Posts Tagged With: buddha

Bago, Myanmar

We left Mandalay on yet another train journey…the last train journey I was conflicted but after a second nightmare journey all I can say is NEVER get on a train in Myanmar. It is without a doubt the worst experience that you can have. This one was every bit as bad as the last one but did not have the human interaction to rescue it. Our trip began with using half a can of bug spray to kill the 200+ spiders in our sleeper cabin…and the broom from the toilet to rid ourselves of the multitude of webs etc all over our room. Add to this the jumps, bumps and body wracking bits from before and this was another 15 hrs of hell.

We got off the train in Bago in he early hours of the morning to find that English and transport were not as prevalent out in the sticks. We tried to get a cab or a ute or whatever passes for a taxi or transport…we ended up as two fat westerners, with luggage, on pedal trishaws, being driven around by 50kg skinny Asian guys…who had no idea where our hotel was. After a couple of false starts, a rider change for Jill, and me walking up the hill of the bridge cos I was too heavy we got to our hotel.

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The main reason for coming to Bago was that it was a good launching point to head to the Kyaiktiyo Pagoda more commonly known as the Golden Rock. It is pagoda built on the top of a granite rock that has been covered with gold leaves pasted on by visiting male pilgrims…I say male because women are not allowed near the thing. According to the legend, the Golden Rock which is precariously perched on the mountain is held there by a strand of the Buddha’s hair. It is said that a glimpse of the “gravity defying” Golden Rock is believed to be enough of an inspiration for any person to turn to Buddhism…I on the other hand had different thoughts.

Now to become a Buddha you must reach a level of enlightenment to raise yourself to such a position. To achieve this the bodhisattva (living future Buddha) an aspirant to the full enlightenment of Buddhahood generally become monks and train themselves, through altruistic deeds and meditative effort, to acquire the qualities essential to a Buddha. I have seen a lot of these monks…in a lot of countries…they have shaven their heads and are all bald…but the rock is held up by hair…my thought…how curly was this hair.

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The trip to the rock was entertaining enough initially as we cabbed the 100km to get there passing some stunning rural sights along the way.  Upon arrival at Kinpun (the town at the bottom of the hill we were met with our transport to get us to the top of the hill. It was (without word of a lie) a dump truck with rows of seats bolted to the sides which they jammed 6-7 people per row. Five per row would have been relatively comfortable six was silly and seven was just lunacy. Add to this the fact that the rows were so close together that you had to go almost side-saddle to get in and this was less than ideal. Having reached the top there were dudes with bamboo poles and seats offering to carry me up the stairs to get to the rock.. for a very reasonable fee. Before I could formulate an answer I was clipped across the back of the head and told not to even think about it.

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The rock was certainly cool and we headed back to town and had another huge Burmese feast for basically nothing. This was a pattern in this place. We could go out to dinner and have a huge feed, generally washed down with some Myanmar or Dagon lager and we would get change from $10. The next day we locked in to see some of the local sights around town with the skinny old dude who pedalled us to the hotel on day one…but in a motorised transport version this time. By motorised transport it was a Burmese version of a tuk tuk with the same level of suspension as that which existed on the train.

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The first stop was the Kyatkhutwine Monastery which houses about 700 monks. We got lucky and arrived at meal time and wandered through the dining hall being amazed by the size of the rice pots. From here we headed into the kitchen and got a sense of what it took to cater for 700 people on a daily basis. From here we headed to the snake temple which in essence is a small temple with a huge snake. The snake is said to be the 120 year old reincarnation of the former head of a monastery in Hsipaw. In reality it is a massively over fed 7 metre long python.

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We hopped around to some lesser pagodas and temples then hit the Shwethalyaung Buddha which is the worlds second largest reclining Buddha at 55m long and 16m tall. Then on to Kyaik Pun Pagoda the home of the Four Seated Buddha shrine. From here we hid in the hotel during the heat of the day before meeting our dude at 5pm for a trip to the Shwemawdaw Paya pagoda, the tallest pagoda in Burma at 114 metres. We got lucky and were here for a festival that saw thousands of people attending and setting up for the after dark festivities.

