The road from Mandalay

Big book reader

Big book reader

I’d intended to wake really early and see the Buddha being washed at the Mahamuni Paya, but despite an early night I just wasn’t up to a 3am rise. Instead, I got up at 7, had breakfast and took a trip up to Mandalay Hill.

There are covered steps leading all the way up to the top with various pagodas on the way. A couple are quite basic, though the upper couple have some tall Buddha statues. The topmost one stands with his arm outstretched pointing to where Mandalay was to be built, and now stands.

If you’re lazy, you can now be driven up to the top via a relatively new road, but that takes the fun (and sweat) out of it.

Book storage

Book storage

At the bottom I snapped a picture of a wedding couple – it seems to be the season for it – and next stopped at the Sandamani Paya which contains 1774 marble slabs. Each is housed in its own mini-pagoda and is one page (well, two – they’re carved om both sides) of the Suttavinaya Abhidhamma, part of the teachings of Buddha. There’s a similar pagoda mearby which is far better maintained and which contains the Tripitaka canon. It’s also on the $10 ticket which I wasn’t wanting to pay and which my driver was happy about.

*pointy pointy*

*pointy pointy*

My next stop was at the university. The owner of the guest house I’d stayed at in Bagan had studied here and told me I must see the central building as it’s a great example of British colonialism – all huge columns and impressive steps. See it, I did. Get pictures, I did not. I was hastily shoo-ed away by the gate guardswho obviously mistook me for an anti-establishment oik with a penchant for blowing up educational structures with my laser canon cunningly disguised as a small camera.

It was nice, though. Honest.

Aw, ain't she sweet?

Aw, ain't she sweet?

I’d also wanted to go to the Shwe In Bin Kyaung in the “monk district” but my driver was after another 1000K to go there and I already felt I’d been overcharged for my morning as it was. It’s fun being driven around in a 45 year-old converted Mazda van, but the pleasure is only worth so much.

As such, I was back at the Royal somewhat earlier than anticipated. I was going to have a shower, but I’d left a near-ful bottle of gel in the bathroom the previous day and some bugger had nicked it. Instead, I walked off out to check my email, grab some lunch and organise a motorcycle to get me to the bus depot.

The bike came to 2000K, the lunch to 1800K (thick spaghetti-like noodles in a chicken curry sauce… served cold) and the internet to 800K. As it always seemed to, regardless of how long I was in there.

Going... up

Going... up

I finished off with a 500K orange drink from the stall I’d visited the previous day. By the time I got back to the hotel my motorbike was waiting for me. I was at the bus way before check-in time, loaded on with my luggage and we departed on the pip of 5pm.

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Film and a walk

Cover of "Eagle Eye"

Eagle Eye

I had a nice lie in this morning till after 8am (wow!), devoured breakfast and walked around the corner to the cinema. I’d noticed last night that the sign for Transporter 3 had been taken down, but it seems they always change the films on a Friday and always have an English one on as the early showing at 10am. The “new” film was Eagle Eye which fortunately I’d not seen, so I paid 1200K for a cheap seat (1500K gets you the balcony) and picked up some snacks.

Myanmar is the first country to fail my “Coke and popcorn” test for the cinema. Everywhere I’ve been, a medium Coke and popcorn has cost approximately the same as a cinema ticket. The UK, Singapore, Bangkok, India… everywhere. Mind, the problem here is that they don’t actually sell Coke or popcorn. Still, my bottle of water and packet of baked potato things came to 600K rather than nearer 1000K. Actually, the going rate for a can of Coke in Myanmar is 1100-1200K so if I had been able to buy one then the theory would have buoyed out!

The cinema was a little scruffy – obviously based on the old “proper” cinemas back home, but upkeep of the decor hasn’t been their priority. However, it’s comfy and the sound and picture quality are perfectly fine. There’s a no smoking policy, but there’s still the usual “chat away if you want to” rule that seems to be endemic in SE Asia. At least there are no mobile phones – I think I’ve seen three people use them in my entire stay in the country.

Another clue that the building was British-based (possibly even British-built) was my first encounter with stand-up urinals in male toilets since I arrived in Myanmar. Normally it’s just a collection of toilet stalls.

As in Thailand and India, the national anthem is played at the beginning of the film. A “warning” appears beforehand that “Loyal citizens will respect their nation’s flag”. Everyone rose as the grainy footage of a flickering flag (it looked like something from Thunderbirds) flashed up… and then they sat down again without waiting for the clip to run its full length. The film was decent enough with only two pauses as the power went and was switched to generator and back. The audience reaction was muted enough that this is obviously a common occurence.

