Tom Neal Tacker: Myanmar from Pagan to Mandalay
Myanmar has opened its borders such as never before. Since the early 1960s until Aung San Suu Kyi was released from imprisonment, Myanmar was virtually inaccessible.
Now it’s booming and tourism infrastructure is just beginning to catch up. The main traveller destinations: Yangon, Pagan and Inle Lake are serviced by frequent flights. Beyond this popular trio, the going is tougher and more time consuming. A boat trip is the way to go as roads north of Yangon aren’t good and most towns along the Irrawaddy River are only accessible via boat anyway.
If you’re keen to rediscover this once closed-off destination, here’s some advice about how best to explore Myanmar from Pagan to Mandalay and beyond.
In 1287AD, Kublai Khan, the military genius rampaging Mongol who conquered most of Asia including Myanmar, brought an abrupt end to Pagan. Depopulated and forgotten, the former capital slumbered for centuries in almost total obscurity.
The great temple city became a ghost of its past, crops of sesame and peanuts subsumed royal roads, while ornate pagodas and simple mud brick houses alike dissolved under monsoon rains, leaving behind merely the memory of former glory. Only the sturdiest stone and brick temples remained, scattered over a wide area along the east bank of the Irrawaddy River amongst the russet dirt fields, tiny villages with scrabbling farmers and ‘thanaka’ tree groves.
Had Kublai Khan stayed to establish Pagan as his new empire’s capital, present history may have turned out differently. Now Pagan is Myanmar’s global tourism drawcard, a sight unlike any other in Asia, including Angkor Wat, Borobudur and Anuradhapura.
Unlike many tourism drawcards which can be disappointing when seen firsthand, Pagan is endlessly fascinating. I could easily have spent weeks there lost in a wondrous mental haze wandering amongst forgotten temples, my own meandering motion, echoing Samuel Coleridge’s poem.
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan, A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river,
Ran through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round;
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills, Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.
A couple days in Pagan is all we have, the sad facts of travelling to a timetable not of one’s own making. One afternoon a few of us passengers visited tiny West Pwasaw village where life is rustic and simple. Previous visitors donated enough money to build a communal well from which water is collected each day and transported to villagers by manpower or bullock cart. Nine of us donated enough money to keep the village well pump operating for a further 10 days.
Karma is a concept all travellers are wise to recognise. As the saying goes, ‘What comes around, goes around...’ I found this village so entrancing I wanted to stay there indefinitely, learning the language and sharing local gossip, all the while forgetting the rigours of my own challenges.
Was I experiencing a common travel fantasy? Certainly I did. Blame it on the mystique of Pagan, where time itself alters reality. Instead there’s a boat waiting. The RV Orient Pandaw is heading upriver from Pagan to a small village past Mandalay and I can’t afford to miss it. Small ship expedition cruising is to a naked hungry traveller is what white truffles are to... well, a naked hungry traveller. They appeal in equal measures.
The RV Pandaw’s 20 cabins are occupied by a mere 27 passengers on this season’s first cruise up the Irrawaddy – 46 crew members are in attendance. Not that so many are needed, apparently a third are newbies, apprentices learning the ropes and they’re as excited as the passengers.
We’re a happy bunch of travellers on a slow boat up Myanmar’s lifeline, the river of many footsteps, constant giver of all things: famine and plenty, tragedy and joy. Stopping in Pakokku, a large market town halfway between Pagan and Mandalay for a half day’s wander, allows a brief glimpse into life off the tourist trail.
There are no significant tourist sites in this ramshackle place and it’s really all the better for it. People wave almost in unison; as if they’re expecting Potemkin himself to approve their public works and maintenance program. The entire experience becomes utterly captivating.
I got caught up in the market, nearly married off to three separate stall holders looking for a husband. For a brief moment I was the centre of attention in a small world. If such moments as these are what perfect travel experiences are all about, I’m happy to play the part of available rootstock. The laughter and sharing are what matters most, yes?