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This involved the designing and laying out of tens of thousands of little clay pots into words and images and putting in candles for the nighttime lighting. Jill is a bit of a local celebrity here in Myanmar with everyone smiling, grinning and waving at the white woman in the funny hat. I get the hellos and the waves but Jill is by far the star of the show…especially with the kids. At the festival a small boy was on his fathers lap and was excitedly pointing at Jill as if she was a rock star, she noticed and waved which incited a level of excitement rarely seen.

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This kept going for about 10 mins as we looked at the pagoda, the candles and the people generally. By the end the small child was blowing kisses to her and nearly fell over when she blew one back. This level of friendliness here in Burma is ubiquitous. The warmth and welcoming that you receive from everyone is something that must be experienced. Let’s hope that this genuine quality does not get replaced by mercenary overtones once the tourism kicks in.

With Bago finished we hopped a cab back to Yangon  where we spent a night before saying farewell to Myanmar. We had a flight to KL where we crashed for a night and then started the next leg of this little adventure…Laos.

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Mandalay

A short flight from Bagan to Mandalay and we were off on our next leg. Tiny airports really do add a whole new level of interest to a journey. We were on a baby prop plane that required the weighing of everything that went onto the plane. We were originally booked Air Bagan but were changed to Asian Wings airline…but still had to check in at Air Bagan. There was no assigned seating…just first on, first seated. Despite all of this it was a relatively uneventful flight. We arrived and ended up in a share taxi to town… And on to our accommodation which was really nice…and our taxi resembled a passenger vehicle…no ute taxi this time.

Mandalay is the second-largest city and was the last city used as the royal capital. The palace was originally the former royal palace of Amarapura which they dismantled and moved here by elephants. The palace is at the centre of a 1020-acre citadel surrounded by four 2,032 m long walls and a moat 64m wide, 4.6m deep (thanks wiki). The walls originally had three gates on each side, and five bridges to cross the moat…at present there is one bridge per side.

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We were staying about 2km South-west of the palace so decided on an early start to avoid the heat of the day. We walked the 2k to the corner, then the other 1k to the bridge…only to find the south gate was closed to foreigners. So we walked the 2k to the east gate, to find that they no longer accepted US$ but only the local kyat. So we walked one K to a big hotel, changed our money and walked the one k back to the gate. Having paid we walked another k to the palace where we poked around for a while.

Buddhism reigns supreme here and about 15km out of town in Amarapura Township is the Mandalay Swedaw pagoda celebrating the tooth of Buddha. Not the actual tooth because we saw that in Kandi, Sri Lanka…but a replica. This is one of four such temples in Myanmar…celebrating the replica of the tooth of Buddha and they are all high atop hills and mountains, this one was on Maha Dhammayanthi Hill. Needless to say we did not attend.

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Having seen the palace we headed back the 1k to the east gate and headed north for the 1k walk to the bottom of Mandalay Hill (anyone keeping count of our little amble…god knows I was). From the bottom of the hill we started the climb up the covered staircase (called saungdan). At the top of the hill is the Sutaungpyei (wish-fulfilling) Pagoda. The guide book told us that for those who are fit to make the climb, it is considered a rewarding experience and a meritorious deed at the same time. What it also told us…in fine print…was that it was a holy site so the shoes came off and we did a 45 minute stair climb barefoot.

For those that have been following…my darling (mountain goat) bride did the 1200 stairs to get to the Great Wall in Mutyanyu in 15 mins…this climb took 45…admittedly I am certain I slowed her pace…buy hey…just a bit of context here. Did I mention that it was barefoot. Any guesses as to what the local dogs do on the staircase…yep…a new degree of difficulty. Anyway up we went. We intermittently hit plateaus with pagodas or temples on them. The most impressive was the hermit U Khanti’s dazaung hall. This was about one third of the way up and was spectacular with views over the palace complex and the religious sites below. This hall once held three fragments of bone of the Gautama Buddha (a different Buddha to the toothless one) but they were moved in the 1940’s.

