Friday 3 May – Monywa to Myinmu – 78km
Because of the heat we have experienced in Myanmar already, our days have been brought forward in time even more than they were before. So, this morning we were up, packed the bikes, had an early breakfast (kindly put on by our hotel staff) and were on the road by 6:15. Even so it was already into the low 30s! Our route is towards Mandalay but as we wouldn’t make it there in a single day we decided to stop halfway in Myinmu. Just outside Monywa is the world’s second tallest Buddha statue (Maya Bodhi Tahtaung), so although we were a bit ‘Buddha-ed out’ from yesterday’s ‘Buddha-a-thon’, we thought we’d swing past to have a look.
Even before we got to the main attraction there were a number of ornate pagodas near the road. There were also hundred (perhaps thousands – we didn’t count them!) Buddhas amongst some trees – all lined up and with slightly different poses…
Although it’s not quite as big as the Statue of Unity, which we saw back in Gujarat, Buddha is still 130m high and we could easily see it from over 6km away. The central part of Myanmar is fairly flat and this statue sits on the only hill for miles around. Though the hill’s not too steep I still made it look difficult and struggled to get to the top – it may be the heat or the fact that I’m fighting a cold. Anyway, at the statue’s feet it became clear that he’s still pretty enormous and rather nice – and we both liked him. It was also very peaceful there with just a few other people around.
Just in front of the main statue is another one of the same size, but this time in a reclining position.
We also noticed that they are in the process of building a third statue not far away, this time in a sitting position.
So, having paid our respects to Buddha, we were back on the road. In general the traffic was okay – quite courteous in comparison to some of the other countries we’ve been to recently, the drivers stick to their own side of the road and rarely use their horns. This was a main trunk road and the surface was pretty good for the most part. So, all-in-all an uneventful ride….except for the heat! Blimey, it was proper hot – easily into the high 30s by 9:30 and even though we have cycled in similar temperatures in Europe and India, the heat here starts so much earlier in the day. We both suffered, especially towards the end, and the only respite we could get was to stop, order a cold bottle of water, down the lot whilst hiding in the shade and then get going again…repeat! Did we say we were finding Myanmar a bit too easy in the last post?!!
Anyway, we made it to destination and started looking for accommodation. The guest house we tried was full and we weren’t too sure if they took foreigners anyway, so we went on to the only other option. We knew that this one definitely accepted foreigners but they also initially said they were full. That news nearly broke us as it meant we were a bit scuppered….there weren’t any other accommodation options available and the next place was Mandalay, which was over 70km away – no way we could do that in the blistering heat. We sat down started looking for alternatives on our phones in case we’d missed something, when they miraculously found an available room for 30,000khat – well over the going rate, but they knew they had a captive market! We tried bargaining, but to no avail, so we had to bite the bullet and take it.
The room itself was okay and did have the all important a/c, but the bathroom was basically a metal-rooved shed attached to the side of the building. In 40 degrees you can imagine how hot that was! Anyway, we were in, went for lunch, came back and found that the a/c wasn’t working – they’d had a power cut! Fortunately the fan in the room was working as their generator had cut in, so it wasn’t too bad… until the generator ran out of fuel. Within a very short period of time our room was roasting. We enquired what was going on and were told the electricity would be back in an hour, but thought that was just a ruse to get us to poke off – which worked! But surprisingly an hour later the electricity came back on and with it the a/c – hurrah! For the rest of our stay the electricity cut in and out on a regular basis and they had to keep cranking up their generator, which had obviously had been refuelled in thour meantime!
Saturday 4 May – Myinmu to Mandalay – 78km
The road to Mandalay! Supposed to be quite famous for reasons we don’t know about, so we had to look it up. Apparently Kipling wrote a poem with these words at the start and there’s been a couple of films with the name…but in any case we were on that road! To be honest it wasn’t the most inspiring and not a huge amount happened, at least not to us. It was hot, but not as bad as yesterday. Today we got up at 4:30 and were on the road an hour later, so perhaps this extra hour helped, but we both think that it just wasn’t as hot. Even at this unearthly hour, on the outskirts of Myinmu there was a fruit and vegetable market in full swing – just goes to show how early people get up in these parts!
