeable) and would have liked to have seen this. Others didn’t care that much!
We had lunch at another Green Elephant Restaurant, the Nine Mile Restaurant, and had another good meal. We were introduced to small round white aubergines and for dessert we had the popular steamed bananas with yoghurt, coconut cream, yellow sultanas and black sesame seeds. We were to experience variations of this steamed banana dessert a few times. Chefs had their own variations like any dish. We also tried the Burmese version of water cress. It isn’t like the one we know. A big green leaf, it grows in water and we saw it beside the railway line in little plots of water. The stems are hollow and soak up the water. It is sometimes know as Chinese water cress or Kankung.
The owner of the restaurant greeted us with enthusiasm and was especially optimistic for her country. She explained that the government had recently introduced a new minimum wage law and although it had increased her wages bill by 30 per cent, she supported it strongly. The minimum wage is now 4000 kyats a day or $4 in our money. Her staff also gets uniforms, two meals a day, tips and sometimes accommodation. She spoke of her eight relatives in Australia.
From the restaurant, our bus took us and bags to the Yangon airport for our flight to Nay Pyi Taw. There were no fancy electronic signs telling us when the plane was leaving just a man with a sign on a stick walking around, letting us know they plane was ready.
The flight took the long route via Mandalay, up and then back down to Nay Pyi Taw. Arriving at night we were somewhat amazed by the scale of what we saw. Although the capital wasn’t very big as yet, relatively speak, we stepped off into a grand international airport, newly constructed. We were the only people there apart from a few staff and a few people outside on motor bikes.
Because it was dark, we had to wait until the next day to see the full extent of the strangeness of Nay Pyi Taw. We drove through the hotel zone where more than 30 international hotels have been built and we arrived at the fantastic Lake Garden MGallery Hotel where we were to spend two nights in luxury.
DAY 4 Sunday 7th February
Nay Pyi Taw. Oh what a weird place is this! Someone described it as a mix of Canberra on steroids and Brazilia with an Orwellian Twist. Nay Pyi Taw is a new capital city built in the 90s designed in zones around the Parliament building. No expense has been spared. There are reports it had cost four or eight billion dollars to build. Driving around the empty highways we are conscious of very big buildings and very few people.
We stopped on the oversized motorway outside the new Parliament house which makes ours look like “an outhouse” as my cousin Charles says. It is a huge structure of interconnected buildings but according to reports, not very functional. There are no offices and very wide hall ways with lots of meeting rooms. The building is inaccessible to the general public as are the military zones and the roads leading to the Generals/Ministers houses. Somewhere in there at this moment, Aung San Suu Kyi is negotiating with the President for the transfer of power
A massive 8 lane motorway, 4 lanes each side, flows into the city. Closer in, it morphs into about 10 lanes each side. The roads are empty. It could double as a massive airfield to land planes if needed. Our bus, a couple of motor bikes, the odd car and a horse and cart were the total traffic load. The median strip is filled with thousands of trees, palms and bougainvillea bushes. There a miles of pavings on the edges with each stone in the patterns laid by hand. Huge roundabouts are stepped with a giant lotus or other sculpture in the centre on the top and they are flowered all over. Patterns made from flowers were evident on the banks of the roads adjacent to the roundabouts. Everywhere were artificial lakes and ponds.
The city is divided into zones. There is the hotel zone where we are housed with 30 or 60 depending of the information source, empty international hotels. There are zones for the government housing separated by department. Each department is designated by roofing colour. Green for agriculture, blue for education. The colours are together which means people working in the same department also live together in the same suburb. One is reminded that Canberra once it became the administration headquarters of the Commonwealth government had suburbs assigned by rank. We saw large but poorly attended supermarkets. So much infrastructure, so little life.
Local people, like the embassies, refused to move into the city and live on the edges as they always had.
A huge convention centre remains hardly used except for a gem convention apparently held quarterly. A grand stadium looked unused although we didn’t get a good look. We were told that there was even a zoo somewhere but we didn’t see it.
The Chinese were allegedly influential in the funding and design of Nay Pyi Taw. Not far from the Parliament building the road had been widened even further to accommodate a huge military parade complete with a saluting base and pavilion for the march past. It might still be waiting for the grand event.
There is a water fountain park but the fountains are turned off during the day and turned on at night with a light show.
The President and his wife In keeping with Burmese Buddhist tradition, had the Uppatasanti Pagoda built in 2008 to gain merit for their journey to Nirvana. Tourists are supposed to pay to enter but there was no one to collect. Some members of our party observed cracking and concrete cancer in the main building. Like many of the hotels and other places, it was built in a hurry. A most disturbing feature was the sight of the 2 white elephants (a symbol of great power) and 4 others, being sequestered at the base of the Pagoda. All the elephants were standing on cement and one was kept in chains. They are let out at night into a paddock.
