Do you, or don’t you visit Burma?
After some investgation and significant thought, I decided it would be acceptable if I could minimise my use of ‘government’ facilities. All tour operators, are as far as I know are either owned by the government or by their ‘mates’, so independent travel was my only choice. Whats new! It proved to be another memorable experience dominated by a mixture of delapidated ancient payas, wall to wall Buddhas, decaying colonial heritage and a friendly welcome everywhere. But make no mistake, this is not a free country and a sinister background threat prevailed everywhere. I loved the innovative method of paying road tolls and the cavalier Burmese petrol ‘stations’ were pale comparisons to our motorway services. Read on….
19 Wednesday 10.50 am flight from Manchester via Doha
20 Thursday Arrive Yangon 6.45 am,
21 Friday Guided tour of Yangon
22 Saturday Walking around Yangon east
23 Sunday Visit to Shwedagon Paya
24 Monday Drive to Kinpun via Rangoon Memorial and Bago
25 Tuesday Drive and climb to the Golden Rock and drive to Taungoo
26 Wednesday Drive to Kalaw via mountain pass
27 Thursday Hike in mountains around Kalaw
28 Friday Drive to Nyaungshwe via Pindaya caves
29 Saturday Boat trip on Inle lake
30 Sunday Drive to Pyin U Lwin via Meiktila
31 Monday Drive to Hsipaw
1 Tuesday Boat trip on river Dokhtawady and visits to monastery and Shan village
2 Wednesday Drive to Mandalay via Botany gardens in Pyin U Lwin
3 Thursday Sightseeing in Mandaly (south)
4 Friday Boat trip up the Irrawady to Mingun and sightseeing in Mandalay
5 Saturday Ferry on the Irrawady from Mandalay to Bagan
6 Sunday Sightseeing south of Bagan
7 Monday Sightseeing in Bagan
8 Tuesday Drive to Pyay
9 Wednesday Drive to Chaungtha via Yangon
10 Thursday Chaungtha
11 Friday Chaungtha
12 Saturday Drive to Yangon
13 Sunday Sightseeing in Yangon centre
14 Monday Flight from Yangon to Doha
15 Tuesday Sightseeing in Doha
16 Wednesday Palm Tree Island
17 Thursday 1.30 pm flight to Manchester and train to Aberystwyth
Friday 21st . Yangon We Brits may have had a lot to answer for in our colonial past, but one’s first impression seen from my taxi ride from Yangon Airport into Yangon centre at 6.00 a.m. in the morning is that this is not one of them. Wide roads, three lanes each way, majestic houses and buildings, with trees and lakes lining the route. However neglect soon becomes apparent. The roads are in pretty poor state of affairs and most buildings don’t appear to have had any maintenance for at least 50 years. Quite a sad and somewhat depressing sight. I had organised the taxi airport pick-up, on the internet, through the hotel I had pre-booked in Yangon, for the my first 4 nights. The taxi driver, in barely understandable English provided the explanation for a peculiar anomaly – why all the cars drive on the right hand side of the road, but are left hand drive – the few people who own cars can only afford cheap Japanese imports of some significant vintage. My hotel, the Ocean Pearl Inn, is situated about 1 miles west of the city centre in an area of small shops and small businesses. I have an air condition en-suite room on the first floor with small balcony overlooking the street, for $10 a night bed and breakfast. It is exceptionally clean and the staff are very friendly and staff. The balcony is an entirely theoretical asset as it is just too hot both night and day and I can only use it for hanging clothes out to dry and that’s not too successful as it is a battle with the humid air. I spent a couple of hours on my first day walking down to the Yangon river and managed a triple whammy – got boiling hot (must be a good 40°C), sore feet in my sandals including a large blister under my right sole, and got lost requiring a final return to the hotel on a tri-shaw (a bicycle rickshaw) costing, after serious and lengthy negotiation, K300 or 15pence. Rachel (cousin of Rachel Williams’s friend in Cardiff, Don) and her father came to the hotel in the evening and we discussed revising my provisional itinerary which Don had e-mailed to them earlier. On their advice I regrettably reduced my options on the places to visit and journey modes. Rachel very kindly changed US$500 for me, for K625,000 (£1 = K2000), which proved to be an embarrassingly large volume of notes (a stack about 12” high!!), which I am going to find difficult to look after until I spend it. After our discussion they insisted on taking me for a meal in the Feel restaurant, Dagon township on the other side of Yangon. It was a first class Burmese meal of rice, fish, prawns, chicken and sweetcorn followed by fruit and a delicious banana cake, suitably washed down by a Tiger beer.
