Located on the Irrawaddy River and the central transportation hub of Myanmar, Mandalay evokes images of Burma from British Colonial times but this is probably furthest from the present reality. We arrived today after a flight from Bangkok, hopped a taxi into town 40 km’s away and settled into our very nice hotel to spend the next 3-4 days exploring the rich history of the area and planning our journey over the next 3+ weeks. Mandalay is the 2nd largest city in Myanmar and the last Royal Capital of Myanmar with the actual capital being Naypyidaw. The city has seen a huge influx of Chinese immigrants over the past twenty years which has reshaped the landscape bringing an increase in commerce with China and swelling the population of Chinese to 40%-50% of the population, about the same as the indigenous population. As I write this I’m looking at the menu in the hotel rooftop bar. I want local Burmese dishes. There is Western and Chinese with one “Mandalay Curry Rice” dish. Jeezuz! I’m sure we’ll find some great food so we’re not too worried yet. Our plan is to arrange a private boat and cruise a little north of Mandalay, do a U-turn and then head south down the Irrawaddy River to Bagan and then if the river is navigable (it’s the dry season now) hopefully further south and possibly all the way to Yangon. We shall see.
What a beautiful city! Peaceful, clean, quiet and happy. It reminds us of our first visit to Vietnam in 1997. Tourism is growing rapidly but the town still retains its innocence. The people are extremely friendly and welcoming. Children yell “hello”, and adults smile and nod without any inkling of prejudice and are eager to practice their English and take selfies with us. They are happy to see us here and we are so happy to be here. There isn’t any stress evident in the eyes of the people that seemed to underline the faces of the people in India. The air is clean, the traffic rules are generally followed and there is next to no honking and aggressive driving. The roads are well paved and marked and you don’t feel like you are putting your life at risk every time you cross the road. “Laid back and content” seems to be the order of the day. We weren’t sure what to expect when we arrived but any notion of noise, chaos, congestion and pollution were immediately dispelled upon our arrival and reinforced on our day trip around the city that we did yesterday and our walking around and exploring that we did today.
Yesterday we hired a car and driver ($30.00 US for both of us for the day) and set out to see the many rich and fascinating historical sites the city has to offer. Our first stop was a gold leaf paper workshop. Gold leaf is used extensively as an offering to Buddha and is rubbed on to Buddha statues and icons along with gifts of incense and flower garlands. The gold leaf is made by placing small amounts of gold concentrate between bamboo paper and wrapped in many folds of leather and then pounded by a sledge-hammer for six hours. The resultant leafs of gold are then sent to a room for peeling and preparing. The gold sheets are much thinner than paper-thin and requires a certain dexterity to lift off of the bamboo and placed onto a usable medium
Our next stop was the Maha Myat Muni Pagoda which contains the most revered Buddha Image/statue in Mandalay and is the most ancient image of Buddha in Myanmar. People from around Myanmar visit and pray in front of this Buddha and paste gold leaf onto the figure. There were photos of the statue dating to 1923 and there was no gold on its edifice. Through time the statue slowly became covered in gold and now it is almost impossible to discern the fingers on Buddha’s hands as so much gold leaf has been put onto it. It almost looks like there is a possibility that in 100 years, it could look like a big golden blob. The museum within the pagoda traces the journey through art the transport of the Buddha from the ancient city of Amarapura to its present site in Mandalay. Very interesting!
Maha Myat Muni Pagoda
Next stop was a local carving and handicrafts shop. The work they do there is amazing and we ended up purchasing two carvings that we’ll hang on our wall when we get home.
Our new wall carvings
Further along we made a short stop at Shweinbin Monastery. Built in 1895 the beloved monastery is built in the Burmese tradition of teak architecture.
The Royal Mandalay Palace was next. The palace is actually a walled city located within the city of Mandalay. The palace was built in 1861 and many sections of the palace were destroyed during WW II but rebuilt after the end of the war. The palace is one the city’s top attractions, boasting a number of exquisite pavilions and a museum where you can see models of several of the original palace buildings.