Returning from the Pagoda, we were shown the monks’ examination centre which had been built close by.
The morning coffee break took place at the Flight Cafe sponsored by Myanmar Airlines. It was part of a hotel complex with no guests. In the foreground was a DC9 in which one could sit for coffee by we chose to eat inside the very nice cafe building. The tea and coffee were good.
The next stop was the Gem Museum, another grand building with two carved white elephants out the front guarding a rather grand staircase to the front door. The ground floor provided space for lots of little shopping stalls set up professionally to display their wares. In order not to disappoint the exceedingly underworked staff by raising their expectations that we might buy something (not being rich or jewel wearers) we proceeded upstairs to the very impressive display of gems. The displays varied with lots of modern jewellery pieces embellished with pearls, gold, semi precious and precious stones. There were displays of many gems some unfamiliar to us to show the range of stones available in Burma. The most impressive sections contained exhibits of jade carvings.
A small clean regional restaurant where they filled a divided plate with rice and three foods of your choice provided today’s lunch break. Soup was served as is usual. It was tasty and cost $1.50 each.
On the way back to our hotel, we passed crops of sugar cane, dragon fruit, bananas and peanuts either side of the freeway.
The hotel offered wonderful massages in the spa so I had my first. I dipped my toes into foot reflexology for an hour and it was good!
Dinner at the Lake Garden MGallery hotel was quite tasty. I think the chef was delighted to have someone to cook for. He was very keen to get our feedback on each course which we gave.
DAY 5 Monday 8th February.
This morning we explored our hotel and its surrounds in a golf buggy. The hotel is located along with others, beside a large artificial lake. Our pathway took us way beyond the boundaries of our place and we had a look at the other hotels, some of which appeared empty. Our driver took us back on the eight lane freeway but as there was one only one other car, we felt quite safe.
Back to the hotel and onto our bus, we continued to explore both new and old Nay Pyi Taw. The local market wasn’t quite as clean as the Chinese market in Yangon and we were not sad to leave. On our way out, we passed small villages and farms growing onions and bananas. We passed the original village of “cashless” people as Willie refers to them who predated the new developments. The President’s house was behind a big wall but we had a glimpse of a rather large house with a red roof. Then we saw the huge National Bank building. New developments were underway as we saw a couple of dirt roads with very sophisticated lighting.
The public servants who move to Nay Pyi Taw have to leave their houses when they retire. The streets were lined with palm trees encased in green wrapping around the bottom half to protect them against evaporation.
As Scott is always keen for us to enjoy a railway experience, we headed off to the Nay Pyi Taw railway station. Again, a very grand structure perhaps somewhat large for the use it gets but in keeping with the general “everything must be the best/biggest in Nay Pyi Taw”. We sat in the railway station for a while watching the comings and goings. This is on the main line between Yangon and Mandalay so a few trains pass through each day. Scott had heard that there was a railway museum so he arranged for the station master with four stripes to find the key and open it for us. The staff was most gracious and helpful. We went in and admired the memorabilia for the British rail times… lovely crockery and a history of the railways in Burma. There were bits of machinery which some of our group appreciated!
We continued with the tour. We saw the imposing Supreme Court with grand pillars and passed the Sinma living mall with a few cars in the car park. There are lots of employees with not much to do yet until the city really grows but they are always keen to help. Many of the outdoor workers are women.
It is said that the government designed Nay Pyi Taw 50 years in advance and it will all be used one day . Perhaps this is true. Think of Canberra!
The well defined freeway lost its looks about 5 miles out of town but the road was still concrete and easy to drive. Next stop, Meiklita. We pass lot of villages and open spaces. Some of the houses are on stilts and most have woven bamboo cladding. The white Asian Brahmin cows are everywhere. A huge large reclining Buddha appeared. There are many dogs.
Mieklita is a crossroads town and in 2012 /2013 was the site of serious tribal warfare. Scott recounted the story of Sir William Slim when he was commander of the allied troops in WW2 and the turning back of the Japanese. The battles in this area represented one of the turning points of the war. The role of the Gurkhas under command of the British was significant. They participated in house to house fighting under the cover of allied bombing. Some of the Gurkhas stayed on after the war and their physical influence is obvious in the central north. There is a prominent statue of General Aung San in the main street. Meiklita has a university and a colonial administration building.