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The stairs went up…so…so did we. We climbed hitting the odd plateau of religious (or commercial) significance. As we neared the top we popped out onto a road as taxis ferried those tourists who were not interested in rewarding experiences or meritorious deeds in 37 degrees and 80+% humidity. We kept climbing and passed some Germans who were looking ragged but un-sweaty who warned us that there were many more steps and there was still a long way to go. On we went…as it turned out there was only about another 200 stairs and they weren’t that tough…these Germans were clearly not doing the meritorious deed.

Having reached the top we found that the view from the top was actually considerably worse than the really good one we had 1/3 of the way up. We later learned that the road dropped tourists off at an escalator which in turn had a lift to take you to the pagoda at the summit. Anyway…we took some pictures and headed back down the stairs.

When we hit the U Khanti’s dazaung hall, 1/3 of the way up we saw a shiny gold pagoda surrounded by hundreds of white stupas. We found at this was the Kuthodaw Pagoda, and would be our first stop upon reaching the bottom of the hill. Upon reaching the bottom we found that this was the site of the worlds largest book. Surrounding the pagoda were 729 kyauksa gu or stone-inscription caves (not the stupas I thought that they were). Each of these contained a marble slab that was 5 foot tall, 4 foot wide and was inscribed on both sides with a page of text from the Buddhist holy text…impressive.

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And our Mandalay visit was over…I was tired so we hopped a cab (back of a ute) back to the hotel for a shower and a crash before we woke for a day of killing time waiting for our train ride to take us to the next port of call…Bago.

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Bagan

IMG_3589Having gotten off our nightmare 20 hr train journey to get here we were greeted with 37 degree heat and the usual Burmese 80+% humidity. We hopped our cab to get us to the accommodation. Now when I say cab…we sat in the back of a ute on a thin mattress and bounced around until arriving at our booked place. Our booked hotel was pretty good… considering. It was $25 a night for both of us which included breakfast of eggs, toast, fruit, pancake and coffee. The TV had a total of 4 channels none of which were in English and despite advertising wifi… We could not get any internet for the entire time we were here. That was not just the hotel but also included every cafe, coffee shop and restaurant along the entire main drag.

Between 1044 and 1287, Bagan was the capital as well as the political, economic and cultural nerve center of the Pagan Empire. Over the 250 years, Bagan’s rulers and the wealthy citizens constructed over 10,000 religious monuments (approximately 1000 stupas, 10,000 small temples and 3000 monasteries) in an area of 104km2 in the plains. About half of these remain today and so Bagan is today home to the largest and densest concentration of Buddhist temples, pagodas, stupas and ruins in the world.

Jill read in her planning books that the best way of getting around to the sights was on a horse and cart…so this was in her head as the way we must travel. Totally ignoring the motorbike hires, the air conditioned cars…nope…horse and cart it was. Fair is fair, it was a great way to get around to all the ruins, temples, pagodas and stupas. A car would have been annoying as the distances between each was quite short and the air conditioning would have no time to kick in, the busses were just packed and wrong, and motorbikes and bicycles would be in high heat on sandy tracks. The horse cart gave us a breezy, shady ride with minimal exertion and views 100% of the way.

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This was a great day. It was another of those days where our photograph count went through the roof as we snapped away at each of the relics. Each one is individual and unique in its own right, add to this the extreme detail on each one and then add the fact that each angle opens up new views and aspects. There is nothing you can do but to snap away and try (and fail) to capture some sense of just how good this place is.

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Once you have snapped away at the ground level temples etc you hit a few that you can climb up. From these high vantage points atop the pagodas you get a sense of just how vast the Bagan plains are. You basically have 360 degree views of the whole place and in every direction all you see is trees and temples. We tried to do some panorama style shots to give you guys a sense of what it was that we were experiencing. Once again they will not do it justice but hey…it’s what we’ve got.

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As we were here just after rainy season the place was lush and green, making the contrast between the red bricks of the pagodas, or the white or gold of the stupas really stand out against the green of the foliage. The area is quite hot and dry so I imagine that it could be brown at other times of the year making the contrast less defined. Either way, we had an incredible day cruising around the relics.

