On the Road to Mandalay...

On the way to Mandalay www.onemorestamp.com

Mandalay is much more touristy than any of the other places where we have been so far. I don't know if this is because there are more limited options or because the activities happen at certain times so the tourists are concentrated.

Over a thousand monks went by us in two single file lines. 

Driving from the airport we stopped at the Shwenandaw Monastery, a large teaching monastery here. Every day at 10:15 the monk from a procession on their way to lunch. Over a thousand monks went by us in two single file lines. Unfortunately, since this is a once a day event every tourist in Mandalay was there. We were standing next to the most obnoxious Italian group in history. It make me super uncomfortable. There were so many people here that are picaresque. Almost everybody all the time. But it doesn’t feel like you should be taking pictures. I don’t want them ever to feel as if they are being treated like zoo animals. The hundreds of people taking pictures right in the monks (who were often quite young) faces crossed that line for me.

monks mandalay myanmar www.onemorestamp.com

We decided to take in the sunset view from Mandalay Hill. These things are never as simple as you might expect.  First: Yet again there is a crazy drive to the top of a hill.  This time it is only ten minutes or so but we get caught in a traffic jam and end up walking the last portion.  To the giant escalator building where you have to leave your shoes because there is a temple right where the lookout area is.  Something new that I learned:  Going on an escalator barefoot is incredibly uncomfortable.

You can see across to the hills over the river and down into the Mandalay Palace.

We scouted out a spot. You can see across to the hills over the river and down into the Mandalay Palace.  It reminds be a bit of the Forbidden city in that it is a whole walled off collection of smaller buildings rather than one large palace. We visited it earlier in the day but I got distracted because my shoe broke on the way down the Nan Myin Watchtower. The watchtower is one of the few parts of the Palace that is original. The rest was destroyed during WWII and rebuilt.  My search for the perfect travel sandal continues.

mandalay hill sunset myanmar www.onemorestamp.com

 

If you have ever seen a travel guide, website, or even novel about Myanmar you have seen U Bein Bridge.  It is the longest teak pillar bridge in the world. And sunset at this bridge is one of those iconic images of Myanmar

This is one of those moments where expectations do not live up to reality. I mean... the bridge and it is hard to take a picture of it without it looking awesome but the atmosphere that is was expecting is definitely lacking.

Find your moment.

There is a ton of trash around and so many goddamn tourists. We walked along the bridge about a kilometer which is more scary than you would think what with the huge gaps between boards. There is a little “restaurant” set up on the island (is that what it is call in the dry season?) and sipped in coconuts until the magic moment. Because sunset only lasts about 3 minutes there is some intense competition to get that perfect shot. Carsten and I had resigned ourselves to not getting it and tried to just enjoy the moment. We got some shots with the selfie stick (judge all you want, we live in Asia)  and some after the sun had hone down when the light was actually better in my opinion.   Find your moment.

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mandalay myanmae ubein bridge www.onemorestamp.com

Temples, Pagodas, and Hot Air Balloons: Three Days in Bagan

Temples, Pagodas, and Hot Air Balloons: Three Days in Bagan www.onemorestamp.com

What shocks me is how unlike Angkor Wat Bagan is. Angkor Wat is an ancient ruin of a city that was rediscovered. There is something solemn, mysterious and hidden about it. Bagan on the another hand is a complex of temples started in the 9th century and continually updated until today. These are living buildings and people are worshipping there. Because if this they have many an anachronistic modern touch. It isn’t often that you are able to feel as if you are discovering something. It feels more as if you are joining a party.

It feels more as if you are joining a party.

I feel kind of bad saying it but there isn’t a whole lot of variety here. The architecture is the same, the décor is the same, the frescos are the same. Seen one seen them all? We were initially disappointed that we would only be spending one day touring Bagan. I am cool with it now.  Pagoda, temple, seated Buddha, reclining Buddha, Buddha in the enlightenment position.  Sprinkle with gold leaf. Then accidentally spill all the gold leaf.  

Bagan myanmar sunset www.onmorestamp.com

We did get to an abandoned temple. The grass was taken over and it felt as if we aware all alone in the world. There aren’t many tourist or local but this is one of those times when finding a moment alone enhances the experience. It is different than at the other Pagodas that we have been to. There the crowds were part of the fascination.  You can only see so many Pagodas without going mad. When there is so much authenticity to soak up. It is the best part of Myanmar. No one is performing. No one is putting on a show. No one cares that I am here. They are going about a part of their life and for a little bit I get to share that.

