In his apartment in Yangon, our host Nick had a photo hanging on the wall of a silhouetted bridge against the backdrop of a blazing orange sunset. This was U Bein’s bridge, the highlight of almost any trip to Mandalay – ours included. We knew we had to get that magical shot for ourselves!
The day started early, with a taxi ride to Mingun. I’d read a fair amount about the tourist boat, which arrives at 10am, so we set out to get there by 8.30am. This was definitely a good decision, as the drive was scenic, and when we arrived there were virtually no other visitors. Mingun would have been the site of the world’s largest pagoda, but it remains unfinished as an earthquake destroyed the foundations. What remains instead is a very atmospheric massive collection of bricks, and an enormous bell – the largest (uncracked) bell in existence.
The drive back took us to Sagaing, which must have the most monks per square mike of anywhere in Myanmar! A major religious site, there are golden stupas dotted everywhere among the hills. A few highlights were the Umin Thounzeh complex, with 45 Buddhas in a crescent shape and Soon U Ponya Shin, where we had a great view of the surrounding area.
Our driver spoke very little English (our fault for booking through the hotel as we met many English-speaking drivers throughout Mandalay, and so he refused to stop anywhere other than the pre-arranged places). That meant we had 4 hours to kill in Amarapura while we waited for sunset at the aforementioned U Bein’s bridge. We filled the time with an interesting lunch of tiny whole fish, deep-fried and staring at us with googly eyes, and deep fried sweet corn (something about deep fried food feels comfortably bug-killing), then took our time strolling across the rickety bridge. We stopped at a (pretty insulting!) fortune-teller for a laugh, and watched the daily comings and goings of the people on the bridge. We also posed for many photographs!
Sunset came up quickly, and we didn’t expect the rush for the little boats! While most boats carried only 2 people, we crammed 6 in ours, as it was the last one available! Still, the boat was by far the best way to see the sunset, and we got some pretty spectacular pics of our own.
Dinner was at a delicious vegetarian restaurant called Marie-min, then Lofty and I stopped for a Burmese massage. Lovely!
For our last day in Mandalay, we took it easy – strolling to an old Buddha so covered in gold leaf that its body and features have become all lumpy, and then to a gorgeous teak monastery. Lofty and I wandered through the back streets of Mandalay, to the delight of school children everywhere, and stopped for tea in a local tea shop where they kept trying to feed us rice. The tea in Burma is made with thick condensed milk and is quite sweet, but a fun atmosphere. I always find the best part of any trip is just getting out and meeting the locals, and the Burmese people are always happy to have a chat, or to let us join in on their games.
Tomorrow is an 11hr boat ride to Bagan. Wish us luck!
Myanmar is changing at light speed. Guidebooks are essentially obsolete the moment they are printed. Advice given from visitors a month ago, no longer applies. Almost all the changes are pleasant, though, and show off Myanmar as a country adapting to the needs of its booming tourist industry. We’ve seen plenty of ATMs and even Visa/MasterCard signs, and some of the more hectic tourist trails have been smoothed into pretty slick operations. Maybe this is the country losing its rustic charm, but for flashpackers like us, it just makes the whole experience far more relaxed and enjoyable.
This was really evident at the wonderful Golden Rock pagoda, a few hours drive from Yangon. We stopped at a giant reclining Buddha and a monastery in Bago along the way, where we could see 3/400 monks lining up for lunch. It’s imperative that women don’t touch the monks – a fact that becomes important later! The peaceful atmosphere of the monks is shattered by the snapping of camera shutters. We arrived at 10.15 (guidebooks say lunch is at 10.30) but we had the place virtually to ourselves, and we enjoyed the gentle serenity. That all changed at 11 when dozens of (better informed) tour buses stopped by!
From Bago, we drove to the base of the Golden rock mountain, where we were loaded onto a locals bus to take the trip up to the top. In this case – with two 6ft+ men squeezing onto tiny backless benches alongside 70 others on the back of a pick-up truck – it probably wasn’t the best idea. Worse, Tania and I were sandwiched between monks in front and monks behind, all desperately wriggling away from us. Oh dear.
The journey was then mostly harrowing switchbacks and a juddering engine, but it took us all the way up to the top (an hour and many sore legs/backs later). We had anticipated an hour long hike after the cramped bus, but fortunately the bus now travels further up he mountain so it was only a short distance to our hotel!
