Photo trip report (Sept 2014): Mandalay

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Photo trip report (Sept 2014): Mandalay

Post by Burmacuda » Mon Sep 29, 2014 11:03 am

It was time to leave the eclectic streets of Yangon and head north so I decided that a better way to see Burmese life would be from the open window of a train rather than a night bus or flight. The ticket cost just under ten dollars for ‘upper class’ which was one up from a wooden bench, and the ride to Mandalay was an estimated 15 hours. Trundling out of Yangon Central at 6am I was thinking to myself that this won’t be so bad after all.

Three body bouncing hours later it arrives at Bago where half the Burmese army gets on board. Trains in Myanmar don’t glide over the rails as they do in Japan or Malaysia … they jump, hop, sway and bounce along like some medieval Mexican low rider, and you’ll find yourself literally airborne on several occasions. Needless to say a machine gun clattering over the floor of the carriage every time it goes loco raises a few eyebrows.

I’m not even going to mention the water-less toilet except the words bouncing, box, hole and floor. Anything more than a number one wasn’t possible for 15 hours – and even having a pee was a feat of acrobatic balance and marksmanship.

Passing through the military capital of Naypyidaw reveals huge seemingly empty housing estates, runway-like eight lane highways with no traffic on, going nowhere, and the cleanest (and quietest) station in the country.

The landscape is miles of flat rice paddy which shimmers myriad shades of green as the sun drops in the late afternoon. It is the land that time forgot, kids play in muddy streams, buffalo pull ploughs across furrowed fields, people use the tracks as a footpath, golden pagodas dot the countryside, and ramshackle thatched sheds nestle under solitary trees in the plains of central Myanmar.

I grab a couple of tins of warm lager as I take in the surroundings, monks get on board at various stations to collect alms and bless the train, and vendors with all manner of fruit turn the sardine tin carriage into a mobile market. Grubby kids would follow the train as it slowed into stations hollering something incomprehensible, which evidently instructed the passengers to donate their empty bottles by hurling them out of the window – nothing goes to waste here.

As darkness falls and an orange slash rips through the western sky looking like the discarded robes of a monk, the hulking Shan hills to the east turn hues of deep green into foreboding black. A void of utter blackness soon descended, illuminated only by the twinkle of village fires and the occasional fairy-light adorned chedi off in some remote place. The final 2-3 hours into Mandalay were a bit of a slog, I was totally trained-out, and would probably be dreaming of aircon busses that evening.
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To follow: Around Mandalay

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Re: Photo trip report (Sept 2014): Mandalay

Post by Burmacuda » Wed Oct 01, 2014 1:06 pm

Not every day on the road is an adventure waiting to unfurl and offer wild new experiences. Today for example is the second time on this trip I've had a bad belly and need close proximity to a comfortable latrine (five feet away at the moment). Coupled with a slight fever, zero appetite, and feeling utterly depleted I reside to a day in my room in Mandalay to catch up on this trip report. It is at times like these that travellers yearn for the comforts of home and the loved ones they left there.

My first introduction to Mandalay wasn't the best, a walk through a muddy market and a sweltering struggle through a grid of identical looking streets back to the hotel suffering from stomach cramps. There are very few eateries around and a virtual blackout after sunset, street lights it seems are state-of-the-art in Myanmar and few and far between.

Day two was infinitely better as I opted for two wheels instead of two feet, Mandalay is a vast sprawling city covering great distances, the palace alone takes 2.5 square kilometers out of it. Walking around is a bad idea which is probably why you’re constantly hounded by taxi touts.

U Bein's Bridge
After getting some maps and ride tips from Zach at Mandalay Motorbike I head south to the former capital of Amarapura and U Bein’s Bridge, the longest teak footbridge in the world, and one of Myanmar’s most photographed sites. The bridge spans around 1,300 meters across Lake Taungthaman which was full as it is still wet season. There were a few tourists around but not the usual hoards so I managed to get a few decent shots during my walk across the lake and back.
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To follow: Sagaing and Mingun

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Re: Photo trip report (Sept 2014): Mandalay

Post by Burmacuda » Thu Oct 02, 2014 8:17 am

Riding on I cross over the mighty Irrawaddy (now named Ayeyarwady) River and into what can only be described as a fifteenth century monastic hill retreat –Sagaing. A countless number of stupas dot the hillocks amidst an almost Mediterranean feeling cluster of buildings, alleys, stairways and monasteries that is home to around 6,000 monks.

