compass Where you going? - Myanmar Part 2 compass

Very common modes of getting around town

I was in a dead sleep when I got a not so gentle shove from James. It was 4:30 am, our bus was on time (really? I could have slept another few hours) and had arrived in Mandalay. After the usual bartering we found a couple of bike taxis and zoomed off into the already busy, dusty, dirty streets. Because of the early arriving overnight buses most hotels and guest houses in Myanmar let you into your room when you arrive, as long as they are ready. Ours wasn’t so we plopped down on the doily covered plastic couches and fell straight back to sleep. A few hours and a few cups of coffee later our room was ready. Now this is when we decided we should add a “Travel Tips most people don’t think of" page (coming soon).

Our room ended up being on the first floor which actually meant it was a few steps down…meaning the windows were a few inches off the ground. Running past both windows was a thin dirt path between the guesthouse and the next building. The windows had a square cage attached for security and even a screen. But…..rats can bite through screen, right? Oh no, this won’t work at all. James (with a deep, deep, deep sigh) suggested I go see if they had another room, on a higher floor. As it turns out they did. The top floor. The fourth. But, she warned, it’s a bit hot. Hot?!? That doesn’t even begin to explain it. We were still roughing it so took a fan room which only seemed to push the hot air back at you. Poor James….the things he puts up with. We slept part of the first night with the door open, then the second we just got naked and James hung a towel over himself and would pour water from a water bottle onto it all night. I can honestly say it was the hottest night I have ever tried to sleep through.

Once the room was squared away we headed to the Mandalay Hill. There wasn’t much really to see in Mandalay so we decided to walk the 4kms. On the way we spotted huge sign’s advertising Mandalay Brewery. We like breweries. The fact that it wasn’t yet 11 am didn’t cross our minds; we just started following the signs. After about 6 signs we found ourselves on a very interesting road in the opposite direction from the Hill. Oh well. About 1 km down the road we found the brewery, surrounded by a huge fence topped with razor wire. Excited we walked up to the guard house only to be told that we weren’t allowed in. Huh? We just followed huge signs, that said in English how to get here and you don’t do tours? How disappointing…and weird.

Mandalay Hill has a beautiful of the very flat Mandalay and on the 30 minute barefoot walk up there are numerous Buddha and nat shrines. Every few steps someone is selling drinks or snacks or beads or flowers or betel nut. It also has a great view of the Grand Palace that from above looked a lot like Central Park. We were trying to avoid the $10 Mandalay Government fee so would be skipping the Palace unless we got caught elsewhere.

Side note: Betel Stands were everywhere, as were spiting men and women of all ages. Disgusting blobs of red goop were all over the sidewalks and roads and up walls. The tiny mouth sized bundles are wedged between teeth and gum and are made from the areca nut, (actually a drupe) a few slices are usually wrapped in a betel leaf along with lime and clove or cardamom or catechu etc. for extra flavouring. Sometimes small pieces of tobacco are added. They are chewed for their mild stimulant, causing a mild hot sensation in the body and slightly heightened alertness that is said to be similar to drinking a coffee. . It’s not just used in Myanmar but throughout SEA. It rots teeth and makes me ill to even write about it. James got a few good pictures. GAG!

Ewwwww...A Familar Sight

Typical Betel Smile

Any given patch of sidewalk or street in Myanmar

Spit bag used on buses etc., and discarded as soon as they are outside

I’ve mentioned before how unbelievably hot it is in Myanmar and once down from the hill James actually agreed to grab a tuk-tuk back to the hotel. We had to find an internet café and book our Bagan hotel. We had decided to splurge on a hotel with air, private bath, pool...but what really got our attention was the unobstructed views of the temples. We had no idea how hellish our room would end up being in Mandalay which made this splurge even sweeter.

After a bit of down time at the guesthouse we decided to take a walk to the market and grab a bite to eat. We lasted about an hour. The heat and lack of sleep the night before had us in bed by 7 pm without dinner.

