Thursday, January 23, 2014

Bagan

It was 5:50am and we were walking on the footpath alongside a main road, in the pre-dawn pitch black.  It was 3/4 of an hour before official sunrise and the electricity had just gone out, extinguishing the few street lights that existed.  We were't exactly sure where we were heading, but we were in Bagan and when in Bagan, one goes to watch the sunrise over the valley of temples.

We had arrived the night before after a flight from Yangon that had flown the flight-taxi circuit landing at both Inle Lake and Mandalay before our destination – Bagan.  So we had not seen the layout of town, we didn’t have bicycles and we only had a general idea we needed to head west and find a temple to climb for the view.  Luckily after 40 minutes walking we saw some tourists heading off the road to a temple – so having no better plan we followed them.

It was a very good decision.  Leaving our sandals at the door and using our torches we made our way up the small staircases – not really hitting our heads too often.

climbing

And with only 5 or 6 other people, we watched the sun start to illuminate some of the 2,200 temple in an area of just 40 km2

sunrise

And as the sun began to peek through, 10 hot air balloons began to appear out of the dark. 


The balloon ride was only 45 minutes and cost $320 per person and there is a waiting list, but they must have got some wonderful views of the structures – they very close to our vantage point

balloons3

After we had had enough of the sunrise Andrew went down the staircase first but I got delayed by some people coming up the one-way staircase.  When I got to the bottom, rock-star Andrew was doing his usual tall-man pose, surrounded by amused Burmese teenagers.




balloons4

Back to the hotel for breakfast and a shower, then we decided to hire a bicycle from the hotel and go and see some of the must-see temples.  We checked the brakes and tyres but forgot to check if they had any gears.  It was unbelievably hard work on a bicycle with no gears, even in a generally  flat location.  But we saw temples, temples and a few more temples. 



They ranged in size from tiny, to enormous.  The area of Bagan is as stunning in volume, as Angkor Wat is, as an engineering marvel.  But Bagan is not on the UNESCO world heritage list.  This is in part due to the previous regime, and in part due to disagreement over some of the restoration techniques used.  To us, one thing to remember is that the restoration efforts may not be totally ideal, but it has preserved the structures and people can access them.

restoration

Day 2 saw us up before dawn again and heading along the same road.  This time we headed in a slightly different direction and found another suitable Stupa to climb, with just a few other people.  The guidebooks suggest you should head off at before 5:00am to get a good spot on the popular sunrise temples.  Thanks, but no thanks to that!


And co-incidentally the wind direction moved that day and the balloons came directly towards us for a 2nd day – we hadn’t expected that. 


Having learned our lesson the previous day, day 2 was exploring with an e-bike, as they are called here.  They are electric bicycles from China, that were like riding a two-wheel mobility scooter.  They purred along at a limited speed, we jumped on and off and had a wonderful day covering lots of kilometres of more temples.

ebikes

One of the traditional tourist ways to see Bagan, is to use the horse and cart.  But based on the fact people only recommended them for a max of half a day due to the rough ride and the fact we probably couldn't fold Andrew’s legs into one, the e-bike was the best alternative.

horsecart

Andrew made some more young friends and they had a happy time looking at his camera

andrew burmese friends3

andrew burmese friends2

We ate dinner twice at an Indian restaurant – Andrew is converted to good authentic indian thali -- and two lunches at a french cafe.  Another successful set of experiences on the food front.

Everywhere we went in Myanmar we saw little glimpses of economic reality.  The bullock and cart is still used for transportation and agricultural ploughing.  The country is opening up, and people are experiencing huge levels of social change, but not everything changes at the same pace.

bullock carts

bullock rural

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Yangon

It was fortuitous that Andrew and I had separate work assignments in Myanmar at the same time.  This meant we could travel there together.  Taking advantage of this, we added a couple days onto either end of the work week, and spent some time in Yangon & Bagan

We arrived into Yangon on the weekend of the Independence Day public holiday – celebrating 60 odd years since gaining independence from Britain.  All weekend city streets were closed off, and competitions were set up for the children, while other community members stood around encouraging them. 

Every where we went we saw three-legged races, games of bull rush and blind mans buff.  Race lines were painted in whitewash and temporary football fields appeared on the street surface. It was a little ironic that in celebrating independence, all the events were so typically British.

threelegged

races lines

racing

But it was lovely - there was a party atmosphere and families looked like they were just having FUN!
 
Our destination for the day was the Chauk Htat Gyi reclining Buddha – but the day was more about the journey, looking at people and life, rather than the destination.  Over the day we must have done more than 20km and we were certainly tired by the end of it.

It was a typically hot sunny Yangon day and we had left our umbrellas (for sun protection) back in Vientiane.  So near Shwedagon Pagoda we spotted a couple of brown umbrellas.  The girl at the stall looked a bit surprised, but we just put that down to her having to deal with 2 random foreigners.  They provided great shade, but a couple of days later at work I found out we had purchased monk’s umbrellas and my colleagues suggested we should perhaps buy other umbrellas (which we did)

Along the way we spotted a small pagoda,  set back from the street, with the exterior completely covered in silver mirrored tiles.  Given that gold is the dominant colour  around here, we decided we should explore.

silver pagoda

It was the Sein Yaung Chi Pagoda.  As interesting as the ornate decorations were, the statues outside were a little bit different.  There were the standard monks

icons

But here there were a large number of female statues, including one lucky lady who was well set up with offerings including a lit cigarette.  Also like that she is brandishing a sword and has her toenails painted.

smoking drinking statues

Our destination, the Chauk Htat Gyi reclining Buddha, was more in the traditional mode, if somewhat supersized.  The story goes there was a standing Buddha here, but it fell over.  So around 1905 a single benefactor gave all the money to build a replica where the original had fallen.

bhudda feet
bhudda head

We stopped for lunch at a local open air eatery.  We sat down on the miniature stools and were ready to point and mime to get something to eat.  Instead we were greeted by a boy of about 9 or 10 who asked in perfect english “what would we like to eat?”  He then acted as our personal waiter throughout the meal.  The locals spent a bit of time observing the strangers on their patch.

lunch

Yangon has changed a lot in the 18 months since we 1st visited there.  There are more things like western coffee shops, ATMs! and new public toilets.  But the footpaths remain difficult and so many buildings remain in need of restoration. 

yangon

yangon2

On our return to Yangon we took the opportunity to visit the Bogyoke Aung San Museum.  This was the family home of General Aung Sang (father of Aung San Suu Kyi)  before his assassination in July 1947, at the age of 32.

We arrived at 9:20am only to find the museum didn't open until 9:30.  But the guard saw us and opened the big gates for us.  It was very simple with limited signs, but it was interesting to wander around and to know more about his life.  We asked the staff member on the desk how many visitors they had a day and he estimated about 100 each day, with about 70% being foreigners. 

aung san

We also made a trip to the national museum.  Definitely still an old-school style of museum with subdued lighting and a lack of explanations, but there were some interesting displays and we were pleased we had been.  It was the first time in a museum we had viewed vases and jewelery made of precious stones & gold through behind steels bars, just like in a bank vault.

Yangon is not a beautiful city but an interesting one,  the people are kind, smile and generous, there is plenty of good food and we enjoyed our days there