We stay in the best hotel in Meiklita. It was modest but they did their best to look after us and we ate outside under the stars. The hotel was renamed the Floral Breeze possibly as part of an upgrade and to attract tourists. It looked over a lake and the town was buzzing with loud music and karaoke.
Day 6 Tuesday 9th February
Up before dawn to leave at 5.30 am in order to get to the Thazi railway station for the 7 am train to Kalaw Hill Station. Scott had organised a special carriage for us. The hotel gave us a lunch box after a light breakfast.
We passed 5 monks in a line walking barefoot into the village with their empty bowls to get their daily food. It is called “the morning round”. People who give them something to eat, earn merit in the Buddhist tradition. This ceremony would be happening all over Myanmar. The last meal the monks have is at 12 o’clock and then they fast until early morning. The wonks were wearing brown robes. We saw different shades of robes. Nuns do it as well in their pink robes with a light brown scarf over their shoulder.
We passed petrol stations, Denko and Seagull, selling petrol for 50 (500 kyats) cents a gallon. Some days it went up a bit more just like here in Australia!
We sat at the station waiting and watching the passing parade. Coffee, samosas and long donuts were ordered. We could not eat them all so we gave them to a monk who seemed very pleased with our offering.
Our carriage was labelled “superior class”. Lots of people had been sleeping on the station overnight because it isn’t easy for people to get there early in the morning.
It was a 6 hour journey ahead for us in a carriage with special ventilation…. no windows. We could have closed the shutters but that would have spoiled the view. The train is narrow gauge and very rocky and rather fun. Someone claimed it’s missing stabilisers and they were reminded of riding a camel. This is after all, a railway adventure and we are enjoying it. We pass lots of villages with smiling people and children waving at the train. Goats and pigs are in pens under and around the houses.
There are thorn bushes close to the railway line so it’s best not to poke one’s head out the window. As the land gets drier, the villages become less prosperous and we pass many miles of scrub.
The highlight of the trip was the negotiation of three switchbacks to get up the steep hill. The train goes back and forward to make the climb. At the base of the third switchback we are 3,237 feet above sea level. Our train stops at small villages and people drop off for coffee and a walk around.
We are entering the Shan region of 33 minority groups. The town of Kalaw has a population of 100,000 people.
The Pine Resort Hotel, an old place reminiscent of colonial times when the British officials moved all the administration for the cooler climate in monsoon weather, provided lunch. Unfortunately, we faced a five course lunch with little time to eat it. Course 1 fries; course2 soup; course 3 chicken and salad; course 4 roast beef and vegetables and then course 5 baked custard. It was all too much!
We are on the road to the infamous Golden Triangle. Further up north there is a civil war raging as the army tries to eradicate the poppy fields. According to my cousin who has been coming here regularly since 1972, the defeated army of Chang Kai Shek went mostly to Taiwan but some settled in the north of the Shan State and grew opium poppies and lay the base for a massive drug trade.
The Shan men wear divided trousers which are blousey at the top and come into a tight ankle.
We saw strawberry farms, monasteries, pagodas and more villages. The road remains pretty good. We have a challenging drive around hair pin bends to get to the valley. There are deep gutters beside the road to take the runoff from the monsoon rains.
There is a lot of tooting. We are convinced that there is a tooting language.
One toot I want to pass
Two toots, I am passing, keep over
Three toots, I really am passing. Watch out
A long toot. I don’t think you heard me. I want to over take..
Finally, a short thank you toot once the pass has been made.
It is generally a non aggressive tooting!
We enter the Inlay Lake Biosphere Reserve and the environment starts to change. We notice rubber plantations and cheroot tobacco leaf farms. There are sugar cane farms for brown sugar but mostly rum distillation. We see crops of honey dews and water melons.
The capital of the Shan Region we are entering is Nyaung Shwe with 500.000 people. The Shan style stupas are different from the ones further south. They are tall and thin. We see many beautiful examples.
We stop at a wharf to catch a long boat with engine. Think gondola without the trimmings. There are four or five of us to each boat and we motor 15 minutes across the magnificent Inle (sometimes spelt Inlay) Lake to our water based hotel. We pass the well posed Intha fisherman who are famous for rowing with one leg holding the paddle. One put a fish in front of my face and demanded money. I offer him a small note which he rejects with disdain. When we arrive, we are greeted with much ceremony as we alight from the boat. There is a band playing music and welcoming drinks are offered by the staff of the Myanmar Treasure Resort built totally over water.
We find our cabin on stilts sunk into the water. It is most glamorous. As I shower to get ready for dinner, I am stung by a wasp. Most uncomfortable. Dan finds the wasp, does the bloke thing and sprays the bathroom so that no living thing could possible survive.
