Sunday, February 27, 2011

February 12: Yangon - Mandalay - Pyin Oo Lwin - Bagan - Inle Lake


We flew to Myanmar on Saturday evening (Feb 12). The Asia Plaza Hotel – Ian’s first observation was “Reminds me of The Shining.” My first reaction was olfactory As soon as the porter opened the door to our room my nose was assaulted by urinal deodorizer! There was one hanging on a nail in the bathroom and another hanging from the emergency water sprinkler on the ceiling (which I expect was non-functional). I put both of them out in the hall!

The hotel has a glass-enclosed elevator that overlooks the city however it was so grimy that we could barely see through it as we descended for breakfast. Breakfast was served on the mezzanine overlooking the somewhat sumptuous lobby. Buffet-style, chafing dishes etc. however no flame under the dishes so cold fried eggs had to do.  The last straw was the rat that joined us for breakfast. It was scurrying around and heading for us. I picked up the heavy chair beside me and let it klunk on the floor and the rat scurried off to his corner.

The Asia Plaza, to its credit, had a phone that worked on the reception desk.  (I wondered how many other guests had used that phone to plan their escape from the AP!) Ian phoned around and found us a room for 1 night with a possibility of more at the Classique Inn.

A German man who befriended Ian in the lobby of the AP introduced us to a taxi driver who he said spoke good English. He spoke a sort of English, which we’ve discovered is fairly rare. Tourist-centered Bangkok lulled me into thinking everyone would speak my language! The driver was very helpful in taking us to a money-changer who gave us a good rate. It can range from 800 to 900 kyats per dollar. Kyats – pronounced chats. Ian lost a bit because his $100 bills had been folded!

The Classique Inn! It’s up in the rich part of town – diplo’s, expats, military. Big houses, big gates, lots of razor wire with the odd hovel or cooked-food stall and a few taxis here and there. The Classique is close to the Air Bagan booking office cum mansion. Within a three minute walk there’s a French restaurant in a mansion. In tough times you gotta do what you gotta do.

The Classique is owned and run by a government or military family who live in their mansion fifty feet away. Carved teak ceilings, teak floors, elegant spiral staircase, simple elegant crafts and antiques.

They have a phone and a small computer in the corner of the reception area but no music, no signage, no flashing lights, just calm peaceful simplicity.

Our room was upstairs, corner suite with a private patio with potted bamboo and bougainvillea. High, dark, polished teak ceiling, teak floors, bright white bed linen with a red silk runner across the foot of the bed. Even the bathroom had a raised teak floor with narrow gaps for water to drain away.

Kalya the family daughter who manages the place speaks beautiful English and French. She’s very attentive and helpful. We left to go to the French restaurant but it was closed. We came back to the Classique. Kalya didn’t tell us they served food until I asked. Low key sales!
Booking a ticket to Mandalay

The train ticket booking office is in a long low building that made us think of a commercial cattle shed; lots of metal gates for herding people along. The lighting is very low. We saw some wickets against the far wall. At one of the wickets the agent started to take our info. “Ah! Upper class? Over there.” He pointed off in the distance to what appeared to be a soup place. As we were walking to the far distant adjacent wall of the cattle shed we discerned three or four more wickets. We were shuffled from wicket to wicket until finally an agent decided we were at the right one. I gave him three very respectable US$20 bills. In a flash his face turned to one of disgust as though I’d handed him a dog turd. A corner of one of the bills was folded about ¼ inch. I straightened it and gave it back to him – no way. He settled for two $10’s and left with our money and passports.

The lack of computerization and the need to employ lots of people meant much transcribing of information with many sheets of carbon paper and many ledgers. Finally we had our ticket for two – a rather flimsy piece of paper with handwriting on it. Through sign language I was trying to determine if I could fold it. Much discussion. Finally the Burmese Baptist minister who had been chatting with us took the ticket from my hand and folded it in four and gave it back to me saying god bless. I guess the fold-phobia is reserved for USD only.

Shwedegon Paya

Awesome, magnificent, brilliant.. It is a towering golden stupa (a solid circular structure underneath which are enshrined sacred relics). Four thirty feet wide, very long staircases lead up to the stupa from the four directions, NSEW. The staircases are themselves huge enclosed structures with very ornate red and gold roofs.

Gilding the Buddha

The top of each staircase leads onto a circular marble plaza or terrace around the stupa. There are many pavilions, prayer halls, Buddhas, holy icons, fountains, bells and trees on the plaza.

There are five ancient, meaningful Buddhas – one in each prayer hall opposite the tops of the staircases and one jade Buddha on the plaza. They are encased in security glass. The jade Buddha has a ruby the size of an Italian plum on his forehead.

