Burma: The Road to Mandalay

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August 18th 2012
Published: August 18th 2012
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Dear All

Trip update number seven, second missive from Burma, this one coming from the fantastic city of Mandalay, in the northern reaches of the country. Still having a fascinatingly interesting time in this country, again with everything being both so different from elsewhere experienced, and also so untouched by tourism with a relatively small trickle of fellow tourists passing through these places. Since I last wrote, I feel I have delved deeper into the Burmese way of being, as well as having seen some pretty amazing places way off the global tourist circuit. Whilst it is true that after 5 weeks of travelling and sightseeing, I am just about ready for my own home, there is still some energy left within me to continue with my last week here in South-East Asia. And it’s difficult not to with such great places to see anyway.

Compared to my initial feelings and understandings about Burma, based mainly on the last Lonely Planet edition researched about this time last year, things have changed somewhat and have proven to be easier than expected, though it still isn’t a breeze to travel here. Whilst it is true that the banks still don’t accept international credit cards, and the only form for travellers to get around is by bringing in crisp, pristine US dollar bills (making it a bit of a challenge to keep them in such mint condition during the rigours of road travel, with the added worry of what to do should something drastic happen to these dollars or their condition…), the black market does not exist anymore. Thus, thanks to the government in April deciding to float the country’s currency, the Kyat (pronounced “chat”) on the market, the black market rate of exchange has become the official rate of exchange. This fortunately means that I can exchange my money anywhere, including hotels and banks, rather than on the street with dodgy-looking individuals with wads of local currency, who still ask me if I’d like to change money... Thus the official rate of exchange went from around 7 Kyat to the US Dollar, to 830 Kyat - what a leap – and of course previously Burma must have officially been the most expensive country for anyone to travel in, with a bottle of water officially costing US$40!! So difficulty number one has been reduced. Difficulty number two, lack of mobile phone connection, is still a problem however, with SIM cards costing over US$1000!! (even on the current rate of exchange), and not being applicable anyway to European or North American mobile phones. There are places, though, which seem to be able to rent out SIM cards for $2 a day, though I think so far I have been fine without a phone, and hotels are willing to let me phone ahead to the next accommodation from the reception anyway.

I did make a slight mistake in my last update, however, and have noted now that Coca-Cola is pretty much widely available here (I just didn’t see it in Rangoon…), although imported from Thailand. McDonald’s is definitely yet to make an appearance though, and after a Big Mac Meal for lunch at KL Airport on the way here, and my usual stomach-feelings afterwards, I’m pretty glad of its absence anyway. The local Burmese food is very different to anything I’ve experienced before, and I can’t say that I like it too much to be honest – but fortunately most places have Western and other Asian alternatives, so I have not been too daring with trying this unfamiliar cuisine (has anyone heard of
Shwezigon PayaShwezigon PayaShwezigon Paya

Nyaung U, Bagan
a Burmese restaurant back home…?!). Still, after 5 weeks of being on the road, I am proper looking forward to a Bacon ‘n’ Eggs breakfast when I get home…

So, last I wrote I believe was from Rangoon, having just arrived in the country. On the Tuesday after arriving, at the ridiculously early time of 3.30am, I woke up to go to the airport for an early flight to my first out-of-the-capital destination Bagan, and thus avoiding the 16-hour or so journey most travellers seem to make by bus. Indeed, I booked all my transport by flights back in the UK, having paid for them and collected my tickets after arriving in Rangoon due to the afore-mentioned lack of credit payment ability. Flights here are fantastic, as they are relatively cheap ($90 for the hour’s flight, including breakfast and drinks, from Rangoon to Bagan) and very comfortable. I chose the most trustworthy-sounding airline, Air Mandalay, being a Singaporean-Malaysian joint venture in the country, and being the “only airline in Burma which carries the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) Part 145 Approval”, which though I have no idea what it means, does sound reassuring. All other airlines are supposedly owned
View of Sule Paya by nightView of Sule Paya by nightView of Sule Paya by night

From the May Shan Hotel
by or have links to the military government, and as such, are not recommended by the country’s democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, as they just help to fill the pockets of the dodgy Generals. Air Mandalay’s slogan also sounds much more reassuring, “Safety, Reliability, Comfort”, compared with Myanma Airways’ “Fly Beyond Your Dreams”, and Yangon Airways’ “You’re Safe With Us”, whose logo incidentally seems to be a rather large elephant taking off with wings… The Air Mandalay flight to Bagan was just great.

So Bagan: a huge temple-filled plain, dotted with no less than 4000 of the blighters following one of Burma’s more religiously enlightened eras from the 11th to the 13th Centuries, in which its Kings successively sought increasingly more karma-related goodness by building more and more temples. Some of them were stunning masterpieces of Buddhist art and architecture, most of them crumbling little buildings, but together spreading over an area of around 24 sq km, make an awesome sight to behold. My first day in Bagan, after checking into the fantastic Hotel Thande, with lovely bungalow-rooms and an inviting swimming pool, I hired a bike and cycled the 6km-road towards Old Bagan, centre of the temple-building frenzy, and back again, passing literally hundreds of temples along the way. The most notable of these being the Ananda Pahto, the Buledi and the Swezigon Paya (see attached pictures). Unfortunately though, and I think due to a combination of the very early start to the day, and the cycle ride through the exhausting afternoon heat (much hotter up here inland, away from the coast, reaching around 38 degrees during the day with tropical humidity to boot), I felt very dizzy, light-headed and nauseous at the end of the day. Turns out, after a visit to a local doctor (an experience in itself – very friendly, but very very basic…) my blood pressure rose to 20mm above normal (not dangerous, but not good either), and I was prescribed a concoction of pills for three days which seemed to do the trick. But it was rather a gentle reminder to me of the main drawback to travelling alone – what to do when one is not well… Alas, I do feel better now, but taking it very easy in this heat which continues in Mandalay. Thus, my second day was spent very gently, doing a shorter bike ride to a lookout tower for splendid views across the plain towards the Irrewaddy River. Although on the way back, a bee stung me on my ear which hurt rather, but it did take my mind off the heat of the cycle ride as I tried to will away the pain…

So after a couple of temple-visiting days in Bagan, flew my second flight with Air Mandalay 30 minutes to the north-east (basically, just an up and down flight, in which the flight attendants even managed to fit in a drink for every passenger…!) to here, Mandalay. Asian city of legend, Mandalay is today a rather teeming concrete-block and traffic-filled monstrosity at first glance. But the stunning and huge Mandalay Palace in the centre of the city, with its 2km by 2km wall and moat, remain beautifully intact since its construction in 1857, and in itself is reason enough to like the city. The palace, however, only served as the last outpost of the Burmese king and army for 28 years before it fell to the final wave of British conquest of Burma and subsequent colonial rule in 1885. But it remains today completely intact, its walls stuccoed with superb Burmese-style towers every few hundred metres, and today serving mostly as a base for the modern Burmese army, the Tatmadaw. As such, it is mostly off-limits to foreigners, save for its superbly reconstructed Palace and Fort in the centre, reachable by a kilometre-long ruler-straight road approachable only from the eastern gate. The army personnel I walked past on the way were super-friendly, and seemed surprised that I greeted them and smiled at them (they probably don’t get much from foreigners due to their notoriety, but to me, despite not agreeing with the national tactics of the government, it is still thanks to them that the tourist facilities remain intact, and that I am actually able to visit this beautiful country, so I hold no personal grudge). It was still interesting to see their banners posted on the gateways to the palace, two of which I have attached as photos here…

My second day in Mandalay, yesterday, I spent hiring a motorbike taxi, for the first time since arriving in Burma. In Rangoon, motorbikes are completely banned by the military junta, apparently due to one crashing into a general’s car not too long ago and subsequently being completely banned outright! In Bagan, foreigners are forbidden to ride motorbikes, hence the sweaty days of cycling…! But here it seems fine, and I hired one for the day to take me around the three nearby main sites of interest around Mandalay, each of which served at some point in Burmese history as the capital of the country. I might state at this stage that for those who didn’t know, and this included me until a few months ago, the capital of Burma now is not in fact Rangoon, but a city of a million inhabitants called Nay Pyi Taw (meaning “Royal City of the Sun”), only having been commissioned and built in 2005, slap bang in the middle of the country, between Rangoon and Mandalay. I have heard that this city is a monstrosity of a creation, with huge 8-lane freeways, and massive government, commercial and residential sections to the city all planned out, with hardly a person or a vehicle seen. Now this sounds absolutely fascinating to me, and I would love to have gone there, but unfortunately, you guessed it, foreigners are not allowed...

But I digress from my tour of the former capitals of Burma. First up, Sagaing: built on a hill on the opposite bank of the Irrawaddy River, with lots of golden-gilded stupas and temples at various levels over the hills. My visit involved a sweaty and steep climb to the highest of these stupas, for stunning views over the other golden buildings and down to the river and beyond to Mandalay. Second, a visit to Inwa (known to Burmese historians and archaeologists as Ava), reachable by boat and visited by a lovely horse and cart which I shared with two equally very nice French girls, for a tour of its very interesting remains today, including a temple completely built of teak wood (note my photo of the temple’s sole fire extinguisher…!), interspersed by dusty fields still ploughed by oxen. And thirdly, definitely the highlight of my trip to Mandalay: the stunning U Bein’s Bridge, which by name you probably don’t recognise, but perhaps the photos might ring a bell. It’s what made Burma famous during colonial times, and appears regularly in tourist paraphernalia on the country – a 1300 yard long, stilt bridge built entirely of teak wood, the longest of its kind in the world, across the Taungthaman Lake, which laps the shores of my final former Burmese capital for the day, Amarapura. I hired a boat out for some fantastic shots of the bridge, along with a selection of its foot passengers, mainly monks on their way to collect alms or visiting nearby temples. It was a great day, despite the heat, and along with most other places mentioned so far, I have uploaded the photos here.

And finally, today. A day mostly of rest, writing up this blog entry in the comforts of my air-conditioned room in a comfortable hotel one block from the moat. This morning I did a great cycle tour of the remarkably serene back alleyways of the city towards the west of the palace and on to the Irrewaddy River – a stark contrast to the frenetic hubbub of the rest of the city, and a great insight into what this place must have been like back in the 19th Century.

So thus concludes this update, most likely my last while on the road as I’m planning to write up my last one once safely back in the UK, timetabled for next Saturday the 25th August. In the meantime, my journey (or Air Mandalay rather…) will take me on to my final stop on the “tourist circuit” of Burma, Inle Lake, south-east of here, for a few days around there, before flying back to Rangoon on Wednesday. I have booked and paid for my last three nights (two and a half rather, due to my flight home leaving just after midnight on the 25th, which fortunately I realised already is not actually on the evening of the 25th, but that of the 24th…!) already in Rangoon, just in case something happened to my pristine dollars on my journey here, so at least I’ll have a roof over my head and one meal a day to keep me going till my flight leaves. Believe it or not, that is actually really reassuring for me…

So I hope you like the photos, I have taken quite a lot of them as there has been just so much to see these last few days! Until the next time, big Burmese hug.


Additional photos below
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Bupaya TempleBupaya Temple
Bupaya Temple

Old Bagan
Shwezigon PayaShwezigon Paya
Shwezigon Paya

Nyaung U, Bagan
Shwezigon PayaShwezigon Paya
Shwezigon Paya

Nyaung U, Bagan

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