Mandalay is a weird place. It’s not the beautiful colonial town most imagine but it is much better than the guide books would have us believe.
It’s a dusty, busy city full of motorbikes, smiles and colour. It is a street photographer’s paradise.
We started with one of the best meals of our trip. We were off to see The Moustache Brothers, a comedy act banned during the repressive era and even now only allowed to perform for tourists. We needed to eat before we saw the show and so headed off to a local restaurant. No tourists in sight, which was fantastic. The only free table was sandwiched between two guys who were undoubtedly secret police – menacing, observant – and a large group that included a very drunk young guy, who insisted on coming up and toasting our health with deep glugs of beer. It was a classic night and I’m sure it doesn’t translate well into a blog!
The next morning we were up early to catch the morning trade in the sprawling street market area of town. The photo opportunities came so thick and fast that it was hard to choose. As long as you ask permission, people in Burma are very up for having their photo taken. This woman with her cheroot was my favourite that morning.
And here’s a selection of my other photos from that walk.
On the way back, we had our best luck of the holiday. We stumbled upon a novitiate procession. Young boys and girls often go to become monks and nuns for a few years, at a very young age. It was such a surprise and such a feast for the eyes.
We spent the rest of the morning at Mandalay’s main pagoda (where we saw the novice nuns again) and looking round the wood carving and stone masons areas. It was shocking to see the conditions the stone masons worked in – no mufflers on their ears and no face masks to protect them from the heavy dust.
First, the Pagoda
And then the wood and stone-working workshops
My highlight was our trip up to Mandalay Hill but I’m going to have to wait ’til tomorrow to write about that!
By Carole Scott
Cruising along the Irrawaddy River sounds implausibly romantic. I’m sure it is when you’re on a teak cruiser with luxury cabins. For a group like ours, we were much more interested in the views than the boat itself. We had been promised simple food and a relaxing ride.
We hopped aboard our lovely little boat and headed up to the top deck, where deckchairs beckoned under the canopy.
As the diesel motor started to chug and we sank bank into the chairs, a slow, stealthy sleep descended on all but two of us. Resistance was futile and I, for one, gave in for at least two hours.
When I did rouse myself to join some others at the prow of the boat, I was woozy but relaxed. With nothing to do for two days chat and relaxation were the order of the day.
The Irrawaddy wasn’t as I had imagined it. I had pictured a densely wooded riverbank and instead we were greeted by wide open vistas dotted with an occasional hamlet. It seemed much quieter than I had anticipated. Gradually, though, my eyes became accustomed to picking out the detail – women washing clothes in the shallows, children playing, the odd farmer driving an ox cart – the river is so wide that it takes a while to see what’s going on.
Simple food, said our guide. We feasted on some of the best food of our trip, with four or five different dishes at each meal, all cooked in a tiny galley down below.
Five was deemed beer o’clock. Lazing on a boat deck, beer in hand, awaiting a spectacular sunset is as good as it gets. The sunset exceeded all expectations. When I went to Egypt a few years ago it rained when I went on a Nile felucca trip, so I missed out on the great photos you’re supposed to be able to achieve on a river. The Irrawaddy more than made up for that disappointment.
Night fell quickly and half the group got tucked up in their sleeping bags on deck straight after supper. The rest of us walked the gangplank to the beach and ran up the steep sandy bank. As the stars began to wink and shift, we instigated random conversations that took us on winding paths of childlike laughter.
Our tour guide and the crew were a few metres away, watching a film that was making them roar with laughter. Our tour leader’s laugh is irresistable and each time they chuckled we started laughing. No-one would have believed we were sober! Despite our imaginings the four horsemen of the apocalypse didn’t come to claim us and we returned to the boat in the dead of night, which when we looked at our watches was roughly 8.30pm.
It was a cold, damp night but none of us would have missed it. Waking on each hip-crunching turn, a quick glance of stars made me smile and fall back to sleep. Best of all was being awake before dawn. It was outrageously cold and the chanting from a nearby monastery was relentless but the colours were the most beautiful I have ever seen.