I continue north hugging the river on its western bank through bamboo hut villages and tiny fishing hamlets to Mingun where the world’s largest pagoda would have stood had it been completed in the 18th century. Today it is probably the world’s largest collection of bricks, but still an impressive sight with even more impressive views over the river and back to Mandalay from the top.

Technically you need to pay to get in, foreigners need to pay to get into everything in Burma, but nobody asked so I didn’t bother, preferring to give my 5 bucks to one of the local kids for showing me around. There are parking fees also pretty much everywhere that a tourist is likely to go, an assiduous ticket boy will come running over to deprive you of 200 kyat (about 6 baht) to leave your bike there. He will meticulously check your ticket when you return to make sure you’ve paid!

My trusty steed, ‘Doris’ – a Chinese copy 125cc Honda, gets a rear blowout on the way back but help is never far away in Myanmar. A local lad sends his 5 year old son running barefoot back into town for a new inner tube and charges me a dollar for the replacement job – imagine that in the west!
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To follow: Mandalay Hill

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Re: Photo trip report (Sept 2014): Mandalay

Post by Burmacuda » Fri Oct 03, 2014 8:22 am

Sunset is spent at the best place in town; the top of Mandalay Hill where an ephemeral golden light reflects off the pagodas and Buddha images invoking a surreal spiritual sense of heaven on earth if such a thing existed. The view across the river and city below is pretty spectacular too.
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Today I’m heading north, following the river for a hundred clicks or so before taking the first bridge since Sagaing and heading west into Shwebo. The landscape is lush, iridescent green fields still worked manually, buffalo cart plod along the main road link between Mandalay and north Myanmar, and a herd of cows brings what traffic there is to a halt. Busses and trucks drive like they’re possessed by some manic demon of the road, everyone else has all day to get where they’re going. I stop for a gas check as the gauge doesn’t work and a local guy ambles out of the trees and climbs onto the back of the bike rambling on at high speed, I presume he wants a ride to the dusty nondescript village I just passed through so happily oblige, realizing I’d already gone 40kms off course anyway (GPS wont work here since there is no phone signal, internet or maps for the area yet).

After being stopped twice for a 100 kyat (3 baht) bridge toll I’m barreling down a single lane track into Shwebo, which turns out to be an unremarkable town with a few colonial buildings and token pagodas. My detour cost me time so if I was to be back in Mandalay before dark there would be no time for loitering. The ride back was more comfortable though a little tiresome, that is until entering Sagaing where the horizon turns gold and each corner out competes the previous in terms of chedi grandiosity.

I'd covered over 400 kilometers on a steppy so thought I deserved a treat for dinner. Dining that evening was at a swanky resort with one of the town’s best Indian restaurants, Spice Garden, the food and setting was excellent though a little peculiar sitting in this walled oasis whilst just outside dogs scrapped in the street and people lived in squalor along the banks of a fetid black canal.

I cycle over to the jade market near the river today in search of some stones for the better half. Myanmar produces the highest grade jade in the world and this labyrinthine market is the nucleus of dealings, carvings, and trading in the industry - mostly dominated by the Chinese. Abandoning the navigation of the warren like maze of alleys that makes up Mandalay’s jade district I find a local dealer that appears very knowledgeable and end up walking away with a healthy sized amount of greenness that would be worth a fair bit more in the west.
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To follow: Pyin Oo Lwin, Shan State

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Re: Photo trip report (Sept 2014): Mandalay

Post by halfaboy » Sat Aug 22, 2015 7:43 pm

Mandalay is a wonderful place to visit. There is much more to see that you should expect. It takes however a lot of time and initiative to discover this all. Also luck must be on your side.


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Re: Photo trip report (Sept 2014): Mandalay

Post by serendipitytrav » Fri Nov 20, 2015 7:27 pm

Pictures captured by you are really like live. I would definitely recommend others to plan to visit in Mandalay as well.

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