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No Worries 'Mas o Menos' 2 years on the road, travelling South East Asia, China, South & Central America and who knows where after that... Photos at http://www.flickr.com/photos/dojo77/collections/


MYANMAR | Monday, 27 April 2009 | Views [4446] | Comments [3]

The road to Mandalay is lined with bamboo huts, children bathing and playing in ponds, ox carts and loose cattle meandering down the road, men playing Chinlon (a version of keepy uppy with a cane rattan ball), all very idyllic. Then we hit a junction. Straight on the road is blocked by military, off limits to travel, like most of the country. Turn right and you hit a brand new highway, built so the generals can travel comfortably to Naypyidaw, the new capital they decided to build because the generals are too afraid to continue to live in Yangon. The road is lined with toll booths, one every hour, so the locals can pay for the road. There are no facilities at all as we found out when the bus stopped for the first toilet stop, men to the front of the bus, women to the back! What! I was so shocked that by the time I realised I just had to go, the bus was ready to leave and I had to hold on for 2 more hours. The next stop was more to my liking with proper toilets, and food. The roadside cafe was run by children all running around in uniform serving customers. I don't think we saw a single adult working there.

Back on the road we soon had to stop for a check point. We weren't sure what was happening but someone on the bus spoke English and explained we had to show our passports, while the locals had to show their identity cards. The check point was little more than a wooden desk at the side of the road and a board covered in wanted posters of people they are trying to catch. Some soldiers wrote our details down so the government would know where we were for the night although it took them ages and held the bus up, mainly because they couldn't work out the passport details properly, they only wrote our first names down and missed our surnames, doh! We told them we were heading to Mandalay, and when we walked away you could hear them sniggering about us and the way we spoke, nasty little men! Not far up the road we passed by the new capital, Naypyidaw. No one is allowed to travel there and no foreigners have officially seen the city, but from a distance with all the eyes on the bus focusing towards the view, you could see it was all lit up like a christmas tree with a sparkling pagoda, brand new town houses, hotels and deserted wide avenues. Not only were there way too many lights along the streets, but also fairy lights in the concrete walls lining the roads and instead of one light on the roundabouts, there were about 10 in a circle, even though there were no cars around at all. Obviously, there are no electricity problems here, maybe this is where all the power in the country goes to!

Day 5 - Mandalay

We arrived in Mandalay at sunrise, in time to see the novice monks collecting alms along the street. We hadn't slept much on the bus, mainly due to the loud screeching speakers that played music to keep the driver awake and a lady next to us who sang most of the way there. We headed straight to a hotel and slept in until midday. First impressions of Mandalay...it's way hotter than Yangon, that can't be possible. April is officially the hottest and driest month to visit Burma and lasts until May when the rains might come. The temperature in Yangon was around 38 degrees, in Mandalay it's 42 degrees. Everywhere is dry and dusty and you dehydrate as soon as you breathe the air, very similar to being in the Outback. There is no time to eat as you just have to drink water continuously otherwise you wilt and fade, like we did in Yangon. The key to survival, rehydration sachets!  

Outside our hotel was a rickshaw driver called 'SoSo' and his friend 'Joker'. SoSo said they could take us around the sights of Mandalay, tell us how to avoid paying any government entrance fees and (whispering) talking politics to us but only when no one was around. So we took them up on their offer and headed off to see the outside of Mandalay palace. You may wonder why we only wanted to see the outside and not the inside of the palace, which the city is so famous for. There really isn't any palace to see. Most of the royal city within the walls of Mandalay were bombed during WW2. The government decided to rebuild the palace for tourists but used forced labour to do so and the result is meant to be really ugly. SoSo said we could visit if we wanted to but he really would prefer if we didn't pay to go in. Unfortunately for him, he was one of the men forced to work on the rebuilding of the moat around the palace walls. He had to work one day for every week the build took and he had belongings confiscated from him and never returned.

We went to a teak monastery, that is the only original part of Mandalay palace still left, it was moved to another location before WW2 so survived the bombing. All the attractions in and around Mandalay are part of a $10 combo ticket, (with all the money going to the government) so you need one to enter all the main sights. SoSo thought we could get in for free or just buy one ticket between us so we could take it in turns to see the sights. He went to check at the ticket booth for us but was shouted at for asking. This really upset him and he couldn't understand why someone could talk down to him so easily as he was only asking. He said he was only a rickshaw driver though so no one thought highly of him in the city. We told him it wasn't right, he shouldn't be spoken to like that at all and his job is just as important as anyone elses. We didn't bother paying a fee and took a picture from the outside instead!

Our next stop was a temple, famous for being the worlds biggest book, as each page of a book (can't remember which one, but a famous Buddhist book) is inscribed onto marble slabs, each housed within a small temple of its own. SoSo took us to an entrance the locals used and said just don't wander to the south entrance where the ticket office is! We didn't see much though as we met an English teacher who was with some of her pupils. She really wanted the kids to practice their English so we happily answered their questions, although one of them stumped Ryan when he asked 'what is your ambition?', Ryan said 'oh I don't have one, er er to be a footballer'? This question led to an early mid life crisis at a beer station later that evening!

Next we did the bare foot climb up Mandalay Hill, the whole hill is a temple so no foot wear is allowed. The views were not so great though as the haze from the heat surrounded the city, as you can see.