They are going about a part of their life and for a little bit I get to share that.

While we are in Bagan we decided that we should go all out and take the balloon ride over the whole site. First of all we woke up at 4:30 in the morning. For the second day in a row. I had never been in a hot air balloon and aside from attending the Wellesley Balloon festival several times.  My knowledge of balloon travel is limited to The Wizard of Oz and the part in The Silver Chair where Jill is riding a cloud (weird CS Lewis references FTW!).

Balloons over bagan www.onemorestamp.com

The wind shifted before we were picked up so the balloons had to start in a different place than we were initially driven to.. I was surprised (although I shouldn’t have been) at how many people we picked up. Three separate buses arrived at out hotel. They separate out the different balloon groups. Second surprise: there are 16 people to a balloon. 17 counting the pilot.  Our pilot was a young blond man from the south of England who had been doing this for five years. Sometimes real life is so weird.

Sometimes real life is so weird.

There was a safely lecture which was reassuring.  I was impressed with how professional and well-handled everything was.  I guess I was expecting it to be like what I imagine a hot air balloon ride in China would be like.  Which would not include safety.  There was an enormous crew of energetic young men who I imagine are the unsung heroes of the operation running about pulling ropes, untwisting balloons, keeping the inflating balloon from rolling over and squashing us.

bagan temple myanmar www.onemorestamp.com

The take-off didn’t feel like an elevator (I was surprised by this and surprised by my surprise. Why wouldn’t it?) there was a slight initial lurch and then it was airborne. I am surprised by how fast we rose in the air. We were allowed to stand pretty much right away. There are four separate compartment for passengers and Carsten and I were on the inside.  Damn Australians and their, “After you's” Jerks.

You don’t really feel as if you are moving.  Even when the balloon spins it feels as if it is the world moving and not you.

Even when the balloon spins it feels as if it is the world moving and not you.

Bagan lays spread before you and it is only when you are this high you can see just how huge an area it covers and just how many temples, pagodas, and shrines there are. The gold glints in the morning light and dazzles the eye.

We were incredibly fortunate in our visibility this morning. Often it is too hazy to see as much as we did. We had to stay about 500 feet most of the times because of new regulations which is unfortunate because the lower views were pretty damn impressive and allow a glimpse of life that you normally don’t see.

Afterwards we sat in a makeshift area of a harvested rice paddy and sipped champagne. There was a 4-6 year old trying to sell us “postcards” crayon drawings of Bagan.  Both the children and the drawings were so cute that I almost caved and bought one ever though it is pretty clear that it is never a good thing to buy things from children in a random field in Myanmar.   No.  But so cute.

over bagan myanmar www.onemorestamp.com

The afternoon was spent at Mount Popa.  It is about an hour's drive from Bagan.  It is sheer sided volcanic protrusion with a bustling little town at the base and a truly endless set of stairs to the top. Possibly a couple of thousand. Every time I thought that we had almost come to the top there was another staircase. Barefoot.  Because we were going to end up in a monastery. Three things that kept it from being hell: a) the stairs were even b) it wasn’t that hot and there was a breeze c) there was almost constant shade.

We have had to been barefoot a lot on this trip and usually the temples are spotless and people are constantly cleaning them as an act of merit.

The stairs were filthy.  We have had to been barefoot a lot on this trip and usually the temples are spotless and people are constantly cleaning them as an act of merit.  But these steps were covered with paper and pieces of eggs and other shit I do not want to think about.  There were people who were half-assedly sweeping and mopping the steps and ask for money.  It was constant but it only made the steps slippery.

There were monkeys everywhere and people feeding them.  The monkey food was wrapped in paper for some reason and monkeys are not particularly conscientious about disposing of their trash. They are also not afraid of people in the slightest.  The monkey's were blatently grabbing peoples food. We were told that sometimes they steal cameras and hold them for ransom in return for more food.  I hope that that is an exaggeration because I don't think that the world needs a super smart gang of monkeys in it.  One is enough.

monkey myanmar www.onemorestamp.com

The view from the top however was worth it.  