We stopped for some cold water mid-morning and had a lovely interaction with two guys working at a road-side shack, despite their lack of English and our lack of Burmese. One had his toddler daughter with him, who was very cute and we both coo-ed over her, which seemed to make them all happy. The other brought us fresh mango to refresh us – really lovely.
Around 10am we crossed the bridge over the Irrawaddy river and headed north for the last 20km towards the city.
The road was really nice and followed the river along tree-lined roads where people were making bamboo walls for buildings, fencing and baskets. Many of the houses here, especially in rural areas, have bamboo walls. We had a snack whilst watching one guy making them. When Martina asked if she could take a picture he nodded and didn’t even stop what he was doing!
The rest of the approach into the city was pretty uneventful and was rather like cycling through a big park…lots of wide, tree-lined roads which was quite pleasant. It was quite possibly the easiest ride into any city that we’ve had to date, let alone one with 1.25 million people. I don’t know quite what we had expected from Mandalay but this certainly wasn’t even close! I think Martina was a bit disappointed as she expected something a bit more bustling – perhaps a mini Dhaka – but it’s a lot quieter, cleaner and with less traffic. The city is built in a grid and has very wide tree-lined roads and so, in a weird way, almost feels a bit American, but with Asian shops!
One thing that we did notice on the way into the city is that they have lots of crazy road junctions where there is no traffic priority – so basically it’s a free-for-all. He, or she, who has the biggest vehicle generally has right of way – after that it’s all up for grabs! Our hotel is near the centre, though it doesn’t really feel like it is, and when we got there, even though it was only midday we just relaxed for the rest of the day – after all we’d been up since 4:30!
Sunday 5 May – Around Mandalay – 41km
As we’ve been getting up early recently we don’t need an alarm clock on our days off and we were up in time for the start of breakfast at 6:30! We then took naked bikes up Mandalay Hill, which gives great views over the city.
The clue is in the name and there was a pretty tough climb to get to what we thought was the top, where we locked the bikes. It was then another climb, this time up steps, to get to the actual top. We really liked it – even if we were sweating profusely by the time we got there! The hazy views were nice, but it was more the ambiance of the Su Taung Pyae pagoda and the other relaxed people up there that made it for us.
I’m still trying to get to grips with Buddhism – it’s definitely my own ignorance because I know so little about it, but I was under the impression that it was mostly to do with meditation, being a monk, leading a humble life and things being understated and quiet. The majority of Burmese are Buddhist and so, of course, they are merchants, doctors, taxi drivers, etc going about their business whilst at the same time being Buddhist like any other religion. However, the bit about it being understated and quiet is definitely not the case. Since we have been in Myanmar, which is the first predominantly Buddhist country of our journey, we have noticed a couple of things: firstly that the majority of pagodas are quite, how shall I put it, bling?…with a lot of gold and mirrors. Secondly, and this is something we definitely hadn’t anticipated, they can be quite loud – loud speakers with chanting going on, loud music etc. Perhaps Buddhism isn’t the serene religion I thought it was? It feels very much more like Hinduism in its imagery than say Christianity, Sikhism or Islam to me. Though the top of Mandalay hill was quiet in term of sound there was lot of gold, colour and mirrors going on around the many Buddha statues …
Regardless of our musings (and ignorance) we really enjoyed our time at the top of Mandalay Hill and we spent over an hour just chatting about life stuff whilst we were there. As it was in the same area, we scooted down the hill to the Kuthodaw pagoda at the bottom, which is home to the largest book in the world. I think we expected to see an enormous book, but actually the book in question is made up of thousands of large stone tablets (the pages)…
…which are each housed separately in their own white pagodas…
These tablets surround another golden pagoda in the centre of the complex. We were in the process of reading up about the place when we were asked by some monks if we could talk to some children who wanted to practice their English. We said yes and were immediately surrounded by about 20 or so 12-13 year-old kids. They went a bit shy to start so we started asking them questions, which some of them finally plucked up the courage to answer. It was nice to talk to them even if it was only for about 15 minutes…and they were a lot happier in person than they appear in this photo…!