We walked the boards to the dining room with its amazing raw silk lanterns and we are entertained by a great singer whose country and western oriented repertoire suits us well. Unfortunately, he repeated the same list the next evening! He needs more songs.
DAY 7 Wednesday 10th February
Days just keep getting better. Today we embark on the long boats again and spend the rest of the day on the water visiting the villages built on the water. It’s quite a long boat ride to them. We first see the floating gardens where the local community grows tomatoes and other vegetables. There is a lot of water hyacinth. We see them gardening from their boats. Travelling in and out of the channels lined with houses on stilts, we watch the locals make a living in this most extraordinary way. We stop at the Phaung Daw Oo pagoda and walk around a central square where the boats unload on the water side. We tried a local pancake which was delicious dipped in sugar.
Further on our journey, we stop at a gift shop where we see the long necked ladies of Padaung tribe on display. The long necks are an optical allusion. It gives the appearance that the neck has been stretch but in fact it places pressure on the clavicles and it gives the impression of a longer neck. Their communities are shrinking in number so they have become a tourist attraction with their silk weaving. The women get their first rings at 16 and then get more at 21. There was a great collection of goods to choose from…. carvings, jewellery, woven goods, pottery and fridge magnets.
[one_half]Our next stop was a silver smiths and we stopped to watch the artisans making the silver ware. There was plenty of choose from in the big display cabinets.
We then went inland up a stream, to a restaurant which specialises in non asian lunches. We had fresh tomato soup, pizzas and pasta, and chocolate pancakes with real Belgian chocolate and wild strawberries from the hills. A special treat.
Afterwards, we walked a fair way to a hidden Indein temple which was surrounded by many deteriorating stupas. The Buddhas and other precious artifacts had been stolen and “were probably in antique shops in Thailand” we were told. We walked many steps up to the main temple. It was a bit depressing seeing all the shops along the steps selling the same cheap goods many of which were fake. Many of us bought scarves and other trinkets just to help the local economy a bit. The people were very poor. We heard that the farmers were cutting down bamboo to cut the new shoots into shavings and cook with chilli to eat.[/one_half]
We had a thrilling fast trip home on the boats through the channels and across the lake. It took about ¾ hour. We were greeted on our return by the staff of the hotel holding towels and drinks as we disembarked. Dinner was a special Shan cuisine provided for us by the Chef at Scott’s request.
DAY 8 THURSDAY 11th February
We left our water hotel with some regret, farewelled by two people dressed as the male and female Nat spirits in beautiful yellow butterfly type costumes. Destination Heho airport to fly to Mandalay. On the way we have a quick stop at a really beautiful 250 year old wooden pagoda Shwe Dang Ge.
There are no allocated seats on the plane but we get on in an orderly fashion. It was a short flight. A new bus meets us and we are off to see the sights of Mandalay. It is a big city redolent with British heritage. Wide boulevards and tall buildings lying in a grid pattern are a feature but the big jewel of the city is the central Royal Palace which covers 413 hectares of land and has a dominating wall. It had featured in many battles including the domination of the British over King Thibaw (note to self, reread the Crystal Palace) and later the defeat of the Japanese who had moved in. Today it houses a gaol for political prisoners. The Royal palace was burnt in WW2 but rebuilt 15 year ago. This palace part is open to the public.
In contrast to Yangon, Mandalay roads host thousands of bikes and motor bikes. We visited the monumental Kyauktawgyi Paya Pagoda featuring a huge seated Buddha where only men can go close to the actual statue and touch it with gold leaf. It has special significance because allegedly the real Buddha touched it and it holds 7 of his hairs. The statue has lost shape because of the layers of gold leaf placed on it over the years.
We booked in to our hotel the Mandalay Hill Resort and then walked around the amazing Royal Palace. On the way back we stopped at a gold shop and watched very strong men beating small pieces of gold into flat leaves. They hit many layers at once and it takes about five hours to beat them down to the standard required for the ceremonial gold leaf. Women with babies stood outside begging.
The hotel provided a very pleasant outdoor buffet in the softly lit garden. We were surrounded by palm trees and well kept foliage. There was a Mongolian BBQ and a great spread of food. A marionette show and Burmese dancing rounded out the evening.
We have a great view of Mandalay Hill where there are many stupas on the way up and at the top.
During the day we learnt that young people studying medicine have to do two years in rural areas to get their licence to practice. Failure to serve, results in being “black listed” for medical service.
DAY 9 Friday 12th February.
[one_half] [/one_half] [one_half last=last]
Mandalay Hill Resort is a very busy hotel with a clientele from many countries. Because of this variety, we have a fabulous choice of breakfast.
