So much to see and enjoy

Trip Start Oct 30, 2012
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Trip End Feb 06, 2013


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, Mandalay,
Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The 5 of us (Susan and Sven from Berlin, Londoner Tom and us) decided to spend the day together. While Tom has arranged the car, we only need to be ready by 5:30 AM. No problem doing this 2 days in a row, you actually get used to it. Susan has convinced us that it is worth getting to the U-bain bridge before the crowds arrive and she is very right because there are hardly any tourists. We have a great time seeing the world wake up from the wooden bridge. The experience is very special, difficult to describe but we feel incredibly lucky being here now. And with these people, because we have a great time with them.
Breakfast with very much needed coffee on the street near rhe bridge with Chinese bread (kind of long 'oliebol') and samosas, quick visit to the monastery and then we arrive at the spot where the monks go to get their breakfast. They stand in line with their big bowl and there seem to be even more tourists trying to get the perfect shot of this spectacle. We don't understand this, so we leave very quickly. This turns out to be a clever move which keeps us ahead of the crowds. The idea is to visit a wok factory, but we fail to make our very nice driver understand, so he takes us to a silk weaver. Not what we want so we go to Inwa, a historic site with a lot of temples, old monateries and stupas. You cannot go by car but need to take the small ferry and then hire a horse cart. We had intended to walk but that is really not a good idea: very hot, long distances between te sites and very bad roads. So we split up as the horse carts take max 3 people. We go with Tom directly to the old teak monastery, believing that Sven and Susan are behind us, but we only see them again at the end when they are already waiting for us at the ferry.

Inwa is quite touristic with a lot of very young girls trying to sell all kinds of things. Postcards mainly, but also necklaces, small bells and gongs and practical straw hats that you can fold. I buy one from a girl before we get on the ferry and she is waiting for me when we get back. They always ask your name and remember it. Good sales people, but we wonder if they go to school. Today is Sunday so they don't have school, but they all promise me that they go the next day. At one of the temples I get two young girls on my tail and they won't let go. They follow me around and talk about the damages that the most recent earthquake has done and every couple of minutes the smallest does her sales talk but doesn't really seem to mind that I don't buy her postcards. I keep telling them, and all the others that school is important because I am scared what will happen if tourism grows and the poor people prefer to send their children to the tourist sites instead of to school.

After Inwa we go to another village, Sagaing where the main attractions are the golden tit (see picture) and the hill view. The golden tit is a pagoda shaped like a woman's breast and the story goes that the king or emperor who wanted to build it, couldn't decide on it's shape whereupon his wife showed him a real life example. But there are other explanantions as well :-).
When we are on the hilltop we decide that sunset at the U Bein bridge might be a nice idea, closing the day where it began. Our driver rushes through the heavy traffic and we just make it. But is is a big disappointment because our lovely serene bridge is now flooded with tourists and there a busses and minivans crowding the site. Not nice at all. As the guidebook says you should walk the bridge and then let yourself be rowed back in a small boat, so that is what a lot of people are doing. We decide not to go on the bridge but stay below it. There we are confronted with the amount of waste lying around. Everyone just drops their waste where it suits them in this country, so the ground is littered with plastic. Not a pretty sight but the tourists just ignore it in their hunt for the perfect picture. They are so ambitious that they even trample the small fields of the farmers who are actually still working on it.
Not a good experience.

The next day, Monday, we decide to have breakfast at Marie Min, a vegetarian restaurant that is highly recommended in the LP. The best thing is that they have all day breakfast. Not that we want to do that, breakfast all day, but we love the attitude. It turns out to be quite a walk. As we have been warned the distances in Mandalay look deceptively short on the map and we decide that we need a bike for today. Marie Min is a great place in a sidestreet with balcony terrace and wonderful food. After they reassure us that they do have coffee (albeit Nescafe like everywhere in Myanmar) we settle down for too much food.

It turns out that the nearest bike rental is halfway back where we came from, so good for digestion of the big breakfast. On the way we go to the bank to change some of our dollars, at a good rate, very quick and efficient. (The LP is so outdated on this point, that it is almost criminal. They say you should change money on the black market but there you don't get a good rate and you get conned in the process) after a stop at a travel agency to arrange our transport to Kalaw on Wednesday, we happily cycle through Mandalay, being the main attraction for the local people, waving and calling mingalaba (hello) every few minutes. I really don't want to see any more pagodas or buddhas today after the overload of yesterday but Mandaly has the Mahamuni pagoda which cannot be missed. The huge buddha is set on an elevation in front of which all the women are praying. They are not allowed to go near the buddha, only the men can do that. They paste goldleaf on the big statue so it slowly grows these unsightly bulges around its waist. I really hate this discrimination of women and put it on my list of things to change when I rule the world (the other one so far is waste/pollution).
So Frank goes up to the buddha and I stay down there with the women, carefully sitting with my feet not pointing to the buddha, until he comes back. Frank tells me that an old man has guided him, telling him afterwards that he now can go home and tell his father that he has seen the Mahamuni buddha. We doubt that Manfred will be impressed by that, but we are.

