Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Day 82 - Pokkuku to Bagan

Decided to take the scenic river route on my way to the city of Bagan down the massive Ayeyarwady River. I took another local bus from Monywa to Pokkoku, which thankfully only took 2 hours since there weren't as many stops to pick up more locals.

Pokkoku is best known as the city that initially started the monk protests in 2007. They are also known for their tobacco and thanakha (sandalwood powder make-up) production. I didn't get a chance to explore the city, as I took a motorbike straight to the jetty.

I ended up being about 3 hours too early, so I sat around and had some tea and lunch, chatting with some of the locals about their traditions of marriage and whatnot. The area was very poor, and people kept asking for shampoo for some reason. I think that's the hot item these days. Others were selling blankets or at least willing to trade us for tee-shirts or other items we had in our backpacks.

The boat ride was pleasant, but there wasn't much to see along the river. The only thing I can really note is how wide and massive the river is. It was probably the biggest river I've rode along on a boat.

Arriving at Bagan was beautiful as you could begin to see some of the temples along the cliffs, waiting to be devoured by the river as the cliff slowly eroded.

After settling into my motel room, I rented a bike to explore the town. I headed to one of the biggest pagodas, the Shwezigon Pagoda, and along the way, I saw some small temples just outside one of the villages to climb and explore. It must be something to have some ancient temples that are hundreds of years old, right outside of your village.

I rode my bike around the village, just seeing the way the people lived. Some monks were playing soccer, mothers were walking around with their babies, and other boys were playing with rattan balls.

Along the Ayeyarwady River

Shwezigon Pagoda

Day 81 - Monywa

I took the local bus headed to Monywa in the morning. I was the only foreigner on the bus, and it took about 4 hours to get there (about 85 miles). The reason for the long ride was the fact that the bus stopped a million times to pick up passengers to stuff onto the bus with all their packages and belongings. Good thing I got a window seat so I wouldn't have to deal as much with the crowdiness. I'm pretty sure the bus shouldn't have to withstand the excess weight from the people and luggage, but that's the way to do things in Asia!

Monywa was a very small city, maybe even smaller than Pyin Oo Lwin, and a lot more peaceful. There were less vehicles on the road, which meant less honking all day. After checking into my hotel, I took a walk around the city, which didn't take too much of a toll since the weather was overcast and most of the city center was near the hotel.

I visited the Shwezigon Paya, which was a large religious site with numerous shrines and stupas. It has become one of my favorite places to visit so far in Myanmar because it was so peaceful and empty. It reminded me of Wat Chedi Luang in Chiang Mai. I guess my visit was enhanced due to the fact that this city isn't really one of the touristy stops. No other tourists were around, and no honking could be heard from inside the grounds. I spent about an hour and a half just sitting there, listening to music and watching people come and go as their stopped to pray.

After dinner, I decided to come back again to see it at night, enhanced by the artificial light, which made the stupas glimmer even greater than during the day. More people were there at night. I suppose it is a gathering site for people at the end of the day.

Tomorrow I head to Pokkoku by bus, before transferring to Bagan by boat down the Ayeyarwady River.

This was offered to me as a side for my lunch...not sure what I could possibly eat from it...

Monday, August 29, 2011

Day 80 - Taungbyone Nat Festival

I tried to plan my trip to coincide with the Wagaung Festival, which is the only festival that showed up on my Lonely Planet Book. The festival occurs in Taungbyone, about 12 miles north of Mandalay, during the week leading up to the full moon usually in August. According to some internet research, the festival celebrates “Nats,” who are Pre-Buddist annimist religious spirits. They can see through the past and future and are outside the cycle of rebirth. People from all over the country come to this small town to honor the “Nats” to ensure good fortune for the coming year. Some people even consider this a "gay Nat festival" because the Nats are considered to be transsexuals and many ladyboys come out to celebrate.

Before heading to Taungbyone, I took a motorbike to Mandalay Hill, another scene viewpoint on the summit of the tallest mountain in the city. I've seen plenty of hilltops throughout the trip, so it wasn't as special as I thought. It was a long climb up the steps (barefoot) to get to the top though, with stops at various worshipping spots, palm-reading stands, and souvenir stalls.

Afterwards, my motorbike driver took me to Taungbyone. The rural roads were packed with people trying to get to the festival. Droves of minibuses, pick-up trucks, and motorbikes clogged the streets, with people begging on the sides of the roads close to the festivities. There were so many Myanmar locals congregated in this one small town. I think I may have spotted only 5 or 6 other foreigners walking around.