The following day we stop at Yandobo village, a speck of a place in the middle of nowhere on the right bank of the Irrawaddy. Good clay is found in these parts and all the families comprising the village’s population are involved in terra cotta pot making. It’s a big business and the townspeople make a good living from their hard work.
Done entirely by hand, the work is not about dabbling with figurines. Instead various jobs become specialties. Women tend to throw the best pots. I watched one expert potter create four in 12 minutes precisely. She made one pot every three minutes. Her assistant, perhaps her husband, I never found out, operated the pottery wheel by foot, his constant backwards forwards movement on the foot pedal was rhythmic. He appeared napping while working the treadle. Ms. Potts grabbed a handful of clay from a nearby pile, threw it on the wheel and within three minutes she sliced it free with a bit of wire strung between two sticks and gently moved it to a growing stack of exactly the same sized and shaped pots.
The Pandaw Foundation supports an elementary school in Yandobo, which we were invited to visit. The students sang songs for us while fellow guests sang popular kids songs in return. I’ll never hear The Wheels on the Bus Go Round and Round in the same fashion ever again, nor do I want to, but I was captivated by those kids. Visitors to Myanmar are encouraged not to give money or sweets to the kids, so as to avoid an association of foreign guests with free money, like walking ATMs ready to dispense treats without so much as a ‘You give money mister’ and no thanks as a reward.
The good people of RV Pandaw Cruises have developed a fruitful, mutually beneficial relationship with this particular school. The school receives badly needed funds while passengers are allowed an opportunity to engage with local kids without any perceived social stigmas attached. For Western men, this is a godsend, (considering the reactionary responses from mainstream media op-ed contributors when discussing random interactions between men and children).
We all contributed to a sizeable donation that helps the school buy books and uniforms for its students. It’s all honest, above board and transparent. I heard some schools that accept donations don’t necessarily forward the cash to benefit the students themselves. In a country where corruption is as prevalent as rain during the monsoon, it’s best to verify where your money goes before donating it.
On board life was slow moving as the boat’s stately progress up the muddy Irrawaddy. Each cabin faced outwards, deck chairs positioned directly outside the cabin door. The top deck bar and veranda was by far the most popular hang-out spot. By late afternoon, cocktail hour beckoned guests like bears to a honey pot. Who could resist a gin and tonic or Mojito made with local rum? Or an icy cold Myanmar beer?
The view from high atop the RV Pandaw was endlessly mesmerising. At times the Irrawaddy was busy with barges, other passenger ships, jumbles of tied logs floating downstream destined for dismemberment at the timber factory or charcoal plant, small fishing boats, nets strung from fore to aft, houseboats with local families whose lives are bound to the river’s flow and great rafts of floating vegetation. At other times we were alone in a vast river, in places several kilometres wide, fishing birds our only company.
As the river’s depth changes with the season, varying up to 15 metres depending on width, the channels change constantly. Only experienced captains run the small ships up and down the Irrawaddy while local pilots were ferried on board to help navigate particularly challenging flows.
Occasionally groups of temples rose up from steep banks or shone in bright light from atop nearby hills. Wealthy temples invariably sported gold at the tips of their stupas; when the light struck they lit up like burnished stars. Mostly however, the scenery was a constant moving feast of neatly tended pastures, tiny villages in the near distance or forested mountains hanging in the far distance.
The crew were a microcosm of Myanmar. Several had worked at resorts in Thailand where their cocktail making skills were polished. Others had never been outside Myanmar. What they all had in common was completely and transparently natural friendliness. Not a skerrick of forced bonhomie, not a touch of ersatz ingratiation. Everyone did their jobs well, and always happy to do so.
Given the remote locations, I was genuinely surprised at how good the food was. One of the chefs clearly understands how to bake pastry; a small miracle considering how hot it was outside and how doubly hot it was in the galley. This was the only cruise I’ve ever been on where I didn’t feel the desire to dine off the boat half the time. Had I wanted to, it would have been difficult as restaurants in rural Myanmar are non-existent. Lucky me the food on board was always fresh, interesting and well prepared.
