We left Chiang Mai (Thailand) on the overnight *express* train to Bangkok, where we would be transferring to our flight to Mandalay that same morning. A little risky given the same journey (in reverse) that we did a few days earlier was over 3 hours late. However luckily for us the train arrived pretty much bang on time and we made it to the airport with plenty of time to spare – a rare thing for us!
Burma has been on my bucket list for many years now, however on the last two occasions that I travelled through South East Asia the tourism boycott was in place, with visiting very much discouraged. Since then the military has relinquished much of its control over the government, coupled with the release of human rights activist, Aung San Suu Kyi in 2010 and the subsequent lifting of the tourism boycott – all meant Burma was definitely on the cards this time around.
When researching Burma we were surprised to learn just how much contrasting and out-of-date information abounds. It seems the sudden influx of tourism has outpaced the response of the countries businesses, with the costs of accommodation/transport racing upwards, and an increasing number of poor hotels, guesthouses filling the gap in demand. We have a Lonely Planet guide that is only a year old and we learnt immediately that things are now typically double what is quoted in the book, making it one of the most expensive places we’ll be visiting in South East Asia. However we were quite fortunate in that a friend of Lou’s has just been travelling in Burma very recently, so we could get some more accurate and timely information before arriving. Crucial in a cash only economy, where you need to bring all the money you will need in crisp, recently printed, unmarked American dollars!
We touched down at Mandalay International Airport (which had 2 planes including the one we arrived on) very excited to be here, keen to get out and see this time forgotten country, with its friendly, engaging and passionate people we’d heard so much about.
That said we were more than a bit wiped out from the sleepless overnight train from Chiang Mai to Bangkok, so we decided to ease ourselves in with a quiet afternoon, going for a walk before ending up at Marie Min- a great little vegetarian restaurant with a mix of Burmese and Indian dishes. We had a delicious pumpkin curry, homemade chapatis and refreshing mango lassies before crashing out.
The following morning we headed to the south of the city to visit ‘Shwe In Bin Kyaung’ a 19th century monastery built entirely from teak, with beautiful intricate detailing, set in a peaceful garden in the heart of ‘monks district’. An area with several monasteries, including the largest in Burma, with over 3400 resident monks. Two of which came over and introduced themselves upon seeing us, and invited us to come and have a look around were they spend their days, mostly studying, meditating and reading the paper it seemed.
There didn’t seem to be much in the way of taxis or trishaws in the area so after negotiating a price with a local we jumped in the back of a delivery van and headed to northern Mandalay, visiting the temples ‘Kuthodaw Paya’ and nearby ‘Sandamumi Paya’. Known as the worlds biggest book, the temples consist of hundreds of pagodas each containing a stone slab that retells part of the Tripitaka Canon (Buddhist scripture).
Melting under the midday sun, we sought refuge under a tree and had a little street food for lunch before jumping on a couple of mopeds and drove back to town via the Mandalay Palace.
The following morning we set out early to visit three of the four old cities that encircle Mandalay. We had made arrangements the previous day with a local father and son sightseeing enterprise – they had a beaten up old old Mazda and a map.
We made a couple of stops in Mandalay on route, the first of which was a gold leaf workshop, where we were given a demonstration as to how gold leaf is made – essentially hitting small pieces of gold with a mallet for hours and hours until really flat. We then went next door where the women are carefully applying the feather light metal to tiny figurines, chess pieces, elephants, buddhas etc. Sticking with the theme we drove across town to Mahamuni Paya, undoubtedly one of the most impressive temples in Mandalay. The central Buddha is so highly venerated it is covered in around 15cm of gold leaf. In an almost continuous state of conditioning, there are even several monitors set up around the perimeter so you can watch a live feed of the caretakers as they clean and apply even more gold to the gleaming 4m Buddha inside the temple.
Next up we visited an area of town renowned for its stone carving, followed by a visit to a teak and embroidery factory. We watched the skilled workers build traditional Burmese puppets and intricate teak furniture – almost all of which is destined for China it turns out.
We then drove to the old city of Amarapura and visited a monastery for the morning meal. An impressive sight, where we witnessed over a 1000 monks queue up to receive their daily meal, provided by the local women. After that it was a short drive to the second temple of the day, with a quick stop at a silk factory to learn about traditional Burmese weaving.
From here we drove to Sagaing, – with over 500 stupas and monasteries nestled amongst the forest and the banks of the Araywaddy. We climbed to the top of the highest hill in the area (why do we always bloody do that!!) and visited the third temple of the day. Which in fairness had some pretty awesome panoramic views of Sagaing and the surrounding area.
Next up we crossed a tributary of the mighty Araywaddy river and took a boat to Inwa, the oldest of the historic cities surrounding Mandalay.
We hired a small horse and cart (the only option for getting around here) and set off to explore the area; two more temples, a teak monastery and and stone monastery ruined by an earthquake (not all that recently) before we got out boat back and had a late lunch by the river.
Back in the Mazda we drove back to Amarapura, a journey which took a little longer than expected as they’d dug up the road whilst we were having lunch! A quick stop at a temple (with the biggest Buddha so far) and then we walked across the 1.2 km U Beins Bridge, an impressive footbridge made entirely from teak which, you guessed it…leads to a temple!
Next stop > Inle Lake
All Photos from our time in Burma…
"Mandalay (Amarapura, Inwa, Sagaing) > Inle Lake > Bagan > Rangoon"
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