Under the strong influence of Robbie Williams’ song and to a lesser extent the 1 of Kipling’s poem, usually everybody rather refers to the road to Mandalay. Whatever, we´re already in Mandalay, so it’s rather about the way back – to the 3000 pagodas of Bagan, the old capital of the Mon tribe – Bago and to Moulmein, a town in a state of decay difficult to beat. Finally, to the Thai border where we get back to a more modern world in the small town of Mae Sot.
Bagan, 7th November
Early morning on the 4th November we drive to the jetty in Mandalay. We embark on the Malikha 2 Express Boat to Bagan. Well, the boat doesn’t seem to be really an express. It takes some 9h for 190km. Anyway, with a capacity of 110 people there are only 15 passengers on board. So lots of space to spend a lazy day on our cruise ship. Time to observe local transport on the river and the landscape passing by at dawn.
Well, the place doesn’t present itself from its most likable side. A mob of taxi drivers tries to nobble the poor banana pancake backpackers in a quite aggressive way. Unfortunate for them, we’re the only 1 arriving without a babysitter waiting for us. So little chance for them, a few meters from the jetty the situation normalizes. Then another quite strange situation: a toll booth where the poor tourists have to pay a kind of entrance fee of 20$ even if not going to visit any sites. Whatever, maybe Bagan just has received too many tourists in recent years.
The taxi drives us the few km to New Bagan. Of course, we find a watering hole to celebrate our arrival with a couple of draught beers.
The next day. A visit to the famous pagodas of Bagan. There are more than 3000 of them. So we have to carefully select those to visit. To make it easier we decide to hire an old fashioned horse cart. The horse and the guy have already made sightseeing tours over the last 50 years with at least 45 000 tourists. Consequently they help to optimize the selection. And we have to consider many factors.
Not all pagodas are worth a visit. Some of them are decayed to a degree we couldn’t recognize them anymore. Others are so badly restored that they rather resemble to grim Soviet style concrete buildings. A typical example – the famous Ananda Pagoda. No wonder that UNESCO refused for this reason to recognize Bagan as a World Heritage Site. And finally many are simply out of reach of the horse cart.
Nevertheless, still a lot to admire.
… whereas others are more of a tourist attraction.
And finally, there’s the ultimate place to see the sunset in Bagan: the Shwe-san-daw Pagoda. A place we definitely don’t feel alone.
As far as we can observe it must be the only place on earth to admire a sunset. But unfortunately today weather doesn’t look too good. But who bothers for that. These guys high up on the stupa are definitely not discouraged by just a few clouds. Probably they’re still waiting there.
The next day enough of all these highlights in Bagan. There’s more to visit than these 3000 heaps of bricks: Mount Popa some 40km away. A minibus drives us there. Already from far the pagoda on the volcanic rock is visible. But Mt. Popa is not only about volcanoes or pagodas. In addition it’s a place highly related to spirits called nats; thus a place of pilgrimage. Already approaching it, the village nearby reflects this atmosphere.
It’s a steep way up to Mt. Popa. Long stairs of nearly 800 steps; …
Then we´re up.
Everywhere they fixed signboards showing people’s generosity. And here we clearly understand why Trumpy boy should never have been elected US president. This guy donated in 2015 the same amount Vasco da Gama donated in 1514. Some 500 years earlier. Donny, never heard of inflation? Maybe it’s not ur mistake. U simply didn’t understand the issue when learning that at school, or u where busy harassing the poor girl sitting next 2 u?
Back to the pagoda with its endless opportunities to donate …
… and then back to Bagan.
Bago, 9th November
We take a taxi to Bago, some 80km north-east of Yangon. Just 2h drive and at the cost of a couple of beers. Most of the time we drive in heavy rain. Bago, formerly called Pegu, is the ancient capital of the Mon tribe with a lot of important pagodas. Everyone would believe it a major tourist site. Nevertheless, being not too far from Yangon results in a definitely underdeveloped infrastructure for poor backpackies. Our accommodation is ok, but 5km out of town. So we largely depend on some transport, even for a bottle of water.
Considering the continuous rain it’s time for some search on internet concerning the eventual end of monsoon in Myanmar. Astonished we learn that the rains definitely stop in October; thus November is cool’n’dry. We slightly wonder what kind of hot, humid’n’rainy weather we currently have.
Among them the Shwegugale Pagoda. Interestingly you can enter the main stupa and even more astonishing there’s the ultimate proof that even figures on the complex regularly need to check internet on their smartphones.
It’s too hot’n’humid for further walking. Anyway it’s time for a beer and some hot curries in a nearby restaurant.
The next day. Early morning it’s pouring, later just dazzling, wet, hot, humid, etc. For Bago’s must-have-seen-sights we definitely need some transport. It’s a Tuk Tuk – 1 of these Chinese motorbikes where they add a 3rd wheel and make space for a dozen of seriously squeezed passengers.
So the next pagoda tour. Unfortunately the town itself is so ugly nobody would ever waste any time to look at it.
Most important the 4 sitting Buddhas of Kyaipun. 30m high watching all these guys in the nearby town.
Then on to the Shwemawdaw Pagoda. In the middle of the CBD. A part of the old pagoda – destroyed many centuries ago – is now integrated into the new structure.