Thick mist cloaked the entire landscape, casting mauve, grey and pale pink across the water. No-one spoke. It was too sacred a time to break the peace.
Ghostly fishing boats emerged as the light changed and slowly, slowly there was a hint of the dawn.
I have never experienced a spectacular river dawn. I doubt I’ll see another quite so special.
Later that day we stopped off at Sagaing Hill on the way to Mandalay. A hill crowded with monasteries and temples, it is a lovely place to while away a few hours. Smiles and waves greeted us the entire time we were there and the buddhas and stupas were as glorious as ever.
Two days on the Irrawaddy were the perfect pause before hectic and dusty Mandalay. Coming in to dock, we saw a living tapestry seething with life.
And, when we climbed off, a magnificent rooster greeted us.
I had to have a go, so I took one of the Bagan Balloon ride pics and put me in it – it’s a pic taken when I did a tandem skydive. It has really made me smile and has given me lots of ideas for birthday cards for friends!
A sunrise balloon ride was at the top of my list of ‘musts’ for Burma. Long before I booked, I had read about the wonder of the experience and seen stunning photos.
Bree and I were so excited about the trip that the ten other people in our lovely little group decided it was a must for them too, so one morning at 5:30 a.m. we gathered in the courtyard of our guesthouse, sleepy-eyed but full of anticipation.
A wave of collective delight washed over us when the bus arrived – an antique charabanc that surely must have been the prototype for the Knight Bus.
Anxiety rippled through us as the sky seemed to be lightening by the second; a couple of American guys had held us up by stumbling on late.
All fears were allayed when we arrived at the departure field. Six enormous red balloons were lying on the ground, enormous baskets attached. We couldn’t work out how 16 people would fit in each one!
While the crews readied the balloons, we drank coffee, became childishly excited and took photos. At last, the balloons were inflated and it was time to climb in. We squeezed in, four people to each section and grinned madly at the crew, who grinned madly back. These guys clearly enjoyed their jobs.
Bart, our pilot, was the kind of guy you would trust with your life, which is what we were doing I guess! Serious, authoritative and wryly dry, he explained a few details and with a roar of gas we lifted off, gently and far more easily than I had expected.
It’s stating the obvious to say that the views were breathtaking but they were. We ascended above the other balloons and I felt a little catch in the back of my throat at the beauty of it all. I didn’t want to take too many photos, as I wanted to make sure I was in the moment but I did take some and here’s my best. No words can describe what a joyful experience this was, so I’ll let the pics do the talking.
When I went to Burma in December, my expectations of Bagan were high. It’s one of those places that you read about, dream about and hope that it won’t let you down. It doesn’t. It pulls you up into a world of magic that far surpasses any daydream and let’s you float along in a sunny meandering haze.
Bagan is a vast savannah of gorse, sandy tracks, stupas and pagodas. There are more than 3,000 temples dotted around its 42 square kilometres, although I’m not sure anyone has been and counted them recently. You can hop on a hired bicycle, ring your bell and cycle off-putting the ‘crowds’ (it’s not that overrun by tourists yet, even in high season) behind you.
There is a delicious sense of discovery; we headed off down tracks thinking we were heading for one of the ‘notable’ pagodas and would get a bit lost, skidding every now and again on the sandy tracks. It was a safe sort of getting lost, though. We always knew that we couldn’t be that far from the lovely collection of cafes and guesthouses that made up the village.
We frequently stumbled upon clusters of deserted ruins with no-one else in sight. The temples felt like little treasures and that they were ours. At many, a key keeper would appear and invite us inside. These are typical scenes as we cycled along and explored the tracks and pathways;
One unexpected treat was being able to climb up for the view – inside or out, depending on the style and build. At one, a beautiful young woman appeared waving a torch. She motioned towards a dark, narrow staircase with a very low beam. We decided to risk it and were so glad we did. What a vista greeted us on the roof! Right out to the horizon all we could see were stupas in every direction – brick, gold, white – every style and decoration peppered the view. It was glorious and there were just four of us to soak it up. Imagine, all around Bagan this special ‘just us’ feeling was taking place at hundreds of other temples.