We headed back to our hotel with the rickshaw drivers sweating from cycling us around, and us sweating just from sitting there!

The electricity supply in Mandalay was appalling compared to Yangon, averaging only 6 hours a day. It makes the evenings interesting though, walking about the dark streets trying to see if there is a rickshaw or bike coming as none of them have lights on. It also means it's too hot to sleep.

Day 6 - Mandalay

SoSo said he could organise another trip for us to the villages around Mandalay, because his cousin was a taxi driver. We got to talk more about politics as we sat in the back of the taxi, a mini pick up truck. He told us about the Monk protests of 2007. He and his cousin rode behind them for a few days to support them until the army announced they had had enough of seeing people on the streets and would send tear gas in and they started shooting. SoSo knew a tea shop nearby and banged on the barricaded door to be let in, the owner knew him so opened up and they hid some monks in there too, but many people died in the area.

Whenever we drove on a major road, crossed over a bridge or entered a village the driver had to pay a toll. However, the roads are in really poor condition. SoSo told us that the government never repair the roads, so the locals take it upon themselves to make them safer, but to do so they need to buy a permit. So, the government take money twice; from the tolls and the permits but never spend any of it on the roads! Makes sense.
Our tour included a visit to a gold leaf beating workshop, where they beat, flatten and make the small gold leaf squares that people buy at temples to apply to Buddha statues.

We saw a marble statue workshop where they mainly make Buddhas, but it was funny to see them without faces, as this part is left until last for an artist to complete.

We went to lunch in a small village by the Ayerwaddy (new name for Irrawaddy) river, where there were lots of kids trying to sell necklaces. They all asked the same routine questions in English that they have been told to ask, and also reminded me how beautiful I am! Once they realised I wasn't buying from them we had a fun photo session with them all laughing at their pictures on the camera screen, then they all decided to get some candy out of me as I wasn't giving them money, but I was happy to buy a big bag of sweets for them all to share.

Next we had a steep climb up Sagaing Hill, for a view over the village where there are over 500 stuppas and temples nestled around the hills. This is a place where monks come to relax if they get stressed out!

The village is part of the $10 combo ticket but our driver knew a back road to take, where there were no officials to check for foreigners in cars, so we saw it for free! This happened for the rest of the day too, so our guide and driver saved us in total $26, which went into their pockets instead of the governments, ha ha. I am trying to be unbiased in this blog but you can tell it's not working!

U Bein bridge is a teak bridge over 200 years old over a lake between two villages and is a great place to watch the local life commuting back and forth. There were more necklace sellers here, but SoSo said they can speak many languages so if you say you're from France they will speak french to you. So, I thought I would put my french into practice and told one girl that's where I was from. It only took her four questions to stump me, I couldn't understand what she said so had to admit I was English and felt very ashamed of myself!

A small part of the bridge broke away a while ago, but rather than mend it with teak, which is abundant in Burma, the government decided to mend it with concrete. How ridiculous! Unfortunately, this seems to be the case across all historic sights in the country. If anything needs to be restored, rebuilt or modernised for tourist access, it's done in the most ugly and cheapest way possible. Huge concrete stairways with corrugated roofing lead up to hillside pagodas, obscuring the view as you ascend. Landscapes are ruined by 10 story government buildings or hotels, because they think bigger is better. A lot of people we met have said they've been disappointed by the sightseeing in Burma, us included. It's not because the sights aren't worth seeing, they just haven't been looked after and are falling to pieces, dirty or covered in rubbish. Its the same with the towns, especially Yangon. The buildings are falling apart, grimy and the pavements have more holes and cracks then they do paving slabs. It's not the fault of the people, they can see the country is in ruins and they think all developments over the last 20 years are ugly and out of place. I dread to think what state the country will be in if there is no change in the next 20 years, I don't think it can last much longer the way it is now.

We had a great day and discussed many issues with SoSo, however he seemed to have no hope left for the future. He really didn't see a chance for any change in the country and was willing to lead a quiet life and keep his head down just to get by. It may be due to him being older so he has lived through more hardship then other people we've met, but it was sad to think many others have given up hope too. During the last election his family and him just spoiled their ballot papers, too scared to vote for the opposition but not wanting to vote for the military. His nephew decided to join the military so he can earn a better wage for his family, but SoSo has disowned him because he wont associate with anyone in the military even if they're family. We really hope it's not long before there is change, the people here really need it so they can see hope for the future instead of living under the oppression they deal with everyday. It may not be long before the whole population gives up hope and that would be a tragedy.

On a lighter note, we found a Mandalay beer company with an interesting slogan to sell it's beer. We didn't think we could drink enough of it whilst here to see if it works or not.

Jo and Ryan

Photos: http://www.flickr.com/photos/dojo77/sets/72157618574037854/

Tags: mandalay




Nasty little men! Hahah. Nice one Jo :) Oh dear... Poor Ryan with the mid life crisis!

  Tiff May 23, 2009 3:52 PM


Hey ryanandjo! We liked your blog and decided to feature it this week in our "Popular Stories this month" so that others could enjoy it too!

Happy travels!

~World Nomads

  World Nomads May 25, 2009 2:01 PM


Fascinating post, and truly moving, Jo. Thanks so much for writing it all up.

I knew Burma had problems, but I didn't realise that the problems were both so huge and yet so petty. How awful for the people who live there! I really hope things change for them soon.

  Liz May 28, 2009 4:18 PM

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