Monday, July 30, 2007

Yangon to Mandalay

Aside: whatever happened to 2-in-1 shampoo and conditioners? I’ve been looking for them for months, they don’t seem to exist any more? Did they go the way of Shake n’ Vac? What is a man supposed to do, damned if I’m carrying two bottles into the shower (and on AirAsia’s luggage weight limits)!

Back to Burma! According to LP, the V&A museum in London apparently has a better Burmese collection than the National Museum here in Myanmar! I must investigate when I’m back in the UK. Burma gained independence from Britain in 1948.

So tired, so very tired!

Bright and early, we take a 6,000 kyat taxi to airport, and manage to buy Thuzar a ticket. She pays about half what I paid, of course. Not being a pro, she lets people take her wheely bag off her, roll it about 5 metres forward, then demand tips, and ends up having to tip about three people getting through the bloody check-in procedure, then we wait, in a sleep-deprived daze. Finally we walk out and are on to the plane, it’s a fairly small ATR turboprop. We do have allocated seats – for each plane they have a sheet of stickers which the check-in people peel off and put on your boarding pass. There’s water dripping from ceiling on to me, but luckily the flight’s not full so we move after take-off. And then sleep!

Arrive, and then it’s an hour taxi, yes an hour, for 15,000 kyat (extortion) into Mandalay, as it’s 45km away! Why oh why did they build this (newish) domestic airport so far away? There’s nothing in the area, and vast amounts of countryside between the city, where 99% of passengers must originate, and here. Myanmar madness!

Driver left his TomTom at home

Mandalay is Myanmar’s last royal capital, the country’s second city, but is only 150 years old. It sits on the banks of the Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy) River, 695km north of Yangon. The city is home to 60% of the country’s monks, and is quite pleasant, although Orwell’s Burmese Days says this: “Mandalay is rather a disagreeable town – it is dusty and intolerably hot, and it is said to have five main products all beginning with P, namely, pagodas, pariahs, pigs, priests and prostitutes”. It is also one of the places that my Grandfather, Tom, captured from the Japanese in WW2.

The taxi drops us at the Royal City Hotel, where the rooms are 20$US per night, or an extra 5 for a bigger nicer room, which of course I go for. They seem to be incredibly over-staffed by young girls, there must be about 10 of them flapping around reception, grabbing bags off you etc, but they’re all very friendly, and a family atmosphere pervades.

We never did manage breakfast here!

Thuzar’s Samsonite wheely bag locking mechanism (one of those little 3 digit combination locks that the two zippers clip into) has died. She’s convinced she knows the code, but it doesn’t work. I raise my eyebrows and do everything I can to imply that she’s just being dappy and has forgotten the code. What would one do in England? Take it to a registered Samsonite dealer, have it sent off, back a month later with a fantastic bill for labour and parts?

Not here, where within 15 minutes we have a chap round to the hotel, who opens the bag (does require brute force for one of the zippers), takes it away, and an hour or so later, brings it back repaired for 2 pounds. Thuzar’s not happy as the repair is a bit heavy-handed – there’s now a bolt sticking out of the lock, but it works!

We head out to the Green Elephant restaurant not far away, which is nice but totally empty apart from us, sitting outside in the bamboo-covered areas.

A Green Elephant indeed!

As is apparently the custom here, we have at any one time two or three members of staff staring at us, watching us eat. Very un-nerving.

Fish curry, veg, and a bamboo shoots dish

Next we headed over to Mandalay Hill, skirting the large Mandalay Palace, with its enormous moat.

See the hill on the right in the distance

The hill dominates the town, and is covered with shrines, both Buddhist and nat. The usual way up is to taxi almost to the top and walk the last few steps. Not us! At the base, we have to remove our shoes. Already? We’re not even entering a temple! Doesn’t matter, it’s a holy place. I can imagine as British troops marched up, liberating as they repelled the Japanese, the locals would leap out demanding that troops took their boots off, and offering to store them at the bottom (for a small fee of course).

The long climb starts

The story behind the hill is that Buddha climbed Mandalay Hill on one of his visits to Myanmar, accompanied by his disciple Ananda. At the top, he prophesised that a great city would be built below the hill in the 2,400 year of his faith, which equates to 1857, the year King Mindon Min decreed the move from Amarapura to Mandalay.

Looking down over Mandalay and the Ayeyarwady River

The steps are pretty dirty going up, but at least dry. It’s hard going, but the climb is broken by many temples, some with sizeable Buddha statues towering high. Higher up, there are beautiful views over the plains and Ayeyarwady river. Mandalay is incredibly green – looking down on it, one wouldn’t believe there was a city in amongst the trees.

Incribed arches

Flowery mirrors

There is supposedly a monument to the British regiment that retook the hill from the Japanese in 1945, but disappointingly I can’t find it.

The main stupa

Miniature green people

Looking back across the hill, with palace boat in distance



Worse than the dirt on the steps up, up here at the top there is broken glass everywhere on the floor! How can they expect people to take off shoes then have shards of glass all over the place, without even any effort to clean up! The glass is coming from these mosaics of glass on the roof, with the strong wind pulling bits off and showering the tiled floor. I complain but don’t think anything is done. Instead I am charged for a camera permit. Interestingly, in addition to the still camera charge, there are different charges for “movie” and “video” cameras. What is the difference, I query? No one knows.

The top temple

We visit the Two Snake Temple, which takes its name from..

Thuzar and her friends

Supposedly stroking them brings fortune, and also putting ones’ hands into their mouths has significance. Thuzar gets bitten by the surprisingly sharp tongues that they seem to have.

From this vantage point, we can see in the distance the hills that we will head up into tomorrow – Maymyo, or Pyin U Lwin is up there, and so presumably Tom and the British Army came from that direction pushing the Japanese south.

The easy way up, and the Shan hills behind

Down the steep dirty steps, and then shoes back on. Frankly, if they’re going to let all of these temples be so filthy and insist on shoes off, they should also have some means of washing your feet when you come out before putting shoes back on. Since when was the Lord Buddha so bothered about whether people have shoes on anyway? I’m sure he’d care more about them keeping the place clean and not allowing tat sellers to hassle you all the way into supposedly holy places.

No taxis about, unlike Yangon where as soon as you walk up to the road one is waiting. Eventually we are taken in a tuk tuk thing round to the 78 Shopping Mall, a small (but possibly the biggest) mall near the train station. We have dual objectives here – trying to use the internet, and buying some fruit. Internet first. There’s a café upstairs. We go in, but the girl says the internet only seems to be working between 9am-11am and 7pm-9pm at the moment. She doesn’t know why. We’re welcome to use the computers anyway. Err, no thanks. Much as I’d like to spend all day playing Minesweeper..

Instead we enjoy iced cappuccinos and some cake in the attached café. Thuzar orders noodles which are incredibly damn spicy, I pick out about 5 chopped chillis from one portion! My gyoza are safer, although Thuzar doesn’t like them. No problem, more for me! Downstairs in the supermarket, we buy fruit with dollars as I’ve almost run out of kyat – we pick up apples, plums, some juice, and some essential (apparently) female beauty products.

Tuk tuk back to the hotel, and given no sleep for two days, we sleep early!

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