In the late afternoon, we visited the city’s main attraction, the magnificent Shwedagon Paya, an enormous golden Buddhist stupa whose top is covered in literally thousands of diamonds, including a single 76 carat diamond, and other precious stones. Surrounding this are numerous smaller stupas, temples, shrines and pavilions. The most sacred of Buddhist sites in Myanmar, it is a riot of colour and sparkle. Soon after arriving, the skies opened and we took cover in one of the pavilions and chatted to a friendly monk while the rain poured down outside. When the rain stopped, he gave us a tour of the area, explaining the significance of different statues and so on. It was wonderful experience although slightly soured when he surprised us by asking for money at the end. We had naively thought that he was showing us around solely as an opportunity to practice his English, as he told us when we first met him.
The next morning we awoke at 4am to catch the ‘5 up’ to Mandalay. We were expecting a 14 hour journey so had booked Upper Class tickets. I can’t imagine what the basic compartments are like because ours was completely filthy. The floor looked like it hadn’t been cleaned for years and was covered in red betel juice stains, from the local habit of betel chewing and spitting, and the toilet was to be avoided for as long as possible
! The seats were comfy enough though and we had plenty of space. For the first 7 hours or so, the compartment was fairly empty, then we stopped at a station and it soon filled up, with the men all puffing away on cigarettes and drinking whisky, which seems to be very popular here! At one point a young monk of about ten years old wandered through smoking! There was never any chance of going hungry as hawkers constantly walk up and down the train selling all sorts of things from samosas to dried fish, whole cooked chickens, noodles and rice dishes. We journeyed through countryside of verdant rice paddies lined with palms, with mountains rising in the distance. Scattered here and there were small thatch-roofed dwellings and golden payas, smaller versions of Shwedagon Paya but impressive nonetheless. When it was 8pm, our scheduled arrival time, we stopped at a station but were told that we had another three hours to go! We finally pulled into Mandalay at 11.30pm, 18 hours later!
We have arrived in Burma (Myanmar) and it is complete culture shock but in a good way! We arrived after dark and checked into Motherland 2 (!), our guesthouse for the night. The next morning we walked into downtown Yangon to buy our train tickets for our journey to Mandalay the next day. The city streets were buzzing with activity with vendors selling all sorts of unknown leafy vegetables and freshwater fish while on the roads themselves, motorcycles, beaten up old cars and bicycles all jostled for space. We finally made it to the train booking office thanks to the help of a kindly gentleman who realised that we were lost and accompanied us to the right place and helped us buy the tickets. One of the first things we have noticed here is the friendliness and curiosity of the people. Smiles are easily forthcoming and many people say ‘hello, where are you from?’ quickly followed by ‘which football team do you support?’! Both men and women wear sarongs or longyi and the women’s faces are decorated with what looks like white chalk on their cheeks