Thursday, April 10, 2014

Myanmar: Bagan & Mandalay

We arrived in Bagan at 4am. Our eight hour bus ride was actually one of the most comfortable over night bus rides we have had. The seats reclined, we had blankets, and we got snacks and drinks. And we arrived on time. We were expecting delays because buses never arrive on time in Cambodia.

Once we got in, we got in the back of a pickup truck taxi and headed to Mya Thida hotel, a quiet hotel in New Bagan. We were totally caught off guard by our first glimpse of the temples. They came out of nowhere and their beauty left us speechless. We couldn’t believe where we were! We kept turning right and left to observe them all in the predawn light. Suddenly, our desire to sleep and shower went away but we knew we had the next few days to explore so we decided to continue on to the hotel.

After settling in and napping for a few hours, we freshened up and headed out to explore in the afternoon. We grabbed a quick and cheap local lunch before securing our rides for the day. We decided on renting bicycles and figured it would be help us stay in shape while getting us from one sight to another. Needless to say, after 30 minutes of biking we realized we should have rented ebikes instead. Lesson learned- don’t try to get in shape after being lazy for 3 months.

It was also really hot. We were advised to stay in between 12-3 because the sun’s heat becomes unbearable. We finally realized why men and women wear skirts in Myanmar, better known as Lyongis. You can get them in many fabrics but for day to day activities most people use cotton. The fabric is tied around the waist and runs down to the ankle. Men tend to fold it up to their knees when it’s too hot. Now we konw why.

Back to our excursion. It was so nice to explore on our own and stop whenever we felt like. We rode from New Bagan to Old Bagan without any real itinerary. When we stopped to look at Thatbyinnyu Pahto, a young man approached us and asked if we wanted better views. Without hesitation, we said sure and followed him. He took us to a smaller, less known temple next to Gawdawpalin Pahto. As a gesture of respect, we took our shoes off before entering and followed our new guide. He helped us climb to the top for the beautiful view. It was just about time for sunset and we had 360 views of the river and the temples around us. We were not alone. There were loads of local kids there and once we said Ming la ba, hello in Burmese, they couldn’t stop giggling and asking us a lot of random questions. It’s amazing how much of a difference an effort to connect in the local language can make.

After enjoying our view, our guide took us to a nearby temple for another sunset view. We felt totally spoiled and like we were living in a dream. Before saying goodbye, Zimoe (our guide) offered to show us some of his art. We happily agreed to look at his work and were blown away and ended up buying a few pieces. We thanked him again for showing us his favorite temples and for providing us with a great first day. After another local dinner, we headed back to the hotel. Once we got back, we met our German neighbors in the room across and discovered they were heading to Mount Popa the next day. We wanted to visit the extinct volcano and asked if we could join them and their friends. They were very sweet and said of course.  

Our day started bright and early at 7:30am. After a quick breakfast at the hotel, we headed off with Sylvia and Jutte and their two friends. We never expected to spend a day with German ladies in their 60s but it was so much fun. The two friends were a bit reserved and cautious because we challenged their definition of normal. But we didn’t care because Sylvia and Jutte made us feel at ease.

Our tour started at a Whiskey distillery outside of Bagan. I have absolutely no interest in Whiskey and took this time to just observe the people and the process. I was amazed people could even try Whiskey at 8:30am! Besides the whiskey, there were vendors selling local crafts, candy and one woman was putting thanaka on guests. Thanaka is a yellowish paste made from ground bark and the Burmese (both men and women) apply it to their face as a form of sun block. Naturally, we followed and got some on our faces as well. Initially, it did have a cooling affect but I’m not sure if it actually protected my skin all day.

Thirty minutes later we were on our way to Mount Popa. Our first sight was a spot 15 minutes away from the mountain. This was the perfect photo op spot because it offered views of the mountain while highlighting how high we were about to go (5000 feet above sea level). After taking in the view, we carried on and arrived at our destination. This sight is definitely not just for tourists. Locals are the primary visitors because the mountain is a pilgrimage sight. There are numerous temples at the base and on top of the mountain. We climbed up 777 steps to reach the top and it was an underwhelming experience for me. The views from afar and the journey were much more interesting than the actual temple.

Once everyone had their fill, we headed back to Bagan. We were all tired and ready for a nap and a shower. Our German friends were done exploring for the day but after a quick rest, we decided to head out for the sunset. This time we opted for ebikes. These motorized scooters were a dream. They were fast and didn’t require any effort from us!

Shwesandaw is recommended for sunsets but it is filled with tourists. We drove around and chose a smaller temple nearby with equally amazing views. The sun started setting just on the time and the views were incredible. We were all silently staring at the sky because we had no desire to do anything else. We also met a lovely couple from England at the temple. They had been to Burma in the seventies when they embarked on a road trip from Calcutta to London in a beetle. The best part of traveling is meeting fellow travelers and exchanging stories from your favorite trips.

We drove back to New Bagan and met our new German friends for dinner. They were so intrigued by our rides that after dinner, we gave them all lessons. It was a little scary but we all had a blast. One of them really enjoyed it and decided to rent an ebike the next day. 

We had an early start on our last day. We woke up at 4:30 in order to catch the sunrise. We got on our ebikes and went back to the same temple from our first day. We didn’t realize we could get there from the main road and ended up taking a dirt road there. This quickly turned into an adventure because a stray dog started chasing us. I think because we woke him up. It was really scary because it felt like he was going to jump on the bike and start attacking us. To make matters worse, our bikes were not steady on the dirt path. When we finally got on the main road, we quickly parked and ran up the temple and climbed up to our seats. While waiting for the sun, we saw the dog come up the steps! We could not believe he followed us in! By this point we were trying to figure out how to scream for help if it came to that.