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We have been to several of these sorts of things so far and still have a few to go. It will be an interesting recap and comparison of these ancient sites once this leg of the journey is over. So far on this trip we have been to Hampi in India, Bagan in Myanmar, Polonnaruwa in Sri Lanka and we are yet to do but are heading off to Siem Reap in Cambodia and Luang Prabang in Laos. While the funds will not allow it on this trip, and we will have to go home and be adults for a while…we have the intention of saving our pennies and doing a similar journey to South America which will hopefully add a bunch of ancient Incan cities and ruins to further add to our comparisons.

Three Years on…

So again here we are three years after our last post and I thought that I would just follow on from the previous post and give a sense of what has changed and my thoughts on the place as it stands.  On a positive note…Bagan still rocks…the temples, the weather, the people and the prices. Everything about this place screams as a fantastic destination.

Once again the tourist numbers were way up on last time but the hotel prices were also well down. We moved ourselves to a new hotel that was much closer to the restaurant strip and we are so glad that we did. The last place had crappy wifi and was quite the trek from any restaurant worth eating at. This time we were in the heart of it all in a hotel with a little less crappy wifi.

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The biggest change that you notice  is the abundance of e-bikes…these things were not here the last time and they are a blessing. For between $5-7 a day you can hire these whispering assassins and explore the temples of Bagan at your own pace and leisure. To be honest, on your first day of exploring the temples I would still recommend doing the horse cart…it is just one of those things that you will talk about for years to come.

So on day one we hit the usual trail and snapped about 3000 photos of temples, stupas and pagodas. And it  was fantastic (again).  The first trip we bought a couple of the sand paintings but as it was towards the end of our BIG adventure we were a little cash poor and were certainly luggage challenged. This trip however  we were cashed up and had plenty of room for souvenirs (that said we only bought 2). So on day one we checked out what was on offer and the sorts of prices that you could expect to pay.

This is possibly the biggest tip of all for travellers and will be obvious to most…but never buy on the first day. By day 2 or 3 you have walked away from so many touts and have heard how low the prices can go and therefore are more likely to grab a bargain. We were wandering  the temples on day 2 and heard some Americans bartering to pay between $18 and $20 for  the same pair of pants we had been offered the day before  for $5. So day one was the usual suspect temples and the local cuisine and of course for those of you who have been following along…those damn stairs.

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So day one done and the photos taken it is off to the local restaurants. Now while we ate Asian with a smattering of Burmese last time we did not really immerse ourselves into the local fare. Something that we absolutely did this time around. Jill found and incredible little lunch joint for the next day called Myo Myo. It was a lonely planet special recommendation and involved about 30 tiny local dishes that you grazed upon as it suited you and you only pay for what you eat. This was lunch time of day two and the pair of us ate like champions and had change from $10. But the dinners were equally as tasty but were a tad more expensive as they were washed down with icy (and I do mean icy) cold beverages.

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So day one over and we hopped on the e-bikes and off we went exploring at our own pace. We saw it all. Days two, three and four allowed us all the time in the world to check out anything that we wanted. We spent an entire day when we went off  the reservation and found ourselves in random, out of the way villages. We found ourselves amid a cattle drive, and 30 minutes later were surrounded by goats. We were in the villages where all of the lacquer-ware was actually made. While commuting we came across a little market garden come restaurant. It was lunch time so we stopped.

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We ordered some local Burmese salads, a bean salad, vegetable salad, tea leaf salad and a tomato salad…and we were blown away by them all. As we were the only ones there…a conversation ensued. As this was so far off the beaten track very few tourists happened upon the place and even fewer ate the local fare. So we asked about what made the food so nice…long story short…we came back the next day (quite the effort finding it again) and had a private cooking class with his wife  in their dirt floor kitchen in the middle of nowhere.

The number one thing on the menu that I wanted to learn to make was the local boiled egg curry…and of course work out what was in those damn salads to make them so good. So back we came…everything that we needed was in the garden or in a small collection of powders and sauces. And off we went…the truest and most authentic experience you could ever have. He spoke very little English and she even less. The ingredient interpretations took some doing but we got there and after about an hour we had a feast on our hands.