Saturday 22nd. Yangon Today I had a 5 hour tour of Yangon by car with a driver/guide, Oo from Golden Swallow Transports, for 25,000 Kyat. I first went to a small war grave cemetery in my quest to find the grave of the father of Maldwyn James, who was killed in the 2nd World War. I scoured the c.2 hectare cemetery, in the scorching heat, without success. A short ride then took me to the Na-Gar glass factory in the North West area of Yangon. The ‘factory’ was hidden in a small wood and run by the very friendly old owner who showed me around. there was just one crude furnace used to produce the molten glass for a huge range ornamental products. The accompanying picture shows one of his employees making a fish. The owner told me proudly that the eyes for the reclining Buddha, which I was scheduled to see later, were made here. The next stop was to one of the apparently plethora of recently built Buddhas. This Buddha, described as the Marble Stone Buddha, was surprisingly, made of marble. A large painting above the steps leading up to the Paya, depicts the Buddha being floated up to this site on the nearby Yangon river, under the watchful eye of one of the Generals. Next stop was the Chaukhtatgyi Paya which housed the aforementioned reclining Buddha. The 50 metre long Buddha, is housed incongruessly in a large tin shed . Lunch was by the Kandawygi lake opposite the Karaweik restaurant, a reinforced concrete reproduction of a royal barge. The view on the horizon was of two now unoccupied Chinese built high rise apartments, both resembling the tower at Pisa! In the afternoon I visited the Kalba Age Paya (another new Pagoda),the Maha Paana Pasana Guha (artificial caves) and finally a Sula Paya in the centre of Yangon. The Sula Paya contained an individual shrine for each day of the week spaced around the centre stupa. Buddhists know the day of the week on which they were born and worship at that place. A young guy explained that because he was born on a Wednesday he had to marry a girl born on a Saturday hence he spent a lot of time sizing up the girls who praying at the Saturday shrine. Pagodas are rather ‘bling’ to my taste and somewhat cluttered with cheap looking artefacts. Nevertheless they are seen and treated very reverently as holy places by the Burmese, but not in a sanctimonious way, and visitors can freely wander and take photos amongst the people praying. I keep forgetting to walk clockwise around the Stupas – if you are corrected, it is in a very deferential and polite way. E-mailing in the evening was a disaster with failed messages, power cuts and desperately slow speeds. My understanding is that internet access and e-mailing by residents is limited to government owned ISP’s, with all activities monitored. Just in case I have decide to send politically neutral messages! I enjoyed my evening meal in a typical Burmese restaurant of rice, spicy chicken, steamed fish, vegetables and two Tiger beers all for K4,000. Rachel rang me this evening and has clearly spent a lot time investigating a revised itinerary for me. As I have found out from Oo, my earlier driver/guide, I can hire him to drive to Mandalay (if I can knock they guy down to an affordable price) I am rather embarrassed now that Rachel has spent so much time on my behalf, and will need to resolve the matter tomorrow.
Sunday 23rd – 10.00 a.m. Yangon This morning I agreed a deal with Oo (the guy that took me around Yangon yesterday) for a 14 day guided tour to Bago, Taungoo, Kalaw, Inlay, Mandalay and Bagan, returning to Yangon – the majority by car other than the ferry from Mandalay to Bagan, for US$600, including car, driver guide, fuel and the driver’s accommodation, I have to pay for my own accommodation and food. Rachel rang just after I had agreed the deal and seemed O.K. about my itinerary. I just hope I haven’t upset her as she clearly did a lot of investigating on my behalf on the previously planned trip. I have decided without much choice to have a restful Saturday and Sunday to allow my foot to heal, I can’t wear sandals and must wear socks limiting my opportunity to wear some long shorts which I purchased with a shirt on Saturday morning for K9,000. Long shorts because it’s bad form to show your knees! Most men wear a Longyi, which is almost full length and looks like a skirt. On a very slow careful wander in the neighbourhood of my hotel, which is about a mile east of the city centre I discovered a better cyber café plus a normal bar, 50th Street Bar and Grill. I also found what appears to be a much better budget hotel, the Three Seasons, for my return to Yangon after my trip up country. In the 50th Street Bar and Grill I met a typically brash U.S. ex pat now living in Thailand, who gave me some very positive advice on a beach holiday are about 5 hours north west of Yangon. From his description it sounded like a government owned resort so I will be giving it a miss. He also gave me a contact address of his (many) Burmese friend in the travel business (whose father allegedly was a professor of botany) who may be able to help with the beach trip and possibly the grave location. I very much doubt the latter. With wall to wall Payas and Stupas and countless Buddha round every corner I decided I had better bone up a bit more on Buddhism. Buddha said that the world was primarily characterised in three ways:by Unsatisfactoriness (known as Dukkha),Impermanence and Insubstantiality. Dukkha life comes from selfish desire, and if forsaken, suffering will be extinguished. Through meditation you proceed through morality, concentration and wisdom A Buddhist needs to adhere to five precepts of abstinence – killing, stealing, unchastity, lying, and intoxicating substances.