Royal Mandalay Palace
We had a full schedule and were starting to poop out but continued on to the Shwe Nandaw Kyaung Monastery. The palace was built in 1880 using material obtained from King Mindon Min’s apartment in the Royal Palace. Mindon founded Mandalay in 1857 in a fulfillment of a Buddhist prophecy that a religious centre would be built at the foot of Mandalay Hill. The monastery is a splendid structure ornamented with fine teak carvings, mirrored glass mosaic and gilding.
Shwe Nandaw Kyaung Monastery
Atu Mashi Monastery
Our final stop was Kuthodaw Pagoda. which is known as “the world’s biggest book”. This pagoda is a Buddhist stupa with 729 marble slabs. Built in 1857 the entire 15 books of the Tripitaka are inscribed on the slabs, each of which is housed in its own small stupa. It has been estimated that it would take one person, reading for 8 hours a day, 450 days to read the complete “book”.
So I Didn’t finish yesterdays post yet because I wanted to get today’s post done although yesterdays post was done today and talks about what we did yesterday. Damn! I wish I could figure out how to set the calendar on this blog site to more accurately reflect the real-time stuff I want to talk about. Oh well and any way, we had a great day today. As was mentioned yesterday (today) Mandalay is a very nice city and we strolled the streets and back lanes, markets and shops and had a wonderful time. It is such a cool place. We stopped into a store and I bought a new pair of shorts, high-end Joyce tells me for $21.00. Made in, guess where? Yes, China so maybe they are knock offs. I also bought the local attire, a longy, a men’s skirt but I really need to learn how to tie it properly otherwise I’ll be wearing shorts underneath which kind of defeats the purpose. I’ve worn one twice so far and they just don’t stay tied up for some reason. No one else has this problem but, no one else has a beer belly so maybe this is the reason? Probably and I can’t wear a belt. More pics of this outfit to follow soon I’m sure. We had a great day wandering the streets, meeting the locals and stopping for lunch at a little food stand where we had a delicious bowl of vegetable noodle soup with the locals, a couple of which were getting drunk on this beautiful Saturday afternoon.
We left today open so we could wander the streets and arrange boat transport for a trip up and down the Irrawaddy River. Time was ticking and we really needed to get something organized. Yesterday our hotel did a little research on our behalf and came up with two options. A 2 night/3 day cruise and a 3 night/4 day cruise to Bagan but our dates didn’t fit the schedule so we opted for a private boat. We’ll meet the boat people 🙂 tomorrow to finalize our itinerary and we look forward to a great river journey on the Irrawaddy River. 3 nights, 4 days with only the two of us deciding where to go and when to stop. Perfect, just how we like it!
I’m hoping not to jinx ourselves by saying this but things seem to come together quite well when “winging it”. Our plan today was to finalize our plans for the next week or two and then do an afternoon tour of two of four cities in the near vicinity of Mandalay and everything fell into place perfectly. I’ll start with our afternoon visit to U-Min-Thone-Sef Pagoda in Sagaing on Sagaing Hill and U Pein Bridge in Amarapura. I’ll quote the descriptions of each from our little brochure and map.
“U-Min-Thone-Sef Pagoda on Sagaing Hill overlooks the back of this mountain. There are steps leading up to the first part of the temple where you can see many Buddha figures aligned forming a magnified image. Above the temple does not offer much more but there are interesting views where you can see a small temple where an old monk lives on a retreat in solitude”
“The three quarters of a mile long U Pein Bridge crossing the Taung-tha-man-In Lake is the longest teak bridge in the world although a bit rickety in some parts. It has withstood the storms and floods of over two centuries”.