The festival itself was like a countryside festival/carnival with tons of booths selling merchandise and food all around the grounds. Vendors had their own booths advertising their newest products. I didn't know what to expect, but I thought I could catch a glimpse of some dancing or music. I may have come too early, as I arrived on the 2nd day of 7 days of festivities. The small carnival rides were not operating when I walking past them, and a bounce house was just being filled with air.

I did notice some ladyboys walking around, which was something new and unexpected in this country. I don't know what the general opinion (or even law) regarding homosexuality or transgenderism is in this country due to the political situation, but I know that it isn't as lax as a country like Thailand. I don't think there was much of a sexual atmosphere in any of the big cities (Yangon/Mandalay) I visited, and I would like the say that the country is probably more conservative than most. So it was all very interesting to see ladyboys walking around freely and holding hands. Maybe the locals are accepting of it, or maybe they just ignore it?

I walked around some more, hoping that I would get lost. People were crammed in the local temple, probably praying and giving alms to the Nat spirits for good fortune. I didn't stay too long, as most of the activity of the day was just perusing through the different stalls around the festival grounds. 

View of Mandalay from Mandalay Hill
A Monkey around Mandalay Hill

Along the steps toward Mandalay Hill

So that's how a stupa becomes golden...

Beautiful Arched Hallways on the way to Mandalay Hill

Taungbyone Nat Festival

Day 79 – Trains, Pickups, and Motorbikes

Getting out of Kyaukme proved to be more difficult and take longer than expected! We spent the entire day on various modes of transportation to get back to Mandalay. First off, the trains rarely leave as planned. We waited at the train station for over an hour before the train arrived. We left 1 hour and 20 minutes behind schedule. When we arrived in Pyin Oo Lwin, we decided to take a taxi back to Mandalay as it would cut our travel time by 4 hours (compared to staying on the train). There were not share-taxis available that late in the day, so we had to find a pickup truck to take us back to Mandalay with the rest of the locals. That took an additional 2.5 hours, and finally, when we reached Mandalay, we had to take a motorbike to get to our guesthouse. By that time, it was already 9pm and I was famished. All I could do was think about getting food... All day sitting on my ass and eating. Nothing really exciting to report, except that we made it out of Kyaukme safely!

Kyaukme Train Station

Gokteik Gorge

Day 78 - Shan and Myanmar Army Fighting in Kyaukme

I had the intention of heading to Hsipaw by train but met a couple of people from New Zealand who were headed to a town an hour away from my destination called Kyaukme. They told me wonderful stories about their hikes in Myanmar and were headed to this city to do some more hikes. I decided to join them since I think I'd probably be the only tourist in Hsipaw.

We took a 5 hour ride on the train, which provided lush views of the countryside, sometimes going at a snails pace, and sometimes going at faster speeds. One of the best parts of the trip was traveling on the Gokteik Viaduct, which was built in 1901 by the Pennsylvania Steel Company to get the train across the Gokteik Gorge. The viaduct was 318 feet high, and 2257 ft across (the second highest in the world at the time it was built), and the train runs at a slow enough speed to ensure that there isn't any undue stress on the railroad. Rumor has it that the insurance on the railroad expired about 50 years ago and very little maintenance has been done until recently to ensure that the viaduct doesn't collapse. I was initially scared (along with my Kiwi travel mate), but once I saw it, it wasn't as scary as when you read about it in a book and let your imagination run wild. It was actually quite thrilling to ride across and take pictures, with everyone on the train peering out the windows at the bottom of the gorge.

We arrived at Kyaukme after 5 hours on the train and headed to the only licensed guesthouse that could accept foreigners. Immediately, we were told by a trekking guide about the conflict that has been going on recently in the vicinity.

Fighting has been going on for the past 10 days. The trekking guide told us there was a bomb that went off outside the city on a highway and a gunshot was heard at 3am in the morning. Some local people have been killed as he has witnessed a couple funeral ceremonies already.

He said the Shan Army plans to take over this city in 19 days to recruit more people into the army.

All the different armies from different states (Kachin, Shan, etc.) are all fighting against the Myanmar Army for independence, democracy, a better government, better job opportunities, education, and the ability to travel outside the country. Our tour guide said if he had the chance, he'd be long gone and out of this country.

The fighting occurs every year, but he said it has really intensified this time around. Treks around the area were not advised since the Shan Army could easily shoot and kill anyone around the area. Or they could kidnap foreigners and hold them for ransom. They don't have as much pressure to keep foreigners out of harm compared to the Myanmar Army. It's kind of ironic how we have compassion and understand the goals of these rebel armies, yet we rely on the Myanmar Army to keep us safe. Who do we support when we are close to the crossfire?