Sunday 9.30 p.m. Yangon As planned I had a restful early part of the day reading and strolling around the local area, including consuming six delicious Tai spring rolls in the 50th Street bar for lunch. At 4.30 p.m. Oo took me to the great Shwedagan Paya, and I hired a guide. The Shwedagon Paya is a very restful place and not has gaudy as most Pagodas. The main stupa is quite splendid with gold leaf base and gold plated (with an estimated 60 tonnes of gold) at the top plus many precious stones which are not visible from the base. The stupa itself originated 2500 years ago but has only been in its present size for 230 years. The legend is that 8 hairs from the 4th Buddha are enshrined in this stupa. There was a meaning behind all the artefacts different Buddhas and small temples/praying areas which surrounded the produced a calendar to reveal I was born on Thursday. Under his instruction I dutifully poured 9 cupfuls of water at my shrine which has a rat as a symbol (not impressed). It was not very crowded with quite a number of people praying and or meditating. It was fully acceptable to walk amongst them a take photographs, and nobody even looked or showed the slightest sign of objection or resentment. On the way back to the hotel I stopped for a meal in a Chinese restaurant of Tai chicken costing K800 including 2 beers –delicious! I completed the evening watching live football – the second half of Newcastle beating Sunderland 3-2, a great match, in the 50th Street bar and grill.
Monday 3.30 p.m. Kimpun Now this is heaven – I am now in a large windowed double bedded little bungalow (the Sea Sar Guest House) with the curtains drawn and the aircon flat out, after a six and half hour sweaty drive from Yangon I started out at 8.30 a.m. from the Ocean Pearl Hotel in Yangon with U Thein Oo, and his younger cousin as our mechanic and back up driver. We made our first stop on the road to Bago, at the large World War 2 cemetery and the Rangoon Memorial. I found Maldwyn James’s father’s inscription listed with “no known grave” I can’t pursue further without more information from Maldwyn so need to email someone to ask, perhaps Robin Varley. I visited 3 Pagodas in Bago. The Kyaik Pun Paya, (comprising four back to back sitting Buddhas 30m high, originally built in 1746 but restored after an earthquake in 1930), the Shwethalyaung Buddha, (a 55m long reclining Buddha in relaxed mode) and a Shwemawdaw Paya (114 m stupa near the railway station, originated over a thousand years ago). The remainder of the day to 4.0’clock was taken driving through Kyaikto to Kimpun which is the base village for a visit to the Golden Rock balancing stupa called Kyaiktiyo. The day was completed by a wander round some boring stalls in Kimpun, selling food and typical Burmese handicraft and tat, having a beer, reading and indulging in an incredibly hot Burmese meal.
Tuesday 6.30 p.m. Taungoo I am now ensconced in a Chinese bar restaurant in Taungoo, recovering from a six hour hectic drive from Kinpun. My day started at 6.0’clock with breakfast in the Sea Sar restaurant down the road from the Guest House. B&B cost me US$12. I first took a truck ride, in the front seat, (K1600) for about 45 minutes up a very narrow and extremely steep mountain road with endless hairpin bends, to the base station from where I had to walk up to the top of Mount Kyaikto to the Golden Rock. And what a walk. It took me about 50 minutes up an incredibly steep road climbing from about 2300m to 3100m. I started the walk at 8 a.m. at a relatively cool time of day and shed a bucket load of sweat before I reached the top. I was plagued by carriers with trying to get me onto one of their chairs, for about one third of the journey before they were finally convinced I wasn’t such a decrepid old fart – they were like vultures waiting for me to expire. The Golden Rock boulder stupa is clearly an important pilgrimage for Myanmar people, with only a few fellow tourists. The actual Golden Rock, alledgedly precariously balanced with a strand of Buddha’s hair, is no great spectacle, but the view is tremendous, and the achievement of getting there made it most worthwhile. The return back down, this time in the seriously overcrowded (and overloaded!) back of the truck, was a hair raising white knuckle ride.
