|Friday was a bit of a ‘rest day’ for us…. At least in terms of hiking / cycling…. We were up early again as we were continuing our journey from Pindaya up to Mandalay, in the middle of the country. Mandalay is the country’s second biggest city (after Yangon) and is quite a bustling place.
We arrived at the airport in plenty of time and, as with the flight earlier in the week…. We were delayed a good 45minutes – I’m not sure being on schedule is necessarily the most important over here! It was possibly the shortest flight I have been on in my life as we finally took off at 10am….and landed at 10.25am! Despite the duration of the flight, they still managed to throw a drink on our direction – definitely not something you would get on a flight of that length in the UK any more! The domestic flight experience is generally more enjoyable than the low cost internal (or even cross European) flights in the western world…disregarding the lack of punctuality the refreshments and the fact the bus transfers to and from the planes are comfortable (you’re not shoehorned in like a sardine!) makes it generally a much nicer experience!
The transfer back to the next hotel was about an hour as Mandalay ‘international’ airport is a little out of the city, the area is known for its growing of honeydew melons and we saw fields upon fields of the trees and people farming them for sale on our journey. We stopped briefly to see a pagoda made of Jade on our way into the city – one of the most expensive pagodas within Myanmar (which is quite an achievement given the sheer number of pagodas throughout the country) and, after a few photos we continued on our way to the hotel.
The afternoon was at our leisure, although due to the delay to the flight we didn’t have a huge amount of time to explore the city… this is one of my only niggles from the tour – sometimes we were moved on too quickly which meant we potentially missed the opportunity to see things I would otherwise have done so had I been exploring on my own. I can’t complain though, the tour was planned with military precision and I think they took us to all the main places we should see in the places we stopped. We did have a wander in our free time though and made our way to a local market. It was very much a local market and seemed to be much more tailored to wholesaling products rather than some of the smaller places we’ve been where we could pick up a few things. We were getting pretty hungry and
I had spotted a local streetfood stand within the market selling the local noodle salad – Franciska (one of the German girls) and I decided to give it a go but the others didn’t fancy it so we parted ways for a bit of the afternoon. Franciska, Tatjana and I then continued to just explore the market and take it all in… no intention of buying anything but just seeing the interaction of the locals and the array of products out for sale. It is pretty fascinating…. At one stall they would be selling toothpaste, the next spices, followed by a stall of materials piled high above our heads – quite incredible and pretty overwhelming!
We met the group again at 4.30pm as there was a plan to head up to a high point at one of the monasteries to see the sunset over Mandalay. A local truck took us up to the monastery – basically a big mattress in the back, sitting top to toe in the back – the practical amongst the group did wonder what would happen if we had an accident… imagine explaining to the insurance company that we were in the back of truck flying through the road of Mandalay with no seatbelts….in fact – no seats!
Arriving at the monastery, a quick removal of shoes and we began the 900 step up to the top. It was pretty quick (comparative to how long we expected) and before we knew it we were at the top of the monastery looking over at the sun….. with about 700 other tourists! It was shame but not at all a surprise. We took a few pictures and waited for the sun to go down, at which point pretty much everyone cleared out and went back down the hill – we stuck around and saw some of the best colours of the evening with very few people around us!
On the way up Johanna, the Canadian in the group had been befriended by one of the ‘novice monks’ – he had wanted to practice his English and so walked up the hill with her. I bumped into them while wandering around and spoke to him and his friend for quite a while as well. It was so interesting finding out about their life in the monastery and seeing how the monk life had changed so much with the times. They kindly agreed to a photo or two at the end, it was such a nice way to spend half an hour.
Once it was well and truly dark a group of us headed for dinner – we had earlier decided we were going to try and get tickets to a local show in the evening so grabbed a bite to eat beforehand. We found a sweet place that sold barbeque and had a delicious meal of bbq port, salad and a couple of local rum sours… we were ready for the show! It was certainly an experience… Myanmar is famous for its marionettes so the hour long show had a bit of local dancing, some singing and a few performances of the marionettes. It was a bit silly but pretty good fun…. Although I have to say that I absolutely will not miss Myanmar music – it’s pretty painful to listen to! A quick trip back in our truck and we headed to bed in preparation for our next day on the bike!
We started Saturday with another early breakfast as we were on the road by 8am. We weren’t immediately on the bikes we had missed seeing the ‘world’s biggest book’ at Kuthodaw Paya. This really was quite a sight …. All the teachings of Buddhisum are engraved into about 2500 marble slabs housed within individual stone buildings (they are split between this site and another nearby). Buddhists have historically used these engravings to ensure their understanding of the Buddhist teaching is correct. It is said that the ‘book’ would take 6 months to read if you were to read it in one go, spending 8hours a day straight reading. It was an incredible sight and I’m glad we took the time to see it. I treated myself to a little cushion cover from a lady selling them nearby as I really enjoyed seeing the book and wanted something from the area to remember it by.