Today is a very special day on the Burmese calendar. It is the anniversary of the Pinlon agreement where Aung Sun sent the signatures of the hills and flatlands people to England asking for independence and as a result Burma was set free. There is a short holiday period because Sunday is Valentine’s Day and to our surprise the advertising of this event has penetrated strongly.
Monasteries are an important part of social welfare system in Myanmar. Not only do the monks take their left over food and distribute it to the “cashless” people, but provide a place of refuge in disasters. People make donations to the monasteries if they want to assist disaster victims or on special days like their birthdays.
We learnt of the state lottery at 20c a ticket and the fact that gambling is illegal in Myanmar.[/one_half]
Some passing observations
- Women sitting side saddle on motor bikes looking calm and serene in their longyis
- Three or more people on motor bikes sometimes with small children between the adults
- A man holding a baby in his right arm and riding the bike
- Trucks carrying big loads (overloaded in our culture) with people sitting on top
- Stacks of locally made rattan furniture
- Children in green and white uniforms
- Some children not at school
- Gasoline sold in 1 or 2 litre plastic bottles for motor bikes, from black market stalls.
- Trucks without bonnets
- Rubbish dumps with lots of plastic with cows walking over them
We drove on to Amarapura (means city of immortality) which was one of the British influenced towns. An embassy was there in 1895. It was the capital for 70 years from 1783. In 1857 King Mindon began dismantling the royal palace and moved it 7 miles north to Mandalay. The old colonial buildings were in disrepair. It is a silk and cotton weaving centre. The area is in the “dry zone”. Cotton is grown here, irrigated from the Ayerawaddy River. We indulged at the silk shop!
The Mahaganayon Monastery (with hundreds of tourists visiting daily) is a training centre for 1100 monks. The unfortunate monks sit down to eat at 11.30 peered at by the many tourists who watch them through the windows. They seemed to be used to it. Lunch is supplied every day by rich donors who queue to book their day. The donors walking around outside offered us food too. We gave it away. The monks here do not have to go out on the daily round to collect food, rather they leave their lunch bearing excess food and take it out to the people who need it. We saw a few poor families sitting outside the dining hall waiting for their share.
Today a wealthy incense manufacturer was the donor, earning merit by supplying lunch. His family and staff also sat down to lunch in an adjacent hall. It is good advertising for his firm as well as a meritorious act we were told.
We had a chance to talk to one of the monks. He had been there for 11 years and he became a monk because his mother wanted him to be one. He visits home once a year. Most of the monks have mobile devices.
There are 300,000 monks and nuns in Mandalay and they train them to cover the monasteries and religious institutions in upper Burma. Further north there are more Christians.
Amarapura “..is now a spread out suburb of Mandalay set on a wide shallow lake named for an ogre who supposedly came looking for the Buddha there” Lonely Planet. The old teak U Pain Bridge was built on 1500 pillars taken from a palace and now spans the Taungthaman lake. At 1300 yards, it is the world’s longest teak bridge. There were many people walking across it and of course the ubiquitous stalls and enthusiastic sales people. In the monsoon period, the water laps the walkway at the edge of the bridge. The people farming on the flatlands have to relocate for the wet.
We moved on to Sagaing (pron. Zagang) the spiritual centre of Myanmar, established in 700 AD. The hills are picturesque and covered in stupas. We crossed the Ayeyarwady River on a bridge built in 1939. It is on the road to India and the Golden Triangle to the north. We stop at a check point which is fairly casual. The Sagaing Division has a population of 4 million people. I am reminded that in Myanmar, the women work and the men drink tea. There are many women building, selling, sweeping, caring.
Sagaing is popular for pottery and silver. We stopped at a silver workshop and watched a man indent an alms bowl. It was too expensive to buy anything “Everyone wants gold” we were told. We passed stalls of pottery and statues for sale.
Lunch was at the Saigan Hill Restaurant – pumpkin, silken tofu, pork curry. One of our party was celebrating her birthday.
We drove on to the riverbank where we caught a ferry over the Ayeyarwady River to Maha Aungmyay Bonzan Kyaung ruins. The transport to the Nan Myint Tower, the only remaining standing ruin (which won’t be standing much longer) was a choice between the back of a motor bike or sitting in a colourful horse driven carriage/cart. Scott and Willie had chosen the carriages for us and so we would venture forth two by two with some trepidation along the rather bumpy roads. I was pursued by a young girl on a bike, determined that I would eventually succumb to her persuasion and buy some of the jewellery she was offering. She was right; she wore me down but I secretly admired her persistence. There is a pattern here
- Pick a mark and start patter.