What's on Top of that Mountain? More Pagodas: The Southeast of Myanmar

What's on Top of that Mountain?  More Pagodas: The Southeast of Myanmar

Before Bagan we went on a small excursion to Hpa An and Bago.  They are in the Karen State.  Myanmar is broken up in the most complicated way.  There are seven “divisions” which have a primarily Burmese population and seven “states” which are named after the largest ethnic minority that live there.  For the last 60 years there has been one sort of conflict or another between the various ethnic groups and the military government which makes it the longest running civil war in history.  Honestly, a pretty depressing distinction to have.

Saddar cave www.onemorestamp.com

None of this of course was apparent as we drove around.  It is the mist full on jungle of anywhere that I have ever travelled.  It is just barely held back.  The jungle feels like this hungry beast that wants to devour anything manmade.  It would take about three days for the jungle to reclaim the cities of Hpa An and Bago.

The jungle feels like this hungry beast that wants to devour anything manmade. 

What we primarily did today was visit caves.  There are a bunch.  They aren’t empty of course.  In Myanmar a cave is just an excuse to fill something with many many statues of Buddha.  Most of them were a bit of a climb. Am I alone in climbing up hundreds uneven stairs in 95 degree heat and 100% ranking somewhat after a root canal in things that I enjoy doing.  But the view after the climb was usually worth it. 

I also discovered that spelunking is not going to weigh heavily in my future.  As you venture farther back into Saddar Cave, in particular, the temperature climbs, the light diminishes, and the oxygen depletes.  The air became still and I had to hold myself back from having a panic attack. The second cave was open to the air. Almost like a really large natural covered porch and was easier to deal with. 

The air became still and I had to hold myself back from having a panic attack. 

Bago is the ancient capital of the Mon Dynasty.  Of course, as I have a had a western education I know nothing about the Mon Dynasty.    Which means that there is a palace.  Not an ancient palace so much as a reconstruction.  Actually, we aren’t even sure where exactly the original palace was built or how it looked.  What you actually see is more for demonstration purposes. The ancient teak pillars are actually more interesting. 

myanmar pagoda

One of the most frustrating things about traveling in Myanmar is the government’s (and perhaps the local’s, I am not sure) view on reconstruction vs. restoration. Scientists, archeologists, and museums in most of the world want to restore ruins and artifacts as much as possible.  The authenticity of the object is what holds the value rather than it being in pristine shape. A two-thousand-year old building is going to look like a two-thousand-year old building.  It just isn’t going to collapse and has been put back together as much as possible.  In Myanmar there is less value placed on the authentic and more value placed on how something looks.  Therefore, reconstruction.  That is, rebuilding the structure with new materials often with little or no idea what the original structure actually looked like.  Which is why 900-year-old buildings in Myanmar look as if they were built in the seventies.  Essentially they were.

Then there was the usual parade of Pagodas.  Aside from “hello”, “please”, “thank you”, and “goodbye” the only word of Burmese that I managed to pick up was “Shew”.  Gold. The Shwemawdaw Pagoda is technically the tallest pagoda in Myanmar.  It doesn’t have the drama of the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon and so it is easy to overlook the fact that it towers over it (if they were next to one another, that is) by more than fifty feet.  There are some worshippers but nothing like we have been seeing seen.

After while the pagoda’s sort of run together. 

After while the pagoda’s sort of run together.  This sometimes happened in Europe when you go into six or seven churches in one day and then forever after cannot figure out which parts that you remember belong to which church.  For example, the Kyaik Pun Pagoda, which is dominated by four gigantic outdoor seated Buddhas.  I liked that the clothing, makeup, hand gestures, and faces of each one was different while really blending into one whole stature.  I can remember that but am unsure if it is at the top of a hill with a ton of steps or right off the driveway.

myanmar island

Any bare hill or mountain is seen as a lost opportunity and almost all of them seem to have a monastery or pagoda on the summit.   Case in point is the Kyauk Kalat Pagoda perched on top of crazily shaped island in the middle of a lake.  You can get up to the middle section but the very top is only accessible through frighteningly fragile ladders and has been abandoned.  We climbed as high up as we could as could and relaxed as we watched the sun set. 

What was particularly cool about this part of the trip was that we were the only tourists at every single site.  Which is crazy!  There were some Burmese taking a pilgrimage but we were it as far as foreign tourists go.