The day we left Mandalay, we stopped at the world famous U Bein Bridge.
I was feeling mighty peculiar – a bit vague and drained. Little did I know that I had a bug and fortunately that wasn’t revealed until the middle of the night. If it had come on sooner, that six hour bus journey between Mandalay and Kalaw might have been tricky.
So when we went to the bridge I singularly failed to get a decent picture of the bridge. Here’s some snaps of rural life going on around it instead – from ploughing to fishing.
If I make it back to Burma, I will definitely go there at dawn to get some of the pictures that you see winning travel photography competitions. For an example, you just need to pick up the new edition of fantastic travel magazine, Wanderlust! It’s a great article, by the way, and anyone who has been or wants to go to Burma should definitely buy it.
Mandalay Hill is a very special place. It’s not the sunset that makes it so, although if there was nothing else to entertain you and you hadn’t been spoilt by sunsets over Bagan and the Irrawaddy River, the sunset would seem spectacular.
The fabulous thing about a trip up to Mandalay Hill is the monks. Monks go there every evening, knowing that they will be able to practice their English with tourists. It’s a decades old tradition, not a new thing. From late afternoon the whole temple complex and viewing platform comes to life with the buzz of warm, happy chatter.
We arrived and I had a fleeting anxiety – how does one start a conversation with a monk? I shouldn’t have worried. Eventually, you see a group of monks who have just finished one conversation or you simply smile and wander over.
It was a lovely experience because it stems from the best motives; people simply happy to while away half an hour or so exchanging trivialities or philosophies, world views or slang.
One monk asked me if I liked Myanmar. ‘I love it!”, I replied, and then asked how I say ‘I love it’ in Burmese. I haltingly learnt the sentence. When I relayed it proudly back to our tour leader, he chuckled. The monk had taught me to say “I like you very much”. Cheeky Monk!
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.