The sights of Amarapura

May 13

After a cold shower (the guest house advertised hot water but I couldn’t tell you if they even have it) and the usual egg breakfast we went to catch our pick up to Amarapura. A pick up is a large tuk-tuk type truck that drives along main roads picking up passengers as they go. There’s no actual stops, just a young guy hanging off the back yelling where they are going. They never turn anyone away and often fill the top as well as the bottom and have anywhere from one to ten hanging off the back. It makes for an interesting ride. Cheap as well.

Amarapura is one of four ancient cities around Mandalay which are what draws people to Mandalay. We choose to do only one due to heat, budget and time.

Amarapura is an 11 km ride and took 51 minutes (James timed it) and when I jumped off I was almost disappointed. What a great ride. Like a never ending movie. The pick up dropped us on a main road that had an alley leading to a very smelly local market, over train tracks and down a dirt road past weavers, mechanics, temples and an amazing amount of young children who all waved and yelled Hello! The road ended at a lake that is famous for U Bein Bridge. The world’s largest teak bridge which is 1.2km long, 200 years old and has 1060 teak posts. Other travelers had remarked that is wasn’t anything special. And to be honest, it was a long, faded and rough around the edges bridge. But what they must have missed was the life around it! Monks coming and going. Fishermen in lazy moving boats. Farmers in the middle high bit harvesting rice. Water buffalos, cows, chickens…… The area seemed to be more of a Myanmar tourist attraction and young families and small groups of teenagers were snapping pictures, hanging out in the tea houses, taking boats out and even swimming in the lake.

We walked across the bridge and visited the village, a peaceful temple and sat and shared a beer while taking it all in.

Walking back James commented that this might be one of the most interesting days we’ve had since we started traveling. It really was a magical day, one that is so hard to describe. I hope James’ 10 thousand pictures of the day captures it…but I doubt anything could.

Here is a cute clip of a young boy playing with his water buffalos that we saw on the walk across the bridge. It looked like he was in charge of them because at one point one was walking away and he yelled at it and swam after it. He was pretty much oblivious to us.

(Click on picture for link to video)

Once back at the main road we caught another pick up. At one stop we picked up 3 huge blocks of ice that were just set down onto the back step. The young guy yelling then proceeded to keep all three on the back while standing on them in flip-flops while still yelling for business. A few minutes down the road a bicycle taxi picked the ice up. Wow! That’s a lot of work for not a lot of ice.

This cannot be the best way to get ice

Back in Mandalay we decided to grab a bite to eat and on the way walked past a theatre. It was playing Drive Angry which we didn’t care to really see but asking about the movie times the air conditioning made us giddy. We’ll be back!

It almost felt like a date. We grabbed a soda and popcorn (warm & stale) and sat on the balcony. Funny though we never took into account the power outages. We didn’t think much of them really, they happened about once an hour pretty much all day and the theatre was no different. I think the power (and movie) went out three times. No problem, just meant longer in the air!

Myanmar Road Crew

May 14

Today we decided to give Mandalay and its relentless heat another go. There was a few interesting things just south of the city so after our eggs we went in search of a pick up. For some reason the pick up going our way was trying to rip us off (not really the norm in Myanmar) so we decided to walk. We were using a combination of the Lonely Planet map and the local map and got a little lost which as usual I loved. We ended up passing a group of people paving a road…by HAND! Made us feel pretty silly for complaining about doing our itty bitty driveway in interlocking brick ourselves. It was a community affair with some people digging, some putting large stones… all the way up to the top level of hard pack gravel then the asphalt which was done with a water pitcher. Seriously, I have never seen anything like it.

We finally came across the temple we were looking for (the beautiful Shwe In Bin Kyaung Temple, intricately carved in teak), after asking a couple of locals for directions, and an area where roughly 2,500 monks live giving this area the nick name “Monks Quarter’. Myanmar is said to have over 400,000 monks (burgundy robes) and an additional 75,000 nuns (pink robes) with about 89% living in Mandalay.

