Tuesday, September 27, 2011

head for the hills

It was a pleasant afternoon bus ride to Hsipaw heading quickly as we did, into the hills outside of Mandalay. The weather cooled, and the scenery was an interesting distraction from the ever pervading karaoke on the bus tv.

I arrived after sundown and quickly found a cyclo to take me the several blocks to a guest house I had picked out. Hsipaw has only about 3 choices, and one of them I deliberately avoided due to its monopolising (by way of intimidation of other hoteliers) of tourists.

It was a very basic, tiny room with a table fan on a rickety bedside table next to the single bed. There were no en suite bathrooms - in fact there were no inside bathrooms at all. One centralised communal bathroom was downstairs and out the back.

I was the only guest in the hotel. Checking on the supply of hot water for my morning ablutions, they promised me one of the hotel workers would be up at 6.30 am to switch on the hot water.

There was little to do for the rest of the evening except go out on a hunt for food.

The streets were very quiet and I couldn't see any other foreigners, so I walked around the town for a while and I ended up wandering into what looked like a stock standard Chinese restaurant for some veggy noodles. That done it was off to bed.

Hopes for a good nights sleep were dashed when at about 3.30am my table fan vibrated itself off the table and crashed on the floor, breaking off one of the fan blades and making a frightful noise in the process. By the time I tried to fix it, it was close to 4am so I returned to bed sans fan. As I began to drift off the roosters started. I could count three of them having a loud conversation with each other. Just as I thought they'd grown tired the nearby mosque began its morning call to prayer. Then the big trucks began rolling by on the main road outside, and staff members began yelling to each other from opposite ends of the hotel. (The walls are single layer masonite thin). Finally on top of everything else, several pigeons starting shagging outside my window.

Consequently I was up early so I went for another wander around town after breakfast. Little held interest for me so I decided on the spur of the moment to head off to another town called Pyin Oo Lwin and see what that place had to offer.

I was in time to catch the 9am train - more so because it was delayed an hour and a half. It took about 5 hours to get to Pyin Oo Lwin and was a really great train journey.

It passes over the Gokteik Viaduct.

The viaduct was the highest railway box tower and girder type steel trestle when it was built in 1901 and stands 102 metres high.

gokteik viaduct

In Pyin Oo Lwin I found a conventional hotel to stay in - quite luxurious and as I was (one again) their only guest it was quite easy to haggle them down from $15 to $13 for the night. (And this was only because for some inexplicable reason I had set $13 as the maximum I was going to pay for a room!)

My breakfast the next morning was quite amusing as the entire roof terrace was the dining room and they had set up one solitary table for me to have breakfast. It looked both comical and pathetic.

Pyin Oo Lwin was built originally as a British military garrison then a hill station and a place for people to escape the heat of Mandalay in summer. I spent an afternoon and following morning walking around the town, checking out the temples and monasteries, and then by early afternoon I was ready to head back to Mandalay.

pyin oo lwin wild west

It was very quick and easy to find a share taxi for around $8 and the trip only took a couple of hours (as opposed to 5 or more by train)

Back in Mandalay all I had left to do was to hire a motorbike taxi to visit a couple of well known monasteries and temples. The first was the Mahamuni Temple of the gold Buddha. Wandering around the opulently decorated temple and angling to get a good photo of the gold Buddha, an attendant suddenly grabbed my arm. Thinking I had overstepped some sensitive boundary of some sort I went willingly.

But he actually guided me into the inner sanctum and up the stairs beside the Buddha statue. I was presented with several sheets of gold leaf and instructed to apply them to the statue. I was also told to bow my head and touch it to the statue. My over eagerness to oblige led to me getting a small cut to my forehead. A Buddha-bash if you like.