Further west in the direction of the river we drive into a nice area where the roads are dusty and the houses smaller, not like the streets of Mandaly center. There is a great teahouse there called Unison where we stop for something to eat. It is a busy place, built in a circle around the service area with a very nice atmosphere. Cycling around Mandalay shows us the city as it is, with the poorest people living in tents near the river, the concrete roads turning in to dusty little streets, smelly market places in back streets, dogs everywhere. This ia a big contrast to the main streets, but the people show the same interest in these strange tourists. One woman in a small street even offers us soup which she is eating with her family. Thinking of our poor intestines we politely decline.
At one point we get to the highly recommended Viewpoint cafe on the riverbank, only to find that it is long deserted and the workers laugh their heads of at all the tourists who keep going there for nothing.

We have an appointment at five on top of the Mandalay hill, so we need to hurry. We leave our bicycles and shoes at the foot of the hill and start climbing the endless stairs. It takes us half an hour and a lot of sweat to get to the top and to the view of the river and parts of Mandalay. We are on time of course :-) and after a while Tom appears. As the sun sets the hill gets crowdier. The sky is really beautiful this evening. When it is fully dark we decide to descend assuming that Sven and Susan couldn't make it or changed their plans. Life without mobile phones is so very different! Halfway down we meet them, panting and sweating, running up the stairs. They had underestimated the climb.

Cycling back to town with the four of us (Tom is more of a trishaw/taxi guy) we find out how incredibly big the terrain if the former palace in the middle of the city is. There is no end to it when you have to drive around it on your bike without light in this crazy traffic. But we finally make it and get to the small Indian restaurant where we agreed to meet. We made a small mistake with the address (betw. 26 and 27th street, sorry Tom) and we cannot find it ourselves at first. Tom turns up half an hour later having looked for us in various places. Around 8 they all get into a taxi to see the fabled Moustache Brothers, a Mandalay classic as Tom points out to us several times, and we go to our fabulous hotel to get some sleep. (Which is quite difficult because they have now turned on the neon sign just outside our window. Ah, well, you get used to that eventually as well. I do find myself checking the lock on our door. Reason for that is that they have left the door to the 'balcony' open in order to get the electricity for the neon sign from the room next door and I hear the rats rummaging in the bottles and waste there. As long as they cannot enter our room, I don't care that they now have free entry to the entire hotel)

The next morning we discover a nice breakfast place around the corner: Morning Star where we drink sweet coffee (3 in 1, they live on the stuff here) and eat samosas and chinese bread. After some sign language we get them to pack the leftovers for us and we leave to catch the boat to Mingun. It is always easy to get a taxi or motorcycle, except when you really need one, so it seems. No one is offering their services to us today and when we finally spot a taxi he ask a ridiculous price, so we keep walking in the direction of the jetty, knowing that we will never make it on time if we don't find a ride. Luckily Franks gets us 2 motorcycles and we hitch up our skirts, yes, both of us, and get on. At the jetty Susan, Sven and Tom are already waiting for us.

The boat turns out to be a small fleet of bigger and smaller boats to get the army of tourists to Mingun. Our boatsman has a tendency to disappear to the upperdeck, leaving us to wonder how he is steering the boat. At one point he starts pumping water out, very reassuring and Frank helps him a little. When our captain is nowhere in sight and we get closer and closer to the shore, a lot of tourists start to worry: are we going to hit it? But everything is under control although he might have dozed off for a while.
We share the leftovers from our breakfast with the others and with a tiny old lady who becomes my friend immediately and keeps me a seat next to her on the way back.

Mingun is hot, dusty and very touristy but being together with our little group makes it worthwhile. I buy another stupid, but very useful little hat so we both can look like fools now but keep our heads cool. Around 1PM the boat returns to Mandalay.

We decide we have enough for one day and really need to work on our blog (although this one is now being written in Bangkok 2 weeks later) and head for the terrace at Marie Min. It is a great place to spend a lazy afternoon but we didn't count on the tuition house directly opposite the small alley. Around half past 3 children start arriving to study there and they do so very loudly, almost screaming their texts. As there are a lot of them, at least 30 I think, the noise is deafening and it lasts until after 5 PM. By that time the others 3 have arrived as well. This is our last day together because we are going to Pyin Oo Lwin the next day and they head for Inle Lake. We are really sad to let them go and come up with excuses and ideas to prolongue the evening. By 6 we say goodbye to Tom and together with Susan and Sven walk back to the area where our hotels are. Then of course we have to drink another beer together to close the day in the right way, Germans that we are (oh, well, except for me but I tend to forget that in this company:-) ).

Mandalay has been an unexpectedly great pleasure due to our new friends. Tom, Susan and Sven: we hope to meet you again in Europe!
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