Now back to our successful day of trip planning and the route we will follow over the next 3 nights and 4 full days. I’ll update the rest a little later. It all starts with asking front desk hotel employees questions. Who better to ask than a local and they always come through because they have a friend or brother or someone they know who can get you in touch with their friend, brother, sister or uncle and in this case we were hooked up with a beautiful lady named Aye Aye Nwe who runs a small travel agency and is the Managing Director of KN Travels & Tours Co. and has lots of connections. We told her what we wanted and voila, she made it happen. We wanted a private river boat to take us upstream on the Irrawaddy River to Kyaung Myaung. We then wanted to head downstream with stops at Mingun, Ava, Vandabo and with our final destination being Bagan where we want to go up in a hot air balloon at sunrise to view the 100’s of magnificent temples in the area. We wanted to do this slowly over 4 days so we could stop and smell the roses along the way, we wanted a boat to ourselves and we didn’t want to spend a fortune doing it. Check, check, check and check! We have a 64 foot river boat with 4 people looking after all of our meals and needs, 36 cans of Myanmar Lager, a bottle of wine and, we have our Bluetooth speaker and Spotify via 4G on Ooroodo Telecom on our phone so we can laze and listen to tunes or whatever, whenever we want. River cruising at its best and not too bad in my books. We depart tomorrow and will arrive in Bagan the evening of March 1st and we’ll spend 3 nights in Bagan and then head out to further explore this beautiful country.
We spent three nights at the Hotel Yadanarbon Mandalay. Our room and bed was very comfortable, the staff extremely helpful and friendly and the roof top infinity pool, deck and bar was perfect for a late afternoon cool one or two. The downstairs restaurant also offered evening ethnic music, dance and puppet shows.
We just returned from four fantastic days cruising the Irrawaddy River. The memories will be forever ingrained in our minds and this part of our journey along with the few days previous has convinced us 100% that we will return to this beautiful country much sooner than later.
It is tough to figure out exactly where to start but I’ll do my best.
As mentioned in our earlier post we were able to secure a private river boat for 3 nights and 4 full days.
We were greeted at the boat jetty (the river bank) in Mandalay by a wonderful fellow named Aung who introduced himself as our tour guide and who later turned out to be the boat owner. (Much more about Aung later).
Upon boarding his boat, a 64 foot wooden boat with two sleeping cabins, we were introduced to his staff. We were expecting a staff of maybe four.
It turned out we had the Boat Pilot, the Boat Manager, two Assistants to the Manager, one Chef with two assistants and our guide Aung for a total of 8 people looking after us. It made me wonder what kind of lies Joyce told the travel agent about us? This wasn’t a 2:1 ratio but 4:1! Unheard of on even the best cruise lines in the world albeit the boat wasn’t a luxury liner but it was perfect and comfortable and clean and had a quiet 110 HP diesel engine.
Kyaugh Myoumg is a small village noted for it’s pottery production and the plan was to overnight along the river bank and then visit the village first thing the next morning before heading back south downstream.
On the journey we had a five course lunch consisting of the most tasty pure ethnic Burmese cooking you can find anywhere and it set the stage for the rest of our journey. Dinner was just as fabulous, the beer was cold too and being in the company of Aung, with his knowledge and passion for his country and his success so far as a young man with a small business made the evening conversation extremely interesting and it was exciting to see the changes happening in this young democracy.
Next stop was the village of Hin-Tharbo and this was a very cool experience. Aung had been told that this village was celebrating the 3rd and last day of a festival celebrating the entry of a families’ youngest son or daughter’s entry into a Buddhist monastery for one week, month or year. The men were preparing a feast while the village waited delivery of a sound system and elephant costume that would be used for the elephant dance that evening. The elephant weighs 100 lbs and is worn by four men who must dance in unison, similar to a dragon dance. As it turns out we arrived on the 1st day of the celebrations but upon our entry into the village everything came to a complete standstill. Adults and children started to gather around us and stare, children were confused by our presence and couldn’t take their eyes off of us or would turn their heads and cry if we looked at them and smiled. Now we found this a little hard to believe but we were told this village has never seen a white foreigner except in movies. We were the very first foreigners to visit their village. This was not a village on the tourist map. There is really nothing to see here so tourist boats don’t make a stop, especially larger boats which can’t moor on the shoreline so no one stops here. We were the first. We still find this a little hard to believe but we were assured this is the case. It sure seemed like they hadn’t seen anyone like us and the welcome mat they put before us of food and snacks and curious staring eyes makes us believe this is true. An absolutely wonderful experience! Full credit goes to Aung. He has his Boat Pilot and Manager call villages and their contacts along our way to find out if anything interesting is happening. As it turns out, this was only the first of a couple of great experiences along our journey.