The vendor had some Thanaka (a yellowish-white cosmetic paste made from ground bark) on her face, something seen commonly applied to the face and sometimes the arms of women and girls, and is used to a lesser extent also by men and boys in Myanmar. It is used as part of a cosmetic beauty routine, as well as giving a cooling sensation and providing protection from sunburn as well as helping to remove acne and promote smooth skin. As Johanna and I had bought a couple of little things the lady offered to apply some on our skin for us so we enjoyed the day with Thanaka leaves on our faces!
When we were done we began the drive to the start of our ride for the day… we were on one of the main streets in Mandalay when we heard some festival type of music – Chit was extremely excited as we had stumbled across a Monk initiation ceremony – something he had rarely seen in his life in Myanmar and something pretty special for us to see…. So we all jumped off the bus and enjoyed the parade going passed – amazing colours, music and costume…. A lot of money obviously goes into these ceremonies! The final float had the singers on it, I hadn’t noticed by Chit pointed out that the ‘ladies’ singing were actually lady-boys! Their voices were incredible and, without looking closely, you wouldn’t know they were actually men! I didn’t realise until this point that the lady-boy concept was a thing in Myanmar like it is Thailand…. Certainly learning every day!
On route to the start of the ride we also stopped at a wood carving workshop – we saw about 6 men in a small room working on some of the intricate wood detailing I’ve ever seen, it was incredible! I also treated myself to a couple of wood coasters (this seemed to be the day I was buying myself a few little gifts!) as I thought the skill they have is absolutely amazing.
Finally we made it to the start of our ride! As we had flown up to Mandalay we had a new bike each – this time it was a Trek mountain bike…. I ride a Trek at home (albeit a Road bike) so I know they are nice, reliable bikes. It was another relatively short ride again today….
All building up to the beast we had the next day but we took it stead and made our way through some gorgeous local villages and quiet roads as we made our way to U Bein Bridge – this is famous for being the world’s longest teak bridge, running at about 1300yds in length and 200 years old. It was interesting to see, we had a bit of a wander before continuing on our ride, riding over train tracks, high fiving children on the side of the road, seeing crazy people doing wheelies on motorbikes through relatively busy roads and accidently interrupting a wedding photography shoot! The latter was really funny as the bride and groom didn’t mind at all and actually wanted a photo with us for their collection…so we’re in someone’s wedding photo collection somewhere!
Finally we arrived at Sagaing Hill where we were stopping for lunch. We had a good feed of tofu crackers (they sounds awful but are absolutely beautiful, especially with the chilli and garlic soy dip they give them with…. I can’t get enough!) and a dish of the local specialty – chicken with pineapple…. It was great food and so fresh.
After lunch we were given the option to ride or get taken up the rest of the hill to see the monastery at the top. Glutton for punishment that our group seemed to be, we all opted for the (extremely steep!) bike ride up the hill…. Calling it ‘training’ for the next day! it was tough but we all made it up with some sheer determination. Chit commented that we are the first group he has taken on the tour that actually decided to ride up – he felt guilted into it! The place was called the ’30 cave pagoda’ because – as the name suggests – it’s made up of 30 caves throughout the hill…. We were only able to enter a couple of them but they were full of beautiful Buddha images carved into the walls dating back to the 14th century.
We then moved on to another pagoda just down the road slightly, this one had spectacular views over Mandalay. Mr Thein provided us with an overview of the place and indicated that many grandparents of our generation don’t like to visit the pagoda as it reminded them of the war. It was apparently a location that families would get moved to during WW2 as the Japanese were bombing the city – all they were able to do was watch the city being destroyed from a distance so it is a place that had quite a scar for many of them. We spent about 45minutes there and I had a meander on my own…. I was sitting taking it all in when another novice monk approached me – he was slightly younger than the two from the evening before but he also wanted to practice his English. We had a good chat about his holidays, British football (I at least tried to contribute) and his desire to travel, which apparently is now an option for them in the future.
By the time we were finished it was getting on a bit and we had quite a commute back to the hotel for the evening so we took a reasonably quick ride back down the hill to meet the bus. A 2 hour commute (with coke and sesame cookies) and we finally arrived, tired and pretty hungry. The hotel was probably the least interesting of the lot – it was in a little town called Myingyan. We were all pretty hungry and so a quick turnaround we met in the hotel restaurant…. Which was terrible! The food looked bad and was all pretty overpriced – they looked at us blankly when we asked for vegetables (in Burmese). A few of us decided this wasn’t for us and so – against Chit’s advice – headed out for something more local. I think I’ve mentioned before but something I have really struggled with on this tour is the food. I think Chit is either advised by the tour company or thinks himself that we always want touristy restaurants whereas I like nothing more than to go and try the local places where the locals eat and what the locals eat. We found a fantastic ‘Tea House’ (these are famous in Myanmar for simple, cheap food and a social atmosphere. After a challenge with the menu a local took pitty on us and helped us chose one or two things he thought we would like….
The food was brilliant! So fresh and tasty…. In the end only three of us braved the local place but a full feed and a few teas / coffees we headed back to the hotel having paid only 5500kyat (about £3) between us! We were very happy!