Wednesday 8.00 p.m. Kalaw The day started with a magnificent breakfast in the Mother House hotel restaurant – 6 fruits, papya, orange, watermelon, green melon, pineapple, bananas plus toast and undrinkable tea. We then drove from 8.30 a.m. to 5.00 p.m. with a brief stop for lunch and 2 tyre changes. The majority of the journey was on the flat plane east of a mountain range. Again mainly rice farming and irrigated. We tried to visit an agricultural college but were turned away as we did not have government permission. I am slowly learning more, mainly from my guide, of the dissatisfaction with the government. All email is censored and I think you can only have one email provider 4u.com All cyber cafes are monitored. I am not quite clear on the petrol position, I understand you are allowed a maximum of 3 gallons in any one day (recorded in a ‘petrol’ log book) and it costs 1500 kyat per gallon. Black market petrol appears readily available on the outskirts of most towns where it is not uncommon to see up to half a dozen roadside stalls exhibiting fuel containers offering petrol for a negotiated price of around 4000 kyat per gallon. But a black market gallon is only 4 litres! Soon after midday we turned east off the Yangon to Mandalay highway into the mountains and through a truly stupendous pass to Kalaw (part of the Thazi-Taunggyi corridor). Prior to entering the mountains after leaving the rice fields behind there was an intensive area of cropping of cottong and sorghum. The very steep gorges of the pass were all thickly forested but by the roadside, at times, significant areas of vegetable and bananas were grown I am now in the bungalow section of the Pine Hotel (US$10 bed and breakfast) on the outskirts of Kalow which situated on the western edge of the Shan plateau and my entry point to Shan state. Oo took me into town for a Chinese meal – I think I will try Shan food tomorrow evening! I have just accepted an offer of a hike across country tomorrow with 3 others (Austrians I think) and a guide.
Thursday 27 October I set off at 8.00 a.m. on the planned hike with the 3 Austrians for 8 hours, the last 6 being in quite heavy rain. The going was quite treacherous in many places as it was wet slippery soil with some quite steep and narrow ascents and descents. We visited a tribal village and had tea in a long house with some of the residents (women and children only as the men were all out at work). The longhouse was a wooden structure on stilts, with underneath storage for animals, for about 6 families of around 50 people lived in one very long large room measuring 200’ x 20’. No beds, 5/6 small cooking fires and no specific ventilation. Unsurprising that the children all had bad coughs. There are about 600 tribal people around Kalaw – we visited one of the two groups – the Palaung. They remain independent self sufficient and are growing in number. They farm communally growing vegetables, hill rice, green tea and cheroot plus keeping pigs, chickens and buffalows. The buffalows being used for field work and pulling bullock carts taking food to the local market in Kalaw. The trek was extremely tiring but enjoyable and the 3 Austrians were very good company. The promised Shan style evening meal was a welcome change from the previous evening’s Chinese fare, and richly deserved after the tiring hike.
Friday 28 October Today we made a 6 hour drive to Nyaung Shwe which is about 3.5km north of Inle lake and booked for 2 nights into the November hotel. On the way Nyang Shwe we went to Pendia Caves and Pagoda cost me $3 to go around, They are natural caves in the hillside about 1½ hrs drive north of the Kalaw-Inle road. The cave is accessed by a modern lift and contains around 8000 Buddhas accumulatedover a few hundred years with signs underneath some of them indicate who the donors are. Also near Pendia caves, in the village below, I visited an umbrella workshop and saw all the wood components of an umbrella made by hand plus the paper cover made from oil and pulped mulberry bark which is spread over a fine gauze and allowed to dry and carefully peeled off. My guide assured me that the November Hotel was not a government hotel but it had all the hall marks of being staffed, empty and inefficient and all the factors that you would associate with a government hotel, however the room was fine – en-suite with air con which wasn’t needed as it was cool for $12 bed and breakfast. I renewed my acquaintance with email, albeit a rather slow and unreliable connection, and finished my first night there at the Golden Kite restaurant with a highly recommended home made pizza.
Saturday 29 October Oo organised an all day trip down and around Inle lake, 22 km long, 11km wide. I travelled with 2 Swiss people on a narrow quite unstable feeling boat with an enormously large engine at the rear and a propeller which could be raised and lowered into the water, according to the depth of water as the lake itself was very shallow. We first visited the 5 day market at the southern end and then slowly made our back to the northern end via stops and silk weaving workshop, a jewellery workshop, a pagoda (the Phaung Daw U Paya) with small buddha with 5 small buddhas which are enlarged shapelessly by the ritual of adding gold leaf, a wooden monastery on stilts (Nga Phe Kyaung) where the monks have trained cats to jump through hoops, a blacksmith and a cigar making workshop. Perhaps the most fascinating part of the trip was to see the extensive floating gardens with tomatoes and other vegetables anchored by bamboo poles and farmed highly intensively.