Board games...but with a sidewalk instead of a board

We stopped at a tea house that was packed with locals sitting around chatting. We shared a coke and again just watched. Myanmar is famous for its tea houses. They obviously serve more than tea but they are a place for locals to meet and chat and hang out for hours over drinks and snacks and often board games (played with shells, beer caps, nuts etc) or cards. It’s a very friendly, social country.

After a cold drink we tried to get into the jade market but they were charging $1 USD each. We laughed and figured with all the markets we visit, have visited and will visit in Myanmar (not to mention in the next year or so) the last thing we would do is pay to shop at one. We also assumed it was government owned and we were trying to avoid giving them our cash. To visit the main sights in Mandalay (other cities have similar charges) the government charges $10 per person but not every place has check points, or very diligent checkers so we planned our day around the smaller sights hoping to avoid having to pay the government. We thought we might get charged at Amarapura but got lucky.

Our next stop was an area of town that makes marble Buddhas and those gold tinkling toppers that go on the tops of temples by hand. I’ve seen these kinds of workshops before but am always amazed at the amount of time and effort that goes into anything handmade especially marble buddhas bigger than me.

Nothing helps with communing with god more than turning the entrance of the pagoda into a giant flea market of religious paraphernalia. Yes, I would love a hologram buddha place mat.

We stopped at a pretty impressive temple right near the workshops. Mahamuni Paya, which in its centre has the nation’s most famous Buddha. It is so highly venerated that it’s covered in 6 inches of gold leaf. Most temples we visited in Myanmar have gold leaf for sale that men can apply to the Buddha. The original Buddha is thought to have been cast in the 1st century. Interestingly it also has six Khmer figures, war booty that have been dragged, carted and floated from Angkor Wat. We also had another “We’re famous!” moment when locals asked us shyly to have our picture taken with them. Sure! (James' Note: Susan left off the part where we got a little worked up because of a misunderstanding where we thought they were charging us to take pictures of the building. I think we were still a little on guard from Vietnam and Lao. Felt quite guilty when we realized they were just being really friendly and it was a 14 yr old girl that just wanted her picture with us.)

Hot, sweaty and smelly we decided it was time to find some air conditioning so we headed to the mall. We’d read it had a grocery store and a decent bakery. We stocked up on snacks for our boat ride the next day and had yummy stuffed rolls for lunch and took some to go for dinner.

Back at the hotel we sat reading in the slightly cooler reception/common area until the night guy brought out his bedding. We headed up, up, up, upstairs to pack up for tomorrow and try to get a bit of sleep before our 4:30 am pick.

It seems that quite a few people in Myanmar lack basic utilities. Above are pictures of the communal streetcorner baths and water wells still in use. Susan even had to use what passes for a payphone.

Slowboat to Bagan

May 15

About 2:30 am I finally gave up on sleep and sat staring at the beautiful full moon. It was so bright that I could see out across the sleeping city. I had no idea James had been up for hours before me sick as a dog. About 3 he woke back up for another round of puking, after which we had the “what did I eat that you didn’t” conversation. Other than feeling like I was melting I felt fine and we pretty much eat all the same stuff. Ugh!

A few sleepless hours later we were in our plastic seats on our local boat that would take us from Mandalay down the Ayeyarwady River. We had discussed whether to take the 16-20 hour slow boat down the river (government owned) or an 8 hour day local bus (independent owned). We caved because everyone says how amazing the boat is. A still very sick James was happy, there was no way he’d have been able to get on a bus in his condition. Luckily the bathroom started out no too bad and he quit his puking before it got really gross and smelly. See, always a bright side.

As it turns out it was another “most interesting” day. Myanmar is turning out to be amazing days as different and interesting as the last.

The food hawkers looking picture perfect on shore.

Susan a little overwhelmed with them on board.

There was a small corner set up with plastic chairs for the foreigners; the rest of the 2 level boat was filled with locals sprawled on bamboo mats. As foreigners we know we pay more than locals for most things and wondered how much we paid for the private corner seated area. According to Lonely Planet we paid about 5 times more so $10 instead of $2. Mostly it was families with chatty kids and babies sleeping in tiny hammocks hanging from the rafters. All had baskets and boxes full of supplies from Mandalay that were being carted home. Also on board was cargo to be delivered to all the little villages we were to stop at. We were told there’d be 4-10 stops and hoped with the low water level the stops would be closer to four. We were told the boat takes on average 16 hours but could be longer or shorter depending on the stops.

