On the road to Mandalay

From the two thousand temples strewn across the plains of Bagan to the second tallest Buddha statue in the world*, it’s still temples, Buddhas and more temples for us in Myanmar… 328 days in.

What is it with Mike’s bowels and long bus journeys? Ok, this time the overnight bus journey may be blameless and the stomach bug that I was just recovering from was probably the cause, it’s nearly comical, well as funny as listening to bouts of diarrhoea for days on end can be! Bleary eyed and with churning stomachs (in Mike’s case) we arrived in Bagan at 6 am and on discovering once again that the bus station was 6 km out of town, we eventually relented and took a taxi. Even the hotel receptionist could tell Mike was ill and thankfully our room was available straight away and we could crawl into bed and sleep. 

Bagan is the last of the big ancient Buddhist sites left for us to visit on our trip through Southeast Asia. Having paid the £15 entrance and conservation fee each, we tried to make the most of it in between naps and resting and recuperation for Mike. Compared to the other sites we have visited, Bagan is the least well preserved and you got the impression that restrictions and regulations concerning visitors are only now coming into force and more are needed. Access is restricted at some temples but at others you are still able to climb over them prior to any restoration, however, one of the positives is that tourists are only able to rent bicycles or electronic scooters, not that it stops the locals from driving along the same roads on dodgy home built 92 octane petrol scooters! 

As it was dry season there were daily parades for the boys off to become novices at the monastery

Our routine for sightseeing was get up, visit temples in the morning before it got too hot, rest during the hottest part of the day and head back out late afternoon to see more temples and find a good spot for sunset. It is currently dry season in Myanmar and although temperatures are not at their hottest yet they still often exceed 35 °C, this makes for arid land and a dust filled atmosphere. The dust means that most travellers have a cough and although the sunset has some good colours to start with the sun disappears behind the dusty haze way before it reaches the horizon, it was still good fun to find a different viewing spot each evening and enjoy the views that it afforded of the surrounding temples as the sun dropped. 

Testing out Mike’s and the camera’s abilities to take a good sunset picture

In our ventures out and about, we visited those listed as ‘must see’ in the guidebook and any others that took our fancy en route. The temples that were large enough to visit inside had myriad Buddha statues and a few had wall paintings that were apparently added in the last couple of hundred years. Restoration works are ongoing all around the site, occasionally sympathetically, but mostly without any desire to capture the original beauty. Great big lumps of concrete and a hotchpotch of modern tiles heavily detracted from the feel of the temples. We came away with the feeling that once you’ve seen one temple, you’ve seen them all and they certainly didn’t have the charm of Angkor Wat nor the craftsmanship of Borobudur. What the temples of Bagan do have in their favour is the sheer number of them, when driving around or climbing up one for a sunset view, there are temples as far as the eye can see and therein for me lies it’s beauty and made the trip to see them worthwhile, focus on the bigger picture for now and hopefully one day the finer details will match it. 

Some of myriad Buddha statues we saw, including during his previously unknown years as a homeboy in NYC.

If only Mike’s stomach was feeling better, this would have made for an epic game of hide and seek!

Helping us on our travels is the ‘Rough Guide to Southeast Asia on a budget’, covering 11 countries means that it only features the main must see locations. Perusing through a Myanmar guidebook at a guesthouse we stayed in a few weeks previous was how we ended up in Monywa for the night. In between Bagan and Mandalay, our next destination, we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to visit a 129 metre tall Buddha statue. Monywa turned out to be a bit of a hidden gem (as long as you like your gems unpolished!), being off the typical tourist route meant the locals aren’t as used to seeing westerners so we had lots of smiles and waves and an occasional request for a selfie. Pulling into the bus station our coach was swarmed by locals, clutching the door handle and running alongside us before we had come to a hault. We’re in for a torrent of arms and shouts we thought! Perhaps it was a lack of confidence, or maybe no English, but we were ignored and they went after our Burmese fellow travellers; however, one guy was astute enough and asked us where we were going. He turned out to be one of the nicest tuk tuk drivers we have met on our travels, first he took us to the ticket office to buy our bus tickets for the next day and then to our hotel, the fare seemed perfectly reasonable and he didn’t appear to get paid any commission either, honest taxi drivers do exist! 

We never caught his name but to us he will always be Honest John

The statue is the main sight in town, in fact it’s 20 km out of town so we planned to hire a scooter for the afternoon, however, our hotel only had manual bikes and having only driven automatics before Mike reluctantly agreed and off we went. The Buddha was huge, a giant gold colossus and if it wasn’t for the hazy atmosphere would be visible for miles around. Steps lead up inside it taking you past a series of murals on the walls, which are like a Buddhist horror story, slightly gruesome and not what I expected to find inside, however, as we arrived late in the afternoon we only made it to the fifth floor before turning back as it was closing. 

The last time I saw him he was thiiiss big!

Amusingly after posing for the photo to prove “I can drive a manual bike”, it wouldn’t start!

*In researching the tallest Buddha or statue in the world, no source of information appears willing to give a definitive answer, with some saying that this Buddha is actually the tallest as the Spring Temple Buddha, China, is smaller, but sits on a taller lotus leaf and pedestal and has the Guinness World Record certificate.

Our breakfast the next morning nearly made up for the dingiest and most disappointing room we’ve had in ages, especially as it cost $20, never mind time to hit the road again and we were off on the road to Mandalay. The former royal capital of northern Burma, it felt a bit like Yangon with a grid layout of numbered streets but without the crumbling, mouldy buildings. Deciding to eschew the palace and temples, we’re starting to suffer from temple fatigue again, we headed instead to the gold leaf workshops. Buddha statues are often covered in tiny squares of gold leaf and those that come to worship can add another, I had never previously thought as to how or where these were made but we were soon to find out. Still handmade in Mandalay it looked painstaking work, the men had massive shoulders from heaving the heavy sledge hammer to pound the gold until it’s wafer thin and the women had a crooked little finger from the same repetitive smoothing and shaping of the gold leaf to the correct size. 

Claims Direct would have a field day for workplace injuries!

Thinking that we should at least visit one of the main sights in Mandalay, we caught a pick-up headed in the direction of Mandalay hill. As we are in Myanmar, the hill had a temple on top and a series of smaller ones on the way up, so we left our shoes at the bottom and commenced the 45 minute walk up the hill barefoot. The one annoyance of going barefoot at temples is that your feet are filthy afterwards, although most temples are tiled or paved, the paths could do with a more frequent sweep and mop as you’re often dodging bird poo and spit! After reaching the top and taking a few photos, the view wasn’t great as the dust was still causing a hazy sky, we headed down wondering why this was one of the top attractions in the city. The best bit for me was the motorbike taxi, singular, we took back to our hotel, yes, the driver, myself and Mike squished on a normal motorbike, zooming across town as the sun set.

We left Mandalay slight puzzled as to why people flock to the city, although we did find some good restaurants and were now starting to enjoy Myanmar cuisine and draught beer. Perhaps a few days up in the hills of Shan state would be more our cup of tea?

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