Posts Tagged With: myanmar

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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Yangon, Myanmar

 

I came to Myanmar back in about 2007 on a work trip and I found the place totally charming. As soon as I got back home i told Jill that this place was fantastic and that it was just the sort of place that she would love. There is an intangible quality to the place that automatically rang the “Jill would love this” bell in my head. The thing about this place is that it is clean. The locals take pride in the place and it is spotless. The skies are the kind of clear crisp blue that we have not seen since leaving Australia, There is no smog, no filth just a pretty town ready to be explored.

Myanmar has been under the control of a military regime since 1962 following a coup d’état. This military dictatorship officially ended in 2011. Throughout the military regime rule tourism has been virtually non existent but since 2011 the doors have been slowly creaking open. This all changed dramatically with the introduction of online e-visas. This officially came on line on 16 September and we applied on the 19th. So we are some of the first in under the new world order.

The change is obvious…banking facilities have gone from 2 ATM’s in Yangon to over 600 within a matter of months. The advertising on the TV is heavily geared toward the tourist…and towards the locals to encourage the tourist and greet them warmly. The travel challenges that once existed are almost gone. There is a heap of infrastructure work going on to improve things and wifi which was once non-existent and mobile phones which were impossible for foreigners to get are now all simple and commonplace.

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The first thing that I noticed on arrival was the introduction of chewing betel leaves and the constant spitting of this red goop all over the place. This was not a commonplace thing on my first trip 7-8 years ago…now it is everywhere..and it is disgusting. We checked into our hotel which was quite nice and hit the pavements as we tend to do on arrival in a new town. We headed up the main drag to town hall and the Sule Pagoda.

Across the road we went…to the main park and cruised the main courthouse before deciding we were melting (mostly me) in the 32 degree heat and 89% humidity. We checked the long range weather and we basically have 32-34 degree days the whole time we are here and humidity is set to fluctuate between 83 and 89%…good thing we came in winter. We headed back to the hotel to hide from the heat of the day with a stop at a street stall by me for lunch. A plate of rice, two curries, some dried fish and an egg $1.

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We headed out that night for a walk along the strand. We have walked along many strands and esplanades so we had a preconceived idea of what to expect…we were wrong. Safe to say this will never make any of the guidebooks. We found a joint for dinner and walked back past the earlier attractions for a spectacular nighttime viewing of them all lit up. We crashed and were up early the next morning for the main attraction.

The Shwedagon Pagoda (officially named Shwedagon Zedi Daw) is a 99 metre tall pagoda and stupa, gilded in gold, standing atop Singuttara Hill in Yangon. It is the most sacred Buddhist pagoda in Burma and wiki tells me that there are relics of four past Buddhas enshrined within. These are the staff of Kakusandha, the water filter of Koṇāgamana, a piece of the robe of Kassapa and eight strands of hair from Gautama.

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The craftsmanship of the many temples is superb – such detail, and so much gold, especially on the main pagoda (where the gold is real!) The main pagoda is currently surrounded with bamboo scaffolding as workers remove and replace the gold cladding. We spent our time hanging out at the top of the pagoda watching people praying, reading holy books, making offerings, pouring water over the Buddha (an act of merit) – all insights into how Buddhism works out in practice.

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This place was the highlight of my trip almost 8 years ago and visiting it again…I recall why. The Shwedagon Pagoda is a stunning sight and something you should add to a bucket list. Oh by the way…I was right…Jill loves Myanmar. The one trick to know is that shorts above the knee and singlet tops are not allowed in any of the holy Buddhist sites. So you must cover up. My shorts were apparently too short so I had to buy and wear a lungi or longyi the local loop of cloth, skirt, sarong thing worn by everyone here.

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Three years on…

Well here we are three years on (almost to the day) from the original post (above) and we thought it was a good idea to come back to Myanmar. There were a few reasons behind this. The primary one was that we loved the place so much another was that the Shwedagon Pagoda was covered in scaffolding at the time so our photos were just a little bit “less than”. Add o his a couple of very busy jobs and the time just seemed right.

So here we are…and how things have changed…

Firstly the airport has had a total revamp and resembles any modern day international airport…next is the surge in high rise buildings…the place is almost unrecognisable…and lastly was the number of foreign faces…they are everywhere…

Our boutique little travel destination has started to become mainstream…it is nowhere near its neighbours (Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam) but it is on its way. Encouragingly many of the things that we loved have endured. The traditional dress and the friendly demeanour remain firmly entrenched in the local ethos.

In a financial sense for travellers Myanmar has gotten cheaper. When we last came here the gates to foreign tourism had only been open for 3 weeks so the hotel prices were normalised with many places being a flat $50. Time and market pricing have set appropriate levels and the place that we paid $50 for last time was now only $30.  We maintained our previous standard and the place maintained its standards, proximity to everything and friendliness.

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Firstly I must  say…oh how we missed this…

The hustle and bustle of Asia is just something that works for us. The total assault on your senses is just amazing. The sights, the sounds and the smells are simply incredible and we immediately feel at home. So the first thing we do is hit the street food stalls for a taste of the local culture.

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We used our trusty friend “Tripadvisor” to tell us what was both nearby and good. We found the place that we wanted and off we went. Alas, every now and then TripAdvisor gets it wrong.  We headed to the 19th Street BBQ strip in the heart of China Town. Sadly the first thing that greeted us after we sat down was a small child with her hand out saying  ‘hello money’. This pattern continued throughout the meal with a gang of about 5 children working the street while funnelling any proceeds to a rather obese woman who was clearly orchestrating the entire venture. This is something that would never have happened 3 years ago.

The next was the food. To be fair it was tasty…but it was also obscenely overpriced and there was not a local face to be seen. You will pay on average  3 times the price for  your  meal here and probably not enjoy it very much. As a newcomer to Asia there is an element of excitement to it all but for any seasoned traveller…don’t bother.

So on to the main event…the Shwedagon Pagoda…

It was impressive a decade ago, as it was 3 years ago and it remains so today. It really is one of those things that you need to experience for yourself. I have been 3 times now and have been glad that I did each and every time.

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The rest of our trip in Yangon was just us doing our thing. We hit the small restaurants, the street food vendors the out of the way little holes in the wall. This may not do it for most people, but for us this is heaven. So we wandered, and we interacted with the  locals in the most authentic ways that we could.

 

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