I got lucky and a couple of funny guys sat beside me. James spent most of the trip with his eyes closed doing some sort of meditating thing to keep from puking so having company made the trip go so much faster. They’d been traveling and working abroad for about 2.5 years so we swapped travel stories most of the trip. I should warn my parents now that one of them worked cruise ships and raved about them. As it turns out the Alaska season is when James might be in Quebec where I would have a hard time getting a job……just a thought.

The stops turned out to be fascinating. Pretty much white sand beaches with a couple of huts, if any, where locals had traveled by ox cart to pick up family or supplies or drop them off. Of course there were the dozen or so ladies and kids who in a crazed frenzy boarded the boat to sell samosas, mangos, pineapples, rice etc. and ask for food, money and our empty plastic bottles. There actually isn’t much begging in Myanmar and they aren’t very aggressive, usually if you say no thank you they move on. We hadn’t eaten our breakfast from the guesthouse so gave them that and our empty water bottles as we drank them.

I thought James was smarter but at one stop he tried to get back to his seat through the crowd of sellers. Here’s a little bit of the struggle. (Click on picture for link to video)

The stops got tinier and had fewer ladies and kids selling and less variety. One stop had about 6 ladies with nothing but mangos. The last stop only had a few ladies get on to sell and barter for their beautifully hand woven blankets. They walked past me and sat beside the girl beside me asking her to trade a blanket for a bottle of perfume or lipstick. Huh? Did I look and smell that bad that even the blanket lady bypassed me? Being the backpacker that she was she kept her one and only lipstick (a blanket also takes up a lot of space) but one of the friendly guys traded a t-shirt and $4 for one. An amazing deal considering how beautiful the blankets were. It was about his time we all started taking bets on when the boat would arrive in Bagan. Most bets were around 8-9 pm but of course ever the pessimist James picked midnight.

One of many stops on the slow boat. Can it still be called "off the beaten path", if the village only consists of a single beaten path?

We both lost but got in way before midnight. 9 pm, only 15.5 hours on plastic chairs on a slow moving local boat and we were in Bagan. I was tired, smelly and sore from the plastic seats but so excited. Bagan had been some place I couldn’t wait to see. Last year when planning the trip I figured Bagan would be the highlight and was very disappointed when we got turned away and thought we might not come back. Then this time we changed our route and left Bagan as our last stop and I really just wanted to go there first in case for some reason our trip got cut short. So finally being in Bagan made me giggly. Waiting for us were a half dozen or so horse carts to take us to our hotels. So cool! Our hotel was in Old Bagan, a 30 minute ride (about 12km) in the bumpy cart. I watched the temples go by and could see the outlines of the ones in the distance until the moving cart lulled me to sleep. Yes, I can sleep pretty much anywhere. I had no idea that James was dying beside me, poor guy.

At the hotel we took a look at the room (way more common to check a budget room before taking it than non-budget room) and checked the view. Amazing! We’ll take it! I fell asleep looking at the lit up temples from my bed.

May 16

My turn. We figured it must just have been a 24 hour bug James had and I woke up in the wee hours with it. UGH! At least I had tv with two movie channels, air, a clean private bathroom and, when my eyes were open, a wonderful view. Not a bad sick day. James spent the day swimming, sorting pictures, waiting on me and staring out the window at the temples. We had planned a down day in Bagan so it was really no big loss. How perfect was that timing?

Side Note: I keep forgetting to mention the creamy cakey makeup that they wear in Myanmar. I don’t think there is a right or wrong way just that everyone young and old, male and female wear it. It’s also not just applied on the face, often you’ll see it down the arms, chest, legs…. I got tons of offers to try it but passed, to be honest I was usually to hot and sweaty to want anything on my face. It was all over Myanmar from country side to city.

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