The tour guide was actually surprised that we were even allowed on the train headed northeast with all the fighting going on. We saw a military presence at the train stations, but nobody told us to turn back.

Although it wasn't advised for us to go hiking, it was still exciting to think of the possibility of actually doing it, knowing that we were in a sort of battlezone. It would probably be the stupidest thing you could decide to do, but at the same time, a part of you (the irrational adrenaline-junky part) is telling you to do it! You read so many stories of tourists who were at the wrong place at the wrong time and all you think about is how stupid they are, but sometimes, your irrational mind takes a hold and you just want to risk it.

For us, we decided we would take the train back tomorrow since it was really uncertain when the fighting would occur or where it would lead to next. Everything was uncertain, and the best thing to do would be to leave while you could, because things could change at any moment, any day. The way out of the city might not be an option if you stayed another day. I guess I should have listened to the receptionist at the hotel and headed back to Mandalay afterall.

Riding on the Gokteik Viaduct

The quaint town of Kyaukme

New Kiwi friends, Nick and Anna

Chapati for Dinner

Day 77 – Waterfalls and Pagodas in Pyin Oo Lwin

I rented a bicycle to explore the small city again. While researching some of the sights to see, I decided to take a 4 mile ride northeast to see the Pwe Kauk Waterfalls and the Aung Htu Kan Tha Pagoda. The bike sucked. It was so difficult to ride up the slightest incline in the road, and this was probably the biggest workout I'd gotten this whole trip.

It took about 30 minutes to reach the pagoda, with random stops to ask the locals if I was headed in the right direction. According to legend, a 17-ton marble Buddha fell off a truck that was headed to China. After failed attempts to retrieve the Buddha, the pagoda was built and the Buddha raised because locals believed it belonged in Myanmar.

I reached the Pwe Kauk Waterfalls by around 1pm. It is a popular spot for locals to take a swim in the waters and is situated in a nicely forested area with a couple of trails to walk through, a couple crossbridges to walk across, and a water-powered carousel to ride.

The most painful part of the day was heading back to the hotel, as the sun decided to peek out from the clouds while I sweated my ass off riding a bike with a loose handle bar. I stopped a couple times to grab a beer and some ice cream to cool off and rest my legs.

While I planned to see the Botanical Gardens, I got lost trying to locate it on my Lonely Planet map, so I decided to skip it since it was already so late in the day and the gardens closed at 6pm.

Tomorrow I head to Hsipaw by train. Apparently, there has been fighting on the main road from Pyin Oo Lwin to Hsipaw in the past 5 days and the receptionist at the hotel had advised me to either take the train or head back to Mandalay by bus.

Pwe Kauk Waterfalls

Aung Htu Kan Tha Pagoda

Shan Noodles

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Day 76 - Mandalay to Pyin Oo Lwin

Took a shared taxi ride to Pyin Oo Lwin, about an hour drive north east of Mandalay and up in the mountains. The city itself was an old British hill station and is known for it's botanical gardens and cooler climate.

I decided to get a room at a hotel outside of the main part of the city, which isn't too big itself, but I wanted to just relax outside of the noise and traffic (which included horse-drawn carriages among the motorbikes and cars). I walked around the city for about an hour. There weren't too many foreigners around. I think I saw 4 other foreigners at a European bakery/cafe.

There were a couple other hotels, and I walked into one to inquire about the price, but they didn't have a government license to provide accommodations to foreigners.

I finally found a restaurant that served Spirulina beer. It tasted sweet, and a little bit vinegary...maybe it was on tap for too long... The best beer has definitely been Myanmar, and then Mandalay, and then Spirulina so far.

Spent the rest of the day just relaxing at the hotel. Watched a couple of movies on the television, which only had two channels. What's interesting is that someone (big brother maybe?) has control of which channel is being shown. I was in the middle of watching a Reese Witherspoon chick flick before the satallite channel changed to the Keanu Reeves/Patrick Swayze surfer movie that I forgot the name of. It's funny because the whole city has to watch what this one person decides to watch for the night...

I'd spend tomorrow renting a bike to explore this small town, while figuring out how to get to the city of Hsipaw further northeast.

Buddhist Nuns

Believe it or not?

Horse carts are a popular mode of transportation in this small town

Simple Myanmar Cuisine (I forget the name, but it's pronounced "Lapadtamin"

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Day 75 - Outside Mandalay

I spent the entire day on the back of a motorbike exploring three cities outside of Mandalay – Amarapura, Inway (Ava), and Sagaing.