Here’s a selection of views from that temple.
Sadly most of the temples have been spoilt inside with years of whitewashing. No, I’m not talking about government lies; I mean white wash, applied year after year for hundreds of years. Underneath and in some cases probably lost forever are intricate frescoes, whole walls of stories, buddhas, dancers, acrobats and elephants. The temples that still have these are a breathtaking treat, so beautiful that in some instances I was moved to tears. In one rarely visited temple we had only a few minutes before sunset and by torchlight gasped at the vibrancy and joy of the pictures. Here’s a picture from that particular temple.
One of the best for seeing these frescoes is the much visited Sulamani. It may be busier than many, with stalls and hawkers outside but don’t let that deter you from visiting. Inside it is a treat and if you take your time, walk quietly round in your own time, the trickle of other people dissolves. Here are some of my favourite fresco pictures from this glorious temple.
And here’s what it looks like from the approach.
After a few hours of cycling around, the main drag that tourists stay in is a haven. A little enclave of bamboo shacks welcomes you in from the heat, each one a little restaurant, café or shop. It is a real pleasure to support the local economy by lounging around drinking fresh lime soda. Up the road is the main road and further on still the market. I went to buy a longhi while I was there and had a wonderful time choosing one and chatting to the lovely women who owned the stall. I love that women are at the heart of commerce in Burma. I’ve travelled a lot in the middle east and it was a pleasant change to chat to women who owned their own businesses and were rightly proud of their success. Buying textiles is a great way to get to know Burmese people and many stallholders were keen to express their hopes for real change and urged us to come back in 2015, when elections are being held. The love for Aung San Suu Kyi is evident everywhere and the hope that she will lead the country come election time is fervent.
I hope these changes are real and will have a lasting impact, as the people I met were gentle and warm and so clearly ready for change.
Yangon’s official highlight is the Shwedegon Pagoda, a huge temple complex with a golden stupa visible for miles around. Towards sunset the entire site comes alive with the sound of chatter, prayers and the rich round sound of buddhist bells, being rung to create karma.
It is a wonderful experience to go there early on in a trip to Burma and I loved it. It is difficult to photograph but hopefully this shot of the golden stupa and the one below o the crowds walking past will give you a little taster.
The Shwedegon Pagoda wasn’t my highlight, though. The highlight was completing a circle of friendship. I went on holiday with Bree, an Australian friend I had first met in 2009 on a trip to Cuba. Her travel companion fell in love with our tour leader and a year later I went back out to Cuba to visit them. A year after that I went to Sergio and Rowan’s wedding in Australia. Bree was bridesmaid. We talked about Burma then and when I realised that Aung San Suu Kyi was asking tourists to return, I was on the case immediately.
A fantastic trip to Cuba came full circle when Bree greeted me as I stepped out of the lift at the hotel. From Cuba to Canberra to Yangon – I love it when a plan works out!
More Cuban friendship moments were in store. On a parallel trip to ours back in 2009 were two fantastic Californian women, Carol and Janet. They were on the last day of their Burma tour as we arrived. We had a fantastic lunch, reminiscing about Cuba and hearing about their experiences of Burmese people and places.
Here we all are in Yangon:
This picture says everything about one of travelling’s true delights – meeting fascinating people and making friends for life. I have that first Cuba trip to thank for meeting at least eight people who I hope would call me ‘friend’!
If you’re a solo traveller debating whether to go away with a group, do it. There may be one or two people you don’t click with but there will be many more who inspire you for many years to come.
And if you’re going to go, why not make it Burma and make it this year? It’s a beautiful country, as this pic from Yangon shows: