Mandalay, Ava and Sagaing

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Asia » Burma
November 9th 2017
Published: November 12th 2017
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Our first destination is Mandalay Palace. This once magnificent palace, built for King Mindon when he moved the royal capital here from Ava, is a mile square and surrounded by a moat and a red painted wall pierced by watch towers. Unfortunately the Allied bombing as they drove back the Japanese in 1944 destroyed what was left of the remaining buildings. Nowadays most of the area is an army base, but in the middle is a reconstruction of the original palace, with associated buildings around it. It is pretty uninspiring inside, but at least gives you an impression of what the original sort of looked like.

Anyway after that it is off to Ava, the ancient capital of Burma up until 1858. We elect to go the long way round by car, having been warned by James that going around in the usual horse drawn carts is desperately uncomfortable, something immediately obvious when we see people bouncing and jolting in the rear of these things, while sitting on a bench seat that slopes downwards towards the rear, with your spine being hammered against the wooden sides of the cart. We proceed around in AC comfort in our car, though the horse carriage mafia can make it difficult for drivers, and can randomly block access roads to stop cars accessing the sites. This means that on occasion you have to walk a bit further to reach a site than you might like in the broiling heat.

In fact some of the best sites we see are those not on the carriage circuit; little clusters of big and and small brick temples and pagodas in out of the way spots, though at first the driver and guide are confused by our commands to stop so we can get out. “Watch for the snakes” she says as we disappear into the bushes to take our photos. We thought she was being overly dramatic until Sara nearly stood on a cobra a few days later.....

Ava in fact is a fairly spread out area boasting an array of monasteries, pagodas and other religious structures. We visit the Bagaya monastery, built in 1834 and another extraordinary teak structure (they are built of teak as termites do not eat teak, though they eat almost every other wood). The Maha Aung Mye Bom San monastery is a beautiful brick and stucco monastery, built in the style of the teak monasteries with multiple roofs and a prayer hall, but by now we are reeling from the heat. There seem to be no remains of any palaces or other civic buildings, a little confusing for a former capital, but that is just how it appears to be. Not sure why they have all disappeared but there we are.

Our guide is keen to ensure we do not go hungry, and stops to buy us bananas and a small pack each containing 4 hard boiled quails' eggs. Random, but much appreciated!

We drive from Ava to Sagaing, about 15 miles south on the other side of the Irrawaddy, crossing the river on the old Irrawaddy bridge, built by the British in 1934 to carry both road and rail traffic. This had its central span destroyed by Japanese bombers when they were trying to stop the Allied retreat north during WW2. There is another bridge alongside it built in 2005 to relieve the congestion. As you cross the river you see Sagaing Hill, dotted with a profusion of zedi. There is not much else to see in Sagaing except the view from the pagoda on the top of the hill, but the views from there are amazing, commanding views in all directions for miles, including to the Shan hills to the east. It is full of monks taking selfies and pictures of each other.

Our final stop of the day is the iconic U Bein teak bridge. We have nearly two hours to kill before our boat ride to watch the sun set over the bridge, so we acquiesce to the suggestion that we visit a weaving workshop. This is a depressing but interesting experience, as we walk round a large workshop full of mostly young women working two to a loom in conditions that are just one better than a sweatshop. David says it looks like China twenty years ago. We’re grateful once more that the Burmese don’t engage in a hard sell, and are able to escape without being subjected to a sales pitch. We still have over an hour spare when we arrive at U Bein. Our guide takes us to pre book our boat, which we do with a swarthy Mafioso waterman looking type wearing a Real Madrid shirt sitting on a plastic chair on the beach surrounded by lackeys, and she then leaves us to our own devices after telling us to return to the boatman at 4.30pm. We buy a cold Coke, then walk along the bridge a bit – carefully, as it has no rails on either side and the teak planks are none too evenly laid. We watch a man wading in the water who seems somehow to be shepherding a flock of ducks for no particular purposes, which seems a bit weird, and young men who emerge from the lake with primitive fishing rods and their catch of the day. The lake only seems to be about three feet deep anywhere. Before long it’s time to get in our boat. The value of prebooking becomes clear, as large tour groups descend on the boatmen. Our mafia friend orders one of his boys to take us. Out on the water, we relax in the breeze and are rowed around for a while, the boatman standing on the stern with two long oars that he pushes forward to propel and steer us. It doesn’t look very ergonomic but it seems to work. Eventually we join a well rehearsed arrangement of boats that become loosely tied stem to stern in a crescent so that no-one crosses across the other to spoil the view as the sun goes down behind the bridge. This works well until some drunken and loud – yes, Chinese mainlanders – hove into view in their boats and want to stop in front of us, but their boatmen keep moving as they don’t want to annoy their mates in the other boats. The people on the bridge turn into silhouette stickmen as the sun goes down, and the sight is every bit as impressive as the travel books suggest. This may well be the highlight of the holiday. Or at least it may be until the next day. There are surprises every day in Burma.

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