Once outside, I was flagged down by a tri-shaw driver in a Man U shirt (what else outside of Manchester?). We ended up talking for half an hour in the sun. Like most Burmese, he’s not happy with the way the country is currently run and wishes the British were back in charge! He obviously doesn’t know what a state our own country is in… Mind, at least we have free education (he’s got 2 daughters of school age), reliable gas and electric, clean water, paved roads, hospitals…

At around 13:00 I started walking, my planned destination being Mandalay Hill, though the guy I’d been talking to told me to go in the morning. The officers on duty often don’t start checking for the $10 tickets until afternoon when most tourists head up to watch the sunset. I decided to circumnavigate the palace walls, but grossly underestimated the distance. It’s huge!

Halfway along the south wall, I saw a bridge over the moat and thought it would be nice to cross over and walk close to the walls themselves. Tourists can only enter from the east entrance, but I was only interested in seeing the outside. As I crossed the bridge, one of a handful of men in uniform stood up from his desk and approached. I smiled pleasantly at him and received:

“Grunt!”
“Hi, is it possible to walk along the wall here?”
I finger-mimed walking and pointed along the wall.
“Grunt!”
I pointed back over the bridge and round to the north.
“I walk that way?”
“Grunt!”

No pointers, no directions, no smile, no nothing. And he wasn’t even speaking, he was – in honesty – grunting. I’ve heard enough Burmese to know when I’m getting instructions and when I’m getting low-brow Neanderthalese.

“OK, f*ck you very much”

I smiled and waved as I turned. “Goodbye! Arsehole!”

Well, if they can’t be polite to me… It seems they either pick the naturally brain dead to envelop in their uniforms, or beat their IQs out of them. I suppose if you’re willingly kow-towing to the authorities here you have to be some kind of moron. Or the schoolyard bully.

By the time I approached the north-east corner it was around 14:30. I referred to my Lonely Planet and discovered that the post offices in Myanmar close at 15:30 and don’t open on weekends. The postcards I had in my bag had to go today, so Myanmar Hill would wait till tomorrow. I walked on to the north-west corner and down the western edge to 22nd Street where the office was very easy to find. It’s got two huge red postboxes outside that look like they’re made of brick and the door is bracketted by sturdy white pillars. Again, definitely some British influence.

Here’s a doozy – compare the postage rates here with, say, Denmark. In Copenhagen I paid – at the current rate of exchange – just shy of £1 Sterling per stamp to send cards back to the UK. Which is insane. Here, it’s 30K. Which at the official rate of exchange is approximately $US5 or £3-ish. However, only people who get caught out and change currency at the airports get that rate. I got approximately 1000K per US Dollar which means my stamps were nearer 3c or 2p each. If I’d had time I’d have sent 100 of the things. As it was the postcards were only 10 for 1000K!

Cards posted, I headed south towards the guest house. I stopped on the way at a street stall that was doing cold fruit drinks. I’d caught sight of one that a customer had – pink and with coconut shavings on top, filling up an old-fashioned pint glass with a handle. 500K got me a strawberry whatever-it-was. From what I saw, it was made with chopped and pulped fresh fruit, plain yogurt, ice and sugar with the coconut shavings all over the top. I watched someone else attack theirs so I knew how to drink it – first you stir it with a spoon (provided) then eat it by scooping it out. Very, very nice indeed. I will be having one more tomorrow! Maybe orange this time.

Back at the Royal, I had a shower (cold, again) and worked on the video I’d taken yesterday. I’d skipped lunch, but the restaurants seem to liven up as darkness falls so I thought I’d wait till around 18:30 before I picked somewhere to eat.

Tomorrow would be an early, and very long, day.

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Around Mandalay

Look at that hair!

Look at that hair!

I was up for the now-standard Mayanmar guest house breakfast just after 7:00 and was joined by my Slovenian friends (Anya and her boyfriend, who’s name I forget and for which I apologise profusely as ever). We jumped into the blue taxi they’d pre-arranged with our first stop being the Mahamuni Paya. This is the most venerated of the Paya (Buddhist temples) in the area, the centrepiece being a large Buddha statue which has had so much gold leaf pressed onto it for luck that it now looks almost disfigured.

The two men in our group were waved up some steps where we were handed some of the gold leaf which we pressed in place (for 200K each), then given a sprinkle of holy water for luck. Unfortunately, Anya couldn’t join us as women aren’t allowed onto the main dais. This is fairly common in a lot of the religious buildings in Myanmar.

Lots and lots of teak

Lots and lots of teak

We next stopped at U Bien’s Bridge in Amarapura a few kilometres outside of Mandalay. This is the world’s longest teak bridge measuring 1.2km or 1.3km, depending on whether you believe Lonely Planet or our taxi driver. Most tourists gather here for sunset, but we’d decided to stop by as there is more to see in the area during the day. We walked the length and back as locals asked to have their photos taken with the very tall man and the other man with the strange beard.