Away from Pagan and Mandalay, we moored overnight in completely isolated places, tied to convenient trees standing sentinel in ploughed fields, people appeared as if from nowhere to observe the curious sight of a big boat being tied up near their village and then disappeared as quickly as they materialised, as if from thin air. No roads could be seen from our mooring. No vehicle traffic noise, only the barking of dogs and the occasional lowing of a water buffalo for nocturnal auditory company.
On two separate evenings we were treated to a puppet show and a dance performance. Myanmar artists are renowned for their puppetry skills. The marionette show was a delight. The dance performance was also a lot of fun while affording us greater insight into Myanmar traditions linked to early Hinduism.
Around Mandalay is Myanmar’s centre of history and tourist sights. We spent a half day at Sagaing where over 5000 monks and nuns live in Buddhist harmony. As the country’s premier meditation destination, it’s a quiet place. The views overlooking the river imbue a natural hush.
Across the river from Sagaing is Ava or Amarapura, a capital of old Myanmar for over four hundred years.
Ava (Innwa) is an island of ruins, quiet as a ghost town, which it is not, despite the local superstition. Accommodation options on the island are sparse so it’s become a day tripper’s destination from neighbouring Mandalay. Horse drawn carts meet passengers at the single ferry wharf for a few hours gently clop-clopping around the main temples and remnant city walls. Taking in Ava’s many historic sites provides a lovely way to spend an afternoon.
Also near old Ava is the famous U Bein footbridge. Touted as the world’s longest foot bridge made entirely from teak wood, it’s now something of a meeting place for local lovers looking for a tryst. The lake over which the bridge extends is shallow and warm. Small boats are paddled by Mandalay’s version of gondoliers (Hnge in Myanmar), a diversion of extreme pleasure, albeit entirely tourist-y. Paddling amongst the fisher folk and smitten lovers as sunset lowers over the lake is delightful, if innocently voyeuristic.
Upriver 100 kilometres north the Pandaw stopped at another terra cotta village, Nwe Nyein (Kyauk Myoung). Here the pots are giant sized and the manufacturing is, as in Yandobo, all done by hand and clearly very labour intensive. Pots strewn along the river await shipment. Though the town appears sleepy during late monsoon heat, local inhabitants work constantly, forming the pots that are famous throughout Myanmar. I’ve seen copies of these pots in Australian garden centres; they make fine outdoor plant holders.
Returning to Mandalay after a day travelling up and down the river to Nwe Nyein, we stop at Mingun, forever remembered as the place where the ‘greatest pile of bricks’ can be found. When King Bodawphaya began construction of this enormous temple in 1790, it would have been the largest in the world had he not fallen ill and died. An earthquake in 1838 split the temple in two and rendered it forever unfinished.
Nearby is the also very large Myatheintan Pagoda, described as a Myanmar version of the Taj Mahal as it was built in 1816 by Crown Prince Ba Gyi Daw to commemorate his favourite princess, Sinbyume.
Mingun’s single main street paralleling the riverbank has developed without formal intention into a short row of private art galleries. Good prices are found here, a place in which to buy original Myanmar artwork that costs much more in Yangon or Mandalay. Remember that antiques cannot be taken out of Myanmar and that not all artworks are unique. That being said, judicious shopping may discover an artist on the path to fame and fortune. There’s real talent to be seen in a few of Mingun’s local artists.
The cruise ended in Mandalay, a city that conjures up exoticism to many people who’ve had their own private dreams of Kublai Khan. This was Myanmar’s last royal capital city, famous for never having its name changed by colonial powers, famous for witnessing the end of an era as Myanmar was overrun by Japanese forces (whose airplanes bombed the old walled city into oblivion). When the republic was declared as separate from British rule in 1948 under the guidance of the national hero, Aung San, father of another national heroine, Aung San Suu Kyi, the capital of new Myanmar became Yangon until it was moved again to Naypyidaw in 2005.