Sunday 30 October This was another long drive returning through the fabulous gorge west of Kalaw to join the Yangon Mandalay main road at Meiktila, proceeding to the outskirts of Mandalay and then cutting off north east to take the Burma road Mandalay to China to Pyin U Lwin for a one night stop in the Dahlia Motel which was a bit of a truckers stop but for $10 B/B, the room was clean and a good size. The road from just north of Meiktila to Mandalay was the best surfaced road I have been on in Myanmar – a dual carriageway mainly with only one carriage way tarred and in use. The Mandalay to Pyin U Lwin is mainly dual carriage way utilising the old road and a new one added but both still a winding and hilly I places.
Monday 31st 8.30 p.m. Hsipaw Keeping up with my diary is proving more onerous than I had wished however, I am now Mr Charles Hotel in Hsipaw about halfway along the Burma road between Mandalay and China. It is a delightful small town with absolutely nothing touristy about the place. I am in the second hotel, an annexe next door to the original hotel and about the same size. I am in a new room on the ground floor – double bed, en-suite with 2 other floors above me still being built and paying $10 bed and breakfast. It rained heavily on Monday night and Tuesday morning so the trip Pyin U Lwin botany gardens was postponed and with a brief look in the town to see the wild west style horse and carts we drove to Hsipaw though a shorter but more spectacular Gokteik gorge and a view of the famous Gokteik viaduct, 104 year old railway bridge over the gorge constructed by an American company, it was at the time of the construction of the second highest railway bridge in the world. It carries the train from Mandalay to Lasio. Today I bought George Orwell’s Burmese Days which is based on a town I past last week. It is fascinating to read of the colonial life here in the 30’s.
Tuesday 1 November Another trip was organised by Oo today – this time a journey on a boat ( the same narrow type of boat as used on Lake Inlay) up the river Dokhtawady, travelling for about an hour up stream. We (the guide plus a German girl and a German couple) then hiked for a few miles to visit an isolated monastery. Here, our guide, Peepee, the son of Mr Charles the owner of the hotel, was excellent and he tried to explain the depth and levels of meditation necessary to follow Buddha to achieve Nevana. He said you have to be supervised by an experienced monk otherwise it may send you mad and that he felt he could not achieve such depths. On our return journey back down the river we stopped for a late lunch in a Shan village. Peepee explained that there were no fish in the river because a few years ago when the government made peace with the local Shan insurgents, they came out of mountains with copious quantities of explosives which they threw into the river to celebrate their return, killing all the fish. The resident inhabitants were too fearful to complain. I don’t understand why the fish have not returned.
Wednesday 2 November On Wednesday we drove back to Mandalay stopping for a couple of hours to look around the botany gardens in Pyin U Lwin. The gardens were created 90 years ago by Colonel May of the British army, and have been kept in good condition ever since. A 90 metre high tower (K100 for the lift) has been built recently as a tourist attraction and gives a good view of the area including two expensive and extensive government development projects in the distance. The first one is a new conference centre where Asian leaders will be able to meet, and the second is a series of villages built to represent all the different tribes of Myanmar. As one would expect, they are resented by the Myanmar people. Incidentally, only members of the government and their guest are allowed to the top restaurant floor of the tower. I spent the first night in Mandalay at the Prince Hotel ($16 B/B) outside the city centre In addition to the hotel being located on a busy dual carriageway and out of the centre, it was typically overstaffed, empty and impersonal. It gave me the impression of being government owned, although Oo assured me it was not!