It’s an impressive structure though it wobbles a little in places. Some of it is open-sided, some stretches have wooden guard rails and one length has concrete barriers at the sides. You can see the ground and water beneath your feet for the entire length of the structure, though. Unnerving if you don’t like that kind of thing! During wet season I’d guess that the water is very close to the underside of the bridge. Right now, a lot of it was green.

Relaxing as dad paddles

Relaxing as dad paddles

At 10:00 we ensured we were back over the bridge and at the nearby Ganayon Kyaung where it was feeding time for the monks. Which sounds a bit weird, but you when you see around 1000 monks queuing up for lunch you can agree that it is indeed a bit weird. Well, I suppose you have to feed them somehow. Inevitably, this is a huge tourist draw and the place was quite busy.

Many foreigners were armed with cameras the size of me forearm and didn’t think twice about standing in front of everyone else (and the monks) and jamming the lens into some robe-clad novice’s face. The temptation to “accidentally” bump into one or two of these idiots in the hope they dropped their precious Nikons was strong. The monks were remarkably tolerant about the whole thing, but then… they’re monks. That’s what monks do, I suppose.

Millions of monks

Millions of monks

After lunch – theirs, not ours – our driver next took us to Sagaing. This is another nearby town, this one filled with stupas (over 500 of them) and temples many of which are up a lot of steps on the multitude of peaks within the town limits. We scaled one of these for the view which was very impressive. A shame that the air around here is rather nasty so there was a permanent haze from the middle distance onwards.

Back at ground level, our driver took us to lunch near the river. Food was good and plentiful for a very low price, and I got to play with a scruffy puppy. We had to get a boat across the river to Inwa (1000K return) and then a horse-cart to lug us around the sites (4000K for two people, they happily took three for 6000K). You do need the cart, though – it’s quite a sizeable place and on foot you’d be all day.

Cheap seats

Cheap seats

Some of the sights require the $10 ticket with Anya’s partner had, but neither she nor I did. The teak monastery of Bagaya Kyaung is one of them, so he headed in while we milled about outside. He didn’t sound overwhelmed when he came out, to be fair. Next up was the old watchtower (free admission) which is now rather squint as a result of an earthquake. It’s structurally sound (probably) and you can get right to the top for some nice – though hazy – views.

The final stop on Inwa was an old temple or monastery. Anya managed to sneak in as the person checking the tickets wasn’t being too fussy, but I stayed outside and played with a few of the local kids instead. They’ve got a line of asking for “stylo” then “shampoo” then “bon-bon” or “parfum”. For some reason all these requests are in French. As ever, I denied them completely but had great fun mucking about for twenty minutes or so before my Slovenian comrades returned.

Sunset and monks

Sunset and monks

Partway round, we bumped into a Canadian girl – Nada – who’s working at a university in Busan, South Korea. As it happens she’s half Croat, half Slovenian and in eight years living in Asia hadn’t met anyone from her maternal homeland before. We all met up in the restaurant where we’d had lunch back on the other side of the river and chatted for a while.

Nada hopped on her hired motorbike while we boarded our taxi thinking we were going back to the hotel. However, our driver had assumed we wanted to see the sunset back at the teak bridge, so there we headed. And bumped into Nada again. We walked the length of the bridge again, but this time settled down for a beer at the far end before returning as the sun dipped below the horizon.

This time we did actually head back to the guest house where the Slovenian contingent had to grab their bags and leg it to the bus station for their trip to Bagan.

His jokes must have been bad

His jokes must have been bad

I decided to spend the evening seeing the Moustache Brothers, a comedy troupe who the ruling body really don’t like. To the point where two of them have done hard labour for, basically, poking fun at the Generals who hold the country at gunpoint. Fortunately, all three are currently free though their performances are limited to being within the bounds of their own home and only to foreigners. The fact that so many outsiders visit is probably the main reason they’re not being locked up again. The performance lasts just over an hour and costs 8000K these days.

*chugchugchug*

*chugchugchug*

On the way, my trishaw driver dropped me off at Aye-Myit-Tar (number 530, 81st Street between 36th and 37th Streets) for dinner. I have a feeling this may be a charity restaurant of some description as all of the staff were young boys maybe around 14-18 years of age. They were also all very good-natured, polite and liked football! I went for fried chicken and was astounded when this resulted in no fewer than nine plates, dishes and bowls being placed in front of me. I mixed and matched the various sauces, vegetables, gravies and spices with my rice and ate until I couldn’t force anything else down. And there was still as much left as I’d already eaten. The bill, including a drink, was a ridiculously low 2500K.