Mandalay is the country’s second largest city and the gateway to the north and the dubious riches of modern China awaiting interchangeable exploitation.
As a crafts-maker city, it is unrivalled. Goldsmiths, silversmiths, stoneworkers, marble sculptors, wood carvers, basket weavers, cloth weavers and small-scale food producers are everywhere. Lacquer ware is also a Myanmar specialty and the best lacquer-ware artisan shops are found in Pagan and Mandalay.
The country’s second most important Buddhist shrine (after Shwe Dagon in Yangon) is the very impressive Mahamuni Pagoda located in central Mandalay. It’s a very holy place where all local devotees visit regularly.
The Buddha image in the main pagoda situated in the middle of the sprawling temple precinct, is growing larger as I write this. One way to reach Nirvana via the faster road greased by lustre paid in cash, is by rubbing a sheet of gold leaf on to the Buddha image. Only men are allowed this special privilege (sexism across all religions is a universal misfortune). So much gold leaf is applied to this Buddha image that he is actually growing bigger. In my eyes, he looks like a fat bloke wrapped in a gold bubble suit. Sort of like a giant gold Michelin man. Pardon any sacrilegious inference here but this kind of ‘idol worship’ unnerves me.
When visiting, remember it’s important to be dressed appropriately or entry to the sacred inner shrine will be refused. For men, no short shorts or singlets and for women no short skirts or bared shoulders. All shoes must be removed before entry as well.
Fortunately, one of old Mandalay’s fabulous wooden temples survived the Japanese bombs as it was removed from within the old city walls to its present location in central Mandalay. The Shwe Nan Daw Kyaung or ‘Golden Palace’ monastery is a stunning reminder of how skilled local woodcarvers were, and indeed are, today. This place is truly a must see when visiting Mandalay. It’s popular with foreign visitors so choose your time wisely to avoid crowds.
High up on Mandalay Hill is another important temple. The sunset views from here are quite simply remarkable. Local students linger on the hilltop to engage with foreign visitors. They benefit from the chance to practice their language skills (English mostly) and visitors benefit from a chance to interact with people outside the tourist bubble (i.e. hotel staff, taxi drivers, waiters, etc).
I was a guest of two Grasshopper Adventure tours, one half day ‘Tea Shop’ tri-shaw tour and a half day motorbike tour to the city’s rural outskirts.
I can’t recommend them highly enough. Both tours gave me insights into Mandalay life that I would simply never have discovered on my own. Let me say it would have taken me months of hard work and research to discover what I saw in a single day. As a tourist exercise, the two tours were perfection.
The ‘tea shop’ tour took me to a home noodle factory, the city’s best fried food stall, the city’s best food market, the city’s best cafe where a fine bowl of mohinga (Myanmar fish soup) is served, the city’s best tea leaf salad cafe and the city’s best cold drinks stand. Seen from the passenger seat of a tri-shaw, everywhere becomes more visible, shapes are clearly delineated and life is seen from up close and personal rather than distant. Instead of whizzing past in a cocooned air-conditioned car or coach, peddling along a busy street or quiet back alleyway is like being given a special lens into reality.
About a kilometre from my hotel, where I was to be dropped off in preparation for the afternoon motorcycle tour, I convinced my guide and driver to let me have a go peddling the tri-shaw. I don’t think the driver had ever sat in the passenger seat before. He almost shouted aloud when I veered close to a parked car or two. His perspective was derived from the driver’s seat, not the other way around. I didn’t hit any moving vehicles, or stationary for that matter, avoided colliding with pedestrians and water buffalo carts, children and dogs. Peddling two passengers (the driver and my guide) wasn’t the hard work I was expecting though I was drenched in perspiration when we reached the hotel. That being said, the brakes were a bit dodgy so I didn’t speed along the alleyways and streets. Hot days in Mandalay are not made for amateur tri-shaw drivers.