Thursday 3 November The next morning we moved out and I booked into the ET Hotel on 83rd Street in central Mandalay. I paid $10 for B&B and for my money I had a good sized clean room with hot water for the shower and air con. The staff were all very friendly. After checking into my room Oo took me to buy my Mandalay to Began ferry ticket ($16) for next Saturday. Oo then drove and guided me on a very busy (and hot) sightseeing day mainly south of Mandalay. We first visited the Maha Ganayon Kyaung monastery where I observed many (about 1,000 mainly young monks, some as young as 10 years old) queuing for and eating their 10.30 a.m meal. They all eat without any speaking in a series of ‘open’ rooms seated at long refectory tables. Rather sadly this event has developed into a tourist attraction and I somewhat reticently joined in with my camera – there was no problem going amongst them taking pictures. Oo found a couple of monks and put them on the case of directing us to Maldwyn James father’s grave, but they were unable to help other than to send us to a nearby Roman Catholic church, where the Father may have more knowledge. He didn’t. Just around the corner from the monastery was U Bein’s bridge – a rather unsteady teak bridge crossing the Taungthaman lake. I walked about halfway across and watched fishermen standing up to their waists and sometimes their shoulders, in the shallow lake, a crude rod in each hand, regularly catching very small fish and deftly transferring them into a bag behind them. Another person was doing the rounds collecting the fish allowing continuous fishing, alledgedly, all day, and possibly everyday! The bridge was another tourist attraction, complete with rather persistent beggars. Late in the morning we drove out to Sagaing to do a little more pagoda bashing – this time to Kaunghmudaw Paya (like a huge white concrete breast – singularly unimpressive) followed by lunch in the chinese Happy restaurant. This turned out to be one of my most expensive meals at K6000, not helped by being washed down with a seriously tasteless beer, alone setting me back K2200. Definitely not recommended. After lunch I made a stiffish climb up Sagaing hill to the Soon U Ponya Shin paya, giving me a magnificent view of the area including the Irrawady snaking it’s way along the valley. The final visit of the days tour was to a tapestry and puppet workshop where I saw both being made. The “shop” was crowded with all shapes and sizes some very large and all very dusty. I purchased 2 tapestries – my first presents!! The previous evening I had eaten Shan food in Lashio Lay’s (the same owner as the restaurant in Yangon), so for a change I went to the Man Chinese restaurant along 83rd Street where I was hailed by Rob (an English guy from Leeds) who I had met in Hsipaw.
Friday 4 November On Friday morning I took the 9 a.m. ferry north up the Irrawady to Mingun and spent the (extremely hot) morning until the ferry returned at 1.00 p.m. looking around this ancient site. The two most impressive items were the Mingun bell bell at 90 tons the world’s largest uncracked hung bell and the Mingun paya. This paya is huge, built of fire bricks between 1790 – 1819, only the base was completed 70 metres x 70 metres and 50 metres high and this was badly split by the 1838 earthquake producing arguably the worlds largest pile of bricks! The climb in bare feet in the hot sun on steep rough narrow steps was both perilous and tough but was worth it. On my return to Mandalay Oo gave me a quick late afternoon tour of the main sights worth visiting in Mandalay – the Shwe In Bin Kyaung Monastery, the Mahamuni Paya, the Shwenandaw Kyaung monastery and the Kyauktawgyi Paya. The final visit was to a gold leaf workshop where I witnessed a row of young lads (looking like a row of 5 slaves) rhythmically hammering a wooden block with 14 lb hammers, producing thinner and thinner gold leaf to be sold to decorate buddha. Quite amazingly they smiled! See them at work in the video in the Home page menu.
Saturday 5 November A 4.30 wakeup call on Saturday morning and onto the Mandalay to Began ferry scheduled to leave at 6.00 a.m.- and it actually left on time. This was memorable 10 hour cruise with a misty dark start through sunrise into a very hot almost cloudless day. The boat seated about 100 people in large airline style seats in the lower deck. As soon as the boat started everyone gradually left their seats for the 2 upper decks and a bar restaurant. Regrettably this was a tourist only boat and more regrettably government owned. But it was tidy, clean and in good condition, and the only option I could find for my eagerly anticipated trip down the Irrawady As we left Mandalay I had some magnificent views including the Ava bridge (British built in 1934 and still in first class condition) and Sakaing hill. I spent all my time on the upper deck sightseeing and reading and finished off with a light meal in the bar with a Belgian couple who I arranged to meet for a meal later that evening. The scenery was disappointingly unspectacular as the river flowed through a wide plane with little obvious habitation. We made one stop where very few passengers risked embarking or disembarking across to the river bank on an extremely narrow and unsteady plank. The locals did a fair trade in fruit. Oo met me at Began and drove me about 10 miles to a delightful guest house, the Mya Thi Da, in New Bagan. New Began was created about 15 years ago when all the residents of old Bagan were forcibly moved by the military to the “New Town”. Once again for $10 bed and breakfast I had a good clean but dark room in a shaded double row of one bedroomed bungalows facing each other, each with it’s own small balcony. I had a very pleasant evening meal in a Thai restaurant in Nyang U about 10 k north of New Began with the Belgian couple I had met on the boat, plus a German couple and two others. The Belgian guy heiled Hitler, complete with salute, for some entirely inexplicable reason during the meal, and understandably this was not met with universal approval, to say the least.