The tourguide first took me to some of the sights in Mandalay, including Shwe In Bin Kyaung, a monastery build completely of teak wood, and Mahamuni Paya, which has a 13-ft Buddha in the center that has been continuously covered in gold paper leaves by the locals as they pray. The Buddha is said to be covered in up to 6-inches of gold over the span of over a hundred year. All of the statue is covered except for the face, which is kept completely clean. Women are not allowed in the inner chamber of the Paya and are not allowed to apply gold leaf to the Buddha.

We headed to Amarapura next, which is considered the royal ancient capital city of Myanmar. We stopped by a couple temples before visiting the Mahagandhayon Monastery, which is home to thousands of monks, including many young, novice monks robed in white. Some of the monks are only there for the span of their studies while others stay there indefinitely. We were lucky enough to arrive right before the almsgiving ceremony, which occurs everyday at around 10:15am when all the monks line up on the street to collect food from the volunteers who help cook for them. This is their only meal of the day.

Afterwards, we headed to one of the most famous sights in Amarapura, the U Bein Bridge - a 1,300 yard long teak footbridge used by the locals to cross the Taungthaman Lake. The rains and winds presented a challege as I watched every step I took down the bridge, some of the steps loose.

The next city we traveled to was Inwa, which required a boat ride across the river to reach. I met up with a Dutch man who happened to also be touring on motorbike and we explored the city together, avoiding some of the fees that were imposed on foreigners. The city itself was nothing too special – just more pagodas and stupas, and a leaning clock tower.

After lunch, we headed to Sagaing, which is home to about 500 stupas all within the hills of the city. We headed up Sagaing Hill, which was my exercise for the day. At the top were breathtaking views of the entire city, where you could see the hundreds of stupas scattered throughout the city. I can't believe how many stupas there are in this city. I thought Chiang Mai was incredible with it's many religious sites, but I think this city (and country) surpass it.

We headed back to Mandalay in the afternoon, where my tourguide helped me plan the rest of my 2-3 weeks in this country. It will be interesting figuring out how to get from one place to another, but that's all a part of the excitement.

I ended the night meeting up with the Dutch guy I met at Inwa and we had dinner and a couple beers, discussing some of the ridiculous stories of scamming that we had experienced and that he had heard from other people he met. It seems that white people have a lot more trouble with scammers than I do. I don't know if it's because locals view them as more vulnerable and gullible (or wealthier?), or maybe they are just easier to target than I am. It's riskier for them, but they have better stories to tell in the end.

Mahagandhayon Monastery - Alms Ceremony

Novice Monks eating around 10:30am

Mahamuni Paya (and the Men who are allowed to pray in the inner chamber)

Myanmar Marionettes

The meticulous craft of silk-making

Pagoda in Amarapura
U-Bein Bridge

Sagaing Hill

Inwa Bridge

Day 74 - Mandalay, Myanmar

I managed to get a whole row on the bus to myself, so the night was comfortable as I curled up to sleep through the night. Waking up in the morning and looking out the window was incredible, as I saw palm trees in the distance and various stupas scattered throughout the outskirts of the city.

The city of Mandalay itself was less chaotic than Yangon, but still a decently sized major city in Myanmar. All the sight-seeing was scattered around the city, and you would need to rent a bicycle, or hire a driver to take you around.

I ended up meeting a tourguide at the guesthouse I was staying at and he helped me plan the next day around the cities outside of Mandalay while dodging some of the mandatory governmental fees. He also suggested some of the sights that I should see while in the city.

I decided to walk around and head to Mandalay Hill, which would provide stunning views of the city. In the blazing sun, I walked about halfway to the bottom of the hill before realizing I was only HALF WAY to the bottom of the hill... Instead, I turned back and decided that I would rent a bicycle in the next few days and ride my way there since I underestimated how far it really was...

For dinner, I joined the two friends I met in Yangon and we made our way to a Burmese restaurant. When we arrived, we found out it was closed, so we had to walk another 15 blocks to the other location. Trying to bargain with the taxi drivers was futile, as they all quoted 3,000 kyat for the three of us. I think it's the standard fee for tourists to get anywhere around the town. We walked about halfway to the restaurant and it was still 3,000 kyat. Of course, it started to rain when we headed there, but we decided to walk the whole way since we had already covered so much ground already.

After dinner, we headed back to our guesthouse, but not before trying to find a local beer called “Spirulina” that had spirulina as one of the ingredients that would help you “live longer.” We couldn't find the beer, so we settled on a local restaurant serving the country's main beer, Myanmar Beer.

Outside the Grand Palace

Birds resting along the Stupa

New friends Matt and Haley

Traditional Myanmar Curry with Condiments