And on to the show. When I arrived I was greated by Lu Maw, one of the troupe and the centrepiece. He’d run the show single-handed while his brother and cousin were incarcerated. He’s a really bouncy guy with a ton of charisma and he loves to show off all the souvenirs and bumph they’ve collected over the years. Aung San Suu Kyi watched one of their shows shortly before being placed under house arrest and her picture is displayed in a few places – which in itself is probably an arrestable offence.

Inwa

Inwa

The show itself, though, wasn’t really that great. It’s a mixture of traditional Myanmar dance/music and some political stand-up which isn’t really that hard-hitting once you already know the state of the country. The dance and so on just isn’t my thing and I guess I prefer the likes of Mark Thomas for my anti-establishment giggles, but then Mark Thomas has never faced hard labour with drug traffickers just for telling the Labour government what a bunch of idiots they are. On this score I certainly can’t find fault with Par Par Lay, Lu Maw and Lu Zaw. It was a pleasure to meet them. And I’d still recommend you go and see the performance. After all, it’s only my opinion.

Another thing that was brought up by a tri-shaw driver I spoke to was that they now charge 8000K per show. Once upon a time, it was a $5 donation. His issue was that these guys are now making a fortune from tourists, but it never seems to trickle out of their hands and down to the poor. Of course, maybe they’re saving up for lawyers for the next time they’re arrested.

By now I was nodding off and was glad to be tri-shawed back to the hotel by my friendly driver. Time for a quick read of Jules Verne and a good night’s sleep.

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Road to Mandalay

Broom

Brrrrrruuummmm

Well, I just had to give this item that title, didn’t I? I was up at the crack of dawn again to get an early breakfast and gather the last of my things. As I waited for the bus, I played badminton with the young daughter of the guest house owner before she was rushed off to school.

Just after 7:00 the bus appeared and I jammed myself into seat 9 for the bumpy ride east then north. Overall, it was pretty uneventful. At our lunch stop, I shared the packet of biscuits I’d bought with a hungry dog. For the rest of the trip I just fidgetted, listened to Hatebreed on my MP3 player and became happier once we hit the main Route 1 and I could read again.

We got to the Mandalay bus terminal at around 15:30 and I was ushered straight onto a motorcycle. It cost me 2000K to get to the Royal Guest House as recommended by both Lonely Planet and the owner of the Pyinsa Rupa. Nice enough place, and at $5 for the room with a separate (hot) shower wasn’t a bad deal.

Some of you may have been lucky enough to get an email today. There’s a cybercafe locally which has a connection running at a tolerable speed. It’s the Cyber P@lace on 80th street, just up from the cross street that the hostel is on. When I logged on, I had over 150 emails waiting (plus 289 spams) so if you didn’t get a reply then you’ll have to wait until I’m in KL next week. Sorry!

Mandalay is numbered like most big American cities – all the streets have numbers rather than names except for a handful which have both. The higher numbers (60-ish upwards) run north/south and the lower numbers east/west. As each corner I passed seemed to be well labelled, it does make getting around a little simpler. Then there’s the constant offers of transport – tri-shaws, bikes, taxis and just guides touting for business for today or the next day.

Rock God

Rock God

For dinner, I stopped at a street place more or less opposite the ET hostel around the corner. Indian food knocked up on a couple of coal-fired stoves. My chicken biriani came to a whopping (not) 1500K and was enough to fill me up. I ended up having two discussions with people while I was there. One an obvious Muslim chap with the acompanying beard who asked if I was Muslim because of mine. When I said I wasn’t he then tried to convert me.

The second was an English teacher who’d lived in Mandalay all his life. He teaches nearby and – it always seems to come up – is also a Muslim. Like all Myanmarans (is that the adjective?), though, he’s just pleased to see tourists coming to visit his country and he was very interested in my opinion of it so far.

Back at the hotel I got chatting to a Slovenian couple who’ve booked a taxi for tomorrow to take them around quite a few of the sights. They were looking for someone to split costs with and I’ve happily jumped in. 15,000K for the taxi for the day, split three ways. Not bad.

So my rough schedule is: the surrounds tomorrow, cinema (really!) and Mandalay Hill on Friday with perhaps the Moustache Brothers in the evening, and up very early on Saturday to see the golden Buddha down the road being washed at 4am followed by a trip to the island off to the west. My bus back to Yangon is already booked for Saturday evening.

For those interested, there are now three buses heading from Mandalay to Yangon each day. They all take roughly 12 hours (although it could be up to 15) and they depart at 15:00, 17:00 and 17:30. This means that if you catch the first one, you could get to the bus station in Yangon then catch a short taxi ride to the airport in good time to check in for the early Air Asia flight to Bangkok. Had I known about this earlier, I’d have stayed in Yangon a day more back at the start of the trip and done that instead.

Ah, well. Then I’d not have met Mark, Anna and Michael!