- Would you like to buy my……? No thank you
- Where are you from? Australia
- Ah kangaroo! My goods … very cheap No thank you
- You are very beautiful. So are you
- You like to buy? No thank you
- Will you think about it? No or maybe
- You come back to me? Mumble and move on
- Here I am. I waited for you. Would you like to buy? Look for cheapest thing and get away
We alight from our vehicles shaken and stirred but having had a great day. We clambered down to the river bank to catch the ferry back and then on to the bus. We go back through the rather casual check point, passing flood plains growing peanuts, onion garlic, corn and watermelon. I learn that the coconut is the most useful food source on the planet followed by bamboo.
There was a cock fight being set up and men sitting in a circle looking very serious holding their roosters. I spotted young boys under 10 putting wire into the concrete footings. I wondered if they would ever get to school.
We passed a wonderful food market selling radishes, lettuces, aubergines, snake beans, broccoli chillies, gourds, tomatoes, coriander, lemongrass, garlic, cucumbers, onion, flowers and more. This was a night market and it was just being set up.
These long drives require happy stops and I learnt to assess the star ratings of the toilets
No star….. hole in ground (better wearing a dress)
1 star……toilet seat, no paper, no flush. (hold on until there is a 2 star)
2 star…….toilet seat, maybe paper, bucket of water to flush
3 star…….toilet seat, paper, flush
4 star…… back at hotel.
Note to self. Travel with Eucalytus oil and always toilet paper and handwash.
We had a very pleasant surprise birthday for our colleague in a restaurant overlooking the Ayeyarwady.
We returned to our hotel noting that we hadn’t climbed the 1800 steps to the top of the Mandalay Hill. Perhaps next time. There was an alternative by truck and lift which could be an option.
DAY 10 Saturday 13th February
We are off to Pyin Oo Lwin formerly known May Myo or May Town named after Colonel May who created it as a Hill Station for the British in the hot season. Our first stop was at Shwe Nandow Kyaung, an old wooden monastery beautifully carved. It is also called the Golden Palace Monastery. It had been transplanted piece by piece from the Royal Palace at King Thibaw’s direction so that it could be sited with other temples and monasteries. It was just as well he did this because it is the only original building from the Royal Palace in Mandalay after the Palace was burned. The surrounding area was of the temple was the site of the famous Saffron Revolution in 2007 which was crushed by the military.
King Thibaw was exiled by the British with his queen and some retainers and sent with very few belongings to India.
On the road to Pyin Oo Lwin we saw:
- Gravel pits (one a series of small private holdings) where the women were carrying heavy baskets of gravel on their heads
- Ladies with alms bowls at the toll gates collecting for the 300 people recently made homeless by fires
- Watermelons encased in sand mattresses, loaded onto trucks heading for China
- People with hoses spraying into the air ready to wash cars
- Buddha images and stupas everywhere
- Motor bikes with big baskets of flowers on either side
- Vermicelli rice noodles hanging on lines
- Trucks laden with rocks and others with coal/charcoal.
We have news that a small jet has crashed at Nay Pyi Taw killing all on board.
Some members of our group are having tummy troubles. An experienced traveller told us of BRAT. Day 1 Bread and Rice Day 2 Apple and tea. There is a sweet Burmese rusk type bread which works as do rice cakes. Drink lime and water.
Today, our bus has flowers hanging from it to appease the spirits of the mountain. We notice that all the trucks are adorned as well. The China bound ones face a 7 hour very windy mountainous trip.
Our drive of a few hours takes us through many villages built as strip developments along the road. We pass coffee plantations and strawberry farms. We sometimes look the other way as our driver overtakes big trucks without obvious long vision. At one stage Willie says the three men in the front of our bus are driving by committee!
Pyin Oo Lwin is a big city of some 500,000 people combining a number of large institutions including Defence training, Universities, Medical Institutes, old colonial buildings. Many Gurkhas moved here and we can see their presence in some of the faces. It is 1,200 metres above sea level.
Damson fruit (plums) is popular for wine and sweets. We tasted some marinated in a sweet substance but it surely wasn’t to our taste. Very bitter.
We had a chance to explore a huge indoor market laden floor to ceiling with blankets, warm clothes, leather jackets, shoes, kitchen ware. They are obviously feeling the winter cold. It certainly gets cold here at night. Sellers were quite laid back and we have been struck by the honesty of the vendors in all transactions in which we have engaged.
We stand outside a temple where there is a big photo on a plastic banner advertising a visit by a famous monk. He will be preaching here soon in Burmese and Sanskrit using a projector. 1000 people are expected to attend.