Then to the real highlight: the Kha Khat Wain Kyaung. A monastery with some 700 – 1000 monks. Every day by 11am they simultaneously have to get hungry. They queue up and wait with their bowl. On the sign of a monk it starts. With the help of quite a number of pilgrims from Thailand and digitized by the few tourists enough courageous to visit Bago the procession starts. They pass 2 huge pans filled with plain rice – each of the monks gets his share.
The monk’s bowls are filled – some by the Thai pilgrims, a few by tourists going native and the majority by employees of the monastery. Then the monks enter the dining hall. They sit around small tables. Add to their staple some meat’n’sauce – and 3’ later all is munched.
The monks are happy – or not so much; the Thais improved their Kharma and the tourists have some pics to get everybody jealous.
Then on to the Bago’s famous lying Buddhas. 1 outdoor, the other 1 indoor.
Kinpun; Golden Rock, 10th November
A 2h drive eastwards to the village of Kinpun. The starting point to the famous Golden Rock. As it is high up in the mountains, only Mountain Trucks are allowed to drive the last 15km. Well, in reality these are ordinary Chinese trucks, with narrow benches on the loading area. Space for 50 persons – if they´re not too chubby. To efficiently load this precious freight there are special ramps everybody climbs up and on the truck.
We do as everybody does and a few minutes later we’re on the way. In his last life the driver definitely has been a car racing champion. Understandably he’s slightly frustrated driving a Chinese truck. Anyway, the passengers have no choice and scream until they get used to his way of driving.
On the top we stay in the Kyaik Hto Hotel. A place still showing clear signs of its former government ownership. Nevertheless, little potential to become a 5* resort, except for its rates.
10’ to walk to the famous Golden Rock. For most visitors and pilgrims quite feasible. Some need a little more comfort. Of course, no problem. Also theses cases are considered.
Then we arrive at the rock. It’s very foggy. Nevertheless, we can see it. Effectively, it’s a rock on another rock with a small stupa on the top. It’s said that the upper 1 is solely kept by 1 of Buddha’s hair. Looking at its fragile position we still think 1 of the monks reinforced the whole thing slightly with some Chinese made Crazy Glue. Whatever, it doesn’t fall during our stay.
Interestingly, this is also the place to observe the influence of selfie sticks on the monk’s daily life. A great opportunity to document his time of hardship and to show it later to the grandchildren.
Opportunities for pilgrims to glue some more gold leafs to the rock.
Then it’s time for sunset!
At least no rain. On the road all the monks asking for alms.
Moulmein, 12th November
Also for us time to say goodbye to this fascinating place, take the Mountain Truck down to Kinpun and then travel on some 150 km to Moulmein, nowadays called Mawlamyaing – no idea how to spell it.
Moulmein. Long time ago it was the 1st capital of British Burma. A stroll thru the town makes clear not only the British Empire has declined considerably; also this proud former capital was visibly buggered. And, the recent boom in Myanmar seems to have bypassed this town.
So the CBD preserves its charm of advanced decay, the imminent smell of mildew, the wet, overgrown walls of houses and the numerous trees growing on the roofs and balconies. Add to this streets laced with garbage, the potholes filled with blackish water from blocked gullies and numerous inhabitants walking absolutely unaffected by these circumstances from Nowhere 1 to Nowhere 2.
And that all looks like Burma some 30 years ago. Nevertheless don’t be scared, don’t be discouraged by all this and don’t be afraid of scabies. It’s a unique opportunity for a walk. And somehow we enjoy it.
Later up the hill behind the CBD. Several monasteries and pagodas are on the top. Of course, we’re still in Moulmein. Therefore these places look rather rundown, in desperate need of some basic maintenance.
In the evening weather improves. A chance to climb to another view point …
… and then enjoy the sunset on the riverside night market.
Mae Sot; Thailand, 16th November
A Tuk Tuk picks us up. At the ferry dock just 1 of these small boats some tourists charter if they don’t want to mix with ordinary people. We’re told that’s the boat and start. Well, an opportunity to observe in a lazy way river life passing by.
To observe the fantastic landscape with the karst rocks and the pagodas built on them.
As promised, 3h later we arrive in Hpa-an. Say goodbye to our boat man and still wonder why we got a boat just for 15$ tourists normally pay a few 100$ for. Whatever, not really our problem.
So today not much to do. A stroll thru the town, watching the sunset …
… and a few hours later the revenge of the Chinese cook. Well – a little astonished to experience that again. We never had such issues on our whole trip thru Africa, Europe’n’Central Asia. Myanmar seems to be the place where all food poisonings concentrate. Of course we’ve heard such complaints from other travellers – but how could that happen to us?
Whatever happens, if somebody tells you about Khit Thit Restaurant – even don’t listen. Should you see it by chance better close your eyes immediately.
Anyway, the whole sightseeing programme for the next day converted into a day of rest at our accommodation. Just to commemorate again Pink’s song Blow Me – I had a …..
… Myanmar immigration 2’, customs – we missed it somehow. Then a walk over the Friendship Bridge and we enter Thailand. Another 2’ for immigration, again no way to find customs and we’re on a Tuk Tuk driving us the 4km to the small town of Mae Sot.
The town has absolutely nothing interesting. Just a few shops with stuff we don’t need and some eateries with Thai food. But for us time for some laundry and for organising the onward trip back to Luang Prabang in Laos.
So far our Myanmar experience as Banana Pancake Backpackies, the next post hopefully again with us as overlanders. Surely Prado already waits impatiently to continue our trip to Punta Arenas, Argentine – at least the next little bit of it.