From here my driver took me to the Shwe In Bin Monastery, one of the most revered in Myanmar which has some beautifully carved teak decoration.

tough day at the office

harry, ron and hermione must be nearby

Back again at the guest house I found one of the best reasons for me being in Mandalay: meeting two wonderful Portuguese backpackers Pedro and Claudia. They were both incredibly friendly and delighful company and I feel very lucky to have met them. They invited me to go for ice cream at the oddly named Nylon ice cream parlour a block away from the guest house. (Dangerously close!)

pedro and claudia

One other thing I did while in Mandalay was to drop by the Mandalay School of Art for a sticky beak. I met the school principal and several of the teachers and was graciously given a tour. It was a very small school with few students, and much of the work was fairly conservative and tradition based. But it was nice to meet some of the students and watch them working.

Friday, September 23, 2011

on the road to mandalay

After 3 days in Inle I caught the night bus to Mandalay.
"Much better than the morning one" says the travel agent.

A pickup from Nyeungschwe to the crossroads cost 700kyats. I arrived an hour early (due to transport departing early in some cases) and then my bus was 90 minutes late. While waiting, several large European style coaches stopped to pick up people so I felt quite encouraged. My bus turned up: a rusting sardine can on 4 dodgy wheels. So this was the good bus. I'm very glad I didn't take the morning one

Once on board I'm sitting by the window, squashed up against the wall. To make things worse, there is a metal cage thingy screwed to the wall to hold 2 water bottles and this is digging into my knee. Then the local karaoke music starts loudly on the bus tv. Then the aircon blasts icy air right down the back of my neck whilst the driver leaves the bus doors wide open to add some dust to the atmosphere.

So while I develop leg cramps, backache and an icy neck the man across the aisle from me begins throwing up out of his window. Meanwhile the local next to me falls asleep and uses me as a pillow. Then his bony knee presses against my other knee (the only part of my body NOT suffering discomfort at that point). The dirt road I should add is a shocker, full of potholes, fiendishly busy and the air on the bus is full of diesel fumes and dust.

Then the bus breaks down.

At least I get a chance to get off and stretch my legs.

We get going again eventually and then shortly after 2 guys across the aisle leave so I spring over my sleeping neighbour like a startled gazelle and grab both seats. I keep these for the remaining 5 hours and this makes the rest of the 8 hour journey bearable.

Arriving at a Mandalay bus station 11 kms out of town I was lucky to run into a tout for the Royal Guest House which I was planning to book into, who organised me a share taxi for 3,000k. I arrive at the guest house at about 5am and I am allowed to stay in the aircon reception until there is a room available for me about 8am-ish.

My first room was on the ground floor. My single price was $13 A/C and fans. I got a very large room with three beds. I was also bitten quite a lot by something - not mozzies or bedbugs (as these leave a nasty bite on me), but something less severe and there were a lot of them and I don't know exactly what they were. (My second night I moved up a floor and had no further problems).

Mandalay was very hot and very big. I tried walking around the palace, and gave up halfway. Each side of the palace grounds extends for 2 kms. Too hot and too tired.

mandalay palace moat

back street temple

After a small siesta, I met Stephan a young German backpacker at the guest house and we decided to head off in the afternoon by pick-up to one of Mandalays biggest attractions - the U Bein Bridge in Amarapura, once the capital of Myanmar. U Bein Bridge is a 1.2 km wooden footbridge and the longest teak bridge in the world. It was built by the mayor U Bein from the unwanted teak columns removed from the old Amarapura palace during the move of the capital to Mandalay.

Just before sunset we hired a small boat to get a closer look at the bridge.

I hired a motorbike taxi to the wharf my second day and a 5,000k boat to Mingun. The boat needs a minimum of 4 people to operate. It Was looking dicey for a while. (I'm telling you - there was hardly any foreigners in the country!!) But finally there were 5 of us so we set off at 9am.

mandalay wharf scene

Mingun is about an hour up the Ayeyarwaddy river and is an enormous incomplete temple started in 1790 by King Bodawpaya and left unfinished because an astrologer predicted that if the temple was completed the king would die. Nearby is the Myatheindan Pagoda or white temple built by the grandson of King Bodawpaya.

Mingun is an easy half day trip from Mandalay - the boat which took us there takes us back at 1pm and the downstream trip takes 45 minutes to get back.

on the way to mingun

lunch at my favourite mandalay local

The following morning I decide to head up into the hills north east of Mandalay to a town called Hsipaw.