Ancient wonders, golden sunsets, long walks…

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!

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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Dinner was at a delicious vegetarian restaurant called Marie-min, then Lofty and I stopped for a Burmese massage. Lovely!

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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.

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Tomorrow is an 11hr boat ride to Bagan. Wish us luck!

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Golden rocks and Mandalay magic

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!

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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!

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