I was advised by both my passengers not to give up my day job.
My last afternoon in Mandalay, my last day in Myanmar in fact, was spent on a motorbike riding the rough and rugged muddy tracks of the city’s rural outskirts. My driver Soe Min Oo was terrific fun. We visited a tofu factory and a village with a prominent Nats (indigenous pagan spirits) shrine and rode through rice paddies spread against gloriously green countryside. A stop at a toddy wine shop in a rice paddy was altogether different, a place I would never have discovered without a guide. Actually without a guide, I probably wouldn’t have been very welcomed. We sat at a wooden bench drinking from odd mugs, picking at bits of barbecued goat meat on sticks and eating overripe bananas. The toddy was cloudy, slightly fizzy and freshly fermented. Had I drunk a bit more I would have begun reciting from the Coward songbook, ‘to dine on yams and clams and human hands and vintage coconut wine, the taste of which was filthy, the after-effects divine...’ (Uncle Harry)
Our last stop for the day was Mandalay Hill. Sunset spread flames of light across the flooding landscape. The monsoon rains had drenched the north rendering the Irrawaddy to its greatest extent. The fabled river seen from above the city struck me dumb with pleasure.
The river had been my constant companion from Yangon all the way up to Nwe Nyein and now it presented my last view on this trip to Myanmar. From high atop Mandalay Hill, I could not have chosen a better place to say farewell. Until we meet again.
Visitors to Myanmar are required to obtain a visa before entry. Contact the nearest Myanmar Embassy. Pagan can be reached by air from Yangon. Since the by-elections in 2012, Myanmar has seen rapid growth in its airline industry. Frequent flights connect Pagan with Yangon and Lake Inle. Pagan by road from Mandalay takes approximately four hours. Mandalay is served from Bangkok by daily flights with Thai Airways and Bangkok Airways.
For information about RV Pandaw Cruises in Myanmar and other southeast Asian countries, see www.pandaw.com
For information about bicycle and photography tours from a ground up perspective, see Grasshopper Adventures www.grasshopperadventures.com
The Hotel by the Red Canal is a boutique hotel, a well-run establishment with a good Indian restaurant attached. The location is terrific, close to the old city and near the city’s best shopping streets. Formerly the Chinese Consulate, the rooms have been completely renovated. All vestiges of Chinese bureaucracy have been removed. Wifi is free and fairly reliable. See www.hotelredcanal.com for more information.
The Ma Ma Guest House run by the dynamic mother and daughter duo, Irene and Sue, is small, clean and fairly priced. Rooms are large, very clean and airy. The guesthouse has all mod-cons, is situated in a nice part of town and close to the central business district. Best of all both Irene and Sue speak fluent English and are absolutely lovely people who understand the true meaning of hospitality. A rooftop restaurant and bar sporting lovely city views and highly recommended.
See www.mamaguesthouse.com for more information and bookings.
Our wonder guide on board the RV Pandaw was the inestimably charming, learned and talented San Lin Tun. What San doesn’t know (or feel) about Myanmar isn’t worth knowing. His candour and honesty are truly impressive. Myanmar politics is a nasty business. Not long ago, Myanmar people were locked in prison for speaking the truth about corruption and dishonesty. San’s patient explanations about Myanmar’s recent history and politics were very helpful and revealing.
While contracted to RV Pandaw Cruises, San also works as a freelance tour guide.
He’s also a talented photographer, he has self-published a marvellous book of his pictures of the ‘Golden Land’. As a remembrance of Myanmar, it’s invaluable. As a gift, it would be heartily appreciated. Priced at less than USD$20.00, shipping at an extra cost, dependent on location, it’s a bargain. Contact San Lin Tun via email to order a copy: email@example.com
Myanmar is currently experiencing political unrest and you should check the most up-to-date travel advice on Smartraller.gov.au before making any plans to travel.
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