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We ate, we washed it down with cold beers and when we tried to pay the comment was that it was their gift to us…now obviously that was not going to cut it…so we guessed at how much it would have cost for the food and drink and multiplied it by 4 and paid that.  We thanked them for their time and their hospitality and for the sharing their knowledge with some interested travellers.

And on the way out we happened across a local wedding…The bride and groom sitting atop an elaborately adorned oxen cart…so we snapped away.

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So the verdict is that Bagan is fantastic and a must see for all. We have been twice now and it has not disappointed either time. Put this one on your bucket list.

 

 

 

 

Categories: Myanmar | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Polonnaruwa and on to Galle

After a night of egg hoppers and a couple of beers we woke to make the short hop over to Polonnaruwa. This joint was the capital of the country back in around the 1000 year mark. It was very much like the Hampi trip in India with the various ruins of an entire city spread out over a huge area. The difference was that Hampi was free and this place charged 3250 rupees for the foreigners. Add to this the fact that the military police shook down our guide/driver for a further 500 just added insult to injury.

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The place itself was quite nice…ruins of palaces, temples, cabinet buildings, lotus ponds etc abound. Add to this some stunningly maintained stupas and the obligatory Buddha statues and the place was a good day. The 38 degrees was less than ideal but hey…waddaya do.

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From here we started the 7 hour drive back to Colombo with Damith who is the calmest and most patient driver on the planet. I guess Buddhism teaches you to be calm and relax. I had been sitting in the passenger seat for three days watching all manner of driving indiscretions take place in front of IMG_2823me. But day three was a shocker…the number of blatantly stupid and downright dangerous things that took place was astounding. I was swearing and commenting about nearly being killed on numerous occasions while Damith merely applied the brake (sometimes vigorously) and waited for whatever the holdup was to clear.

This included speeding busses coming towards us in our lane with no intention of slowing or stopping, tuk tuks pulling out and doing u-turns in front of us while we were doing 100kph, motorbikes swerving all over the road. I tried to describe the meaning and intent of road rage…to a Buddhist…which was met with an “oh really” from our eternally calm driver and guide.

The next morning we woke at 5 am and headed for the railway station for our journey to Galle. Jill had lashed out and spent the $7.98 and bought us first class tickets. We did not hold out a lot of hope when the train arrived but boy were we wrong. The first carriage had curtains pulled across and you could not see inside…every other carriage was jam packed with people spilling out of the train in what resembled a cattle truck. We wandered up to the curtained carriage..

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This was a leather seated, air conditioned, serviced cabin with a flat screen TV playing the latest movies and free wifi throughout the carriage. We were met by our dude (I hesitate to use the word butler) who provided hot towelettes to refresh and shortly afterwards the other couple arrived…an entire carriage for the four of us with two service staff. Talk about slumming it.

Now let’s talk about the train ride…this train runs parallel to the ocean for about 3-3.5 hrs as it heads from Colombo to Galle. Our view was essentially water, waves, palm, coconut and banana trees, sand…interspersed with the odd mansion and the regular beach shanty. This was a commute.

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Galle is a fortified city that has a documented history going back to 1400BC. Wiki tells me that “The modern history of Galle starts in 1505, when the first Portuguese ship, was driven there by a storm, however the people of the city refused to let the Portuguese enter, so the Portuguese took it by force. In 1640, the Portuguese had to surrender to the Dutch East India Company. The Dutch built the present Fort in 1663. They built a fortified wall, using solid granite, and built three bastions, known as “Sun”, “Moon” and “Star”. After the British took over the country from the Dutch in 1796, they preserved the Fort unchanged, and used it as the administrative centre of Galle”.

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History lesson over the place rocks. It is really touristy (or touristic in the local lingo) but it is still a great spot. The walls and ramparts are incredibly well preserved and there is very little impediment to traipsing all over the thing. Having arrived in Galle we headed for our hotel and had coffee on the breezy terrace while waiting for our room to be ready. A walk around Galle fort and we were almost done. We did a sunset loop around the fort’s ramparts before heading to a local place for 10 curries and rice…for the total price of 950 rupees ($7.66) the price went up to over double that when taxes (and beer) were added…bloody taxes.

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Categories: Sri Lanka | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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