The final stop for the day was the village of Mingoun. Once we moored along the riverbank we hiked up the bank and wandered through fields full of peanuts. Peanuts are widely grown throughout the region and you see them spread out over the ground in the sun to dry before they are put into a separator to separate the nuts from the shells. Also evident along much of the banks of the river in the villages we’ve visited are large bamboo cages which the locals are in the process of adding rocks into the separate compartments. The riverbanks are eroding and this is a preventative measure to stop/slow the what nature will do regardless but has been influenced by river damming upstream in China. The natural flow is no longer natural.
Our third day was spent visiting the village of Inwa and Lakapin with a final stop for the night along a large sandbar where we went for a cool dip in the Irrawaddy and drank wine and beer in front of a large bonfire on the soft sandbank that looked much like the desert landscape of the salt pans in Botswana.
Inwa is an ancient city not far from Mandalay and is known for religious structures left over from several reigns as the nation’s capital from the 14th to 19th century. The main feature dominating the area is the Bagaya Kyaung, a 19th century working monastery made of teak. We hired a horse cart to take us around the area. It was bloody hot outside!
If you’ve watched travel shows on TV then you have probably seen a segment somewhere on hot air ballooning at sunrise over the thousands of ancient temples and pagodas that are scattered around Bagan. We were up very early this morning for a 5:15 am pick up to take us to the launching fields where we were met with fresh croissants, Danish pastries and fresh hot coffee. After a short debriefing the balloons were first filled with air with two large high power fans and then a few bursts of high intensity flames. There were ten people in the main compartment which was split in two and a separate compartment for the pilot. The wind was calm and the air was hazy. A few more bursts of flame and we gently started our ascent. Our company was the “Golden Eagle” with three balloons along with two other companies which brought the count to ten balloons that filled the airspace. Our top altitude was about 2,000 feet where we saw the sunrise over the horizon albeit through a fairly thick haze which unfortunately didn’t lend itself to the best light for photography. Joyce was nervous at first but quickly relaxed once we took off. There is no wind (you move with the wind) and the ride was smooth although we would be lying if we said the thought of the balloon blowing up in flames and crashing to earth didn’t cross our minds. We flew a little lower later in the flight and with more sunlight the details of the temples and pagodas became clearer but we didn’t see the colours of the early morning sunshine that you see on any brochure or travel show but the experience was still a “once in a life-time”. Upon touch down we celebrated (our safe landing?) with a chilled glass of champagne. This is a ritual after all balloon flights and the reason why as the story goes is in the 1700’s a French man-made the first manned hot air balloon flight and landed in a farmer’s field. Not being up to date on manned balloon flights the farmers figured he was not from this world. I’m not sure if they tried to stone him death or not but on his subsequent flights he carried a bottle of champagne with him to prove to whoever’s field or house he crashed into that he was in fact from France and not the moon or some other place where hot air balloons wouldn’t work anyway. This flight was definitely on our bucket list so we can now cross this off and move to next one, space travel!
Yesterday we rented an electric motorbike and toured around the greater Bagan area and since we also rented one the day before after our balloon ride I’ll lump both days in together.
These bikes are great. Quiet and a maximum speed of about 45 km/hr.
You definitely need one to get around however the daytime temperature is so hot that you really only want to spend the morning half of the day touring around.
After 1:00 pm it is like driving though a very hot hair dryer so if you want to spend a full day an air-conditioned car is a must.