Some places are Americanising their names. We see the San Francisco Restaurant, “The Golden Gate” which is not very American in looks but perhaps there is a romantic appeal.
We stopped at the Club Terrace Food Lounge for lunch. We sit outside on two big teak tables which looked like they were originally the same log, cut in half. We are offered rice, noodles, chicken, green vegetables and the usual light soup this time with silken tofu and vegetables.
The accommodation tonight is at the Hotel Pyin Oo Lwin, a comfortable lodge with double cabins and well appointed. In the afternoon we wandered around the National Kandawgyi Gardens, the Botanical Gardens. They were a bit different from ours. There were well manicured grass slopes surrounding an artificial lake and some identified specimens, but it was more a place to go with the family to see flower displays to the accompaniment of local canned music. I walked back to the hotel and was invited by an enthusiastic taxi bike to get a lift. He kept smiling while I said no thank you and waved to me smiling. Carriage rides were an option but I managed to avoid their exhortations. The only moment of concern I had was when I turned around to find a pack of dogs following me.
Another special birthday for one of our colleagues, so cause for celebration
DAY 11 Sunday 14th February
Early breakfast today which we shared with some non smiling Chinese. We are going to cross the very famous Goteck Viaduct and this is very special. The interesting bonus of the day was the seating, ordinary class which means wooden benches. We piled on carrying the red roses Willie had given the ladies for Valentine’s Day. The allocated bench seats were actually quite comfortable. Willie made sure that we kept the seats and that other people didn’t take them.
The Goteck Viaduct is an elaborate steel structure built around 1901 spanning a deep gorge. It was built using an American designer to assist the British to expand into China in a race with the French. It allowed the British to make lots of money from exporting teak.
It’s a four hour trip. Nothing will induce me to try out the 1 star toilet! On the way, mile after clickety mile we see
- Banana, sugar cane and bamboo plantations,
- Rice paddies
- Electricity wires fallen dangerously low
- A buffalo on a rope attached to a tall pole
- Farmers planting crops through plastic to reduce weeds
- New teak plantations but these will take 75 years to grow to a commercial size
And then we went over the bridge. People looked excitedly over the edge. I stood in the middle glimpsing down the gorge. It was very spectacular.
We alighted at Naung Pain Village and entered our bus for a hair raising drive down hair pin bend after hair pin bend. It made the train ride look peaceful. We felt sorry for the trucks which had broken down. They seemed a long way from help.
We see sugar cane trucks headed to Mandalay to make sugar and rum and trucks with bags of cement going two ways.
Such an exciting day! We needed a drink in the bar at the Mandalay Hill Resort where we were staying again. I tasted my first but definitely not my last, rum sour. It was delicious.
DAY 12 Monday 15th February
Today we are off to the ancient city of Mingun to explore the ruins of the vast Mingun Paya. We embark on a boat we had to reach by walking over a beach through the simple homes of the cashless people. We stopped to see a sow giving birth to piglets much to the amusement of the local children. We go by boat up the Mighty Ayeyarwady as Willie calls it. It was a leisurely journey and we see a big bamboo raft which might have been smuggling teak into Mandalay. We also see Brahminy Ducks. We climb down a simple gang plank to get to the bank when we arrive and walk to the three important sites. The first is a huge stupa base for a structure never finished and started in 1816. The two standing stone lions which were to frame the stupa, were no longer standing having been seriously damaged in an earthquake.
The second object was the famous Mingun bell, the second largest bell in the world but the largest working bell because the bigger one is in Russia and is broken. The third object was the Burmese Taj Mahal, a shrine built for a king’s departed wife.
We had lunch At the Golden Duck Restaurant looking out opposite the Royal Palace in Mandalay. Afterwards we left for a supposed four hour bus ride to Bagan which although only 150 miles away took 6 hours because of the roads and traffic. We arrived in the dark at Bagan Lodge where we were delighted with our luxurious accommodation. We were looking forward to spending a few nights in the one place. We went to bed early because we had to be up early for a balloon ride.
DAY 13 Tuesday 16th February
[one_half]We were ready at 5.25 am for our Balloon Ride Over Bagan organised by a company originally set up by an Australian. We were divided into groups of 16 and we sat in our circle to be briefed by Steve the pilot, on the rules of balloon travel. We learned he had 32 years of balloon piloting so we were confident we would be safe. Two rows of balloons (about 10 in a row) were slowly filled with air then hot air until they were ready to be set upright.