Luckily, the same kids from the first day also came to catch the sunrise and chased the dog away. The sun started to rise and slowly lit up each temple one by one. It was  breathtaking. And then the hot air balloons started coming up. We just smiled and watched. Ill never forget this sunrise.

We headed back to the hotel for breakfast and mapped out which temples we actually wanted to explore from the inside and headed back out with an ambitious itinerary and a tiny lonely planet map. Our first stop was Dhammyangi followed by Sulamani and Pathyda. All three were very well kept and because we went at an odd time, there was nobody there. We literally had the best temples all to ourselves! Dhammyangi is the largest temple in Bagan. Sulamani is one of my favorites because of the well preserved frescos inside. These murals are from the 12th-19th centuries and were absolutely beautiful and really do transport you to another time.

Pathyda was by far the best for the views. No matter how many times we saw the temples, the view never got old. We had to take a lot of dirt roads to get there and it was totally worth it. This huge pagoda has the largest open terrace up top and is in the middle of the plains. The fact Jenny and I had it to ourselves made the experience even more special.

We finished our day by driving through Old Bagan and exploring the other side of town and the river. After a quick lunch, we left our hotel on a pickup and said goodbye to the temples one last time. We had an absolutely amazing time in this magical city and would highly recommend you go before it is transformed by the tourism industry.

Our trip was slowly coming to an end as we headed to Mandalay, only a short 3 hours away. After settling into the hotel, we headed out for a quick and cheap curry and paratha dinner at a local spot. We didn’t really connect with the city on our first night probably because it was late and things quiet down pretty early in the evening.

Our plan was to take a local shuttle boat across the river for a day in Mingun. We were told the jetty was about 15-20 minutes away so we decided to walk. After walking through the local markets and seeing the hustle and bustle of Mandalay we realized that 20 minutes had already passed but we saw no sign of the river. We asked again and were told just another 10 minutes. It ended up being a good 45 minute walk and we missed our ferry by 5 minutes. The people of Myanmar are extremely punctual.

This is when we met George. He felt bad for us and wanted to help and one hour later, we had our very own taxi for the day for only $20. We spent the hour learning about his city and his life. I am not sure what we would have done if he had not helped us.

Our taxi was a pick up and so we jumped in the back and started our very bumpy but fun ride to Mingun. Mingun is 90 minutes away by car and is known for its unfinished temple. The unfinished temple literally has a pile of bricks inside. The outside frame also has giant cracks from an earthquake. The construction was stopped because of a prophesy that stated the country would be destroyed once the construction was completed. This wasn’t very exciting so we proceeded to the Mingun bell. People say it is the largest working bell in the world and the builder was executed in order to prevent him from making anything similar. We poked our heads under the bell and got some nice photos.

The best part about Mingun is Hsinbyume Pagoda, otherwise known as the white temple. Its wavy exterior is striking and unique. It has seven tiers which represent the seven mountain ranges around Mount Meru, the center of the universe in Buddhism. The view from the top includes the Irrawaddy River and the surrounding hilltops.

On our way back, we stopped in Sagiaing for another great panoramic view and then headed to U Bein bridge. The bridge is laid over Taungthaman lake and is made entirely of teak wood. This was an extra special place for me because it is on the cover of the Lonely Planet Southeast Asia book I purchased two days before moving to Cambodia. U Bein is actually in Amarapura which is only 15 minutes from Mandalay.

The bridge is busy all day since locals use it regularly to get from their homes in Taungthaman village into the city. We arrived around 3pm and crossed over the almost 4000 ft long bridge. Our first stop was Kyauktawgyi Temple. There was barely anyone there aside from a few monks. We decided take some time out and try to meditate. It was a calming experience even if I could only do it for about five minutes. Jenny stopped at ten minutes.

After exploring the grounds and watching a few locals weave baskets, we headed to a lake front cafĂ© to wait  for the sunset. We recounted our favorite parts of the trip and how amazing the whole experience had been for us. And then the sun began to set. It was so bright and golden. The sun just bled in to the sky and we had one of the best views overlooking the lake and the bridge. After we were fully satisfied, we decided to head back but noticed the staff of the restaurant throwing empty coconuts into the lake. They asked us to join and we did along with one of their children. The laughter from that experience connected us all and it felt like a very intimate experience.

When we began to walk back, we noticed a group of monks getting out of a van and heading towards the bridge. Jenny quickly ran to take pictures and then somehow we became monk groupies. They started asking us a lot of questions and we all began to walk on the bridge together. Two of them spoke perfect English and were telling us about their temple in Yangon and their trip to Mandalay. The other tourists on the bridge were staring at us with confusion because they couldn’t understand how we managed to infiltrate the group. It was refreshing to hear that they were just like us and want the same things in life, they just also happen to be monks. Halfway through, they began to head back to their car and we said our goodbyes. This is where we met the pakora man and almost began to cry. 

After we crossed back to Amarapura, we found our driver and headed back to the hotel. What was supposed to be a day in Mingun ended up being so much more. It really goes to show that you never know what will come your way. You just need to be ready to experience it.

Our flight back to Bangkok was late in the morning so we grabbed a quick breakfast at the hotel and then made our way to the free Air Asia shuttle. They don’t advertise this too much but it is such a helpful service.

Jenny and I finally said our goodbyes and it was really hard. We had formed such a close friendship over the last 3 and a half months and had really become emotionally dependent on another during our time in Cambodia. We both left knowing we will see each other again and that we had gained a sister from this experience. 

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