The train compartment rocked from side to side in bumpy jerking movements, this was more like a roller coaster without seat belts than a train journey. We had just read an article online which dubbed this journey for one person “the worst experience of their life”, but to be honest it was all rather fun. Opposite us in our 4-bed sleeper carriage a chinese/vietnamese man who now lived in the US with an Australian passport recounted the amazing story of his young life, escaping communist vietnam on an overcrowded boat in the late 1970s…. yep, only in Myanmar…
Maybe we just like trains…. but this journey was far from the worst experience of our lives.. but the article admittedly, had us worried. As we rocked and rattled our way out of Yangon the countryside was fresh, green and lush and we watched as the buffalos trudged their way through the rice paddies. However when you wake up everything has changed. Those lush green planes have give way to a dry and dusty landscape, not unlike parts of Australia. The train itself wasn’t that bad either. We had a bed each with a window to watch the world go by and to see the ladies balancing baskets of food on their head as they try and sell their wares to you when the train stops briefly… defiantly wasn’t the worst experiences of our lives….
Bagan is one of the most famous and popular destinations for tourists in Myanmar. The sheer number of stupas scattered across the landscape, in various states of repair, will impress even the harshest temple critic. The distinctive points pop up out of the trees without any other structures to disturb them, which isn’t all that surprising as the government kicked everyone out of Bagan and moved them to the originally named “New Bagan”. We spent the day whizzing around the dirt tracks that connect all the temples on our “e-bikes”, climbing up all the ones that could be climbed and exploring the insides of others. The years have not been kind to the temples of Bagan, and after wars and natural disasters the temples are in varying states of repair. This has lead to a dubious renovation program which unfortunately has left the inside of many temples looking exactly the same, so they are much better appreciated from outside. We finished the day as any trip to Bagan should be finished, watching the sunset from one of the taller temples in the area. Watching the sky change colour whilst looking down on the temples at mass was certainly a magical experience, and ryan even managed to make friends with a Burmese geologist to top it all off.
Ditching the modern e-bikes and instead opting for old school push bikes, we spent the second day exploring the temples closer to the guesthouse, however somehow managed to become part of a burmese family outing to the Buddah tooth temple. The family where so excited by us that they made us pose with different members of the family for an impromptu photo shoot which took up a good chunk of the morning.. don’t worry, we got some photos too.
We ended our time in Bagan by getting away from the tourist bubble and going in search of the local people of the area and seeing where they actually lived. Here we found pigs roaming the streets, sharing them with whizzing mopeds, and ladies with necks of steel carrying huge buckets of rock on their heads across wobbly wooden planks between a boat and the shore. We also managed to find ourselves in a friendly ladies wooden house, eating mango from the tree outside and watching the latest English defeat on the TV while her husband laughed and smoked cigars…she showed us how to put on Tanaka (burmese makeup) and thought Ryan was 35 years old, so a mixed bag really!
Leaving Bagan, we jumped on another train and headed off on the tracks to Mandalay (rather than on the road). As previously mentioned all trains in Myanmar are bumpy, and this was no exception. In fact most of the six hour journey was spent a few inches above our seats in the air. Arriving in Mandalay and nursing our sore behinds, we set off in search of accommodation, and after an initial run in with some super sized bedbugs (Think the size of a raisin), we eventually found a clean room in from which we could explore the city. If your in Mandalay we would recommend against the royal guesthouse!
Having regained a taste for cycling we hired some bikes and set of to see what Mandalay had to offer. The city lends itself to cycling by being incredibly flat and also being built on a super structured grid system, having been rebuilt completely after the war, so peddling around was both easy and pleasant. We cycled off around the moat of the old palace, which is undoubtedly the most striking feature in the city. The palace grounds are now an important army barracks with a small reconstructed palace built within for the public, however we had heard that the palace itself wasn’t worth the entrance fee so we gave it a miss. Our next stop was Mandalay hill, the only feature to break the flat expanse of the city. We ditched the bikes and climbed the steps walking through small Buddhist shines and temples on the way up, leading to great views of the city and the mountainous north beyond. What was perhaps more interesting though was the fact that the hill is a somewhat “lovers lane” for young Myanmar people. With public displays of affection being very much a taboo in Myanmar, it was funny to see so many embarrassed faces every few meters as we accidentally walked in on them canoodling!
Our last adventure in Mandalay, and last for this post (sorry we realise its a long one) was to go and see the Moustache Brothers, a comedy and performance troupe well known for their outspoken criticism of the ruling military government. It is this criticism that has made them a famous comedy act in Myanmar, and also landed most of the members in jail for several years for daring to speak against the government. The group (one of which is mentioned in the movie about a boy) have now been restricted to performing only to foreigners as to not spread their anti-government message within the country. Though it perhaps wasn’t the funniest thing ever, we were treated to some traditional dance and a few laughs, but ultimately it was more about what these guys stood for rather than the show itself.. keep up the good work moustache brothers!
Another morning and another trip, this time to Hsipaw…