We were told three nights in Bagan (2 days) was good enough to experience the sites but we beg to differ. There is so much to see that you really need at least three full days to get a taste and probably a week to see many but certainly not all that there is to see.
The terrain is surreal with temples and pagodas dotting the landscape as far as the eye can see and each and every one of them, big or small has one or many unique Buddhas inside. We may have to have a section of “Buddha only” pictures.
We reluctantly left Bagan today and made our way by car through plains and then the Shan mountains to the town of Nyaung Shwe.
We stayed at a very nice colonial style hotel about a 15 minute drive from the town and the jetty that accesses the canal to Inle Lake.
As has been the case so far in Myanmar, the staff were over the top friendly and helpful and within 5 minutes after checking in we had our next day planned to tour the lake, villages, monasteries and ancient pagodas that are dotted around the second largest lake in Myanmar.
The Shan Mountains shadow the lake and reach a height of 2,000 metres and offers a beautiful contrast to the views on the lake and tomorrow we’ll leave the hotel early and spend the day on the lake enjoying all that the area has to offer.
Before departing Bagan we set up a plan and arranged transport for our next 5 days of exploring Shan State. The map below shows our intended route.
Yesterday we spent a full day on a narrow longboat cruising the lake and myriad canals that finger out in the south-western area of the lake. Fisherman dot the waterways but there were also many who were not fishing but clearing the water hyacinth that is seriously invading the lake. Like many other fresh water lakes in the world this rapid infestation is caused by farming on the surrounding land. Fertilizer and livestock poop runoff feeds the plants to the point that the lake is being choked and if not controlled will probably lead to the destruction of the small fishery that exists on the lake and the eventual death of any life save the hyacinths. This is not exclusive to Myanmar. Where I grew up in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Lake Winnipeg, among the largest fresh water lakes in the world is now severely threatened by the same cause. It doesn’t matter if you are 1st world or 3rd world, developed or not, this is a serious world-wide issue that needs immediate attention and probably radical solutions to reverse this course of destruction. Sorry to sound so gloomy.
The lake is 22 km long and 10 km wide and is located in central Myanmar. It is fringed by floating marshes and floating gardens. Stilt house villages rise above the water and along with fishing, handicrafts, silk and lotus weavers and silversmiths add to the lake based economy. Our first stop after about a 45 minute ride through the lake and then a winding twisting canal was the village of Indein which is famous for it’s crumbling groups of ancient pagodas, Nyaung Oak, and Shwe Inn Thein Paya noted for the 100’s of densely packed stupas.
Shwe Inn Thein Paya Pagoda
Our final stop before heading back to our departure jetty was Nga Phe Kyaung Monastery. At over 200 years old, it is the oldest and largest in the Inle Lake region. It is built on wooden stilts and is set among floating gardens.It is also known as the “Cat Monastery”. The monks trained cats to jump through hoops when boredom set in but apparently this tradition has faded and we didn’t see one cat. The wooden monastery houses a collection of Buddha images in Shan, Tabetan, Bagan and Inwa styles. On our way we navigated through a mesh of canals passing Shan and Intha villages on the banks.
Today was a lot of driving but worth every minute. The beauty of driving versus flying is obvious. You get to see the real Myanmar and we headed off from Nyaung Shwe over the Shan Mountains to the hills East of Inle Lake. The Kakku Pagoda site is believed to date back to the 3rd century BC and is one of Asia’s largest and most spectacular ancient monuments. There are 2,478 pagodas at present but many were damaged by a tornado in 2016 so repair work is underway. Our guide Robbin explained that there were at one time more than 7,000 pagodas but earthquakes and time have taken their toll on this magnificent site.
The Aythaya Winery was established in 1999 by a German expat. The area is perfect for grapes and the white Sauvignon Blanc was exceptional. The wine industry in Myanmar has nowhere to go but up. They have quality soil, temperature and elevation so keep your eyes open for some good vintage wine coming out of this area in the future.