The front row of the balloons alighted first and we had the magnificent sight of balloons slowly, quietly rising in the sky with only the whoosh of the gas flame reinforcing the hot air from time to time. Then it was our turn. We climbed into the basket as best we could and sat down waiting for lift off. Soon we could stand and see, not only the other balloons but the wonderful array of the 3,300 stupas below us which make up old Bagan (Pagan). Old Bagan had been emptied of people by the government and moved to new Bagan. We flew over both sites. The only blot on the horizon was a tower built by a general’s son to adorn a restaurant and cocktail lounge. It was not in keeping with the rest of its environment.
An extra gust of wind took us a little further than planned so we had a good close view of a village. A little boy waved excitedly from his compound and an older man took photos of us with his Iphone. We landed safely and smoothly in a field. Steve had been radioing his support crew of 12 and they soon caught up with us. Vendors had been following us from the ground and arrived to sell their wares. The locals also joined the show and watched us drinking champagne. It was great fun. The support crew dismantled the balloon most efficiently and quickly and an old bus, formerly an army truck, picked us up and took us back to our hotel. We had landed quite close.[/one_half]
After a few hours off to catch some rest, we bussed off to Mt Poppa, (mountain of flowers) a site where the animists have a temple shrine. There is a 777 step staircase to the top of the mountain to a monastery. Half the climb was with shoes but the rest was to be in bare feet. The many introduced rhesus macaques were everywhere and the thought of walking over the monkey poo bare foot was too much for some (including me). Others bounded up and enjoyed the view. We heard a bit about the Nats, the 37 spirits, who sprang from the spirit of a brother and sister who had both been put to death. The Nats were the inspiration for gay celebrations.
Bagan is a dry place but the area around Mt Poppa, a volcanic site, is rich in produce and a good farming area. Bagan gets very hot. It is said that when Kubla Khan invaded he left because of the heat.
We stopped on the way back at a simple farm house and watched
- Corn grinding into sesame oil
- A well
- Toddy Sugar being distilled into alcohol
- Thatched roof which gave surprising protection from the heat
- Their curry is frugal. Tomatoes and coriander
- Peanut and sugar candy
- Thatched goods
- Tanaka or Thanaka being ground to make the yellow paste people wear for suntan protection and beauty
As we drove on the stretch home we noted people sitting at regular intervals 50 metres or so apart along the road begging. We passed the Natural gas pipeline the Chinese are building which crosses Myanmar west to east.
DAY 14 Wednesday 17th February
Willie had explained the different stages of stupa development. The early ones in the Pyu style were built in the 3 – 9th Century. They were simple dense structures. Later in the Mun style they had one door facing east with a statue of Buddha inside. Later, the design incorporated four sides and four entrances. Hollow stupas are temples. Many of the stupas were built by slaves and prisoners. Willie made sure we saw good samples of each of the different design styles on our tour today.
There are three forms of Buddha – reclining, standing and sitting. He has 55 hand positions. The images vary also by eyes, position of the ears, face (some people have it carved in their own image) and hair style .
One of the kings had a pagoda built whenever he wanted to rest from riding his white elephant. One of these lead to the development of the Shwezigon temple which supposedly houses a piece of the Buddha’s collarbone. A war was fought over the possession of this bone.
At the Ananda Phaya Pagoda there are 4 magnificent standing Buddhas, two of them known for the smile. The tragedy of this pagoda was that some administrator had ordered the white washing of the walls covering the original paintings and drawings. Indian conservators were helping to remove this to reveal the original works. It will take a long time.
While we were at this temple, we heard loud music and watched a very colourful procession lead by beautiful women carrying flowers leading young men and boys on horseback dressed like princes in the image of the young Buddha. They were becoming monks and would shortly have their heads shaved and given monks robes. It was quite a celebration.
Bagan is noted for its lacquerware and we went to a factory where beautiful lacquerware pieces were on display. We learnt of the process for making lacquer and applying it to bamboo (No glue!). We watched as the artisans shaped, painted, drew designs and went through the various steps to produce the final product. Of course, we bought some.
We had lunch at the Teak House. One more temple then we were surprised when the bus drove us over a beach to the River’s edge and Scott and Willie announced that we would be watching sunset on the Ayeyarwady from a boat, with a glass of wine in hand. It was a most fitting farewell experience.
That evening we had a farewell dinner at a Restaurant which has a puppet show. It was very interesting to see the puppet masters at work as they manipulated their marionettes around the stage . Scott made a very nice farewell speech and gave us each a fun present.
DAY 15 Thursday 18th February
From Bagan to Yangon this morning we fly KPZ which along with a big bank, is owned the Shan people. Then Singapore and Australia by Singapore Airlines then Qantas home.
It was the end of one of my best ever holidays. Everything about it was delicious!