By the time we got back to our hotel it was pretty hot so we stayed in our room until the day had cooled off. We then took naked bikes to the U Bein bridge which, at 1.2km, is the longest teak bridge in the world. Now, I’m not too sure how many other teak bridges there are in the world but apparently this one is the longest! As it’s the dry season at the moment there isn’t much water under the bridge and locals can drive from one side to the other. When the lake is full then the bridge is not just a tourist attraction, but also used by locals to cut out a long detour. It’s rather beautiful even when there are quite a few people on it all trying to take photos – us included! We walked to the middle, took our photos and then walked back – which was enough for us as the sun was going down and we still had to ride back into the city.
Monday 6 May – Around Mandalay – 6km!
The ‘attractions’ in Mandalay are very spread out and so we have been glad of our bikes for transport whilst we have been here. Again we took them out early – this time to Mandalay Palace. The palace itself is more of a complex of buildings that sit in the middle of square grounds, which are surrounded by a wall and moat. We actually had a good vantage point of the entire palace grounds yesterday when we were at the top of Mandalay Hill. Rather bizarrely the grounds are also home to an active army unit, so visitors have to pass guards to enter and exit and are only allowed into certain areas.
Anyway, when we parked our bikes and started to walk towards the palace buildings we came across a long line of monks each carrying a large lidded bowl. Women and children were giving rice into their bowls as well as other food into their hands.
The food was then all taken from them and either put into large containers on the back of a truck (the rice) or large bags (everything else). We had no idea what this was all about so tried asking one of the army guys nearby what was going on. Unfortunately language differences meant we couldn’t communicate, so it’s still a mystery!
The palace was built in the 1800s and was home to 2 kings of Burma, but unfortunately during World War 2 the British came along, flattened most of it and used it as a barracks. Then in the 1990s the Burmese rebuilt it, and to be honest they have done nothing to it since so it’s falling into decay and could certainly do with a bit of TLC! There is a guard tower to one side of the complex which gives great views of the grounds.
It’s also where we were asked for our first selfies for what seems like ages – we obliged of course!
When we finished at the palace, we deposited our bikes back at the hotel and went out to explore the nearby Zay Cho market….trying to get as much in before the hottest part of the day! And THIS was a bit more like what we had expected from Mandalay!
A bustling area with street vendors selling vegetables and fruit, lots of tea stalls and food stalls etc. The main part of the market is indoors and basically as its both wholesale and retail you can buy just about anything and everything.
Though it’s a massive building and has four floors it’s very cramped inside as there is just so much stuff as well as quite a few people. We spent a couple of enjoyable hours squeezing our way around before heading back to our hotel for our mandatory afternoon snooze. We are acting just like the locals in this respect – many of them close up shop and have a rest during the hottest part of the day, so who are we to resist?! One really nice thing happened in the market that shows how nice the people here are….. we were looking for a cafe for a drink and something to eat and couldn’t find one, so decided to buy some local cake and eat it on the go. We ordered 2 pieces and when the young girl behind the count handed it over she said it was a present and we didn’t have to pay for it – how nice was that?!
Whilst in Mandalay we ate a load of different types of food, from Thai and Indian to local Myanmar. The picture below was taken at our favourite – pick n mix Mandalay style…although we stayed clear of the pork brain and intestines…!
Picture of the day award – we’re not too sure where exactly the bike lane was, but at least the intention is right…
A few new observations…
We have experienced lots of electrical power cuts already – more than anywhere else we’ve been – and they happen multiple times each day. But most of the hotels, restaurants and shops have back-up generators that kick in when the main power goes.
Smoking is popular and for the first time we’ve seen lots of people smoking cigars – including women.
On more than one occasion we have heard Westminster chimes ringing out followed by a time bell…we think they are from pagodas (Buddhist temples) and we’re not too sure if they have stolen this from Westminster or the other way around.