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
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.
I went to Burma (Myanmar) at Christmas. I responded to the call from Aung San Suu Kyi the previous year for tourists to come back now that the democratic process was opening up.
I’m going to be blogging about my wonderful experiences there. As a result of visiting, I’m reading alot about this amazing country. This piece from Zoya Phan absolutely nails the thoughts I was having even before I went, which were based on instinct, not evidence.
I would definitely urge tourists to go there. But if you do, please make sure you go independently or – if like me, this wasn’t practical due to time constraints – interrogate your travel company, to make sure they are taking you in an ethical way, minimising the amount of money going into the coffers of the government.
Here’s the link to Zoya’s article. I hope she writes more.