Sunday 6 November On Sunday Oo took me about a one hour drive to Salay to see the Youqson Kyaung monastery. The building was decorated around the roof with some very finely carved ornamental teak woodwork which is sadly being weathered away. Next in the same town I saw the bamboo budha, Shinbin Maha Laba. This budha was found in the Irrawady in 1888 and restored.The bamboo is plastered and painted but there is a trap door access behind for you to see it’s construction. From Salay I was taken down a long track for about 5 miles to the Sarkjouhla temple dated AD1181. This very old and remote temple in the middle of nowhere contained a number of small shrines with wall paintings going back a few hundred years. They were all kept locked up but my guide soon found someone with a key. I was informed by Oo that other than festival times, few people visited this temple and its accompanying monastery, but it is visited by “the generals” hence the slab of concrete I was shown adjacent to the entrance track was allegedly their helicopter landing pad. My sightseeing day was completed, on my return to old Bagan, by a visit to an unnamed paya which I climbed up the narrowest darkest stairway onto the top to take a sunset picture over Old Began. I had a pleasant evening meal with the Belgian couple again, but the German couple failed to turn up – what a surprise! The evening ended on a sour note when the Belgians discovered after the bill for the meal had been paid, that they were out of Kyat. To save them embarrassment I gave them 2000 Kyat which would at least to buy water the next day (they were leaving on an early bus to Yangon), but they turned down Oo’s offer to arrange for their euros to be changed at a place he knew was open late, when we took them back in my taxi to their hotel. Oo then asked for 3$ from the Belgians, for the taxi ride which was a few miles out of our way – they obviously didn’t have any dollars so they gave him the only money they had (other than euro notes) – my K2000 which Oo promptly, and with very serious intent, gave to me and was absolutely adamant I kept it He was quite rightly highly offended by their action.
Monday 7 November I spent all the next day truly pagoda bashing, in the morning by car and in the afternoon by pony and trap (horsecart as they describe it) in and around Old Began. In this area there are over 2000 identified archaeological sites, principally fired brick pagodas in the form of Zeddi/stupas or temples. They were built between 850 and 1300 at a similar time to the Hindu Angkor Wat temples in Cambodia and the Christian Rock Hewn churches in Ethiopia.It is impossible to describe each individual site I visited, as there characteristics were frequently repeated in differing detail. Those with access, i.e. not solid stupas, always contained at least one figure of Buddha. The stupas often laid claim to some relic of Buddha – a hair, a tooth, or bones being sealed inside. I walked around inside where possible and also climbed to the top of the outside where I could. The following is a list of those visited in order: Morning – Shwezigon Paya, Htilominio Pahto, Upali Thein, Anando Pahto, Shwegugyi, Mahabodhipaya, Bupaya (a small stupa by the river and one of the earliest shrines), Gawdawpalin Paya, Mimallaung Kyaung, Afternoon – Sulamani Pahto, Shwesandaw Paya, Shinbinthalyaung, Mingalazedi, manuha Paya, Nanpaya.
Tuesday 8 November This was an all day drive to Pyay. We stopped a few miles south of Bagan at a roadside distillery and oil factory – actually a small wooden shack with a very friendly owner. He gave me a full demonstration of how to make weak beer, sweets and a highly alcoholic spirit, all from the juice collected from the male Toddy palm fruit The majority of the days drive was through a mainly forest and scrub terrain. We saw a few small oil fields each made up of half a dozen or so ‘donkey head’ pumps connected together by a small 50mm diameter metal pipe which ran unbelievably precariously along the side of the narrow badly maintained road – not the expected image of oilfields. The only excitement of the day was when we stopped to assist a minibus whose rear wheel had come adrift through the half shaft snapping immediately next to the wheel flange. Our mechanic removed the remainder of the half shaft, which we took with the vehicle driver about 30 kilometres on our route through a totally unpopulated area to a garage (a small shed surrounded by wrecks of all shapes and sizes) in a small village. The guy fired up his ancient single cylinder diesel engine driven DC welder, skilfully aligned the 2 components, tack welded in 3 places, ground a groove between the tacks, welded and grounded out the tack wells and re-welded. The vehicle arrived at our destination (it was from the same company Swallow) later that evening, in full working order
Wednesday 9 November Wednesday was an even longer driving day from Pyay to Chaungtha beach via Yangon. From Pyay to Yangon the scenery changed to the inevitable rice growing fields. We passed a succession of identical military trucks in the morning and, on the outskirts of a village, observed about 15-20 of them parked nose to tail, openly at the side of the main road. All the vehicles were being relieved of ‘surplus’ diesel (siphoned out by the drivers). Clearly one of the principal sources of black market diesel in Myanmar. We had a brief stop on the outskirts of Yangon to fit 4 “new” tyres and check the tracking – it felt inappropriate to ask Oo where the tyres had come from! At the same time we picked up Oo’s wife and 2 young children – they were taking advantage of my 2 days on the beach to have a family holiday. It was claimed this was the first time the kids had been in a car, which partially explained why they were sick for virtually all the harrowing 5 hour journey from Yangon to Chaungtha. The remainder of the explanation lay with the speed of driving and the poorly surfaced (if any) roads. The last 2 hours were in the dark in atrocious driving conditions with long stretches of unsurfaced road and the last hour on a steep, bendy, narrow single track road through thickly forested mountains where wild elephants were known to be a hazard to traffic – particularly in the dark I was told.
Thursday 9 November I am now settled in my bungalow on a superb beach on the Bay of Bengal, my room door and balcony are 10 metres from the sand giving me a magnificent view over coconut palm trees of a sandy and almost deserted beach with a gently rolling sea – nothing like the huge crashing waves of Goa. With the water at high tide only 10 metres away and about 1 metre below my floor level a Sunami would see me totally stuffed. I have spent a relaxing day, walking along the beach, reading and completing the day with a couple of beers and an enjoyable meal.
Friday 10 November With some trepidation I set off today on the hazardous return journey to Yangon – a marginal improvement from the inward journey as it was in daylight. We stopped in the outskirts of Yangon for Oo to drop off his wife and two children. This gave me time to have a very short haircut. We arrived in central Yangon in mid afternoon, where I booked in the Three Seasons Hotel, on 52nd street – a place I had sussed out during my initial stay in Yangon. It is a small 2 storey, 9 bedroomed hotel, with rather dark wood décor, but with very friendly and helpful staff. I am a couple of blocks closer to city centre than in my previous Yangon hotel, the Ocean Pearl Inn.
Saturday 11 November Oo decided I needed to see some real shopping, so he drove me to Bogyoke Aung San market in the centre of Yangon. Previously named by the British as Scott Market, it comprises a number of large tin sheds, selling virtually anything and everything – food, clothing, jewellery and gems, cheroots, lacquerware, furniture, musical instruments – you name it! The tin roofs accentuated the natural heat of the day, and add the hordes of people, made my shopping rather hard work, but I did purchase a few presents. After a cooling lunch the 51st Bar and Grill,
Sunday 12 November For my last day I took a trishaw back to the edge of the town centre (trishaws are not allowed into the centre) and made another visit to the Sule Paya. After a stroll round the very basic shops and stalls, I walked back to my hotel. I had thought whilst I was looking in the shops, I would buy 4 Tiger pint beer glasses to share with the “awesome foursome” on my return home. I had no luck in the shops, but when I mentioned my failed mission to the hotel owner, he insisted on giving me the only 3 Tiger glasses he owned. Only with considerable reluctance, did he accept a few dollars! In the evening I had a superb Chinese meal with Rachel and her father, providing me with the opportunity to thank them for all the valuable help and guidance they had given me.
Monday 13 November It was with some relief that Oo turned up on time, 4.30 am, to take me to the airport. Oo has been an excellent guide and has shown me so much more than I could ever have done on my own. I flew to Doha in an uncomfortable and full plane with poor service – this was by Qatar Airways, promoted as the World’s 5 Star Airline, but not on this run. It took me some time to get through the airport as a) I had to buy a temporary visa for $10 and b) my luggage was lost for about an hour. All that accomplished I ventured out into the scorching heat and took a taxi the short ride to my internet booked hotel in Doha. This is a very strange place with an unreality about it. It seems to be a place of two halves. The area I am in is strongly influenced by the ‘service’ workforce of various nationalities (Egyptian and Indian mostly I think) as shown in the shops and restaurants, looking much like they would in their own countries. A bit further down the road and across the bay is a world of super smart office blocks and hotels. In the former area people are walking about normally, in the latter all you see is the traffic on the wide roads and parked cars in the driveways and enclosed hotel grounds.
Tuesday 14 and Wednesday 16 November Two boring days in a desert city with virtually nothing to offer a tourist either historically or culturally. I was passing a hotel which looked quite smart as I approached it only to be staggered to see as I saw the other side – they were knocking down what gave every appearance of being a modern hotel, but not obviously not modern enough for wealthy oil state.