There’s a lot of non-Buddhist mysticism going on too. For example, the day of the week you were born is significant. There’s a fountain for each day (two for Wednesday, morning-born and night-born).

Each fountain consists of a Buddha, a water container, the day symbol (mine is a lion for Tuesday), a guardian spirit or Nat and a conch shell. The ritual is to pour a specific number of cups of water on the Buddha, the day symbol and the conch shell – and then make a wish!

People here join societies of their birth day, for example The Tuesday Born Society. They get together on Tuesdays and do good deeds to gain merit. We saw a bunch of Monday-borns sweeping the plaza

We saw other groups of people cleaning prayer halls, polishing Buddha images, painting etc. Various ethnic groups in Myanmar have their own pavilions and prayer halls at the Shwedagon Pagoda complex. They like to keep their ethnic group’s prayer hall respectable.


Myanmar language: We are making an effort to speak a few words. We’re using mnemonics that sometimes work but sometimes crack us up. Ian came up with ‘jesus tomatoes’ for thank you. It’s actually closer to jee soo tin body. I picture Jesus and the tin man from Oz. Hello sounds like Minghella the movie director.

Oh yes, the upper class coach to Mandalay … True, we each had our own seat with plenty of legroom and an adjustable footrest. True, the windows were open so there was lots of fresh air. The grime of ages was unspeakable so I’ll say no more.

The train was an express leaving Yangon at 5:30 a.m. arriving in Mandalay at 10:30 p.m. Seventeen l-o-n-g hours to cover ?? kms.. Ian had read Paul Theroux’s accounts of rail travel through SE Asia and it appealed to him. I think I’ve had it!


We spent the first morning in Mandalay at the central indoor market and then wandering around the streets. Zegyo market is crammed with everything – tiny stalls where the merchants pile their wares up to the ceiling because they have no horizontal space.

On the streets we passed by onion sellers, rice sellers, chili sellers, betel nut sellers, banana sellers, coconut sellers. The people were very friendly and talkative (we understood very little of what they said but it was definitely friendly). I was wearing a skirt I bought in Yangon and it was a big hit with the ladies.

Our second day in Mandalay was spent going upriver to visit the ruins of an ancient city – Mingun. I need to do more research but I don’t think it was very ancient. It’s on the tourist itinerary and consequently was flocked with people selling all manner of souvenirs.

One lady pestered me to buy a hat (I was wearing a hat at the time but that didn’t deter her in the least). She started at 3000 kyats and worked her way down. I finally caved in at 1000 kyats (~$1.20). I gave the hat to a housekeeper at the Royal Guest House. I was uncomfortable pawning it off on her but her reaction was overwhelmingly positive!

The best parts of the day were riding in a trishaw and knitting with the ladies!

Pyin Oo Lwin

We took a taxi to Pyin Oo Lwin (it’s taken me about four days to get that name right!). It’s a hill station at about 3000 feet. We booked into April Guest House that offered ‘Rooms and Bangalores’.

Our bangalore looked out on the garden where an odd horticultural practice was underway. There were several large plants with pointed stiff leaves. Each leaf had a cube of white styrofoam on its point. From a distance they looked like marshmallows! I thought maybe it was some arcane practice in the service of plant health. When I asked I was told: “It is for beautiful.”

We bicycled to the famous (well, famous to caffeine-starved addicts) Golden Triangle Café. They have real coffee with real milk. After drinking Nescafe coffee mix (56% sugar, 33% edible oil product and 11% coffee) it was heaven. We each had 2 double espressos!

Fully-charged we bicycled to the famous gardens – Kandagywi. What a treat! Even the mid -60’s bubble gum pop blasting over the lake couldn’t dampen my spirits. This area is very famous for teak. The British made many fortunes from it during their colonial days here. [Aside – I just finished Orwell’s Burmese Days in which the main character is a British timber merchant.]

The trees were labeled with their botanical names. I figured the one called Tectona Grande must be teak – very tall straight trunk, huge leaves, more than a foot long and almost as wide. The highlight was monkeys in the trees above our heads. Then some deer. Then geese, newborn goslings, and black swans (not the movie).

I was almost crippled from all the cycling and in some kind of post-caffeine, jagged funk so we walked to town on our second day and had more coffee. We spent a lot of time at a roadside restaurant. Ian did a lot of video of the workings of the restaurant. (When I had a wee intestinal upset later he said, “No doubt!”). We had very fresh, hot, coconut doughnuts.