The one thing all the guidebooks and fellow travellers have gotten spot on is the friendliness of the people – I’m not sure I’ve ever had more welcoming service from our hotel, Mountain Top Hotel. From there it was only a 5 minute walk to the golden rock itself, although the journey took considerably longer due to the amazing photo opportunities at every turn!
The Golden rock is a major pilgrimage site in Myanmar, an enormous rock covered in layers of gold leaf, which precariously balances on the mountainside on a strand of Buddha’s hair. We arrived around 4.30, which gave us plenty of opportunity to watch the sky around the rock blaze bright reds and oranges against a dramatic foreground of clouds. Adam and Lofty were able to apply a square of gold leaf to the rock itself (a privilege only offered to men), but it was a great experience all around.
The rest of the site lit up in technicolor strings of lights (not that dissimilar from one Niagara Falls – at least, that’s what we were reminded of!) as the sun went down. A pretty surreal sight.
A 5.30am wake up call saw us watching the sun rise from our room. Why is it only when travelling that I can stand to get up so early?
The next day, we were able to have a goodbye meal with Nick, who has been our host in Yangon. We have absolutely no doubt that we would have missed out in so many local haunts if not for him – our last night in a delicious pizza restaurant, L’Opera, was proof of that! He’s witness first hand to the myriad changes in Myanmar since his posting started over a year ago, and it’s been fascinating getting to learn more.
Another early wake up call (why?!) was this time for our flight to Mandalay. Of course, this blog wouldn’t be complete without a Myanmar mishap – this time, one of our number was out for the count with a nasty stomach bug. Hand sanitiser necessary all the way!
Mandalay is a city of contrasts – more dusty streets and bad traffic than the romantic images you might associate with Kiplings version if Mandalay. Still, we found some real gems by wandering (read: dodging mopeds!) through the streets to a gold pounding factory – where they make the gold leaf that Lofty used in Golden rock. We then started to walk up the Palace, surrounded by a huge moat, but with heat and time running away from us, we hopped in a taxi to visit… Drumroll… The world’s biggest book! How could I resist?
While actually being a series of 729 stone tablets each within its own whitewashed pagoda, it still took 1200 monks six months to read it all in relay, which probably makes it just about longer than A Storm of Swords.
Last stop in Mandalay was Mandalay Hill for – you guessed it – another sunset. A 45minute walk straight up stairs in bare feet was almost more than my poor, soft Western feet could take, but I survived on a drip supply of lychee juice (I’m addicted) and interactions with the few locals dotted about.
Tomorrow, more early starts and adventures await. Myanmar isn’t disappointing yet!
I’m sitting here covered in cuts and bruises, every muscle aching and sore, having narrowly avoided an awkward interaction with a cobra and picked several leeches off my friend’s body.
No, our plane didn’t crash in the middle of the Myanmar jungle. Instead, I was talked into a 9km ‘Hash’ run with the Yangon Hash Harriers… but that isn’t even the start of our story!
The Myanmar mishaps (or is it Burma blunders?) began at Heathrow airport at 5.15am, where Tania (one half of the couple L and I are travelling with) was refused entry on to the plane. Her passport was only valid for the next 5 ½ months, as opposed to the 6 months “required”… thank goodness she has dual citizenship (and therefore a second passport) so she was able to rush back and get on the flight the next day.
We didn’t know that, however, as we unhappily said goodbye to Tania to go through security. Two six-hour flights later… we landed in Yangon, one person missing but happy to have heard that Tania had managed to secure a flight, which meant we could relax a bit into our journey.
Yangon/Rangoon is a beautiful city, much calmer than any other place in South-East Asia I’ve been in terms of traffic and people. It has the most number of colonial buildings of any city in SE Asia, which lends it a really gorgeous, lost city-type of vibe. We are so lucky to be staying with a friend who works for the British embassy in Myanmar, so we have lots of great local knowledge on our side!
We walked on a lovely boardwalk across Kandawgyi Lake in absolutely blazing heat, spotting some temples along the way. The three of us were very knackered during lunch, so it wasn’t long until we were ready to head back for nap.
