Archive for May, 2013

Untravel: back where it all began

Tuesday, May 28th, 2013

This trip was much more about spending more time in a place and figuring out everything there was to do in that place. I will get some pictures up eventually.

Mandalay Motorbike Madness.

Sunday, May 5th, 2013

Arriving at the satellite bus station just around sun up was disorienting and disconcerting. The taxi touts immediately surrounded their prey and spewed forth their overpriced promises for transport in non-AC cars and the backs of pickups. Exiting the station and securing transport at a reasonable fare didn’t prove difficult. As for the city proper, Kipling would rise from the dead to burn his writings on the place. All of the colonial grandeur, a sweeping two story sprawl to begin with, was ruined and reconstituted into small living hovels or failing businesses. Of what’s left, there’s naught worth to see. The attempts to rebuild were obvious and pathetic.

The sites in town worth anything are around Mandalay Hill. Traversing the hill’s stairs barefoot isn’t as difficult as travel books make out, especially in late afternoon. Along the way are other shrines and side roads making for an enjoyable exploration. The touts aren’t even very aggressive. From the top, you can see the teeth of the Kuthodaw Paya jutting from the ground below. Inside supposedly houses the world’s largest book. To get to the hill, ask where to grab a pickup for 400ks; be sure to bargain this price. Getting back after sunset is a problem. Walk back the way you came and hope for a pickup, else the taxi drivers will try to get as much as possible from weary hill climbers.

Actually, the only feasible way to glean enjoyment from the sad plunge into modernity that is Mandalay was to leave the city; best way to do that is on motorbike. Renting a car would puncture the wallet of any budgeter and simultaneously remove one from viewing any real locality. The surrounding towns house all the sites deserving pilgrimage. Motorbikes are 8000ks. a day and a liter of gas goes for 1000; two liters is enough for a day trip. Getting around was exceptionally easy. The locals’ main form of transport is motorbike or bicycle, so they are experienced, understanding riders able to avoid ramming the foreigner that accidentally downshifts in the middle of the street.

What to Prepare
1. Several bottles of water, though roadside shops also sell it cold.
2. Protection from the sun and sunscreen.
3. Names of the places to visit in Burmese. Ask your hotel reception to help you with this.

Main Sites
1. Ganayon Kyaung (monastery)
2. U Bein’s Bridge
3. Inwa (aka Ava)
4. Sagaing

Sunrises and sunsets during the dry season can result in disappointment if one expects the sky to transform into the amazing spectacle of renown famous here. The sun will disappear or rise behind the dust clouds in the air not from the horizon; though, it’s still pretty.

These sites can be pushed into one long day or a leisurely two days; sites are 17-21 km away. Begin by riding south out of town on 84th to Amarapura to see the monks’ procession to lunch at Ganayon monastery. The lineup and parade of more than 20k monks begins at 10:15 sharp. Please try to be tactful with your shutterbug activities. How amused would you be if you were trying to eat and someone stuck a camera in your face? Hang about and chat with some of the elder monks after the crowd disperses as some enjoy practicing their English. U Bein’s Bridge is about 5 minutes away from the monastery; sunrise from here or an earlier stroll across the 1.7km (world’s longest) teak wood bridge is also an option. The views from here can be fantastic in early morning or later afternoon. Finish the morning with lunch at one of the roadside places for a few thousand kyat.

The other two areas involve hundreds of stupas and religious sites, so it really depends how keen you are as to how much to see. Inwa (Ava) is another 15-20 minutes away and has the ruins of stupas and temples to explore. The area was Burma’s capital for more than 400 years. Inwa is a large area and the roads are difficult to navigate. Consider it a prequel to Bagan; perhaps slightly more authentic but not as old. Sagaing town has hundreds of golden topped stupas along the tops of hills and makes for some fine viewing. Later in the afternoon, the gleaming reflections from the top of Sagaing hill along the Irrawaddy are stunning. The hill can be accessed by a small gate immediately on your left after turning into the roundabout hill road that spirals towards the top. Identify it by looking for the tin overhanging shades to keep the sun off. The locals use this way free.

The riding itself is scenic. You will pass through small villages beside the Irrawaddy. Mandalay is worth it if you are adventuresome enough.

On the way back up 84th, stop by the J&J Beer Station for dinner. It’s always slammed with people and the beer drinkers find foreigners eating at their place amusing. Drink only Myanmar Beer, though. The ABC, Dagon, Mandalay Beer and other beers taste like laboratory experiments, not brewed beers.