We took a riverboat here from Mandalay (6 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Feb 20). It’s a tourist boat and was chock-a-block full of Germans and French, a couple of very rough looking Russians, two Australians and others.

The Germans were in a large tour group and, maybe by virtue of numbers alone, had a very proprietarial attitude about the boat. We had to assert our right to sit in two of the unreserved deck chairs despite the fact that the Germans had been sitting in them previously! I checked out the women very carefully to see if they were as ‘refreshed’ (Nancy’s word) as the women Nancy and I saw in VN. No scars evident!

The Russians were big, beefy, 40-ish men with long, dirty hair pulled into ponytails. They were the last to board and entered the cabin yelling good wishes to everyone. Their handler asked if he could get them anything. “Da, bottle whiskey!” was the answer. This was 5:45 a.m. By 8:30 they were asleep.

The Iriwaddy river is impressive – wide and shallow and brown. We zigged and zagged from the east bank to the west. The water is very shallow and there are sand bars and shoals to be avoided. We passed some timber operations, very basic. I wondered if the timber was teak. There were a few sugar cane fields but other than that it seemed to be mostly meager fishing and small time agriculture.

We’ve read and heard that Myanmar is supplying China with food now. We haven’t seen any large scale agriculture operations though. An Australian told me the when he was in Pyin Oo Lwin he saw truckloads of mangoes that he was told were on their way to China.

 One of the not so good things about Myanmar is the lack of internet. There are internet cafes but the connections are mostly unreliable and most are fire-walled by the Generals. Ian is going through withdrawal. By the time we finally post this on our blog it certainly won’t be byte-sized snippets!

I took a ‘sick day’ in Bagan – a head cold. Bagan is famous (well, relatively so) for having many, many stupas scattered over many square miles. They date from the 11th or 12th century. On day 2 we rented bicycles and pedaled to see a few of said stupas. Not being an archeologist, anthropologist, architect, Bhuddist scholar or obsessive-compulsive a few were plenty. It’s a hot, dusty pedal worthy of a delicious lime, ginger, honey drink and a long luxurious afternoon nap!!

Taking a horse and buggy to the Bagan airport
Inle Lake

We almost didn’t go to Inle Lake and what a shame that would have been.  We flew there from Bagan. It took only 35 minutes whereas the bus takes 13 hours! The lake is at 2900 feet so the temperature in the early morning and evening was chilly. A nice respite.


As we approached the town bordering the lake I re-experienced a wonderful dream I had a few years ago. The road ran between stretches of water and the usual border between earth and water was blurred. It was as if the road could very easily become water – not as in a flood or washout – but in a quiet transformative way.

We stayed at the Four Sisters Inn. It reminded me of the teahouses on the Nepali trekking routes. We set out about 6:45 a.m. for a boat tour of the lake. There were just our boatman and the two of us in a twenty foot long canoe with a big engine. It’s the beginning of the dry season so the lake is only about seven feet deep at its deepest so the propeller sits very high. There are villages on the marshy edges of the lake. All movement is by boat. In some places our boat was skimming the bottom.

It was heavenly puttering along the canals with bamboo, and big acacia trees on either side, water buffaloes having their morning soak and some people wrapped in sarongs having theirs too. Sometimes we had to go through small water gates with a one foot drop or rise.

A large part of the tour is visiting handicraft places. We were A-OK with that – it’s their economy. (Some tourists were not so inclined). An amazing thing we saw was the extraction of fibers from lotus flower stems. The fibers are processed and then woven into scarves. It’s time-consuming and labour-intensive.

Another handicraft is the rolling of cigars! I tried one – well, a few puffs anyway. Very mild and tasty. The tobacco is flavored with banana, tamarind etc.
Another ‘highlight’ of the tour is the tomato garden. There were staked tomato plants as far as the eye could see growing on the surface of the lake. The earth they were growing in was less than two feet deep and it was staked into the lake bottom. Our boatman got out of the boat and stood beside some plants and rocked the plants back and forth. Maximum sunlight and plenty of water for the roots = delicious, plentiful tomatoes.

An interesting thing happened in the evening. We ate supper at the Four Sisters. When Ian tried to pay they said, “You are our guests – no pay.”  That didn’t happen our first night there. We think it is because we shopped from the artisans and we gave our boatman a good tip. It is a very tight community and we think nothing goes unnoticed. In his Buddha-like way Ian said, “It’s karma.”!!

Another flight to Yangon, overnight at the Classique Inn and back to Bangkok. It wasn’t all as easy as pie. There was a huge rigamarole about activating our return flight to BKK on Myanmar International Air – many phone calls and a trip to the airline office. Myanmar feels like it’s in the Dark Ages.

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