Then began my real adventure. The boys were too tired (read: they wimped out) but I tagged along with Nick for my Hash Harrier adventure. ‘Hash’es are organized runs that happen throughout the world, led by ‘hares’ who mark the run with shredded paper. Hash runners are known as ‘runners with a drinking problem’ or ‘drinkers with a running problem’, depending on how you look at it! The runs can be any length and can take you through any part of town – ours was quite rural, which was lovely, and also quite long! I definitely didn’t expect to be running 9km, but I was already there so why not?
The first half of run felt like more of a bush walk. We headed straight out into fields and long grasses, filled with thorns and uncertain footpaths – not really your ideal running route! I quickly fell to the back of the group, and thought I was dead last – but it turned out I was just dead last of the people who managed to keep up and not get lost! I was determined not to get lost, so even if I felt tired, I wasn’t going to lose sight of the person in front.
We ran through some quite deep mud (about mid-shin – and it might not have been all mud, if you get my drift), which led to leeches! Thankfully I avoided them, but Nick wasn’t so lucky with three of the buggers latching on. I did spot the cobra though, slithering through the grass ahead of me, so I think I won! Nick jumped about a mile after I spotted it…! No picture, unfortunately, as it was moving too fast.
The second half of the run was much easier – through little villages where I could see a slice of country life. We finished the run in a brewery (natch) called Dagon beverages, where I collapsed – sweaty and exhausted – but actually feeling way more energetic before. Turns out maybe the best jet lag cure is a whole lot of exercise! I had my Hash induction – downing an entire beer in front of the 60-odd runners – and came back home, tired but happy.
We were up early the next morning to meet Tania, who finally made it to Myanmar! The group was complete!!
My legs and ankles were pretty sore from the run, but we had a jam-packed day ahead. We started out at Nagar glass factory, which had been completely destroyed by the cyclone in 2008. The family who runs it has been creating blown glass wonders for years, but not since the cyclone. While their kiln and buildings were ruined, the glass – which had always been stored outside – has remained, in a surreal jungle-like atmosphere. It’s like an Alice-in-Jungleland type glass menagerie, a forest floor that sparkles and glitters with coloured glass sculptures. They don’t have the money to restart the kiln again, but there are wonderful glass treasures to be found, which can be polished up to mirror shine. Needless to say, we spent plenty of kyat there, and spent an age chatting to the knowledgeable owner.
For lunch, we had our first taste of Burmese food – which was absolutely delicious. Where I would almost immediately turn my nose up at ‘salad’ (especially while on holiday!), Burmese salads are amazing, especially the tea leaf salad, tomato salad and aubergine salad. We also shared some curries and Bago coconut noodles – all scrumptious. Burmese food, thumbs up!
In the afternoon we wandered around downtown Yangon, looking at all the colonial buildings. Afternoon tea at The Strand filled us all up with amazing cakes and snacks, while feeling very posh despite our traveller wear.
Then came the absolute highlight of the entire trip (yes, even more than the 9km run!): Shwedagon Paya. This might be the most beautiful temple complex I have ever seen, shining like a golden crown above the city. We arrived just before sunset, watching the sky change from blue to indigo to black, and the temple change from bright gold to burning orange as the monks and worshippers lit candles that illuminated the riches all around. It is a full moon tonight, which meant the temple was packed with people. Even so, it was a magical place.
In Buddhist culture, it is best to pray to the specific animal which corresponds to the day of the week you were born on. Lofty, born on a Friday, is a guinea pig. Lucky him! Adam and Tania were both Hinta birds (or garruda birds). And what was I? A tiger, of course! I am also a year of a tiger in Chinese astrology, which makes me a Tiger Tiger. This, clearly, made my entire day.
After Shwedagon, Nick took us to a bar that must have one of the best views in the world: overlooking the golden temple at night. A few cocktails later, we agreed this was one of the best starts to a trip ever – missed flights and scratched up legs included.
Bring on more, Myanmar! We can take it…
July 1st means only one thing – Canada Day! I come from Ottawa, where Canada Day is celebrated in a BIG way, with everyone wearing red and white… if you don’t believe me, check out my photo from last year when I spent Canada Day in my hometown!
It does feel fitting to write this post today, though, considering it’s going to be all about my recent trip! And what an epic trip it was…
First of all, I was able to go back to my old high school, Immaculata, to talk to the grade 7 & 8 students about The Oathbreaker’s Shadow. It was a beautiful summer day, the last week of school, the day before the trip to the local waterpark… but somehow, the students managed to be the perfect audience: attentive and interested, with loads of great questions at the end. It was also a blast to chat to some of my old teachers again, and to wander the halls where I spent many hours… my nose in a book, most likely.
Also while I was in Ottawa, I did a grand tour of several Ottawa bookstores, meeting booksellers and customers, which was so much fun! Cheers to Eduardo, a teen at Chapters Pinecrest who actually fistpumped when he got a signed copy – that made my day times a million. I ended the week with an event at the wonderful Kaleidoscope Books in Ottawa. It was lovely to chat to the booksellers there, and to sign a few books for some really special fans.
Then it was onwards to Hamilton, where I spent a couple of days with my beautiful and talented friend MF Miller, who is mum to the most gorgeous baby. I showered him with board books (Chu’s Day and The Tiger Who Came To Tea) and I marvelled at how much he had grown! They grow so quickly!
My time in Toronto was beyond wonderful. I met up with fellow Lucky 13s Amanda Sun (INK) and Eve Silver (RUSH) (HOW did I not get a picture of that?!) for lunch, where we talked non-stop about publishing, books, gaming, Japan, and all number of things… we then went around to ambush Indigo Eaton Centre and the World’s Biggest Book Store, so they ended up with loads of our signed books!
Have I mentioned how amazing the Chapters support has been? Stacks of books, all nice and prominent on the tables. It’s super encouraging, and I definitely love Canadian booksellers!
That day, Amanda and I also popped up to see Wattpad, who have to work in one of the most creative offices I’ve ever seen. They have a huge open plan layout, with offices decorated by genre, and a table tennis table instead of a boardroom table! It was nice to see all the praise and love that Wattpad has received scrawled over the walls, and to meet the team behind the vibrant website. If you haven’t added me on Wattpad yet, please do so!
Toronto was a whirlwind – interviews, stock signings, bookseller lunches, book launches coffees – oh yeah, and a bit of shopping! I attended the Chizine fall book launch, where I met the lovely Peter Halasz, Sandra Kasturi, Madeline Ashby and many more. I hit up my old haunt (now in a new location) Bakka Phoenix, where it was surreal to see my book on the shelf. It was great to meet up again with Chandra from Indigo over delicious Soma hot chocolate, to discuss writing, Twitter, and the wonder of Neil Gaiman. She gave me this AMAZING ‘Hey Girl‘ notebook… how could you not be inspired by this?!
Random House CA also set up a blogger meet-up, which I hosted alongside the awesome Teresa Toten. I read her book about a group of OCD teens The Unlikely Hero of Room 13B with a completely open mind – it’s not my normal kind of read, I’m more of an action-adventure fantasy/dystopian girl! But I absolutely fell head over heels for Adam, the ‘unlikely’ hero, and his growing relationship with fellow-OCD sufferer Robyn. By the last page, I had tears in my eyes – not because it was sad, but because I had grown so tied to the characters that it was emotional to let them go. Such is the power of a great read.
That was an awesome event – I really really love meeting readers, and bloggers are the most voracious kind! A put some names to blogs by meeting many of the bloggers who helped host my Canadian blog tour, and one of them (the lovely Christa!) gave me this amazing Oathbreaker-themed bookmark. Now *that* is awesome.
My final day included a power lunch with one of my literary heros – Guy Gavriel Kay (I also have the privilege of working on his books in the UK – his latest, River of Stars, coming out in mid-July in the UK). In the Museum Tavern (you should go for the excellent drinks and beautiful copper ceiling), we talked the state of publishing, the state of bookselling, and the state of the drinks (superb). It was an inspiring meal, and cut far too short by my dashing off to my final event in Guelph!
It was a good thing we left when we did – the 1 hour journey turned into a 3-hour trek by thundering rain and long weekend traffic. Thankfully we arrived at The Bookshelf just in time… if you have the chance to visit Guelph, make sure you check out The Bookshelf! Not just a bookstore, it’s a coffee shop, cinema and bar – a true cultural hub for the city. The event was short and sweet, and there should be video of it up soon! Big thanks to my high school friend Jacob and his partner Marcus for making the trip, and to Derek Silver – a fellow Toronto author, who came out to support.
Then just like that, it was over! It was a great trip, and I couldn’t have asked for a better reception for the book in its home country. Go Canada!